Whether dealing with the Gulf War, the peace enforcement operation
in Bosnia or the current air-campaign against Serbia, keeping the media
on-side is a vital part of conducting a successful military
In an era of instant satellite communications, the media is able to
report on every move of the combatants. What has to be avoided at all
costs is any repetition of the infamous occasion during the Falklands
war when the BBC signalled the forthcoming attack by the Paras on Goose
Green to the Argentinians, putting the whole operation in jeopardy and
jeopardising the lives of British troops.
But this near disaster was as much the fault of the military at that
time as of the press. The latter were kept very much in the dark in the
early 1980s and fed snippets of information with little guidance on what
was sensitive. Lessons were learned. Now the press are part of the team
- they are trusted and they are briefed on what they can and cannot
NATO has been careful to follow this line in the current crisis over
Kosovo. Clinton has kept Congress and the nation briefed and informed;
General Wesley Clark has reported NATO’s every move to the press; Prime
Minister Blair spoke to the nation; and the energetic and impressive
Secretary of State for Defence George Robertson has hurried between TV
studios and MoD briefings.
The press has been afforded facilities at NATO airbases in Italy; CNN
has reported when NATO aircraft have taken off from Aviano - perhaps not
very helpful, but NATO can probably live with this. The US Airforce
B-52s based at Fairford in the UK even invited a reporter from USA Today
to fly in a B-52 on the first mission to launch cruise missiles against
So has NATO transparency worked? The media have rightly questioned every
aspect of the operation but they have been broadly sympathetic. From the
Sun’s headline ’Clobba Slobba’ and ’Our boys batter Serb butcher in NATO
bomb blitz’ to the Independent’s leader headed ’A deadly gamble but we
are right to strike at Milosevic’, both the electronic media and the
press appear to have been persuaded by NATO’s presentation of the facts.
Polls in the US show that 70 per cent of the population are behind the
Commander-in-Chief and the first straw polls on Sky TV showed about the
same level of support in the UK.
NATO militaries have travelled light years in the past decade in the
evolution of their relationship with the media. PR posts in the Armed
Forces are no longer considered detrimental to a career profile; immense
effort is expended on keeping the media sweet. The military are no
fools: they know the best way of keeping the press on side is to keep
them in the picture.