Military and the Media


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Military and the Media
Bharat Verma
2009-07-30 13:20:22
Last Updated: 2009-07-30 14:29:57
Bharat Verma is Editor, Indian Defence Review, and the author of the book 'Faultlines'.

The media can mar or make a country's war efforts. It can enhance or rubbish a country's image within minutes.

There was a time when whatever little the military public relations doled out was considered sacred. Not any more. With the arrival of private television channels and the Internet, news, in the form of pictures and text, travels in real time internationally. In a free society, transparency is vital to keep it emancipated.

Yet there is an equal compulsion to maintain the essential element of military secrecy. Democracy is the softest system of governance (with the highest cost benefit ratio accruing to the individual). But it can easily be twisted, balkanized or encircled by the adversary in this region, unless it is backed by substantial military power.

Equally vital is the media's role to keep the arrangement free and fair. Unlike in totalitarian regimes where the ruler considers ignorance among its citizenry as bliss, in a successful democracy, the right to know is an inbuilt pillar of strength.

Universally, militaries run on tight regimented hierarchies to ensure operational precision, and thus naturally contain a fair share of elements prevalent in an autocracy. The media, on the other hand, is devoid of any such inhibitions, an essential pre-requisite in a democracy. Both offer protection -- the military against forces antagonistic to the nation, and the media against oppressive or faulty governance.

The media is also a prime strategic vehicle to launch information and psychological warfare that can subtly push for democratic norms in our neighborhood, without overtly interfering in the internal affairs of others.

Like any other military in a democracy, The Indian Defence Forces (IDF) by virtue of their job definition, is evolutionary in approach. However, the media to sustain democratic polity, to accelerate the pace of change in the society, has to be revolutionary. While they both are essential to the success of a free society, contradictions in professional requirements at times pit them against each other as adversaries.

This clash came to the fore a decade ago in Kargil, where the army and the media witnessed both synergy as well as conflict of interest.

On discovering the intrusions, the media mercilessly questioned the intelligence failure. At the outbreak of hostilities, the same media walked an extra mile to build up national sentiments. When it ended, it raised prickly issues of command failure.

The military top brass became extremely sensitive to criticism. It de-linked incoming and outgoing telephone calls subsequently from civil exchanges to cut the negative information flow. But the media defeated this shortsighted measure by continuing to access information from military personnel on leave, their families and former soldiers.

Instead of bristling, it is time our generals, admirals and marshals meticulously examined the shortfall in the legitimate flow of information due to an ancient mindset bedeviling their public relations offices.

At the best of times the military public relations offices are in tatters due to paucity of funds, poor accessibility and lack of real time information. The simple truth is that with the extraordinary technology and means of communications available to the media, it will ferret out information anyway. Frontline reporting will be mostly done by a twenty-something reporter, who is not bound by the traditional parameters of restraint exhibited by elder journalists of yore, and just cannot afford to miss deadlines.

With such enormous pressures, his/her attention span will be short. Therefore if one cannot quickly and credibly put across his/her viewpoint, one ends up losing half the battle even before it begins. Impacting on this is another factor. Just the way military today competes for manpower in the open market; similarly different channels, news agencies and newspapers/magazines vie with each other for news in a free society.

Sensationalism? Maybe. Enhancing viewership/readership? Definitely. Enticing sound byte or a headline? Positively. Hence, as the story breaks out, the military must learn to act decisively and with dispatch to correct the tilt, if any.

A tactical appreciation of the expose on the corrupt arms procurement system gives us the following picture.

First, New Delhi recoiled and refused to battle it out for the first 24 hours.

Result: Public perceptions were allowed to go into a tailspin. These withdrawal symptoms are reminiscent of the 1857 Mutiny, where despite a superior ratio of 3:1, Indians lost as they continued to fight from fixed positions.
The fort or garrison mentality haunts us even today, as in Kandahar or Kargil. Similarly, following the Red Fort shoot out, Army headquarters was placed out of bounds for the legitimate visitors. By imposing restrictions like these, a nation state is emitting signals of weakness by admitting that it is unable to conduct normal transactions. This exactly is what the enemy is trying to enforce from Kashmir to the Red Fort.

Let's not get into the famous Indian defensive-defence (a no-good posture) that continuously added layers of woes to the Republic. The Tehelka expose once again demonstrated the fallacy of fighting from fixed positions by withdrawing inside the deemed superficial security of a fort.

Second, when the elders finally did manage to respond, they were unfocussed.

In their view it was a conspiracy. Others blamed a lousy inherited system. Convenient comparisons with earlier scams were made. But this was neither here nor there, for it did not address the problem at hand. Grave charges of corruption with visuals in tow required swift action and explanations. The rest of the arguments were of no import at this stage. Ultimately, it was the younger generation in the ruling coalition which waged a relentless battle to salvage some of the poise.

Unlike the civilian infrastructure, the army responded firmly to at least partially retrieve the citizens' faith.

The media, meanwhile, continued to play its natural role of a watchdog. Arguments from both ends received a fair share of reporting. The questions were sharp. Answers needed to be specific. The generation divide was clearly visible. While dealing with the new generation, that has more or less thought things out before its feet hit the ground, evasive answers will simply not work.

The politicians, bureaucrats and generals cannot wish away the media. And yet, enormous benefits can accrue to the military (thereby the nation) if they learn to use the media as a force multiplier, which is indispensable when the military faces prospects of one-and-a-half front war perpetually. With the enemy launching another half-front inside the country (being aware that one hand is tied behind) force multiplication is mandatory. This is also imperative because the troops formulate their own perceptions based on media reports.

Therefore, the need to stimulate an interface with the media is not just essential, it is also quite feasible.

First and foremost, we need to create integrated Media Centres with modern facilities for the Press in metros and major cities/in areas where military units/formations are deployed on active duty. The command and control should vest with a major general or equivalent at New Delhi. The expertise of officers from the three services should be made available at each centre. Such a user-friendly institution will ensure better coverage of problems faced by the forces.

Second, all information that is not classified should easily be accessible with the help of computers. The Military needs to build its constituency in a democracy. Linking these centres via the Internet will ensure that a common brief/pictures are simultaneously available throughout the country, minimizing scope for undue speculation or mischief.

Third, today public relations incorporates two vital components, information and psychological warfare.

For example, to subvert Indo-Nepal relations, rumour-mongering by vested interests led to riots against India, and bilateral ties took a nosedive. The first televised war in Kargil consolidated opinion against Pakistan to an extent that a visitor from there was forced to observe "the hardening of attitude in India". Look how the calibrated Australian statement (though there exist no disputes) that the modernization of Indian Navy constitutes a threat to them is beginning to cause anxiety amongst smaller countries in the LOR. Competent officers with requisite skills, therefore, must man these military media centres. Unfortunately, so far the military has shown little understanding of its own public relations offices, thereby imposing limits on its ability to effectively benefit from the biggest force multiplier of the modern age.

Fourth, encourage young journalists to join the Territorial Army and serve with battalions in active areas.

Let them gain first-hand knowledge of ships, aircraft or counter-insurgency operations. While filing their reports, they will be better equipped to project the military. Similarly, get officers attached during their study leave with the electronic and the print media. This will bestow insight into the functioning as well as compulsions of the media. As officers on study leave continue to draw their pay and perks, to accommodate them as part of on-the-job training should not pose a problem for either.

The day India became a nuclear weapon state, it lost the privilege of adopting ostrich like positions. It cannot anymore afford to fight from either fixed positions or run behind the ramparts of the fort. The historical burden of withdrawal symptoms should be replaced with quick responses to any developing crisis in the vicinity.

Therefore, a growing synergy with the media must be achieved through interactive and competent public relations outfits. While the military schools do not teach it, the fact remains that in geo-strategic calculations, the media is an essential weapon platform that can further national interests faster than any other institution.

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