Last week, prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Tony Abbott opened the Australian War Memorial’s new exhibition, Afghanistan: the Australian Story. That public attention on the war is now shifting from the battlefields of Uruzgan to museums and bookshops back in Australia raises important questions about how and by whom the Australian story of the war has been told.
In doing so it brings into sharp focus the determination of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to fashion its own narratives about what its troops have achieved in Afghanistan while radically restricting the media’s access to them over the greater portion of the deployment there.
Recent events in New Zealand help explain why they behaved in this way.
New Zealand military vs media
Last month, New Zealand’s defence minister Jonathan Coleman ordered the military to rewrite a 2003 manual that identified extremist groups, hostile intelligence services and investigative journalists as the key “subversive groups” posing a threat to national security.
Though the domestic media have shown no inclination to pilot aircraft into structures of national importance or launch cyber attacks on critical information infrastructure, they do, according to New Zealand’s uniformed guardians, have the potential to “weaken the military economic or political strength of a nation by undermining the morale, loyalty or reliability of its citizens”.
To their credit, New Zealand’s politicians were disdainful of these claims. While Coleman thought the reference to the media “inappropriate”, the opposition spokesman, Phil Goff, went much further, saying:
The defence force leadership has confused national security with a desire not to be embarrassed by what investigative journalists might discover about any shortcomings on their part.
What is most remarkable about these convictions is not that the New Zealand military hold them but that they were thoughtless enough to commit them to paper and enshrine them in doctrine.
Australian journalists’ access to conflict zones
Similar views are widespread within the Australian Defence Force. In early July, the Land Warfare Studies Centre, the Australian Army’s principal think-tank, published a study of the operations and effectiveness of the ADF’s media embedding program. This program enables a limited number of journalists to access the troops in Afghanistan and to embed with them as they perform their daily tasks.
The report, Herding Cats by Lieutenant Colonel Jason Logue, concluded that the program had been a modest success. The journalists who had accessed the troops via the program during 2011, the focus of the report’s data, generally wrote more favourably about the ADF and their mission.
These journalists were also more likely to echo the military’s own talking points. Logue notes:
Content analysis of individual media embed generated reports showed a strong correlation with the identified favourable messages of the ADF supporting its personnel, the military/personal conduct of ADF personnel as “beyond reproach” and that ADF operations were making progress towards strategic goals.
Transition to the media embedding program
Though the ADF has been in Afghanistan since October 2001, it had no fully functioning media embedding program until 2011.
While our colleagues and comparator militaries in the International Security Assistance Force, the US, the UK, Canada, and the Netherlands opened themselves to ever more probing media scrutiny at an earlier date, for years the ADF grudgingly permitted only a trickle of visitors from the fourth estate to visit its base outside Tarin Kowt on one of its infamous “bus tours”.
These tours ran intermittently from 2002, and then more regularly from 2008. The ADF would ferry the reporters past an array of their prestige projects, steer them away from the troops and, above all, ensure that nobody went “beyond the wire”. They became a byword for military micromanagement and media frustration.
From 2006 onwards, on any given day there were hundreds of Australian soldiers patrolling beyond the wire, mentoring Afghan National Army personnel, securing aid projects and pushing the Taliban out of the valleys and villages of Uruzgan. But no representatives of the media were allowed to join them and report on their deeds.
This was because the one thing the ADF feared more than an adverse outcome on the battlefield was bad press and the damage that this might do to its reputation.
Like the New Zealanders who penned the above doctrine, the ADF was, and remains, convinced that the media’s principal reason for wanting access to the battlefield was to sniff out scandal, to smear and to slander.
In a rare moment of military candour, Lieutenant-Colonel Darren Huxley, the former Commanding Officer of Mentoring Task Force 2, conceded that while:
…it is absolutely correct for us to be open to scrutiny…it will never be easy to depart from a view that media embeds are generally looking for failure on which to report.
Huxley is not expressing an isolated view here: he is articulating one of the ADF’s core convictions about the media. In 2011, I conducted a survey among the candidates at the Australian Command and Staff College, examining attitudes towards the media and its coverage of defence issues among that year’s intake. The results will be published in the August 2013 issue of Media International Australia.
The responses of these mid-ranking officers reveal a powerful disdain for the fourth estate among tomorrow’s senior commanders. While, like Huxley, they acknowledge the public’s right to be informed about what their forces are doing in their name, they believe that the media cannot be trusted with this important task and that it should be left to the ADF’s own uniformed public affairs personnel.
The respondents believed that media could not be trusted with this task because they lacked the professional competence to properly acquit it. Disturbingly, the more direct contact the officers had with the media, the lower their opinion of them.
Bringing the hostility to light
In many ways the New Zealand military, their political masters and the public are in a better position than their Australian counterparts. Their views about the media are down on paper, and now out in the open for all to see. Enshrined in doctrine they can be assessed, reviewed and amended.
The ADF’s hostility towards the media is not enshrined in any doctrine. Indeed, there is no doctrine dictating the military’s responsibilities towards the fourth estate beyond ground rules for embedded reporters. Hostility towards the media is an entrenched feature of the ADF’s culture and is a central feature of the military’s vision of its relations with civil society. Its extirpation will require a major cultural re-alignment throughout the force.
Jason Logue’s study of the ADF’s embedding program needs to be seen within this context. It is less a celebration of the military’s public affairs triumphs than an affirmation of the value of cooperation with the fourth estate and a plea for continued contact with them as the wind down in Afghanistan returns each to their separate worlds. I don’t fancy its chances of success, but it’s a brave effort.
We would all profit from a few home truths about the real state of military-media relations in this country. It would at least afford a baseline from which we might build and measure progress.
While the New Zealanders have uttered the truth that dare not speak its name about military media relations and can now get on with forging a new and less acrimonious working relationship, the ADF routinely denies that it has a problem with the media. Indeed it insists that the access it has granted the fourth estate has been generous and unfettered.
Until the ADF is prepared to make a frank admission of the real state of its relations with the media it is unlikely that any meaningful improvements can be affected. Who’s looking for failure now?
Kevin Foster’s book, Don’t Mention the War: The Australian Defence Force, the Media and the Afghan Conflict will be published in November by Monash University Publishing.