In what it calls ‘a ground-breaking departure for newspapers’, the Sunday Telegraph has ’embedded’ a video camera with a front-line infantry regiment about to deploy on a 6-month tour to Helmand in Afghanistan.
Readers will be given a soldier’s eye view of life in Helmand, where 8,000 British troops are locked in an increasingly bitter conflict against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.
The Sunday Telegraph will receive regular video dispatches from Corporal Billy Carnegie, a section commander with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the 5th battalion of The Scottish Regiment (5 Scots), which will appear on the Telegraph website on a regular basis.
Cpl Carnegie’s soldiers will video his unit taking part in foot patrols and combat operations against the Taliban, as well as helping with reconstruction and winning the hearts and minds of the local population.
His dispatches will record how soldiers fight and survive in the austere environment of the Helmand Desert, where temperatures soar to 50 C in the Summer.
Although ‘ground-breaking’ for UK newspapers, this type of project is not in itself new. Most notably, Deborah Scranton used the technique of providing active-duty soldiers with the means to record their own experiences for her prize-winning 2004 documentary The War Tapes, and also for her current PBS Frontline documentary Bad Voodoo’s War (available to view online here), both of which follow US troops in Iraq.
The Sunday Telegraph’s offering is unlikely (or even intended) to match the production values of the Scranton features, but should prove an interesting experiment, if only to see how much licence they are granted by the MoD. While text-based milblogging is quite common among US forces, it is comparatively rare among UK forces, and early examples have been characterised by run-ins with the authorities, as detailed by Daniel Bennett (BBC / KCL War Studies PhD) in this post and this post on his Reporting War blog.
I’m also interested in how much potential such projects may have as information operations, both domestically and internationally. On the domestic front, General Sir Richard Dannatt expressed concern last year at the “growing gulf between the army and the nation”, adding that “when a young soldier has been fighting in Basra or Helmand he wants to know that the people in their local pub know and understand what he has been doing, and why.” Such video blogs would seem an obvious and accessible means of addressing this issue, and reinforcing popular support for the deployment.
Similarly, on the international front, it might be worthwhile for the MoD to arrange, perhaps in return for access, for media outlets like the Telegraph to make subtitled versions of such products freely available for reproduction by foreign-language media outlets around the world. As bottom-up, independent collaborations between ordinary footsoldiers and journalists, such projects have a credibility with audiences that top-down government / military initiatives would struggle to match, and this should be exploited.
Meanwhile, the first post in the Telegraph series is available to view below. It is simply a pre-deployment introduction to CPL Carnegie and his section, with the Afghan sequences to follow over the coming weeks.
Warning: non-UK natives may struggle with some of the Scottish accents!
NB: If you have any problems viewing the embedded video, try the Sunday Telegraph site here.