The Big Snafu
The Media and the CF
Given the troubled times we live in, with a war with Iraq raging, nuclear threats from North Korea, and terrorists behind every corner, it is imperative that there be open dialogue between the military and the media in Canada.
As it stands, within Canada’s civil-military relationship, parliamentarians have a legitimate role in monitoring defence and security management – both in terms of financial integrity and with regard to behaviour. Likewise, the news media and non-governmental organizations are able to monitor the conduct of security representatives and to raise issues of concern either in the public domain or through government channels. Therefore, the increased utility of the news media in the process of outlining the public agenda has become a matter of concern for civil society and the military. This is especially true given the clear linkages between news media coverage of events and the decision of nations to act in response. Case in point was the reporting of the marketplace mortar attack in Sarajevo, which resulted decisive action by NATO.
There is no question that, in this digital/information age, the media is all-pervasive. In an environment of instant access to news, military leadership must understand the media and, by default, recognize that the media is the primary conduit that they have to the Canadian public. However, this relationship is a two-way street as the media can also represent or misrepresent the CF and its leadership to the public. Thus, this relationship has developed into a love-hate affair, which has led to a level of conflict between the military and media.
The greatest disagreement occurs over information that both parties perceive as being vitally important or very interesting. The conflict arises from each party’s judgment of how this information is to be used or disseminated. The news media demands immediate release of information based on the freedom of the press argument that “the public has a right to know.” While the military tends to inhibit or stop the release of such information due to concerns ranging from national or operational security to potential embarrassment of the military or the government.
The media, through it’s reporting of events, can have a massive influence on policy makers, the public, and military leaders (as in the Somalia debacle). This has a direct influence on how military leaders react to a given defence policy or military decision.
Some recent prominent Canadian examples of using the media influence include Major General Lewis McKenzie’s statements during his tenure as commander of UNPROFOR. As CBC’s Carol Off noted “McKenzie’s bosses in Ottawa were becoming uncomfortable with their superstar’s pronouncements and found he was wandering into policy areas that were usually off-limits for Department of National Defence (DND) staff.” Other examples include General Jean Boyle’s prevaricating during the Somalia enquiry, or Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire’s dilemma in Rwanda. In Dallaire’s case, he tried to shame the world into action by using the news media and non-government organizations in Rwanda to send a message to the world.
From the military perspective, there has been both a direct and indirect approach to dealing with the media.
Public Affairs (PA) offers the direct approach, while information operations (IO) or information warfare (IW) represents the indirect approach. In theory, but not necessarily in practice, PA efforts are intended to be a direct approach to the dissemination of information into the public domain without creating a breach of national security.
Misinformation and disinformation are key objectives of the IO as deceptive information is disseminated into the public domain. Misinformation and disinformation are key objectives. We have experienced a lot of this through US media coverage of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the subsequent responses from al-Qaeda through various Arab news outlets and the Internet.
There is clearly a problem in this approach, as any type of deceptive activity represents a test to the ability of the media to act and report freely and accurately. As the former CDS, General Maurice Baril, commented on the CF’s involvement in Kosovo, “there is a great deal of difference between not releasing information and telling the truth. We’re telling the truth, we are just not releasing some information.”
The type of comment from General Baril tends to perpetuate the mistrust and conflict between the media and the military. This situation is further exacerbated by backwards looking dialogue in an effort, on the part of the military, to justify specific past decisions or actions.
The actions of DND surrounding the suicide attempt by MCpl Matchee (the soldier who tortured and murdered the Somali youth, Shidane Arone), and the subsequent response of the news media discovering what amounted to a cover-up on the part of the CF and DND, clearly illustrates this point. On the other hand, the military has generally seen the media as: first, lacking a true understanding of military matters; second, lacking objectivity; and third, lacking in integrity. Whether this is true or not, it is the perception that matters.
This situation amplifies the problem of freedom of the press when one considers the globalization of media interests, the competition between media outlets, and the private agendas of these outlets. This has been exemplified by the so-called “CNN effect,” which now influences what is considered to be news, how it is acquired, how it is processed and where and how it is redistributed. Therefore, a clear mistrust has developed between the media and the military when it comes to news stories relating to defence and security issues. As DND notes in its 2020 future vision of the CF, “finally, the media, with their own agenda and information sources, play an increasingly influential role in military operations. They can govern public awareness and they can colour public expectations about CF performance.”
Thus, in the above context, it is of the greatest import that the different institutional perspectives are understood. This is especially true from a command and leadership perspective. It is obvious to even the most uninformed observer that reporters, more and more, perceive themselves as participants in the events they cover, they are no longer merely the chroniclers of those experiences. The 1991 Gulf War exemplified this with the reporting of Scud missile attacks by Arthur Kent in Israel. Kent became known by the moniker “the Scud Stud.” At the same time the reports of Peter Arnett of CNN from Baghdad, during the US air raids, became prime time material. Both reporters gained celebrity status. The Pentagon’s decision to “embed” reporters within its units during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 clearly made those reporters part of the “action” that was occurring, and effected their reporting.
When it comes to the CF, however, the problem about truth and freedom of speech falls at the doorstep of the military. The underlying problem that faces military leaders in the CF is that their hands are officially tied by Queen’s Orders and Regulations (QR & Os). Members of the CF, but more specifically Officers, are simply not allowed to talk openly about the military. Sections 19.36 – DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION OR OPINION, 19.37 – PERMISSION TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION and 19.375 – COMMUNICATIONS TO NEWS AGENCIES simply do not allow for an open dialogue with the public and more specifically the news media. This is especially true when there is criticism of policy or the military establishment.
In referring to MGen Lewis MacKenzie’s role in the Balkans, Carol Off noted, “as MacKenzie became a media superstar, Ottawa developed misgivings… DND never likes it when soldiers stand out in a crowd, and MacKenzie was becoming quite conspicuous.” This is especially true in light of the existing limitations imposed by the QR & O’s.
From this brief discussion, it is clear that the media has influence in society as a whole. Within the context of leadership in the CF, this is exemplified by the fact that the Minister of National Defence begins his day by reviewing news clips. Thus, one could infer that the media rather than policies, sets the Minister’s agenda and ultimately it is setting the agenda that matters in the civil-military relationship.
As was observed in a symposium on the military-media relationship in Canada, if these factors are not considered and acted upon, then there is a going to be a problem and the military will always come out the loser in the civil military relationship.
Dr. Heidi Studer, from the University of Alberta, cites the Airborne hazing videos as an example of an ugly event that was made worse by the military’s bad handling. She says “if explanations are not forthcoming, then journalists will not look for them and the public will not expect them. As a result, the level of debate, coverage, and understanding goes down.”
This comment exemplifies the present level of defence and security debate in Canada and results in an ineffective civil-military relationship. It is no wonder that our military can no longer “stand on guard for thee.”
Sunil Ram is a Professor of Land Warfare and Military History at American Military University. He also served as an officer and soldier with the Canadian Forces during the 1980s and 1990s.
© FrontLine Defence 2004