School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


The Military-Media Dynamic by Prof Taylor

This is the text of a lecture delivered in Madrid in 2002.

The Military-Media Dynamic:
International Crises, War Reporting and Democratic Propaganda
Philip M. Taylor
University of Leeds


Public knowledge about foreign events, and especially of wars and international crises, is still heavily dependant upon the mass media. In democracies, it is widely assumed that no war can be launched without public - and therefore media - support. For these reasons, throughout the course of the 20th Century, governments have progressively worked hard to shape the media agenda in their favour. Much media research has concentrated on the conduct of official 'propaganda' from the premise that manipulating the media is an inherently 'bad' thing, a violation of the democratic ethos of freedom of thought. But, in the information age, if we take it as axiomatic that successful institutions are expected to conduct effective public relations, then perhaps we need to both reconsider the usually pejorative connotations associated with the word 'propaganda' and to refocus our attention upon why the media, especially the free media, buy into the official agenda - wittingly or unwittingly - in times of war. This lecture examines not only aspects of official military propaganda but also the question of media performance.

Perhaps I should begin by providing you with a bit of background about myself and my work. I was in fact trained as a 20th century diplomatic historian but my academic research over the past 25 years has been concerned with the interaction of the media and communications technologies with diplomacy and military affairs - with governmental uses of the media for propaganda purposes from the First World War right up until the current Operation Enduring Freedom. In more recent years, my work has been increasingly related to psychological operations and what is now termed in military doctrine as 'information operations - and on this topic I have been lecturing to various NATO audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

I think my main role in these courses has been to try explaining to military personnel how the media operate in practice rather than in theory. The military have a near institutional fear - some would say hatred - of the media, and if they are to work together in more harmony, greater mutual understanding is essential despite an apparently irreconcilable 'clash of cultures'. Most academic theoreticians, alas, seem to be the mainly concerned with observing the media from a structuralist point of view - such as TV programmes as texts to be deconstructed for hidden meanings - which frequently aren't there anyway! But I won't waste much of my time on such people. Suffice to say that practising journalists frequently despair of the way the academic profession writes about what they do, rather in the same way as military personnel despair of journalists - often with very good reason.

What I shall try to do here is to provide some kind of - dare I say it - theoretical framework of analysis by which we can begin to understand the broader picture of the role which the media can henceforth play in international crises, whether as observer, catalyst and even, at times, as participant. Speaking as an academic, one of the few professions left in the public sector whose objectivity is still expected if frequently ignored, neither military nor media will be exempt from my reflections - but I shall, as an outsider to both professions, attempt to provide an overall perspective of the military-media relationship which may help to serve as a constructive basis by which that relationship can move forward in a mutually beneficial manner.

To start cynically: I am a great believer in the Second World War propaganda axiom of 'know your enemy'. Since the profession of the war correspondent was born in the Crimean War, there has been a concomitant rise in the profession of the military censor. For the past 150 years, therefore, the relationship between military and media appears to have been one of mutual antagonism. The institutionalised philosophy has almost been one of only by knowing one's enemy can one defeat him. The danger is that in so coming to know him, one invariably comes to understand - even empathise - with him. It is in fact from such understanding and empathy that co-operation in my view becomes more possible. So please first forgive me for basing my talk on a presumption gleaned from long conversations with military personnel over the years - namely that the media are somehow the natural enemies of the military, that they are there at worst to cause them trouble or at best to serve as a damn nuisance to the business of fighting wars or to getting on with the business of peacekeeping or to whatever situation the military might find themselves in. This is perhaps more acutely witnessed amongst US service personnel, many of whom still labour under the assumption that the media somehow lost the war for them in Vietnam.

Indeed it was Vietnam which has muddied the waters in the way the military-media relationship is often viewed. As a result, one tends to forget the high degree of co-operation between patriotic journalists and the military in the First and Second World Wars as wars of national survival, and even in smaller conflicts like the Korean, Falklands and more recently the Gulf war. The point here is that the so-called Vietnam Syndrome is largely a myth - and we should dispense with it immediately. The American media were in fact highly supportive of the attempt to roll back communism in South East Asia, at least until a 'credibility gap' opened up around 1967 when official announcements, especially at the notorious Saigon 'Five O'Clock Follies', were clearly seen to be at odds with the facts. Even in the allegedly pivotal year of 1968, only one public opinion poll showed popular support to be below 50%. And we too often forget that the war dragged on for 5 more years after 1968 - at least as long as intensified US military involvement prior to that date, and in fact longer than US involvement in World War Two. Is it conceivable that a democracy could wage war for such a length of time without public support? We also forget that in 1873 President Nixon was re-elected as well - so if the war was so unpopular it was a remarkable achievement for a democracy to have continued it up until then without popular and media support. Nonetheless, the myth has taken root that this 'first television war' was responsible for America's first military defeat in history - but I would relegate it to the same kind of status afforded by most historians of the 'stab-in-the-back' theory perpetuated by certain right-wing elements in post World War One Germany who argued likewise. It is a rationalisation for defeat, not an explanation. It should certainly not form the basis of historical lessons to be drawn from America's first military defeat in history in so far as relations with the media are concerned - although it frequently has.

Similarly, in the massive amount of literature now available about the Gulf War, there is a tendency to concentrate on the points of friction rather than the more characteristic record of military-media co-operation. Such co-operation is never without its sources of tension - which is how it should be, given the very distinctive set of responsibilities which the two professions have. These have been summed up in the phrase that when the military make a mistake, people die but when the media makes a mistake, they run a correction. Hence the recent record of Vietnam-syndrome inspired solutions, especially the 'pool system', has polarised the problem - the problem being that the media are more likely to be critical than co-operative, which simply does not stand up to historical analysis when it comes to national wars of the 20th century. Tragically as a result, various and ever more controversial ways of influencing the outside perception of a crisis in a beneficial manner have evolved since the 1970s: to exclude the media altogether, as in Grenada, to delay their arrival, as in Panama, to make them totally dependent upon the military for their safety, transport and communications, as in the Falklands, or a combination of all these, as in Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Indeed, within the context of conventional wars, there may be something to be said for the Desert Storm model, with some minor alterations. The pool system worked as well as it could have done under the particular circumstances of the desert; the majority of hotel warriors in the global media corps were happy with the daily briefings in Riyadh, complete with the spectacular video footage of precision hits on Iraqi targets; the presence of journalists from coalition countries in the enemy capital under fire gave the impression that both sides of the conflict were being reported; 24 hour saturation footage, including live footage of incoming Scud missiles, gave the impression of a war fought out in the full glare of publicity thereby satisfying the public's right to know; and, for 6 weeks at least, the TV cameras were kept well and truly away from where the 'real war' was being fought and won, namely at the receiving end of the conventional dumb weapons dropped from 30,000 feet by B52s on the ground positions of the occupying Iraqi forces. Military objectives were achieved, with Kuwait liberated with few coalition casualties, public and media support was sustained and only a few sneaking reminders that this was far from the clean, clinical, brutal battle reached western television screens - most notably the aftermath of the Amiriya installation that was hit in a Baghdad suburb and the infamous 'highway to hell' at the end of the war.

The problem with such a model is that the very nature of conflict since 1991, indeed since the end of the Cold War, has been changing. Peacekeeping operations as in Bosnia, for example, do not alas fit happily into such models. Nor did the air war over Kosovo. And the military phase of Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan provided different challenges again, not least the British policy of not permitting journalists to accompany Special Forces. So let me go through the various roles of the media in international crises with a view to proposing some ideas which may begin to meet the changing situation of our times, especially as we now appear to be witnessing a dramatic shift in the very nature of conflict from inter-state to intra-state conflicts - 29 out of the 30 in 1992, for example - and the so-called 'war' against terrorism. It is all very well for staff colleges to talk now of 'conflicts other than war' but we must begin the embrace the media's role in these new predominant circumstances - ranging from humanitarian missions as in Somalia or Rwanda to peace-building and peace enforcement operations such as Haiti. Because of the British experience in Northern Ireland, the British may indeed be uniquely placed to implement a new stage in the relationship as we try to come to terms with what has been described as 'a new kind of war' against Al Qaida.

The media as observer

For many this is the traditional and time-honoured role of the media, and the one which it should least controversially retain: to observe international events impartially, to mediate their complexities to a confused public, to provide a window on the world by which people can be better informed about the terrible tragedies occurring in the world around them; in other words, to mediate information from government and the military to the public. The theory is that the media can thereby serve an educative role in informing people who can subsequently make more informed decisions in, for example, electing politicians who can thus act on their behalf in the national interest. It is a public service model that will be only too familiar to media organisations like the BBC and even from the quality British press.

This, however, is an increasing illusion. It is one which we may choose to perpetuate, but it is one which we should nonetheless recognise for what it is. The problem here lies partly in the nature of observation. There are several levels to this analysis. What exactly is the role of the media in reporting international events? The first thing to recognise is that foreign affairs rarely commands the top priority of a domestic news organisation because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that their audiences are less interested in events foreign. The staple diet of an evening newscast or a morning newspaper is domestic news and foreign affairs too often tend to be covered in a short segment entitled such as 'The World in Brief'. Brief summaries might alert an interested reader to the existence of something interesting happening, whereupon they can consult more specialised publications such as Foreign Affairs or weekly journals such as Time and Newsweek. Those publications may have global audiences but they still however tend to be read by a small proportion of the national populations as a whole. These are elites who care about foreign events because they recognise that the flapping of a dictator's arms in one part of the world can possibly influence foreign, economic or military policy elsewhere in the world a month or so later. These are the citizens of the Global Village who watch their neighbours' behaviour because they realise it can affect their own livelihood in some way. While State Departments and Foreign Offices devote large budgets to monitoring foreign radio broadcasts and foreign newspapers, only a small proportion of citizens do likewise by fiddling with the dials of their short-wave radios. Governments engage in external broadcasting because they feel it is important to project their view of events in a competitive, propaganda-ridden, world. But what about the independent media? Why should they decide, often suddenly, to promote a story from the short summaries of 'The World in Brief' to Front Page headlines? Perhaps it is because they have a correspondent on-the-spot who has a scoop, something fleshier than the raw material provided by the news agencies and wire services. Incidentally, international news agencies are currently undergoing significant changes: Tass is essentially finished as a global player, and certainly discredited as a conveyer of objective information; only 20% of Reuters income now comes from news distribution as it shifts to being the major world supplier of global data and economic information. Yet despite the existence of nearly 100 other news agencies world-wide, they remain unlikely to break the global domination of the three principal players: Reuters, AP and Agence France Press. These are the prisms through which most international news reaches the public, even today.

The global television and newspaper audience of these organisations is colossal, well in excess of 2 billion people, but a 30 year old study of the amount of foreign news which is actually filtered out by AP editors prior to distribution to subscribers in the United States revealed a disturbing trend to mirror customer-led demand for events-based news rather than any sense of the public's need to know about issue-based trends elsewhere in the world. In June and July 1971, all information from AP bureaux in Latin America to AP headquarters in New York was analysed. Although sport items came top, with 23.23% of the total items in the categories identified, and foreign relations came second, with 19.19%, by the time AP redistributed the news to its domestic A wire, all sport had been eliminated and foreign affairs had been reduced to 6.25%. Crime stories, 13.81% of incoming material, shot up to 47.66% of its output to domestic customers. Although far from conclusive, and very much dated from an era before CNN, these figures do reveal the degree to which the American media insulate Americans from the outside world. As a result, crises which may have been festering for some time, seem to explode very suddenly onto our public consciousness with the result that the context, and therefore an informed understanding of the realistic policy options available to the government, is missing.

A further element in the role of media as observers can borrow from the Heisenberg principle of sub-atomic physics which ascertained that the movement of sub-atomic particles actually changed as, and because, they were being observed. In other words, the very process of observation changes the nature of what is before us. In media terms - and, of course, I am mainly talking about television - millions of people in different parts of the world might be watching the very same CNN newscast, but they react to and perceive it differently, in accordance with the individual cultural, political, historical and psychological baggage which each member of that audience brings to that newscast. On an individual level, psychologists might term this cognitive dissonance, whereby an individual filters out images and information which do not conform to his or her pre-determined perception of the world. But if we take the Heisenberg principle of the media's role in international crises, what we get is that events are altered by the very fact that the media are observing those events - and this process means that policy reactions to events are frequently being determined not by the events themselves, but by the media coverage of the events, and this in turn changes the very nature of the events.

We all know examples of passive crowds outside US embassies who suddenly come to riotous life when the TV crews turn up. We also need therefore to be aware of the limits of the so-called limitless medium. For example the camera can, and frequently does, lie not least by the process of omission; what goes on outside the camera operator's angle of vision does not form part of the visual news story. But if usable pictures are available, and the ability to get them home is available, and the editors decide to run with the story provided they have the support of owners or proprietors who don't mind if the pictures have a chance of rocking the boat - if all these ingredients are present, the story may reach the screen. They will be edited - ie 'packaged' in accordance with the station's policy on showing, for example, graphic images of dead and wounded for fear of alienating advertisers, public and/or politicians (delete where appropriate). But what happens then, once they are in the public domain, is often more discernible amongst rival news organisations than its impact on public opinion itself.

So by the very process of observing, the media become more than mere observers. They are to some extent agenda setters, deciding not just what is the foreign news that the public should know about but also deciding the emphasis to be placed on the severity of any given crisis. An audience such as this might well be concerned with how news organisations decide what priorities to give foreign news stories yet increasingly we should be aware of the journalistic and editorial imperatives which dictate that such news items reach the public domain. For example, the global, competitive media battle for audiences through a preoccupation with Human Interest stories, with events rather than issues and for live coverage that breeds speculation rather than that old-fashioned media ethic of verification. I shall return to this a little later when discussing the way new technologies are influencing the way news is being shaped. But first we need to consider how the observer becomes a catalyst; after all communicators communicate something; they have a medium and a message.

The media as catalyst

The media, and television in particular, are frequently invested with a power which they do not always possess. This is the power to generate a public clamour to 'do something'. Here, Chaos Theory is useful. Why and and when this happens is not always as unpredictable as it might appear - rather in the same way that Chaos Theory is the most misnamed scientific theory of our times. After all, it has been pointed out that 'Chaos has become not just theory but also method, not just a canon of beliefs but also a way of doing science'. It is also a way of understanding the information age in which we live. To the non-professional, journalism appears to be an unpredictable business conducted by unfathomable people. Likewise, Chaos Theory appears to be a random process whereby seemingly unrelated events affect events elsewhere in the world, popularised by the analogy that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in China can affect weather patterns a month later in New York. Chaos Theory is in fact a highly complicated mathematical process whereby order is given to disorder. Scientists are discovering that there are laws to ascertain the flapping movements back and forth of a flag or the rising column of cigarette smoke which breaks into swirls. Similarly with international journalism, there is an order masquerading as disorder. This order is aperiodic, in that it consists of news organisations that never quite find a steady state; they almost repeat their patterns of behaviour from one crisis to another, but never quite succeed in doing so in the same way. Nonetheless, if we analyse those patterns, we can begin to bring ordered analysis to what has previously appeared to be disordered behaviour. I don't offer this model as a means of forecasting, since measurements can never really be perfect and history never repeats itself precisely. But, given a certain set of ingredients, we can be provided with a pretty good idea of what will turn out. The problem is that a chain of events in any given crisis can contain a critical point of tension that can magnify small changes ('For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost' and so on). In Chaos Theory, such critical points are everywhere, especially when the media are present. Occasionally, the media even create those critical points, as when pictures of a butchered American airman were dragged through General Aideed's camp in Somalia, prompting a change of direction in American foreign policy. Moreover, once we understand how news journalism responds to the flapping of a butterfly's wings in some part of the globe, and not to others, we begin to see why Bosnia and Rwanda receive massive media coverage and Nagorno-Karabakh and East Timor do not. This in turn can help us anticipate what will constitute the media response which occasionally sets the political agenda of our contemporary politicians.

We also need to understand how and why politicians and public respond to the flapping of a butterfly's wings when it is captured on videotape. Often they don't respond with action; they just watch. But sometimes they do. This was the case when Prime Minister Major watched television pictures of the plight of the Kurds in Northern Iraq in the aftermath of Desert Storm. The ebbs and flows of intervention in Bosnia can be correlated approximately to the availability of footage of markets being mortar-bombed or bread queues being shelled. But the Shi'ites of Southern Iraq received no such equivalent response - partly because there were no pictures. To paraphrase one reporter's famous quip, the Shi'ite didn't hit the fan on that story. And despite months of shocking pictures from Rwanda beginning in April and May 1994, including scores of bodies floating down rivers and the hacking to death of a woman, for 12 weeks 'of terrifying tribal genocide the Clinton administration and other western governments .... actively resisted the flow of horrific pictures that documented the mass slaughter'. Small wonder that even skilled wordsmiths such as Blaine Harden of The Washington Post remained puzzled as to why Americans found it so hard to connect with the story of Bosnia. . This debate about the 'CNN Effect' has now found its academic researchers and, to summarise their conclusions, they have found that when the foreign policy is firm, politicians can and do resist dramatic television pictures. Those images tend only to have an impact when the policy is either non-existent, or it is still evolving, or when it changes for other reasons.

The massive proliferation of media since the 1980s - more TV channels, radio stations and even printed publications - has seen a concomitant rise in the number of people working for such organisations who are not necessarily best equipped to observe the 'whys' of what they are seeing. Ironically, the very conditions which make it difficult for the blue helmets to go in are ideal for such journalists. Wars, crises, famine and the like are highly conducive to television in particular. The media leave a great deal to be desired in explaining how such inter-ethnic conflicts begin but once they have begun they are at their best when providing snapshots of how they are being conducted, especially given the chaotic nature of conflicts conducted by factions who are not always in complete control of their own people and thus allow relatively unfettered media access - at admittedly high risks to the journalists themselves. The result, if the journalists manage to stay alive, is dramatic footage of war damage to civilians, of human rights abuses, ethic cleansing, genocide and masses of refugees. This in turn prompts an occasional cry to do something when doing something is much more complicated than the media can ever convey. As such, the media are a factor which no consideration of this area can ignore. Why and how the media can create such aperiodic reactions does require further research. As a preliminary finding, I can merely say that sometimes they do have an effect, and sometimes they don't. Mostly, they don't and why this is so perhaps says more about some key members of the often overlooked audience - namely the politicians.

The media as participant

Our contemporary international environment is characterised by the existence of instantaneous global communications systems - satellites and videophones, digital data transmission from laptop computers, information superhighways and the like - all of which were developed largely as a result of military research into command and control, or C2, warfare. However, their application beyond the world of the military, thanks to the climate of deregulation in the 1980s, has been most visibly taken up by the media and commercial communication corporations. This in turn has required C2 to become C3 (command, control, communications) planning. Whatever the New World Order might be, it is the media's capability to report on events anywhere in the world in what is known as real-time which can frequently give the appearance of having added a fourth 'C': namely, chaos. And now there is also a fifth. The emergence of global television services such as CNN, once lampooned by rivals for being 'Chicken Noodle News', has indeed added a new dimension to the conduct of international affairs, of wars, and of military operations in what are termed 'conflicts other than war' such as peacemaking, peace promoting, peace enforcement and peace-building as well as peacekeeping and humanitarian exercises. CNN no longer enjoys the monopoly in 24/7 real-time broadcasting since it has now been joined by BBC World, Sky News, Fox News and others.

CNN sees itself as 'the town crier in the global village'. CNN International had a revenue in 1994 of $100 million, as compared to $13.6 million at the time of its greatest triumph in the Gulf War , and has made it - together with other services such as Rupert Murdoch's Star TV - a major player in international affairs. It is one which politicians, planners and diplomats dare not any longer ignore. When a US diplomat in 1994 described the crisis in the Sudan as 'Somalia without CNN', he was highlighting this new phenomenon of a privately owned, 24 hour, international news channel being able to enter the once secret world of diplomacy and indeed to if not set then re-order the agenda of international politics. His message was clear: if television cameras were present at the scene of a flashpoint, then the international community was more likely to respond than if they were absent. With its vastly increased budget, CNN is more likely to go to more flashpoints than ever before. Under such circumstances, especially with its growing global audience, the 1980s phenomenon of East Timor not commanding international media attention until 1999 is likely to diminish, if not evaporate.

Why is this? CNN executive Tom Johnson maintains that 'our goal at CNN is neither to assist nor to inhibit the diplomats of any country as they seek a solution for this or any crisis. It is our goal to provide fair and balanced reporting of all news and all views that are relevant to the events of the day .... diplomats aside, all of us can only benefit from this open access to the information'. Not everyone agrees. The media, after all, concentrate on events and are at their weakest when tackling issues. Reporting an event in an ethnic conflict, such as a tribal massacre, does not automatically help to explain the context of that massacre and thus distorts its significance: how can it be otherwise in 12 column inches or in a three minute television news item? Besides, news is inevitably tinted by its source, and many see the Atlanta-based network as reflecting the dominance of US media in the global flow of information in which the world is viewed through star-spangled spectacles. Moreover, in the traditional world of diplomacy, television - wherever it originates - is regarded as a nuisance, an unwanted intruder complicating the much more serious business of conflict resolution. Real-time coverage adds a further threat: it means that the public is often made aware of an event at the same time as the politicians who are accordingly forced to respond in a manner which runs counter to the diplomatic traditions of working methodically, systematically and slowly. The public are prone to responding emotionally to dramatic events by clamouring for something simply and quickly to be done - to stop the horror before their eyes - while the politicians in the audience have to weigh up the options in a more considered way. After all, when the media exits, the issue will still exist.

Because of the media, international crises seem to flare up out of nothing, like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. When a crisis explodes, the media swarm to it like curiosity seekers in search of Pulitzer prizes. The long-term causes of the explosion, often slow-moving trends that do not make for good television, go unreported and unnoticed. This would not matter so much if the vast majority of people in the developed world did not rely upon television as their principal source of news and information. The result is a sense of bewilderment in the audience about what the latest crisis is all about. The pictures might be terrible, evoking an emotional reaction to 'do something' when long-term understanding could provide a rational appreciation of what can actually be done. We expect too much of television if we expect it to provide that educational role. It is primarily, and most effectively, an instrument of entertainment. Explosions hold a fascination for people. But if you try to combine instruction and entertainment - and very few can do this successfully - you invariably end up confusing rather than clarifying.

Once again, we confront a contradiction. There is more information available today than ever before, more effective ways of gathering and distributing that information and, thanks to portable communications technology such as the satellite phone, camcorder and laptop computer, greater opportunities for non-professionals to input the traditional flow of communications. Yet there are several indications that people cannot handle this information overload. Instead people make choices about which pieces to absorb - through the choice of a newspaper or the selection of a newscast. Very few people watch CNN continuously; people want access to news 24 hours a day, but they do not want to watch it for 24 hours at a time. And what they do watch, thanks to another piece of portable technology, the channel-changing zapper, has to interest or concern them or else they tune out, or rather in to a 200 channel choice universe. Foreign policy remains the interest of relatively small numbers of people; it always has, despite talk of global villages and information superhighways.

International communications has always been a matter of compressing time and space. Rapid developments in satellite technology and digital data transmission have meant that news organisations can transmit a story to the public before the decision makers are even aware of it, let alone have had time to consider its real implications as they had been able to do in the past. Real-time television newscasts are therefore a new player, a public player, in what was once the great game of diplomacy conducted quietly behind closed doors. 'Officials confirm that information often comes to them first from television or text news services well before official diplomatic and military communications channels can provide data, precision, clarification and context'. As Edward Bickham, a former special advisor to the British Foreign Office, has pointed out:
'The power of television in foreign policy is a mixed blessing. As a medium it plays too much to the heart, and too little to the head. It presents powerful, emotive images which conjure strong reactions ... Anecdotes about individual suffering make compelling television, but they rarely form a good basis to make policy .... Foreign policy should be made by democratic governments, accountable to Parliament, not in reaction to which trouble spots the news gathering organizations can afford to cover from time to time .... Reactions to the priorities of the news room are unlikely to yield a coherent or a sustainable foreign policy.'

And so would say all diplomats. Yet no matter how hard they try - and how many busy diplomats and politicians have the time to sit and watch the evening news? - television does intrude into their daily routines. If wives, sons or daughters don't tell them over the dinner table about the shocking pictures they have witnessed that night, their press officers almost certainly will the next morning. It doesn't matter whether the reports were accurate, balanced, contextualised or even significant - which they might not be - but rather that they have been transmitted and that they might have provoked a reaction.

If the story is a success, then it creates a kind of domino effect when other journalists scramble to the scene. But that decision lays in the hands of the editors, human beings who may or may not be interested in a story according to their own individual make-up. But once the first domino falls, you get into a kind of feeding frenzy where the intense competitiveness of the media business becomes the driving force. As one old foreign correspondent once remarked: 'Whenever you find hundreds of thousands of sane people trying to get out of a place and a little bunch of madmen struggling to get in, you know the latter are newspapermen'. Today, we would add radio and television correspondents and a new breed of freelancers and what I shall term 'civilian journalists'. During Desert Storm, more than 1500 journalists swarmed to Saudi Arabia - more than troop contributions by most coalition members - with another 1500 waiting for visas by the time the war ended. Why? Especially when there was a crisis going on at the same time which had far more significant consequences for the course of the twentieth century, namely the crisis in the Baltic which precipitated the break-up of the old Soviet Empire? Indeed, the American networks were winding down their eastern European bureaux before Saddam invaded Kuwait. It was becoming an expensive business for, in their terms, very low returns. And what are those terms? One of the answers we have already identified: pictures. Quite simply, politics and television do not make the kind of bedfellows that attract high ratings. There is only so much you can do with shots of buildings, limousines delivering people to those buildings, and the people entering those buildings - usually without talking to the assembled press. As Dan Rather has put it: 'You can't take a picture of an idea'. . War and military build-ups, however, are quite a different matters: troop movements, high tech equipment and possibly even the chance of some action shots - the very stuff of fast-moving, picture-based material on which television thrives. If there there are numerous stories with high Human Interest - such as a humanitarian crisis complete with refugees with terrible stories to tell - then you have a 'winner'. There were 3800 journalists of all varieties on the borders of Kosovo in 1999.

Any crisis throws up bizarre examples of how journalists 'firefight' their stories. The dangers are immense if they do not embrace what the military describes as 'host nation sensitivity'. A light meter reading of f/16 can be interpreted as a electronic reading designed to call in a F-16 air strike. A correspondent from New Jersey mustn't admit where he is from if asked by a Lebanese militiaman when the USS New Jersey is shelling the coast. In Somalia, some correspondents sporting T-shirts with naked women and drinking Slim Fast tried to transmit copy that indicated sensitivity to the starving Muslim population. The imposition of western values and perspectives on indigenous Third World circumstances is a source of massive resentment and has many causes, perhaps the most important of which is the western tradition of news being event rather than issue-based.

A former president of NBC News once complained: 'News is whatever the goddamn government tells us it is'. Indeed, although there had been periodic copy about Somalia, it was only on Thanksgiving Day 1992 that outgoing President Bush decided to commit 30,000 US troops to protect the relief operation, and within days the press corps had shot up to nearly 500 in time to film the marines coming ashore. Within weeks, news organisations had spent more than the largest relief agency had spent all year in Somalia. Despite the efforts of the best journalists to explain the story, the overall result was distortion: uncontextualised, starving African kids being saved by heroic western troops engaged in this latest manifestation of the White Man's Burden to Restore Hope in Africa.

Since the mid 1980s, following the kidnapping in Beruit of Associated Press reporters Terry Anderson and Don Mell, journalists began to realise that they were now part of the story, not merely observers of it. Indeed, it was their very role as observers which provided them with the qualifications regarded as essential by publicity hungry groups and factions who wished to see their story sustained in the western media rather than fall victim to the whims of whatever priority an editor decided to pinpoint at any given time. Nothing interests the media more than the media themselves. And given the mid 1980s developments in satellite technology, the media were beginning to have a global reach. In 18 years of war in Vietnam, fewer than fifty journalists had been killed. In the first year of war in former Yugoslavia, nearly 30 had been killed. 11 have died to date in Afghanistan. Many had died, no doubt, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time - places where they shouldn't have been in the first place. Some might argue that they were in the right place, in the line of fire, to get closest to the story. But when Somalia turned nasty for the journalists, they left. Those pictures from General Aideed's camp were taken by a Somali taxi-driver on a camcorder left behind by Reuters journalists. In addition to this is the increasingly conservative nature of the news organisations for which they work; there is no point risking your life for a story which your bosses are not interested in. It is a salutary reminder of the post Watergate media realities that the Iran Contra story started with Lebanese, not American, journalists.

It is therefore in the interests of many news organisations to secure protection for themselves. Being read is better than being dead - or, worse still, to be left out of the story altogether. This is why they are frequently prepared to go along with arrangements made for them by involved military forces; it makes chaos safer and more orderly. From a crisis management point of view, therefore, publicity arrangements for the protection of the press corps and for their ability to collect and distribute their copy must be an integral part of any planning. Most journalists would be happy to comply. The days when the media could simply be ignored or kept away from the main story have gone; there will always be a loose canon who fires into the battle zone with a portable satellite phone, laptop computer and modem. With a few keystrokes, a 2000 word despatch can be transmitted to a news agency office in seconds when, just a decade earlier, it would have taken an hour's dictation on whatever public pay phone was nearest to the action. Now there are cell phones than can transmit pictures or satellite videophones than can broadcast live from the front, a technology which made its debut in Afghanistan. These digital broadcasts could be monitored by AWACS but this would be a waste of resources. The essential feature to remember is that if the vast majority of the press corps are receiving information from the same source, and that source is reliable, as honest as possible and consistent, they will be happier to report the crisis from their hotel lobby than the battle front.

The media we deserve?

This raises an issue which very few journalists have been willing to address since Desert Storm. They may be slightly embarrassed that they had been outwitted by skilful media management. But the fact remains that, by reporting the official line, they were giving their audiences what they wanted to hear. In Britain and America, public opinion polls revealed a level of support for the war which remained steady at around 80%. The opening night of the war remains the highest rating non-sporting event in television history. President Bush was able to watch the outbreak of war at the same time as a brewer in Milwaukee or a beach bum in Malawi. But what were they watching? In fact, because CNN was unable to transmit live pictures until the start of February, massive TV audiences were staring at a map of Iraq with inserts of the faces of the three principal CNN reporters in the Al-Rashid hotel. Still pictures. 8 hours of a map on screen, occasionally interrupted by talking heads in a studio and a brief presidential press conference. Thereafter, for the remainder of the war, the coverage was not too dissimilar. As one critic has put it: 'it was the journalistic equivalent of candy floss: delicious to consume but devoid of substance'.

If what we have here is a contradiction - that a picture-driven medium secured its highest ever ratings with pictures that, after a day or so, were essentially much of a muchness - we need to recognise that television is not the all-powerful medium which the Vietnam Syndrome and CNN Effect implies but very much part of a wider phenomenon: that the news business plays only one part in the formation of public attitudes towards a crisis. Desert Storm polls indicated a greater degree of trust for the military than for the media. Because of the live television transmission of press conferences, media management was able to by-pass the traditional media through which the public learned of foreign events. The public saw the press corps asking stupid questions and tolerant officials not responding with stupid answers. The simple fact of the matter was that people knew what the issues were about, including oil, and they didn't need the press to tell them that. This is why there remains a consensus since the war that the fighting stopped too soon. All those notions that the public could not stomach huge casualties need to be re-examined; research that we did at Leeds suggested otherwise - including the toleration of greater collateral damage against so-called innocent women and children. How much, we will never know. But certainly more dead Americans than those killed by the Iraqis - and fewer than those killed by friendly fire. TV audiences know that people die in war, but that if the war is perceived as just - and Desert Storm was, whereas there were more question marks about Vietnam - then casualties can be tolerated by supportive public opinion.

It seems to me therefore that politicians, who live and die by the whims of public opinion, are often infinitely weaker willed when it comes to brutal coverage of foreign events than are the public. There is more resolve than is generally expected. Vietnam is so often cited as pivotal in the history of the military-media-public opinion matrix, but it is in fact the exception rather than the rule. Newspapers which commission public opinion polls about the popularity of presidents and prime ministers dare not conduct similar polls about the public attitude to journalists. We saw their most ludicrous nature when American troops came ashore in Somalia at the start of Operation Restore Hope, with the beaches illuminated by the lights of the television crews. Different crisis, same footage. It is one of the truisms of contemporary news gathering that if a journalist isn't present, the story doesn't exist. When the swarms of 'madmen' descend, you have a story. But you don't necessarily have an adverse public reaction.

So, given that the media agenda on foreign affairs is invariably shaped by governments, with infrequent, often unpredictable, inputs by news organisations, what can be done about the latter? The answer is not just to watch the butterfly's movements but also to watch whether the flapping has caught the attention of an editor's interests. When a foreign or special correspondent goes on a special assignment overseas, it is to produce copy, a story, perhaps where none existed before. And where one goes, others invariably follow, which escalates the story up a scale which might affect the political agenda. This is relatively easy to spot at source; too often do 'World in Brief' stories become Front Page headlines because the initial three lines intrigues an editor who has a hunch there might be more, especially if there a pictures involved. The stories which cry out for coverage - wars, famines, earthquakes and coups - invariably do so if they occur in countries where national interests are involved. But in remote parts of the globe - and there are no such places anymore - similar stories go unreported every day. Moreover, the military aspects of the 'war' against terrorism are but a tiny part of the bigger story. This is a 'war' that will be fought out on the diplomatic (coalition-building), financial (starving their funding base), intelligence (and therefore inherently secret) and cultural fronts. None of these areas have proved particularly attractive to television news coverage.

Some solutions

My invitation, therefore, is for crisis managers to embrace a variety of processes when it comes to dealing with the media. The first is to recognise that, for good or ill, the media are a central part of the foreign policy making process. They can't be ignored or dismissed as being a nuisance or irresponsible. If they are, they are likely to cause more trouble and jeopardise the operation under review. Their business is to get a story, not quite any story, but the best they can within reasonable human risks. If you deny them the opportunity to go to the Falkland Islands or Grenada, they will find a way of invading the island themselves - and they'll be waiting for you on the beaches. They were in Haiti, when hundreds of western journalists defied UN sanctions and a White House demand for a voluntary embargo on live coverage, set up their satellite dishes at Port-au-Prince hotels and, complete with live-link cameras equipped with night scopes, waited to capture the invasion in real-time. CNN answered to Atlanta not to the military public affairs officers. The media cannot always be trusted to put their safety in the hands of the military - especially if the administration had spent weeks conducting its diplomatic and military plans to invade in public rather than in private. Haiti, after all, is closer than Kuwait and Restore Democracy commanded less public support than Desert Storm.

Second, there is a need to recognise that reporters are only part of a chain. It is therefore important to realise how the entire process of the news business operates from gathering stage to publication. The premise here is that understanding the relationship between war and the media is essential for an informed democratic citizenship. We now expect elected governments to explain themselves. Citizens have the right and, indeed, the responsibility to participate in political life and, to do this effectively, this requires them to have full and accurate information and a clear understanding of the issues involved. Only then can informed decisions be made to support or oppose foreign policy decisions that are made by governments on their behalf with life-or-death consequences. The performance of the news media in being able to achieve effectively this role thus becomes a critical issue; it is what makes the news media significant within the democratic political process. However, their traditional role as informers, educators and entertainers has undergone significant change during the course of the past 150 years, and especially in the last 30 years. Their environment today is one of intense competition, deregulation and rapid technological change within a global market. Even more recently, they are facing competition from various 'new media', especially specialised news services on the internet, which are bound over time to increase in credibility as alternative sources for foreign news events. And, thanks to the portable digital camcorder, we are also seeing the rise of what may be termed the 'citizen journalist' who is often present when professional journalists are absent, as was the case with the famous Rodney King footage in the Los Angeles riots or on the road alongside Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris when the Concorde crashed. All this in turn has created new factors shaping the way in which world events are reported, distorted - and misreported. The degree to whether these developments help or hinder an informed public may even prove vital to the preservation of democracy itself. We must get this one right.

© Copyright Leeds 2014