Media and national security: what a hack thinks!

Looking back at this week’s interaction with members of the prestigious National Defence College (NDC) Course in Delhi–an annual feature–I realised, more than ever before, that media evokes intense interest even among military leaders, no matter what their instincts. The fact that my 45-minute talk led to 75 minutes of Q & A is testimony to the extreme reactions media and its functioning can evoke. Below is the full transcript of my talk. A bit long to read, so start only if it interests you.

Talking about Media to members of this audience that has been told time and again—right from their younger days in the military and the government–NOT to interact with the media is like trying to preach religion to a nonbeliever. But what is the use of being a media practitioner for three decades and more if I don’t try and convert some of you. And to convince you that understanding the media and its functioning is useful if not downright advantageous?
 So over the next 60 minutes, let me try and take you through media’s role—sometimes disruptive and unwelcome role—in national security matters.
Just a week before I was to come here, I mentioned the topic Media and National Security to a dear friend in the military—a three-star officer—to try and elicit his views on the possible elements for this talk. His instant reaction was Media AND national Security? Are you joking? Does media understand the concept of national security? Does it even care? Well it doesn’t, I retorted, simply because in a country that does not even have its own national security doctrine—at least not in the public domain—how do you expect us bunch of uneducated, ill-informed and irresponsible (his words, not mine) hacks to even begin to grasp the concept of national security? 
My sarcasm was probably lost on him since we were both two drinks down but my contention that India does not have a well-articulated national security doctrine had a salutary effect. He side stepped the issue of national security and we quickly moved on to discussing Dedh Ishqiya and the undiminished beauty of Madhuri Dixit. For the foreign officers here, Madhuri Dixit is India’s answer to Julia Roberts and may be a couple of more Hollywood beauties.
 But coming back to media and national security!
Traditionally, national security has always been viewed through the prism of combating external threats and meeting internal challenges. Use of force for protecting the core values of a nation—in India’s case its democracy, diversity and tolerance—has been defined as national security.
But of late, the discourse on national security is undergoing a subtle transformation. The scope of national security has been widened. It is no longer confined to counting force levels or just matching military power with a neighbour. Now, experts talk about a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted approach to define National Security.
The threats are manifold and before getting into discussing how the Indian media has dealt with and will deal with issue of national security, it is important to briefly dwell upon what defines comprehensive national security, although this is the last thing perhaps that this learned audience needs!
In the not-too-distant future, major powers will be focused on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, narcotics, and organized crime more than conventional armed conflicts. Information warfare, threats emanating from cyber space and aerospace will consume more national resources than ever before.
Rising regional powers like India will have to contend with regional conflicts and developments associated with them: refugee crises, peacekeeping, humanitarian emergencies, environmental problems, global health issues, technological developments, and economic collapse. Issues of demographics, including migration and health; depleting natural resources and degradation of environment will lead to conflicts. And nations will have to be prepared to combat these more than the traditional threats. 
According to a CIA trend analysis, by 2015 more than half the world’s population will be urban. The number of people living in mega-cities–those containing more than 10 million inhabitants–will double to more than 400 million. The explosive growth of cities in developing countries will test the capacity of governments to stimulate the investment required to generate jobs and to provide the services, infrastructure and social supports necessary to sustain livable and stable environments.
Other issues that will take up more time will be: Health: Disparities in health status between developed and developing countries–particularly the least developed countries–will persist and widen.
Developing countries are likely to experience a surge in both infectious and noninfectious diseases and in general will have inadequate health care capacities and spending.
The number of chronically malnourished people in conflict-ridden Sub-Saharan Africa will increase by more than 20 per cent over the next 15 years. 
By 2015 nearly half the world’s population–more than 3 billion people–will live in countries that are ‘water-stressed’–having less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per capita per year–mostly in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and northern China. So the challenges to national security come not just from the adversary across the border but also enemies within: Disease, hunger, natural calamities, mass migration and lopsided development.
Meeting these challenges and not just guarding the borders will constitute National Security. Like Comprehensive National Power, National Security is all encompassing. 
But traditionally, we in the media have looked at national security from the narrow prism of hard military power, simply because media more than anyone else loves wars and conflicts. As a famous editor in the US, Michael J Oneill had famously said: “It is well known that media are more devoted to conflict than to tranquility, and that war is routinely defined as news, while peace is not.  What is good for the world, in other words, is not necessarily good for the news business.”
Ladies and gentleman, coming to India specifically, in the first 15 years after India attained independence, the Indian media was generally conformist. Since India was in the nation building phase, media was supportive of the effort as far as possible. So very few anti-establishment views were articulated in that phase. But the debacle in the short but brutal war with China in the winter of 1962 was a game changer not only for the establishment but also for the Indian media. The shortcomings and wrong decisions at the policy level were so blatant that the Indian media was forced to sit up and review its pro-establishment stance. DR Mankekar, was among the tallest media personalities in India that time. He was a courageous reporter, a brilliant editor and an outstanding author. In the preface to his slim but valuable book titled—the guilty men of 1962, Mankekar explained: “In a democracy, the people have a right to know the why and wherefore of a national disaster. The government is accountable to the people. Where the government fails in its duty, a publicist may step in to fulfill that task.”
Indeed by the time, the 1970s dawned the Indian media had started focusing more and more on military issues, thanks to big international events like the Bangladesh Liberation war of 1971 or the peaceful nuclear explosion at Pokhran in 1974.
Today, it is almost compulsory to have dedicated journalists reporting on various ministries like Defence and Home, traditionally considered the bastions of national security. But even today, we are stuck in covering day to day activities rather than looking at larger issues in these ministries.
There is too much trivia that gets dished out in the name of reporting on these two ministries mainly because there is a lack of skills to handle to relevant issues both among journalists and security personnel in the armed forces and the central police organizations. This weakness needs to be overcome quickly. How do we do that? I will come to that a little later but let me draw your attention to the evolution of military-media relations over the past two centuries and then look at what the present is and the future may look like.
In 1869, Field Marshal Joseph Garnet Wolsley wrote a book called The Soldiers Pocketbook about his experience during the Battle of Crimea. One of the highlights for me was his observation:Those newly invented curse to armies who eat all the rations of the fighting man and do no work at all.
 The “curse” that the Field Marshal was talking about more than 140 years ago was the War Correspondents who reported on the military campaigns of Victorian Britain.
Among the first to live and march with combat troops in modern era was William Howard Russell who reported for the The Times of London during the war in Crimea in the 1850s. His reporting highlighting the shortcomings and bungling in the war were not liked by the authorities but the people were outraged leading to reform and correction in the military.
The Field Marshal’s anger and disgust was primarily directed at Russell but by the time he wrote his famous treatise The Soldier’s Pocketbook in 1869, several other “War Correspondents” had made their way to the battlefield, stayed with the troops, braved the bullets and bayonets and brought home the real picture of the battles.
Clearly, journalists have been billeted with troops for over 100 years before George Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought the term ‘Embedded journalism’ into popular lexicon. 
In the military campaign that followed, a unique access to the battlefield was granted to embedded journalists for war news coverage…The United States (U.S.) Department of Defense (DoD) authorized the embedding of more than 500 journalists in their military fighting units.  The ‘embeds’ (as the journalists traveling with the army units were called) were defined by the Pentagon as: “A media representative [that lives, works, and travels with a military] unit on an extended basis — perhaps weeks or even months… [in order to] facilitate maximum, in-depth [news] coverage of U.S. forces in combat and related operations.”  
This decision stirred up a lot of controversy relative to the type of news content that was being reported by embedded versus non-embedded journalists.  
As a result, the issue of embedded versus non-embedded war journalism has fueled much controversy and debate.(
There are those who believe that the American decision to embed journalists with frontline combat units stemmed from the US military’s two contrasting experiences—one bitter, the other sweet.
The first was in Vietnam when the antipathy between the military and the media reached its peak.
In a detailed study on the military-media relationship during that period, a US Army War College researcher came to a conclusion: “Prior to the Vietnam War, the American press had generally supported national war efforts and the national leadership with positive stories. The Vietnam war was the first time that reporters reported on American units that lacked discipline, used drugs on the battlefield, and had US soldiers questioning war aims while the war was ongoing.  These stories, though factual, were viewed by the military as ‘negative.’ Moreover, the uniformed leadership viewed these stories as a major reason they were losing the war at home while they were winning the battles in Vietnam.” (The CNN Effect: Strategic Enabler or Operational Risk? by Margaret H. Belknap, United States Army, 2001) 
By the time the US was ready for the Gulf War in 1991, it had learnt its lessons well. The military had judged the needs of the media and also worked out the ways to control the flow of information in its favour. 
As Belknap said, “Operation Desert Storm “was the most widely and most swiftly reported war in history.” 
In addition to being the first “CNN War”, this war also marked a turning point in military-media relations and a turning point for Americans’ view of that relationship.
Colin Powell, by than an important figure in the US military hierarchy, had learned his lesson from the Vietnam mistakes and the subsequent Panama invasion episode. He ensured not only media access but that the “right” kind of spokesman stood before the camera lens before the American audience. 
Powell recalled, “We auditioned spokespersons. … We picked Lieutenant General Tom Kelly, as our Pentagon briefer because Kelly not only was deeply knowledgeable, but came across like Norm in the sitcom Cheers, a regular guy whom people could relate to and trust.”
 Belknap says Powell also understood that live press conferences meant that the public would see both questioner and responder. Ever since the Vietnam War, the public viewed the media as fighting to get “the truth” from a military hiding behind a cloak of secrecy During the Gulf war, Americans saw both media and military on the TV screen. 
Powell later wrote: “When the public got to watch journalists, even the best reporters sometimes came across as bad guys.” Perhaps the strongest evidence of the shift in American perceptions was a Saturday Night Live, a popular American TV programme.
Toward the end of the Gulf war the media was ridiculed on Saturday Night Live. Belknap’s study notes: “They were (reporters) portrayed as enemy Iraqis trying to wrestle Americans war plan secrets away from an Army spokesperson.”

 The Americans went on to further refine the concept of embedded journalism in Afghanistan but in India, it is still a halfway house. 
There is no official embedding as such but the Indian military takes reporters on official guided tours to various facilities and events, fully on government expense. So, most of the reports are episodic, event-based in nature. 
There is another kind of arrangement that exists between the media and the Indian military. Reporters’ travel to border areas or insurgency hit areas where the Indian army is deployed in large numbers. The Army than ‘facilitates’ their visits, shows them around, briefs them about the tasks, talks about the difficulties and achievements and then reporters write about or broadcast what they witnessed and understood during the trip. 
It is a ‘loose’ arrangement, but the only one that comes close to the ‘embed’ arrangement in a semi-war situation. I say semi-war since the Indian army is continuously involved in counter-insurgency in Kashmir and the north-east in a no war no peace situation
Old-timers in India however recall that in 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan, select reporters did travel with the Indian military. Indeed, an All India Radio journalist is famously in the frame of an iconic photograph of the Indian general accepting the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani POWs at the end of the 1971 war!
In the most recent war in Kargil over a decade ago, there was no formal embedding but most of us who reported that war, interacted closely with the troops and many a times depended on their support for sustenance in the war zone. Volumes have been written about the synergy between the media and the military in Kargil and its contribution in whipping up a patriotic fervour across the nation that time but all of that was happenstance not design.
Currently, there is an intense discussion on in the higher echelons of the Indian military on how to deal with the media at large and whether to have a policy that will allow embedded journalists in future conflicts. 
But elsewhere in the sub-continent, notably in Sri Lanka, I personally experienced the reality of embedded journalism.
Eelam War IV, (2006-2009) will in fact is remembered for the flawless execution of information warfare techniques by the Sri Lankan state.
Embedding journalists was just part of the entire Information Warfare strategy.
I found the Sri Lankan methods both effective and offensive.
 Effective, purely as a battle strategy.  Offensive, to my sensitivity as a journalist.
The idea was to create a firewall around the battle zone.
The objective was two-fold: control and denial.
Control the flow of information and deny access to unpalatable journalists.
Simultaneously, the Sri Lankan government created a one-stop shop for information from the battle zone.
The Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), which functioned from a small, non-descript building in the heart of Colombo’s high security zone but outside Defence HQs, became the most important address for visiting and local media during the war. You went here to register yourself for a trip up north, into the battle zone. You asked for and got war footage here and you got your latest information from this centre.
The weekly briefing by a cabinet minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, whose sole task was to interact with the media, were held here; the army, navy and air force spokesperson, all senior serving officers, worked under a Director-General, a civilian trusted by the President and his brother, the defence secretary, functioned out of this building.
The DG, MCNS, Lakshman Hullugalle, a pleasant, accessible man, became the most well known face and voice from Sri Lanka during the war since all TV channels went to him for a phono-in and a byte whenever they needed an official update. And he obliged everyone. The MCNS worked 24×7, updated, an information-rich website, almost every hour and all key personnel, including the DG, remained accessible round-the-clock.
By putting in place this system, Sri Lanka virtually eliminated the possibility of any other source giving news to the information-hungry media. Even the trips to the battle zone—I went on three of them—were beautifully orchestrated. We were always asked to report at the airport before dawn.
There, after a thorough security check, we would board a Russian-built AN-32, land at Anuradhapura, a historic town in central Sri Lanka, and then get transferred to two waiting Mi-17 Helicopters. Cameras would start rolling the instant we were on board the choppers. A piece to camera (PTC) or a standup to use an American term, on board a helicopter after all gives that sense of realism to war coverage!
So inevitably, most of us TV reporters would record at least two or three PTCs before we landed at either Kilinochchi or Paranthan, close to the battle. Another very subtle arrangement used to be in place at those locations. An assortment of armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and jeeps would be waiting for us to be taken to the brigade headquarters or a location closer to the actual fighting zone.
Now, a ride atop an APC is a television reporter’s delight. A piece to cam aboard an APC, which looks like a tank, but is not really a tank( but then how many people can discern or distinguish a tank from an APC) would do very well for your own as well as the channels image, thank you. The viewer will certainly be impressed!
So all of us TV reporters used to clamber atop an APC, do our PTCs and then go for a briefing, which from TV’s point of view, are boring anyway. A formation commander at a lectern, explaining tactics on a map is not great television, so we would wonder out in search of images that conveyed a war zone. Invariably we would find soldiers in various stages of battle readiness outside the briefing rooms: some would be resting, some others would be cleaning their weapons; APCs and jeeps full of soldiers in their fatigues would be whizzing past. So cameras would be busy recording those images.
The point is: the Sri Lankan military had worked out what TV crews need and provided the props accordingly. I am not saying any other military would not have done it. But most military planners in the world would have been less subtle.
The Media handling by the Sri Lankan state would in fact make for a fascinating study. Having realized that the LTTE in the past had made very good use of its access to international media in projecting its image as an outfit fighting for a separate homeland for Tamils, Sri Lanka decided to cut off the oxygen supply of media support to the LTTE cause and instead deluged journalists with timely information and restricted access.
The local media was tamed through twin methods of coercion and chauvinism. Those who refused to fall in line, were coerced, threatened and even killed (14 journalists lost their lives in Sri Lanka in the last four years) and all others were won over by a simple appeal: it is as much your war as ours, so please cooperate. Simultaneously, pro-LTTE blogs and websites like were made inaccessible inside Sri Lanka.
The result: a completely lop-sided coverage of Eelam War IV.
As a student of media, the Sri Lankan strategy has fascinated me. They have refined the lessons and practices adopted by the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan and evolved their own model that shuts out every other contrary view. But war is a dirty business and nations adopt tactics that suit them.
As a journalist, I was not happy being part of a one-sided coverage, but to be fair to the Sri Lankan state,  winning the information war was as essential as gaining a military victory. That a section of the Western, bleeding heart liberal, media is now targeting the Sri Lankan state for what it calls war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army, is in a way, a left-handed compliment to its strategy of creating a bubble around the war zone in which no one could enter without the permission of the Sri Lankan military.
So is embedded journalism or traveling with the military good or bad for journalists?
Many news media experts believe that embedded journalism provides a more accurate story of a war when compared to the traditional approach of news gathering via military briefings prepared for the press.  
In contrast with this perspective, however, many other broadcast media specialists believe that embedded journalists who travel with military units become too emotionally bonded to the troops after long periods of time and will therefore lose objectivity in their news reporting.  
I personally have a mixed feeling on this one.
However, reporting on conflicts should be just one part of covering national security issues. Media houses either have to hire specialists to report on highly technical and sensitive subjects like missile and nuclear programmes to make the complexities easy to understand for the average viewer or reader. Or at least allow those involved in reporting on those issues—even reporting on the art of war is complex—time off to master the subjects. Unfortunately there is neither inclination nor resources to implement such a wish. Instead, little knowledge is sought to be passed off as great expertise because the tendency in the media today is to be a participant in the process rather than be a detached observer and chronicler.
When the military criticizes the media for lack of interest and knowledge, it forgets that the media does not have the luxury of undergoing periodic upgrades and courses—YOs, Senior Command, Higher Command, NDC Course to cite just a few examples—as the military men do.
The 21st century is marked by an abundance of information. In previous years, dominance was achieved through rationing information, exercising information control, censorship and propaganda. Such methods are not practical or prudent in the contemporary world. There is a constant increase in the number of sources of information which cannot be muzzled and have to be managed. The security forces therefore will have to focus on balancing openness with security to exploit the power of the media, both tactically and strategically. Media strategy can longer be the job of the public relations officer alone, but must be seen as a command function. Security Forces will have to think of ways to function outside the vertical silos if the media war is to be won.
While the media certainly needs to train and equip itself to discern, detect and dissect national security issues, the government, the armed forces and even academics who deal in issues of national security, have to understand the way media functions. There is a crying need to have more interaction between these players without the pressure of deadlines. So far, the tendency is to keep away from each other. That does not help either side. Unless national security becomes the concern of the nation and not just a handful few, we will continue to have a problem of wrong projections.
And as I have said in the past, the traditional media has been a friend and supporter of national aims and national security.
I am not so sure about the new elephant in the tent: the Social media. It is wild, it is irreverent, it has its own set of rules and it does not bother about big names and bigger reputations.
As National Security Adviser  Shiv Shankar Menon, recently said at a cyber security conference: “Cyberspace is today the fifth domain of human activity, in addition to land, sea, air and outer space. Our dependence upon cyberspace for social, economic, governance, and security functions has also grown exponentially. Unfettered access to information through a global inter-connected Internet empowers individuals and governments, and it poses new challenges to the privacy of individuals and to the capability of Governments and administrators of cyberspace tasked to prevent its misuse.
“The govt’s job is complicated by the unique characteristics of cyberspace. It is borderless in nature, both geographically and functionally; anonymity and the difficulty of attribution; the fact that for the present the advantage is with offense rather than defence; and, the relatively anarchic nature of this domain.”
Media practitioners—both traditional and those in the fifth domain—will necessarily continue to focus on national security as they view it. It is up to decision-makers and national security mandarins to exploit their presence, reach and influence to suit to their own aims and objectives. Therein lies the trick.

In the end I want to leave you with a thought: More interaction, not less between the media and keepers of national security is the way forward. Familiarity in this case will breed more knowledge not contempt.