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Oz media and the wrong lessons of Afghanistan

Posted By on May 9, 2016 @ 06:00

On 6 September, 2001, a bunch of journalists and military officers met at the National Press Club in Canberra to discuss why the military and media don’t get along.

The Australian Defence Force had media problems and wanted to talk to hacks.

The meeting launched ‘an ad hoc working group discussing military-media relations during ADF operations.’

We hacks assembled under the umbrella of the C.E.W. Bean Foundation. The military were from Defence Public Relations.

The media shambles of East Timor in 1999 was a wakeup call for Defence. Hacks had turned up in Dili from all over the world. Suddenly Defence discovered it didn’t have a system for Oz journos, much less all the other hacks.

The 6 September minutes summarised the hack view:

‘There were lessons learned by the media during the East Timor operation, with only limited access available to ADF assets. Arrangements were ad hoc at best and often badly organised.’

The Defence response:

‘Defence acknowledges that it is at a cross roads in its operational relationship with media. Defence also acknowledges that its existing policies as applied during East Timor are in need of overhaul with many lessons being learnt… Defence acknowledges that it has not embedded media arrangements into its current operational doctrine with existing policy dating back to the late 1980s.’

Defence promised ‘a major overhaul of its operational arrangements for working with media’ within 12 months, covering:

  • survival training for hacks;
  • a new media accreditation process for operations; and,
  • new ‘cooperative arrangements for the handling of information in the field.’

Fifteen years later, it’s still a useful ‘to do’ list.

The working group laboured for a year. Good people in Defence pushed. The hacks leaned in. Big events overwhelmed the effort.

Five days after that first meeting at the Press Club, the planes hit the towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

The terrorism decade dawned.

Afghanistan happened and then Iraq. What didn’t happen was a rethink of the way Defence deals with media.

Instead, the control on ADF information out of Afghanistan was ‘draconian’. Those controls were imposed and policed from Canberra by Defence and the Minister’s office.

The ‘draconian’ view is from an ADF commander in the Middle East. The quote is in this column describing Defence media policy as shut ‘em up or shut ‘em out. [1]

The stated reasons for secrecy and control are to protect lives and operations. The unstated reasons are political advantage, embarrassment protection and a diet of government-approved messages.

Come down the chain of command to get the Afghanistan perspective of Andrew Bird, who served as a media adviser and left the Army after eight years with the rank of Major. Bird told The Age [2]:

‘The way that we communicated is all government-centric. It just relayed the Minister’s and Prime Minister’s message, reinforcing the government’s message. Every image we took, every interview we did and every bit of vision … was to support the government’s view.’

Australians weren’t told what their troops experienced. Former Chief of Army, Peter Leahy [3]:

‘Apart from occasional glimpses of their work, centred around big battles and visiting politicians, we didn’t see much of what the Diggers were doing. Along with Iraq, Afghanistan must be one of the most little reported wars in Australia’s military history. The military, the government and the media can share the blame. They might argue over who was most at fault, but the end result is that a substantial slab of the Australian Army’s history has not been told.’

In response, Thom Cookes [4] wrote it was disingenuous to lament Afghanistan’s untold story when the ADF kept journalists away:

‘The ADF’s public relations bureaucracy is so risk averse that getting even the most basic information on what was happening in Afghanistan often proved to be impossible. Simply confirming information we already knew either took months, or was deemed to be a “breach of operational security”. Many of the most enterprising Australian journalists went straight to the Dutch and US forces, who were far more candid and confident in their dealings with the media.’

While the ‘ad hoc’ talking started in 2001, it wasn’t until 2009 that the ADF even trialled a journalist embed system in Afghanistan.

In a study of the ADF’s approach to embedding journalists—aptly titled ‘Herding Cats’ [5]—Lieutenant Colonel Jason Logue commented that the Australian deployment to Afghanistan in 2001 and in the Middle East from 2003 ‘highlighted the ADF’s lack of capacity and intent to effectively support the media in areas of operation that were far from home.’

Reflecting on Army service in Afghanistan, James Brown [6] wrote that a vacuum of information and understanding was created by a Defence culture unwilling to engage with the media and a political culture obsessed with controlling the media cycle.

The only narrative the Australian public received, Brown argued, was the return of the bodies of dead soldiers. No surprise, then, that popular support for the mission evaporated.

By 2013, the Lowy Institute opinion survey [7] found a majority of Australians (61%) considered that the Afghanistan war was ‘not worth fighting’. Only 35% said the war was worthwhile.

The shut-up/shut-out instincts of Defence (and its political masters) triumphed in Afghanistan.

Many officers were deeply frustrated by draconian controls. But back in Canberra, Defence and the Minister were satisfied. So, game won, then? As media strategy, this worked. Defence just needs to repeat the recipe.

Such a conclusion would misunderstand Afghanistan’s lessons. Shut-up/shut-out made Canberra comfortable but failed to convince Australia. Control triumphed over communication.

More than hacks were unhappy. Defence’s policy eroded popular support. Australians embraced the Diggers while hating a mission they knew little about.

Australia’s longest war would always be unpopular. Yet unlike Vietnam, both sides of Oz politics remained committed throughout. The politicians argued the cause while Defence stifled the facts. In this game, silence ain’t golden—it’s a vacuum.

The communications/media failures in Afghanistan are a case study in how to create a vacuum. This history offers many lessons.

Defence today isn’t prepared for the great digital disruption and a Media Age consuming the old media verities—it’s almost as unprepared as it was back in September, 2001.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/oz-media-and-the-wrong-lessons-of-afghanistan/

URLs in this post:

[1] shut ‘em up or shut ‘em out.: http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/oz-military-media-policy-shut-em-out-shut-em-up/

[2] The Age: http://www.theage.com.au/national/insider-reveals-how-defence-massages-message-20100211-nv3z.html

[3] Peter Leahy: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/australian-armys-afghanistan-experience-finally-revealed-in-documentary-20160221-gmzumr.html

[4] Thom Cookes: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/documentary-afghanistan-inside-australias-war-does-not-tell-the-full-story-20160224-gn32r2.html

[5] ‘Herding Cats’: http://www.army.gov.au/Our-future/LWSC/Our-publications/Working-Papers/~/media/Files/Our%20future/LWSC%20Publications/WP/pdfs/wp141-Herding%20Cats_Jason%20Logue.pdf

[6] James Brown: http://www.penguin.com.au/products/9781863956390/anzac-s-long-shadow-cost-our-national-obsession

[7] opinion survey: http://lowyinstitute.org/publications/lowy-institute-poll-2013

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