When Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, the population clamoured for details of the British Expeditionary Force’s exploits in France and Belgium. But the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, refused to accredit a single correspondent to accompany British forces. Instead he appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton of the Royal Engineers, to furnish reports from the front.

Swinton had few illusions about where his allegiances lay. His primary aim, he observed, was not “the purveyance of news to our own people” but to “avoid helping the enemy”: as a consequence, he determined to tell only ‘as much of the truth as was compatible with safety’.

Having gathered his information, shaped his account and purged it of any tell tale details, Swinton passed his material to his senior officers for vetting. They handed it on to Kitchener who, after putting his own blue pencil to work, approved it for release to the press, where it appeared under the ironic by-line ‘Eye witness’.

More than ninety years later, in Australian media coverage of the war in Afghanistan, we find ourselves back in “Eye-witness” world. Not a single Australian correspondent is based there. As such, the news we get from Afghanistan, “almost every picture and video of Australian troops, every audio ‘grab’ and almost every quote from a digger comes from Australian Defence Forces ‘public affairs and imagery specialists'”. These are soldiers ‘trained to use cameras and write press releases’.

The ADF argues that its troops in Oruzgan are mostly special forces, engaged in highly classified operations, and so security considerations preclude all but the most controlled and limited coverage of their actions. Equivalent security concerns have not, however, stopped British and American news organisations from basing reporters in Afghanistan, nor embedding others with forces patrolling some of the most dangerous parts of the country.

Yet, even if the ADF did allow reporters to accompany its troops, it is unlikely that they would be able to reveal much that did not accord with the military’s public affairs agenda. Section 3.1(a) of the ADF Media Accreditation document, (Public Affairs and Corporate Communication Standard Operating Procedure No. MP A3) requires journalists to:

…not disclose information other than in accordance with OPSEC [Operational security] briefings and the OPSEC guidance provided by the Commonwealth … Where a Journalist has any doubt as to whether particular material could compromise OPSEC the Journalist must seek advice from the ADF officers prior to publication in any form. Journalists will be encouraged but not required to submit all media product … gathered in the Area of Operations to for OPSEC review and clearance by officers of the ADF before publication.

Not that the journalist would ever be in a position to gather any genuinely revealing material if they abided by articles (i) and (j) of the accreditation agreement which requires them to “at all times remain under and follow ADF supervision and direction within the Area of Operations for safety and operational reasons and to ensure the continuation of accreditation status” as well as to “not take any photos, film, audiotape or videotape in areas or situations where that Journalist has been instructed not to do so”.

Consequently, as Tom Hyland notes, “most Australian on-the-ground reporting is done by reporters on brief ADF-organised visits”. Even in these highly managed exercises the military never relaxes its control, seeking to turn every encounter into another public relations opportunity. The reporters:

…talk to soldiers, often in the presence of public affairs officers. Soldiers follow a script: they praise their equipment and training and sat they’re “getting the job done”. All of which may be true, but the reporters can’t gather any alternative views.

Nor, it seems, can they question the official military line on any aspect of the conflict. Sally Neighbour’s suggestion to an Australian commander that his account of how a twelve-year old would-be suicide bomber had been recruited by the Taliban “sounded like an apocryphal story” met with “a curt response” from the officer: “If you think I’m telling apocryphal stories, we will terminate the interview right now”.

The Australian military’s intolerance of independent reporting reflects a deeper anxiety that has its origins in the media management challenges posed by a long war. After twenty-five years of short wars, quick victories and absolute mastery over the media, every day that passes in a longer conflict confronts the military with new threats to its power.

Instead of using the extended period of conflict to negotiate a modus vivendi with broadcasters and the press, the military, unused to cooperation with the media, dedicates its energies to ever more overt displays of its intolerance for dissent. Instead of recognising the fourth estate’s right and responsibility to occupy the information space, and thus accommodating itself to its presence, the military bars the gate.

The consequences of this failed and increasingly fractious relationship have been disastrous for the media, the military and the Australian and Afghan publics. Though it would be hard to imagine an easier focus for public revulsion than the Taliban, public enthusiasm and political will for the struggle in Afghanistan are waning.

To some extent this can be put down to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which not only pushed Afghanistan off the front pages of the world’s press but also contaminated the good will that had existed for the struggle against the Taliban. With military censorship impeding the meaningful contextualisation of what ADF personnel are actually doing in Afghanistan, Australian deaths and injuries of the kind sustained in yesterday’s ambush have provided less a stimulus for re-engagement in the region than a focus for questions about the viability of the deployment as a whole.

Kevin Foster teaches Communications and Media Studies at Monash University. A longer version of this article will appear in Overland magazine.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey