Defence confronts the Media Age (part 4)
30 May 2016|

War and truth seldom sit comfortably together.

To go to battle is not to go to Sunday school.

So to proclaim that the Media Age motto for the Australian Defence Force and the Defence Department should be truth-with-speed, is to push against a lot of history.

Churchill observed that in wartime, truth is so precious she needs to be defended by a bodyguard of lies.

As the Enlightenment on horseback, Napoleon so exaggerated his battle reports that even genuine victories were disbelieved. Napoleon’s systematic exaggeration of enemy losses and diminution of French losses meant the phrase, ‘to lie like a bulletin,’ entered the French language.

Add to those exalted names a tale from the Dobell family, from my father with the 9th Division at El Alamein during WW2.

In forward trenches, the 2/3 Pioneer Battalion looked out at a stretch of desert they dubbed ‘Hurricane flat’, because of the wrecks of Hurricane fighters on the sand.

The Hurricanes would go out to strafe the Germans and then dive low and race to get home. German fighters would wait up top and then swoop down to pick them off—thus Hurricane flat.

Every night the Australian troops would tune in to hear the news from the BBC World Service, and often they’d hear that ‘all our planes returned safely.’

Dad said they’d peer out over the sand at the newly-downed Hurricanes and ponder, ‘If they lie to us about that, what else are they lying to us about?’ No wonder the Australian Digger always carries that valuable tool, the Mk III Bulldust detector.

The history of lies and secrets rests on the ability to control. The more control the military has, the more options it has in treating truth as optional.

The argument for truth-with-speed in this series is that the control capability is shrinking fast. The truth-to-lie ratio is going to have to shift because the power to control and sell the fib is not as great. Or to conceal.

Truth-with-speed can be advocated as policy without injecting much moral content.

The aim, as always, is to prevail and win. And winning the information war by being smarter and quicker and giving more is a formidable weapon.

Not morality, then. Instead, a pragmatic judgement that the capacity to lie and conceal is being blown away by the Media Age and the Age of Transparency and the all-seeing phones of billions of Digital Citizens—five billion mobile devices and counting.

This isn’t Sunday school stuff, merely the rapidly rising reality. To recap from the previous column, then, here are 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 that 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. That’s 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.

The call for less political control and bureaucratic obfuscation is about responding to the meaning of our era as much as any commitment to openness. The openness is overrunning everything of its own accord.

Embrace truth-with-speed not as a gift or a concession but as an acknowledgement of the environment that has arrived.

Ever more information flows from ever more sources. To censor or limit information or to speak slowly merely vacates the arena and allows other voices to define the issue or define you.

History says the prime directives are simple statements that will be hard to do on a daily basis. Not least of the challenges will be the restraint demanded of the Defence Minister and the commitment to openness required of Defence.

Nearly as challenging will be the change in the habits of mind of leaders and commanders.

To work as intended, truth-with-speed will reduce the right of the Minister’s office to control or vet all statements—big or small—by the Department.

To serve the speed side of truth-with-speed (and reduce the temptation for political meddling) the ADF should have primary responsibility for releasing information on activities at the tactical and operational level.

The Minister is to be constantly and fully informed, but should have no veto over the timing of release. This is Defence’s responsibility.

In turn, to reduce the temptation for Defence in Canberra to meddle or control, responsibility for most tactical and even operational announcements should rest with commanders in the field.

Canberra sets the guidelines but the onus for making truth-with-speed the daily reality should rest with those commanding operations on land, sea, air, space or cyber.

The responsibility to announce should be pushed down the chain of command. With that responsibility comes great opportunities. The chance is to explain and persuade and influence, to drive the media cycle and talk to Digital Citizens everywhere.