Can the armed forces, engaged in a real time conflict, also take on the role of journalists reporting the developments themselves while the battle is still being fought? This week, the Israeli Defence Forces have shown, it can do without the media by live blogging and live tweeting an attack on Hamas guerillas in the Gaza strip and uploading video of their rocket blasts to YouTube. (For a detailed analysis on what exactly the IDF did, click here)
This experiment (and thankfully for the media, it still remains an experiment), may trigger a new debate on the likely diminishing role of media in reporting conflicts across the world. With social media gaining ground and providing a ready-made platform hitherto unavailable to the military, armed forces may well be tempted to direct and decide the discourse of a conflict, gradually reducing the role of the media and eventually ending it altogether.
A far-fetched scenario?
May be at the moment such a possibility looks absurd, but in the rapidly changing media landscape, it may not take too long for the military to latch on to this option and keep the media's involvement in a conflict to a bare minimum.
For years, in fact close to two centuries in the modern war history, the media and the military have shared a love-hate relationship, each critical of the other and yet both acutely aware that neither can do without the other. Starting with William Howard Russell of the London Times, who reported the Battle of Crimea to the present day combat journos, reporting from the world's hotspots has been one of the more glamorous and sought-after assignments in the media world.
The military has however variously regarded the media as a "necessary evil", an "intrusive devil" and have even called media practitioners "those newly invented curse to armies who eat all the rations of the fighting man and do no work at all." (Field Marshal Wolsely talking about William Howard Russell!)
Even as far back as in 1863, Gen Robert Lee commented during the American War of Independence: "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."
Then there are others like Gen Andrew Goodpaster, Allied Commander in Europe during World War II who had a more balanced view. He had said: "While there is - or should be - a natural convergence of interests in providing to the public accurate information about our armed forces and what they do, there is at the same time an inherent clash of interests (especially acute when men are fighting and dying) between military leaders responsible for success in battle and for the lives of their commands, and a media intensely competitive in providing readers and viewers with quick and vivid 'news' and opinion."
The fact is: military and media continue to have an uneasy relationship despite so many decades of operating together. Military leaders have often painted a scary picture of the media. For instances, Napoleon had an occasion to say: "Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets."
Or see what Gen Colin Powell, an American military hero and later Secretary of State once told his commanders: "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."
In the Indian context too, the military has largely been wary of the media, the relations between the two often guided by personalities at the top rather than by an institutionalized media engagement policy. Absence of a pro-active approach has meant that the Indian armed forces are often seen to be playing "catch-up" in a crisis situation. While the Americans, singed by their bruising experience in dealing with media in Vietnam, evolved a new media engagement policy, in India, the armed forces are still struggling to come up with a coherent, responsive and in-tune-with-the-times media policy. They are partly hampered by the archaic rules that govern their public conduct. The iron control that the MoD exercises over Service Headquarters also contributes to the flat-footed response that the armed forces come up with in their media handling.
Although of late there have been concerted efforts within the services to train and equip middle- and higher-level officers in media handling, the armed forces need to urgently review their existing policy and come up with a more modern and responsive strategy to harness media's reach and influence. That's the least one should expect at the moment even as countries like Israel continue to break new ground in power and media projection.