Defence confronts the Media Age (part 3)
23 May 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tom Small

The communications demands of the Media Age are so diverse and complex that only a simple answer will suffice.

This is back-to-basics meets back-to-the future. Head to the bedrock of first principles while everything else in the Media Age goes into the flux capacitor.

Express the essence in six words: speak truth, always. Speak fast, always.

Maximum truth. Maximum speed. Always. Hyphenate the motto to show how the two concepts merge: truth-with-speed.

Truth up front, but speed nearly as important. The Media Age puts a rocket under the adage that a lie dashes round the world while truth is still pulling on its trousers.

Truth-with-speed sounds simple—a motherhood sentiment. But Defence’s default settings—and those of the Minister’s office—pull in the opposite direction.

The control imperative means the Minister and Defence want command over what truth is given and when and how; truth and speed are subject to ministerial approval! The current motto reads: defined truth, carefully decided, delivered slowly.

If Canberra embraced truth-with-speed it would alter the level and detail of Ministerial control over Defence’s release of information on operations. And it would force Defence to think more clearly about what to conceal and what must be done in the open. Those are big asks, challenging a lot of culture.

As a former Defence insider commented: ‘I think the aim of the game really was keeping the troops silent and preventing whistle blowers, rather than the Media as such.’

Truth-with-speed would strike at a lot of Defence boundaries.

How much truth can Canberra manage? The system understands—in theory—the benefits of openness.

Releasing the Cyber Security Strategy last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledged to be more explicit about cyber-crime successes and failures and hack attacks:

‘Only by acknowledging, explaining and analysing the problem can we hope to impose costs on perpetrators and empower our private citizens and government agencies and businesses to take effective security measures.’

The PM’s new cyber-security advisor, Alastair MacGibbon, recently posed the dilemma:

‘The question is how open a government can be about cyber-security without causing further damage and without hanging out all the government’s crown jewels?’

Across all the terrain of the Media Age, a balance has to be struck and tough choices confronted about where to draw the lines.

A good start is to be clear about the crown jewels. And separate those jewels from mere convenience or embarrassment or stuff up or political plays and bureaucratic comfort.

The distinction is between jewels and tawdry trinkets.

The need for truth-with-speed is accelerating as terrains merge. Rather than treating social media and traditional Media as different entities, see them as a continuum running right across the communications landscape. The borders evaporate.

You can’t have one message for a domestic audience and a different message for an international audience—they are one audience. And you have to give the Digital Citizen what once was reserved for journalists.

The hacks no longer control the news. Governments direct less of the information. Give the Press what you should give the People: hacks and Digital Citizens must be treated as equals, because in this new terrain they are the same. Truth-with-speed for all.

Technologically, new media are transformative, but many of the military-media issues recur: Exclude versus Engage; Control versus Communication.

Old lessons matter, even as the lines blur. The military instinct to control, censor and shut out is antediluvian in the Media Age.

Time to relearn some hard-won lessons about the relationship between journalists and the military—then apply them to lots of new players.

Here are three principles for use in the Media Age.

The prime directives draw on recommendations offered 30 years ago by the Centre for Journalism Studies, University College, Cardiff, in a study commissioned by Britain’s Ministry of Defence after the media policy shambles (and scrambles) of the Falklands War.

So the basic principles aren’t new, just hard to do. The burden of truth-with-speed is in the doing, not the pledging.

The prime directives of truth-with-speed:

  1. The Government promises as a core commitment to give Australians (and all other Digital Citizens) as much information as possible about ADF operations as quickly as possible. The ADF should be charged with fully meeting this promise to always deliver maximum truth with maximum speed. The principle will apply in peace and war.
  2. The automatic responsibility is always to give as much information as possible, whether that news is good or bad. This is the default setting and the basic rule—not just a declared principle. The working assumption must be that information should be released, not that it should be withheld.
  3. Secrecy and partial release of information for operational security must be reviewed constantly. Defence must detail the categories of information regarded as ‘crown jewels.’ What’s to be kept secret and—broadly—why? Defence should report regularly to Parliament on how it’s meeting the responsibility for maximum disclosure.

Much would change if these became the driving principles.

For instance, the ‘Defence Instructions (General) on Public Comment and Dissemination of Information by Defence Members’ obsesses that any release of information must be ‘coordinated, agreed and authorised.’

The DI(G) would be turned on its head. Having clearly defined the crown jewels (what is to be secret), everything else would be authorised. The default setting can’t be that everything is secret unless decided otherwise.

Defence would expect the facts to be told fully and quickly. And the job would be done by those closest to the facts.

The strategic corporal would be joined by the Lieutenant who can speak and the Captain who can confirm and the Major who can explain, and so on up the line.

Instead of the Canberra-centric mantra of coordinated and agreed, this would be decentralised. When the ADF was in the field, the facts would come from the field. The Digital Citizens will report from the front, so should the ADF.

The Afghanistan lesson is to tell a lot more and the Media Age demand is to tell it quickly.

Defence would get confronting freedoms. Let off the ministerial leash, Defence would have to speak more openly and honestly about what it is and how it works.