News analysis: Media relations in the Afghan desert

A senior Ministry of Defence media adviser details a typical day in Afghanistan, as the world's media mingle with soldiers for a close-up view of the war

'I want a job where I get to travel to interesting places and do unusual things,' I said in my interview for a press office job at the Ministry of Defence.

I meant it, too. Which is lucky, because otherwise the insistent bleeping of my phone alarm - telling me it is 4.30am in the Afghan desert and time to take my small part in a major operation against the Taliban - would probably grate.

I work on the armed forces desk in the MoD's main press office in Whitehall, mostly dealing with operations around the world. A lot of the time my day looks a bit like that of any other comms professional - commute, office, phone, email, meetings, coffee, home.

The news element of the national press is challenging, and the political nature of the way our business is reported makes it that much harder, but I suspect most comms people would recognise a lot of what I do.

The big distinction is that I explain to the public, in real time, complex and often controversial government policy, which could lead to people getting killed. Which is probably how I got here, in Helmand Province, the oft-described ‘lawless heart of the Afghan poppy trade'.

Desert link-up
It is early August. I'm here to set up a 24-hour comms unit to service the needs of the increasing number of journalists coming to Helmand, and to deal directly with many of the correspondents back in the UK. In simple terms, I need to physically source and set up the press office here, get it equipped, staffed and then - and this is the tough bit - link it to the MoD in London, the commanders here, and NATO in Kabul and Brussels (as well as Number 10, the Foreign Office and other government departments).

After that, my only worries are the odd bit of incoming fire and the media.Not necessarily in that order though.

By 5am I am sitting in the giant brown bubble that serves as the operational nerve centre for Operation ‘Qurabani' (meaning sacrifice in Dari). The operation aims to help the Afghan army drive a stake into the heart of a Taliban-led, opium-financed criminal insurgency in the deserts of Helmand.

There is a new urgency in the voice of Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of the British Forces. He knows that tomorrow, NATO officially takes over peace support operations here. He also knows that a message of reconstruction is deeply difficult to explain to a cynical UK media while British troops are involved in continued high-tempo combat operations. Part of my job as media adviser here is to offer wisdom to Butler on all aspects of media relations and comms.

But the media wish-list is not just coming from London. There are 36 nations represented here, three military services, Operation Enduring Freedom (the US anti-terror operation), and NATO. They are all aware of the importance of what we are doing: trying to help the Afghans expand the influence of their government in order to bring enough stability and prosperity that the country will never again be "open to terrorists", as it was before 9/11. Everybody wants a piece of the publicity machine to explain their part.

The staffing of the press office is almost in place. My military colleagues can brief the media and senior officers, but crucially can also fire a rifle, command convoys, and extract cowering journalists from imminent danger. A recent rocket-propelled grenade attack in Lashkar Gar had our media ops captain on site, coaxing some rather shaken journalists out from underneath a table in the officers' mess.

In 12 hours, journalists land in Kabul for the start of an intense two months of being embedded with British forces. GMTV, national UK press, Sunday tabloids and broadsheets, newswires and broadcasters are all programmed in to visit southern Afghanistan in the next seven weeks. The press office will provide secure transport, protection, media facilities - and stories.

The team are under no illusions that the communications battle - to inform a public jaded by negative reporting of Iraq - is a difficult one.

It is 7.30am local time. Operation Qurabani is well under way. The first contact has been made with the enemy. Casualties are reported. The NATO press office sends a statement through, wanting to make a mark in the media early on. This conflicts with our longstanding commitment to families that they are informed by the regiment, not the media, about the potential loss of loved ones. An understanding is quickly reached with NATO.

Incident details are emerging from sources within the nine nations based alongside us in the camp. Embedded journalists are firing back copy that is influencing the 24-hour media picture minute by minute. We are working furiously but sensitively in the face of those commanding the operation. Alistair Leithead, from the BBC, is 50 yards away doing a ‘live to camera'. We are just managing to keep pace with reporting in order to keep it accurate.

A close shave
At 2pm, a red-faced, blustering Sgt Major comes storming into the ops room. Two female UK newspaper
journalists have come pretty close to getting shot by our guys. They thought it would be a good idea to dress as Afghan men, get into a pick-up with a local driver and discreetly follow one of our convoys.

Of course, the troops quickly established they were being tailed, and the journalists found themselves face down in the Lashkar Gar dirt before they could shout ‘blonde hair'. The press office in London is debriefed on the incident so it can be taken up at the right level with the newspapers.

It is now 5pm. London updates me that the next of kin of this morning's fatalities have been informed. The families have requested 24 hours of further privacy before they have to read about it in the press. Correspondents calling in for updates from London are told to expect a delay. They are understanding.

Ten pm, and the first embedded journalists are being shown their accommodation. A siren goes off indicating the need for everyone to find hard cover. The danger passes, eventually, and the journalists settle down for the night. A quick call to Whitehall confirms stories expected overnight and provides a read-out from Afghan­istan of the day's events for the overnight duty officer.

It has been another long, rewarding day, and I am finally horizontal on something that passes for a mattress. I cannot help thinking that this beats going home on the Tube.

Sagar Sharma is a senior information officer in the Ministry of Defence press office.

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