In the Public's Eye: The British Army and Military-Media Relations

While the recent conflicts engaged in by the British Army have revealed successful military-media relations on the frontline, they have also underlined a significant failure to engage with the media at the political and strategic levels. During the second half of the twentieth century the strict censorship that had reached its apogee during the Second World War was relaxed. But the recent doctrinal failure within the Army to distinguish between the fields of military-media relations and deception has seriously undermined these public relations efforts.

By Dr Stephen Badsey, for

The importance of the media in warfare long pre-dates the creation of the British Army, while the Army and its soldiers have always engaged with the media to seek publicity for themselves. For centuries, war reporting was largely the province of senior officers or their paid chroniclers. Something of that tradition lasted well into the Second World War, whereby important generals would take favoured journalists into their headquarters, to become their historians after the war. Even since then, there have been cases of successful officers and reporters establishing mutually beneficial working relationships, usually from very early in their respective careers. 

In its involvement in the Global War Against Terror since 2001, and particularly its deployment in Iraq 2003-9, the British Army has faced a very challenging media environment, including the imaginative use of new media technologies by its enemies. It has conducted operations in which the media have had a critical role to play in shaping perceptions and encouraging peace, and it has had to work closely with the United States armed forces, which have a tradition of hostility towards the media, including their own. But surprisingly given its past history, the major British Army problem has been its lack of an overall strategy including media awareness, (rather than media manipulation), which could be clearly understood and implemented down to the lowest levels.

Early newspapers played a vital role in the development of the modern state and civil society by providing information for the politically and financially active segments of the population. With improving communications, by the end of the eighteenth century they could actually report news within a reasonably useful timeframe. As well as being a business, the press was seen as an essential part of the political and social apparatus of the liberal state. In addition to generals writing their dispatches for court and public consumption, a tradition became established of junior officers (or former officers) freelancing by writing letters home from campaign, with the covert intention that these letters would be passed to newspapers for publication. Military law and regulations have always been sufficiently broad as to make almost any contact with the press a technical offence, and this practice was largely stopped at the end of the nineteenth century with a tightening up of procedures. But letters and later photographs from frontline troops continued to appear in the local press throughout the twentieth century, more recently supplemented by emails and by blogs, as a technologically modern variation on this long-established practice.

Unrestricted reporting - the media's 'golden age'

By general consent, the first true 'war correspondents' covered the British Army's participation in the Crimean War 1854-56, during which the practical relationship between reporters and commanders on the battlefield was established; a relationship of competing powers and authorities, leading to various forms of negotiated compromise. While military commanders held unquestioned authority in the theatre of war, and might resent reporters who gave the public another point of view to their own, the correspondents' newspapers possessed considerable political influence, and reporters' role in operations had to be accepted. A few generals actively sought to engage with reporters, preferring manipulation of the press rather than its exclusion; the way in which senior officers engage with the press has since then always been a matter of command style.

These early military-media relationships were personal between generals and reporters rather than institutional, and in press mythology this era has become the 'golden age' of unrestricted reporting. The first British Army rules for accrediting war reporters appeared only in 1889, and the 1899 Hague Convention gave them their first protection in war as civilians (another controversial area). The military's strong card was always that it controlled access both to the battlefield and to the technology of communications, without which the reporters could not get their stories home. Although modified in recent decades by new civilian communications technology, this still remains partly true with the modern practice of 'embedding' reporters on operations.  

Censorship and the wars of national survival

Before the start of the First World War, the likelihood of war against enemies with their own national media, and of enemies and neutrals being influenced by the British media in turn, led to military-media relations in wartime being formalised and institutionalised. The exclusion of all reporters from the war zone in 1914, and the creation of an Official Press Bureau to conduct censorship, reflected the latest in military thinking on operational security at the time. Wartime 'censorship' meant security review before publication, backed by legal sanctions. This practice lasted until the Korean War, to be replaced by 'prior security review', which is voluntary on the part of the media. Although the two practices are often confused, today the re-introduction of true censorship on operations is seen as neither practical nor desirable.  At the start of war in 1914, the Army was at first entirely concerned with censorship and security, seeing wider dealings with the press as part of civilian politics and diplomacy. But media requests for guidelines on censorship, and popular demands for increased information, led to the institutionalised incorporation within the Army of uniformed war correspondents in 1915, followed by newsreel cameramen and press photographers in 1916. The assumption was that the national media, without losing its independence, had become part of the war effort. Senior commanders once more developed strong working relations with the national press, although more usually with owners and editors than with reporters; while the Army saw propaganda, including influencing enemy and neutral opinion, as chiefly a civilian warmaking activity to which it gave its assistance.

This system of military-media relations, whereby the national media was visibly incorporated into the war effort and reporters became part of the military, was successfully revived in the Second World War. In Army mythology this has became their own 'golden age' of military-media relations - wars of national survival in which a patriotic press obeyed orders on penalty of imprisonment or closure. In practice the relationship was still based on negotiation, although heavily weighted in the Army's favour.  Moreover, as a reflection of the increasing importance of the media, in 1937 the War Office instituted the post of Director of Public Relations (Army) or DPR(A), traditionally a post for a rising brigadier who, when he reached higher rank, would already have a high degree of media awareness.

The techniques of public relations

A formal military-media apparatus was only rarely a requirement in the numerous undeclared wars of decolonisation that occupied the Army in the second half of the twentieth century, so that the media assumptions and institutions with which the Ministry of Defence fought the Falklands War in 1982 were essentially still those of the Suez Crisis of 1956. But the experiences provided by these conflicts did put the British ahead of their contemporaries in dealing with the media in the television age. Formal training in giving media interviews while on operations was introduced at the Royal Military Academy in the early 1970s, chiefly as a response to 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland (1969-2007). The Falklands War also revealed the need for trained soldiers rather than civilians as media escorts on operations, leading to the creation in the mid-1980s of the Territorial Army Pool of Information Officers (TAPIOs), later renamed the Media Operations Group (Volunteer) or MOG(V), and its equivalents for the other services. In the 1991 Gulf War, the British made their first formal use of a media 'pool' system for journalists attached to their troops, a practice which has continued both formally and informally for two decades, evolving into the 'embed' system as the requirements of the media have changed with the impact of the Internet on news transmission. As the traditional military control of media communications weakened, the Army began to understand that in future its relationship with the media on the battlefield must be based more on compromise, and on the techniques of public relations.

Shortly after its creation in 1992, the ARRC (the British-led NATO Corps headquarters) introduced the term Media Operations (Media Ops) as distinct from the previous Public Information (P Info), as a signal that for operational formations, relations with the media should be treated as an important command function. Unfortunately Media Ops quickly lost this distinction, instead replacing P Info throughout the Ministry of Defence as the universally preferred doctrinal term. Following British participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Operation Telic/Iraqi Freedom) a new Defence Media Operations Centre (DMOC) was created for Media Ops training, education and operational capability, and in 2007 a new Media Ops Doctrine was published. Generally, from the Gulf War onwards, the Army has been alert to media issues at the tactical and operational levels, and British military-media relations have been at worst adversarial rather than antagonistic.

Forgotten Lessons in the twenty-first century

Following the Gulf War, the Army also began to study its relationship with the media seriously at the political and strategic levels, including the wider implications of the new media technologies for military operations. In the mid-1990s the Army Staff College Camberley included discussion of the wider place of the media in society and its importance for command in its new Army Command and Staff Course (ACSC) and Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC). Unfortunately, this practice ceased shortly before the creation of the Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC) in 1998. The post of DPR(A) was also abolished, with the centralisation of media relations within the Ministry of Defence through the creation of a new Directorate General Media and Communications under civilian control. Although present British and NATO campaign planning recognises an Information Strategy (Info Strategy) as part of any wider campaign plan, these trends have all weakened the Army's ability to think about the media in a wider political and strategic context. Cracks have begun to show in the Army's media awareness at the highest levels, with lessons that had been hard learned in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, and applied in the Balkans in the 1990s, being forgotten in Iraq 2003-9.               

These trends are linked to what has been the major doctrinal problem in British military-media relations for the last two decades. Throughout the twentieth century, the British military-media relationship has existed in parallel with military deception in wartime, and with secret institutions for propaganda and deceit, well understood by the public to be part of the warmaking process. In the mid-1980s, the US armed forces considerably expanded their Psychological Operations (Psyops) activities, and in 1996 announced a new doctrine of Information Warfare (later Information Operations) including Psyops and deception, with Public Affairs (the US doctrinal term for Media Ops) described as a closely related capability. Even the most extreme advocates of this highly controversial doctrine (the 2006 version of which is presently under review by the US Army) agreed that for the sake of credibility a 'firewall' must exist between deception and military-media relations, and this is also reflected in the present doctrine of the British Army's 15 Psyops Group. But in trying to adopt or conform to these ideas, the British confused both the terminology and its implications, increasingly using 'Information Operations' in a sense that implies the inclusion of Media Ops, as if the media were at best a problem to be overcome for the sake of operational-level success, and at worst an enemy. Observers who understand the implications of this departure from traditional British military-media relations doctrine and practice have rightly been highly critical of these developments, the issues raised by which are presently unresolved.

Dr Stephen Badsey MA (Cantab.) FHistS is Reader in Conflict Studies at the University of Wolverhampton.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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