Military & Media: Can they work together?

What do Indian military officers think of Indian media? What is the quality and level of interaction between the two? Is there a scope for improvement? These are some of the questions India’s College of Air Warfare (CAW) wanted me to attempt and answer in an article it wanted me to write for the CAW Journal which is now published. This is the piece I penned. 

Traditionally, armed forces the world over have had a love-hate relationship with the media. Be it American General Robert Lee or British Field Marshal Joseph Garnet Wolsley in the 19th century or the Gen Collin Powell in the 20th, most military leaders have had some thing sarcastic or negative to say about the media.
Robert Lee in 1866 : “It appears we have appointed our worst generals to command our forces, and our most gifted and brilliant to edit newspapers! In fact, I discovered by reading newspapers that these editor-geniuses plainly saw all my strategic defects from the start, yet failed to inform me until it was too late. Accordingly, I’m readily willing to yield my command to these obviously superior intellects and I’ll, in turn, do my best for the cause by writing editorials—after the fact.”

Talking about William Howard Russel–London Times’ Correspondent during the Battle of Crimea–and other journalists, Field Marshal Wolsley (who was a Captain during that war) remarked contemptuously in 1870s: ” Those newly invented curse to armies who eat all the rations of the fighting man and do no work at all.”

A century later, in the 1980s however Collin Powell took a more pragmatic view. He remarked: ” Once you have all the forces moving and events have been taken care of by the commanders –turn your attention to television because you can win or lose the war if you do not handle the story right.”
A random survey among Indian armed forces during my extensive interaction with them at various levels–Staff College, Higher Command and NDC courses and various seminars–tells me that the officers have a low opinion about the Indian media at large. Most regard media as self-centered, sensationalist, prone to exaggeration, ignorant and most importantly egoistic.
The anger and contempt against media in the armed forces is understandable. As respected journalist Arun Shourie has written some years ago: “Professionalism is grossly lacking. There are hardly any experts. The media likes to discuss persons rather than issues. Short memory of the reader is being exploited to the best by the media. Systematic reorientation of the media is taking place with focus on consumerism and immunisation of the reader.”
And yet, like increasing cases of corruption and nepotism in the Indian armed forces do not mean the entire military is corrupt, sections of the media being irresponsible and even ‘anti-military,’ does not mean the entire media fraternity is equally guilty! 

The fact is: Media and military come from two different backgrounds, they have diametrically opposite cultures and are trained differently. While the military demands total obedience from its personnel, media practitioners have an  in-built rebellious DNA; the military functions on a need-to-know basis, the media is hungry for and goes after every scarp of information possible; the military functions under a strict hierarchy, the media has a fairly flat structure. Finally military is orderly, media is totally chaotic!

So can the twain meet?

Within the given constraints, yes. But it needs a paradigm shift in thinking and application of available resources within the armed forces. For a more effective media engagement (and not media management) policy the armed forces need to:

  • Change their attitude towards the media. This could be done by first espousing a doctrine and thereafter the issuance of a media policy by the Central Government for implementation by the military. The political and military leadership has to realise that creating a favourable public opinion is no longer just a support function; it is a weapon.
  • Change their mindsets among senior commanders on the media. This can only emanate from the highest ranks in the military’s leadership. If the higher leadership does not change, all actions at lower levels will be peripheral. 
  • Provide audio visual imagery both in operations and other fields of activity periodically to the media in a timely manner
  • Deploy a number of official bloggers and provide retired military officers with talking points that can be used to deliver information directly to the national as well as international public. Veterans could also be recruited to serve as an instant reaction force to rebut any new coverage that is critical of the armed forces
  • Accept the fact that they will be hit by negative publicity. The anti-dote to such effects is not a shunning of the media but embracing it and getting own viewpoints across to the target audience
  • Find and retain talent that can be used for shaping the information environment. The sort of talent needed is presently flowing towards high-tech internet companies, media houses, advertising and entertainment. How professionals can be hired for specific tasks should be looked into and procedures formulated for appropriate remuneration. 
  • Create databases encompassing as many magazines, newspapers, radio and TV networks as practical. Here, the regional language media must be a priority for the military. Data bases should include the profiles of the audiences who read or hear or view the outlets as also a description of the topics that are covered. In addition, the data base so created must provide the names, beat areas and contact information for all of the reporters, editors and correspondents.
  • The media must also invest time, energy and personnel to get trained in military matters. It must assign personnel specifically to military and allow them time to understand and absorb military ethos and culture to reduce ignorance about the military.
    1. June 7, 2013 -

      Dear Sir,I liked the piece. Just want to ask three questions..1. Is it possible to institutionalize some arrangement where National Media's responsible players will send their journalists for regular interaction with armed forces? 2. Is it possible for Military to have orientation programmes-not just for journos but also for bureacracy (something like NDC courses)? Where stakeholders including politicians can come and discuss freely. 3. Do you see any role for Indian National Defence University in bridging the gap between armed forces and civilian expertise (researchers, scientists, journalists)? Sankalp Gurjar. Mob-88266