Don’t shoot the PR messenger in this war of propaganda

Let Jamie Shea be a warning to all you aspiring spokespersons in this media-manic age. No messenger could have embarked on a military campaign with a more enviable reputation. NATO’s cockney-accented whiz kid may not have gone down a bomb with snooty army wives but he was the bees knees with classless journalists. Open, helpful, authoritative and with the patience of Job ... the tributes positively flowed across the pages.

Let Jamie Shea be a warning to all you aspiring spokespersons in

this media-manic age. No messenger could have embarked on a military

campaign with a more enviable reputation. NATO’s cockney-accented whiz

kid may not have gone down a bomb with snooty army wives but he was the

bees knees with classless journalists. Open, helpful, authoritative and

with the patience of Job ... the tributes positively flowed across the

pages.



And then came the fog of war. NATO planes blew up a refugee convoy in

the first of a series of errors which have even wrecked homes in

friendly Bulgaria across the border. NATO, but not necessarily Mr Shea,

made a mess of explaining that original first mistake, even playing a

pilot’s commentary on an action which turned out to have nothing to do

with the refugee tragedy. All this earned Mr Shea a visit from Alastair

Campbell, Mr Blair’s enforcer. And, then we discovered that Mr Shea was

sometimes out of the informational loop, grossly over-burdened and

under-resourced.



So he’s been reinforced from member state capitals and no doubt Mr

Campbell has informed NATO’s top brass that modern wars are won these

days over the airwaves and in print.



It is, of course, a load of baloney. In war, a spokesman’s prime concern

is, or should be, the safety of his forces and the successful

prosecution of hostilities. Nothing, but nothing, must be allowed to get

in the way of either. The spokesman has to find a way of living with the

media within those constraints. His life will be easier if he knows what

is going on, has the confidence of the military who have been taught to

understand the need for quick accurate information and that you should

never knowingly mislead, and no rival briefers.



As one who knows a bit about all this after the Falklands, all my

sympathies are with Mr Shea, especially as the media’s self-importance

and governments’ media hysteria have grown exponentially over the past

17 years. Repeatedly since the Balkan bombing began, I have tried over

the airwaves to ridicule journalists’ pompous concern over whether they

are being manipulated by propaganda. Of course they are being

manipulated by propaganda. But whereas my main problem was Ministry of

Defence propaganda, Mr Shea has 19 ministries of defence, 19 foreign

offices and 19 heads of states or prime ministers’ press offices all

propagandising.



Why? Because nowadays everybody wants the glory of war without the

bodies - or at least the bodies of their nationals. Poor old Mr Shea has

to cope with too many political masters who would prefer to let Mr

Milosevic get on with his ethnic cleansing. And that’s before he starts

trying to cope with national and inter-service military rivalries. War

is an incredibly messy business for spokesmen, as Mr Shea will confirm.



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