Military media propaganda
Military media propaganda
‘The Vietnam War was complicated by factors that never before occurred in America’s conduct of war… More than ever before, television showed the terrible human suffering and sacrifice of war… raising questions whether America would ever again be able to fight an enemy abroad with unity and strength of purpose at home.’
(Nixon, 1978, p.50)
The ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ to which US President Richard Nixon was referring has largely been proven a myth (McLaughlin, 2002; Keeble, 1997; Herman and Chomsky, 1988) however, its perceived effect, especially in military circles, has helped shape government and military relations with the media during times of conflict ever since.
The following work will explore how, since the Vietnam War, information received by the mass media and conveyed to readers/viewers has been restricted, manipulated and censored by the military and government . I will argue that this cannot be seen as a simple, static strategy intended to safeguard those involved in the conflict but instead involves a plethora of ever-evolving policies implemented to increase the coverage of information favourable to the government, whilst hoping to stifle criticisms and inhibit journalists from revealing the realities of war.
The focus will be on conflicts involving the United Kingdom and the United States of America although many of the issues raised apply to conflicts involving countries from across the globe. No attempt will be made to assess the effects of media coverage on public opinion (other than to show that this is one of the objectives of the policies discussed) or to justify or criticise the governments involved.
Section one will explore the expansion of government public relations (PR) officers and how they are used to control media content. Although these policies were not devised solely for times of conflict, they nevertheless deserve analysis as they can be, and often are, utilised in times of war. The second section will look at techniques used to control the flow of information during times of conflict and will draw on examples from the Falklands (1982) and Gulf (1991 and 2003) conflicts to assess their intended impacts on media coverage. Section three will examine the impact of private military companies on the flow of information. The final section will access how successful these tools of information management were in controlling the media’s reporting of the 2007 ‘surge’ in Iraq by analysing the sources of the Times Online.
Section 1 – Media management through PR
Recent trends within the US and UK have seen a large expansion in the government’s use of PR officers (Davis, 2002; Franklin 1994). At the same time the media have become over-reliant on PR as a primary source of information. A report by Cardiff University (cited in Davis, 2008) studied 2,207 news articles in five UK newspapers concluding that 60% of the stories were comprised of material wholly or mainly supplied to them through PR. Although I agree with Davis (2008) and apportion most of the blame for this on commercial pressures and the concentration of media ownership, it would not have been possible without the expansion of PR by both private and public organisations, including the government.
In many cases ‘the most significant obstacle to defining where public relation ends and journalism begins is the fact that the two have become inextricably linked in a relationship that is largely invisible’ (Davis, 2002, p.27). While the author suggests this means that determining whether the expansion of PR has led to more PR produced news becomes impossible, I believe that a focused analysis of its impact in the build-up to the 2003 Iraq war illustrates how the government exploits the structural weaknesses of modern media in order to manipulate the news agenda through the use of PR.
Even if it can be proven that PR is responsible for an increasing amount of news another question emerges: what do journalists do with PR material? Do they simply repackage the same information or do they check facts, contact other sources and then evaluate the news value of what is being said? In response to government PR in recent wars the evidence points to the first rather than the latter being the case.
PR and press officers within the government seek to ‘establish close and mutually beneficial working relationships with journalists’ (Franklin, 1994, p.14). In the build-up to conflicts, I would argue, that the government uses this relationship to increase public support for their actions. This section will look at how government PR affected the media’s coverage of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Although this is just one example, and to conclusively determine the effects of PR in times of conflict would require a much broader study, it does highlight the potential impact of government PR.
Journalists interviewed in Davis (2002) claimed that even though they accepted that PR from many sources, not just government, was increasing, they were still in control of what went in their reports. More recent accounts (Davis, 2008; Edward and Cromwell, 2006; Tumber and Webster 2006) show how prior to the 2003 Iraq War this was not always the case. Although there is no evidence to conclusively prove that the government deliberately mislead the media and the press, in the end there were no WMD found in Iraq. Furthermore, there was significant evidence prior to the war that pointed to the fact that there were no WMD in Iraq. However, the government used its comprehensive PR machine to control the information released to the media and put forward the case that they believed there were WMD.
In 2002, as part of the evidence used to justify going to war, the UK government released a dossier containing information about Iraq’s weapons programme. Subsequently a draft of the document, written by the government’s director of communications John Williams, was released after a freedom of information request. The fact that much of this draft made it into the final report, which had been presented to the media as the work of intelligence agencies ‘demonstrates beyond doubt that the government's spin machine was at the heart of the process of drafting the dossier designed to persuade MPs and the British public of the case for war’ (Bright, 2008).
According to Edwards and Cromwell (2006) the media acted as a conduit for the views of the US and UK government. Thus, the overall impact of the government dossier concerning the WMD threat was that the ‘media expression of doubts about the existence of WMD [was] at best marginal in the pre-invasion phase, in all three nations' [UK, US and France] media systems’ (Palmer, 2004). More specifically 86% of television news reports in Britain assumed that Iraq had WMD (Davis, 2008). Therefore the government had successfully managed, through the use of PR, to convince the media that there were WMD in Iraq, thus helping to improve the amount of favourable coverage they received in the press.
2.1 – The Falklands War (1982)
On April 2 1982 the Falklands War began when Argentina invaded the islands. This was the first opportunity for the UK government and military to learn from the perceived US mistakes in Vietnam and conduct a military operation accompanied with a successful media strategy.
Despite the military not wanting journalists to cover the conflict first hand, 29 correspondents and photographers were allowed to travel with the Royal Navy task force and these were divided into pools (McLaughlin, 2002). The logistical situation meant that these reporters were heavily reliant on the military who took advantage of the situation in order to restrict them from reporting certain aspects of the war. Firstly, in order to be part of the pools, and therefore to be able to report first hand on the conflict at all, journalists had to sign accreditation papers that ruled out certain topics for reporting. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued editors with more guidelines and briefed crewmembers on what they were allowed to discuss with the reporters on board. Harris (1983) cited in Carruthers (2000, p.124) highlights eight topics which were off limits: ‘speculation about possible future action; plans for operational capabilities and readiness of individual units; details about military techniques and tactics; logistical details; intelligence about Argentine forces; equipment capabilities and defects; and communications.’ The ambiguity of these topics meant that much of the information which journalists wanted to include in their reports was not allowed.
Journalists were compromised further by the fact that they had to rely on military personnel to transmit their copy back to London. This created two stages of verification where articles were subject to the possibility of censorship. Firstly, ‘it fell to the MoD’s civilian public relations officers … to strike offensive passages from their charges’ copy’ before transmitting it back to London ‘where [secondly] it was vetted again by press officers’ (Carruthers, 2000, p. 124). This process was open to further abuse and Carruthers (2000) claims that reports that contained critical comments about the war were often mislaid or delayed, a trend which was also discernable with regard to the speed which photographs arrived back in London.
To conclude, by limiting the number of reporters, dividing them into pools stationed aboard the British fleet and by ruling certain topics out of bounds the UK government, helped by the logistics of the conflict, carried out a successful if controversial operation in managing the information communicated by the media. The results were that the majority of reports in the mainstream media supported the military campaign. Despite the unplanned and often spontaneous policies the UK employed to manage the media during the Falklands War, the Pentagon viewed them as a successful way of controlling information and when plans were made to intervene in the Gulf they implemented and built upon several of them.
2.2 – The Gulf War (1991)
Keeble’s claim ‘that there was no war at all’ (1997, p.1) is controversial but the author does make the important distinction between ‘traditional militarism’ and ‘new militarism’. Differing from the industrial wars of the early twentieth century, conflicts are now fought by comparatively small, highly trained armies. Conflicts are often one sided with the superior force using powerful and technologically advanced weaponry, removing the need for a large mobilization of troops (Tumber and Webster, 2006; Keeble, 1997). Consequently, the majority of the population are no longer directly involved in conflicts, instead becoming voyeurs through the media. Manipulating the media is, therefore, central to government strategy allowing them to manage the perception of the conflict and mask the realities of the war zone.
The US and UK governments were quick to exploit the openings that these new militarist wars allowed. As they prepared the public for war, the US government’s attempts to control the flow of information started long before military action began. One technique they used was to frame the current conflict in terms of historical precedent. Thus, the Bush administration continually ‘explained Saddam Hussein’s behaviour by reference to Hitler’s aggression in 1930’s Europe … The importance of this framing of the Gulf crisis was not merely semantic. After all, the analogy dictated clear policy prescriptions’ (Carruthers, 2000, p. 40-41). Therefore, by defining the terms of the conflict the government was only allowing certain opinions to be discussed in the media, meaning that information which countered this was beyond the realms of acceptable debate.
During this conflict a comprehensive pooling system was implemented which saw journalists accompanied at all times and for the most part kept away from any combat scenes. The escorts also ‘reviewed press stories before transmission back to the press corps, if necessary passing them up to the military command for approval’ (Boyd-Barret. 2004, p.30). While the military claimed that there was no bias in the selection of journalists for the pools, the facts would seem to suggest otherwise. For example, the US Army’s own magazine Stars and Stripes had numerous reporters in the pools but the New York Times was only allowed one (Keeble, 1997). The use of pooling meant that journalists could only see the parts of the conflict which their military minders, instructed by their commanders, wanted them to see. Furthermore, as McLaughlin (2002) illustrates, by interviewing journalists who reported from the conflict, the pooling system fostered a competitive atmosphere between journalists from rival organisations. Consequently, in an effort to be selected, journalists censored their own work in order to curry favour with the military and ‘some went so far as to inform on other journalists such as Robert Fisk, who tried to operate outside the system’ (McLaughlin, 2000, p.90).
Those reporters not chosen to be in one of the pools were left to get their information at the military briefings held away from the conflict in Dhahran or Riyadh. Here they were exposed to military images and terminology such as ‘smart bombs’, ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘collateral damage’. These terms are among the many similar words which Collins and Glover refer to as a ‘sophisticated set of linguistic tools … [which the US uses] to manufacture broad-based consent and support for both domestic and foreign policies’ (2002, p.3). Such euphemisms and doublespeak were used to cloud the reality of the war, making sure that the public did not receive comprehensive details about the conflict. Moreover, Halliday (1999) argues that these briefings where littered with disinformation designed to boost approval for the coalition’s military action. These included claims, which were later proved to be false, about the use and success of the Patriot anti-missile shots; the number of Iraqi casualties; the suppression of stories of troops being killed by friendly fire; and the exaggeration of the size of the Iraqi army. Furthermore, these briefings, along with press releases, media appearances, press conferences and speeches from government officials in the US and UK, sought to encourage the development of common media frames (Robinson, 2004; Weston 2007). As one Los Angeles Times reporter commented ‘the first press conference of the day would be at 7.30 am. From then on you knew exactly what the line for the day was going to be. The script had been written beforehand and I felt like a reviewer of a good play or film’ (Keeble, 1997, p.110).
The US government responded to Central News Network’s (CNN) 24-hour satellite television coverage by developing more sophisticated methods of media manipulation. By pooling reporters in order to keep them away from the front line and carrying out controlled daily briefings complete with misleading language and videos they were able to, on the whole, successfully control what the media reported. It is also important here to concede that only five reports were referred to the Pentagon. While it could be argued that this shows that little censorship took place, I would suggest that it is an indication of how successful the above techniques were in only allowing information which the government deemed fit for publication to reach reporters.
2.3 – The Gulf War (2003)
With the success of the pooling system under threat from the development of new communication technologies the military needed to develop new ways of controlling the information conveyed by the media. Their answer was to embed reporters within the troops. Whereas previously journalists were divided into pools and kept away from the action, now they would be present with troops on the front line. At first look this policy seems to improve the chances of journalists producing accurate and unbiased reports based on firsthand accounts of the war. In practice, however, embedding proved to be an effective way, at least in the early stages of the war, in ensuring the media complied with and supported the military (Edwards and Cromwell, 2006; Tumber and Webster, 2006).
The process began even before war broke out with media training camps set up back in the US. Here the military began to assimilate the journalists into their routines and ways of thinking with participants gaining a better understanding of conflicts and respect for the military (DeFoore, 2002). Once embedded, journalists became so attached to the military that many began to feel at one. ‘We answer to the Commanding Officer, we follow orders, we share the rations, we eat where the soldiers eat and sleep where they sleep … We’re becoming indoctrinated and recognise the sights and sounds of army life instantly’ (Harrison and Qasr, 2003). Those unilaterals who chose not to be embedded and attempted to act independently by reporting from the enemy side were at best shunned by the coalition military and at worst risked being shot (Knightley, 2003). Consequently, with reporters fed selected information and made to feel part of the war effort, the government tried to shape the media coverage to suit their own needs.
The most recent research into the use of embedded reporters, however, shows that as the war progressed their compliance with the military waned. While the majority of journalists questioned admitted to feeling, at times, too close to their unit, they also seemed to have made conscious decisions to remain objective and were more impartial than those reporters who stayed away from the Middle East relying on press releases and wire copy. UK broadcasting laws, as much as government interference, would seem to have created the sanitised view of war which embedded journalists at times portrayed. Indeed, it maybe the case that it is not what embedded reporters are saying which is allowing the government to control the flow of information but what, by dominating the news coverage, they are stopping from being shown and discussed (Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Culture, 2008).
What emerges from various analyses of embedded reports is a complex picture. There appears to have been little or no direct censorship. Embedding, however, did foster a relationship between military personnel and reporters to a level which had not been seen in previous modern conflicts. Moreover, the government were able to control to some extent where journalists went and what they could see. This gave the government the opportunity to shape media coverage and alter the public’s perception of the war. It also helped to shutout other sources from the media. Journalists, though, were aware of the compromise they were making and many sought to remain impartial, although this proved hard in practice.
Section 3 – Private Military Contractors
While much of the criticism surrounding the use of private military contractors (PMCs) focuses on their ability to act without regulation from government, it can also be argued that they allow governments to cover-up operations and stifle the flow of information to the public. If, as Percy argues, ‘a citizen army restrains the state by making it more difficult for the state to engage in war’ (2007, p.18) then equally, by building on the concept of new militarism, the use of PMCs is removing the need for governments to justify the use of force in conflicts and limiting the flow of information to the general population.
The use of PMCs is increasing and is actively encouraged by governments such as the US where their ratio of contractors to active-duty personnel during the 1991 Gulf War was 1 to 50 but in the 2003 Gulf War it was 1 to 10. (Avant, 2004). This gives a strong indication that PMCs benefit the government and one of these benefits is the increased control it gives them over information.
Although there is no empirical evidence to show whether PMCs are likely to engage in misconduct (Lehnardt, 2007) and when they do, such as in the case of Abu Ghraib , they can be exposed in the media is not important here. The key is that although the information may get out, the impacts of it can be controlled by the military through their ability to deny their own culpability. As Lehnardt argues, ‘if PMCs are a convenient tool to pursue foreign policy ends without the appearance of state involvement, the incentive for states to use PMCs to circumvent international obligations or to share the costs of abiding by them is apparent’ (2007, p.140). The way in which they do this is, firstly, to conceal information and then, secondly, to allow revelations which may reflect badly on the state to be distanced from the state.
Section 4 – ‘The Surge’
Much of the above has focused on the successes of government information management in the early stages of conflicts or in conflicts which were short. The following will now look at how the government’s ability to control the flow of information is affected when conflicts continue significantly longer than they were originally expected to.
The 2003 Iraq War may have officially ended but the conflict still continues. On 10 January 2007 George W. Bush announced his government’s plans to increase the number of troops deployed in Iraq (Bush, 2007). In order to see the extent to which the government was able to control the information available to the media I have carried out an analysis of the sources used in the reporting of the ‘surge’ by the Times Online .
The reporting by the Times Online was sourced from multiple organisations with differing views. I would tentatively suggest that this shows a failure in this case of the US government to manage the flow of information making it into the press about the new ‘surge’ strategy. It is clear, however, that despite the number of sources the most common by a large majority are the two US political parties. This shows that politicians were successful in getting their opinions in the media. Since the 2003 Iraq War started, however, their opinions have become more divided; even people within the Bush administration and the wider Republican Party did not support the plan. Furthermore, in that time public opinion had turned against the war, therefore journalists became more confident about criticising the conflict and subverting the government in order to find their own sources of information.
Despite the thorough and diverse attempts by governments to control the flow of information they are reliant in some degree on the compliance of the media. The above analysis of the reporting of the 2007 troop ‘surge’ shows that when the media breaks ranks, or when official sources differ in opinion the government can struggle to control what is reported. Therefore, while the focus of this essay has been to examine the ways in which governments operate in times of conflict it is also important to acknowledge the role that the media play. The mainstream media are closely tied to the state through similar economic and political interests, without which it could be argued that all of the above policies of information manipulation would be useless.
An inquiry into the media-military relations after the Falklands War found that censorship and propaganda were justified when concealing information from the enemy. Similar justifications have been used by the UK and US governments throughout the history of modern warfare (McLaughlin, 2002; Thrall, 2000). This essay has shown, however, that government information management has been far more complex. Many of the techniques illustrated above have had no impact on concealing sensitive information from the enemy. Instead they have sought to increase the likelihood of favourable coverage by restricting access to and manipulating information. Indeed, exacerbated by the actions discussed above, studies have identified the UK and the US to be some of the most secretive states in the developed world (Northmore cited in Keeble, 1997; Reporters Without Borders, 2008).
What has also been clear is the flexibility of government policy which has changed dramatically in order to meet the demands posed by new technology. 24-hour news coverage bought expanded media pooling and detailed press briefings; more mobile broadcasting equipment resulted in the government embedding reporters; the development of oppositional news corporations, such as Al Jazeera, drew political flack. With the increasingly uncontrollable globalisation of media and with the internet escalating the proliferation of alternative views the next conflict will require a further - and possibly more difficult - evolution of government information management.
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