Insurgency, the Media and the Propaganda of the Deed

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IRG member Neville Bolt, who is completing a PhD on the Propaganda of the Deed in the War Studies department at King’s, has added the following to the debate regarding the role played by the media in facilitating insurgent exploitation of the POTD strategy, and the difficult question of how best to respond.

NB: To read John Mackinlay’s original post, criticising the role played by the media in accentuating the propaganda effect of insurgent operations such as the recent Taliban attack on Karzai and the Parade in Kabul, click here. To read the perspective of BBC editor Nick Walton, who edited the World Service’s coverage of the Taliban attack for the Newshour programme, click here.

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Lest we forget Alastair Campbell’s TV studio-offensive that led to the culling of BBC bosses over Iraq, I would make a plea on behalf of the media which walks a permanent tightrope between critical independence and government pressure. John Mackinlay’s article highlights the dilemma for all journalists and news organisations covering Afghanistan and other conflict spots. True, many reports could apply the kind of techniques John mentions, namely the BBC’s intros to Zimbabwe stories reminding viewers of the Corporation’s prohibition from working inside the country, or its exercising a sensitivity to safeguarding the interests of minors or rape victims. Perhaps that could be a useful contextual device to begin to explain what is happening in Afghanistan. But in the end I’m not sure what the public makes of riders saying the BBC is banned from Zimbabwe. In fact it all too often appears that the organisation is cynically attempting to promote the derring-do of its intrepid staff when they do go in. I suspect these riders wear a bit thin or actually go unnoticed by most viewers after a while. To add a studio interview on the back of each report is not realistic for reasons of time. Anyway I sense this might eventually bore the audience (remember news is both information and entertainment) or come across as some kind of propaganda, whose strings are being pulled by unseen hands.

I fully endorse John’s analysis that propaganda occupies the central role in Taliban military strategy, and more generally that postmodern insurgency asserts the primacy of POTD. However, we should not always presume journalistic myopia or misunderstanding, or indeed that every reporter or analyst should share our view. I haven’t spoken to Peter Taylor specifically about the absence of the POTD angle from his BBC2 ‘Age of Terror’ series. However he has offered to come in and address the Insurgency Research Group later this year. We should explore this line with him then.

Equally we need to remind ourselves that the media, even the British media, does not act homogeneously, that television, radio, press, and net do report according to different worldviews, and indeed from divergent political and corporate agendas. Within each of these strands of journalism, and in the larger press or broadcasting groups, there remains a reasonable diversity of opinion. And that’s healthy. Journalists may appear ‘feral’, they may hunt in packs, but that doesn’t mean the wolves see eye to eye. Although BBC News did not carry the Kabul story as POTD, the Economist (3/5/08), by contrast did. Their correspondent describes it as a Taliban ‘propaganda victory’, noting that such ‘spectaculars’ without requiring much logistical input, mould public opinion.

The Western counter-narrative has to live with a permanent dilemma. The Taliban and other insurgents will continue to piggy-back on Western (and non-Western) media outlets. Indeed they will do their best to control them, shaping campaigns within a strategy of ‘political marketing’, completely cognisant of the demands of what makes a ‘good story’. Why are we so surprised? After all, our own political parties and lobby groups do that to each other every hour of every day. However censoring footage from a Taliban ‘spectacular’, crosses the line in the sand. Moreover persuading news editors to remove the violent spectacle from a news compilation (one ingredient of a ‘good story’), and merely replacing it with talking heads recounting what they witnessed, offers a new take on the myth of Sysyphus. Media outlets already exercise discretion, periodically self-censorship. But even if these images were to be self-censored and removed from our screens, we know they will get out somehow from bystanders, non-Western news networks, NATO troops or Taliban propagandists. Consequently the damage to journalistic credibility, built on fair and truthful reporting, with Western domestic and foreign audiences and readerships, risks being even more far-reaching. It’s a dilemma.

What strikes and unsettles many non-Brits about UK media reporting of Zimbabwe, for example, is its unrelenting, hostile coverage of the Mugabe regime – albeit this reporting appears valid and justified to most who have visited that country. But interestingly this is not mirrored by most international broadcast networks. It just so happens that the British media’s approach to Zimbabwe coincides with UK Government policy towards Mugabe. Through their owners’ corporate agendas, public funding rounds or state licensing regulations, our media organisations already stand too close for comfort to government. I suspect John is not suggesting independent media now begin to promote government policies. That would be a dangerous road to go down. What I believe John is really looking for is not a rider, disclaimer or scene-setter on each report, but a fundamental process of re-education, a new way of interpreting and communicating events, so that all outrages and attacks are presented through this permanent prism of POTD. So it is in the conception of the story. That means the reporter at source should interpret events through a lens other than one of political economy, or military gains and setbacks. So perhaps what is needed is for groups like IRG to engage more with the journalistic community, and edge towards this elusive prism through a continuous process of argument and persuasion. The real work needs to be done off-air, not just on.

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Read More:

John Mackinlay:
The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

Nick Walton:
The Propaganda of the Deed: A Perspective from the Media

MountainRunner:
Afghanistan: Americans have the wristwatches, but who has the time?

[My] State Failure:
About an indirect approach to information operations

Registan:
Did the Taliban Master 19th Century Anarchist Theories While We Slept?

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