Media: the Force-Multiplier
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Issue Vol 16.1 Jan-Mar2001 | Date : 03 Nov , 2010

Media can mar or make the war efforts. Enhance or rubbish the image within minutes if the communication skills remain poor. There was a time when whatever little the military public relations doled out was considered sacred. Not any more.

With the arrival of the private channels and the Internet, news travels in picture form accompanied by text in real time, internationally. In a free society transparency is vital to keep it emancipated. Yet there is an equal compulsion to maintain the essential element of military secrecy.

Media can mar or make the war efforts. Enhance or rubbish the image within minutes if the communication skills remain poor.

Democracy is the softest system of governance (with the highest cost benefit ratio accruing to the individual), which can easily be twisted, balkanised or encircled by the adversary in this region, unless it is backed by substantial military power.

Equally vital is the role of the media to keep the arrangement free and fair. Unlike totalitarian regimes where the ruler considers in its citizenry ignorance as bliss, in a successful democracy right to know is an inbuilt pillar of strength. However, as militaries universally run on tight regimented hierarchies to ensure operational precision, they naturally contain a fair share of elements prevalent in any autocracy. Media on the other hand is devoid of any such inhibitions an essential pre-requisite in a democracy. Both offer protection — military against the antagonistic forces to the nation and the media against oppressive or faulty governance.

Further, media is a prime strategic vehicle to launch information and psychological warfare that will subtly push for democratic norms in our neighborhood without interfering in internal affairs of others. Indian Defence Forces (IDF) by their job definition (and like any other military in a democracy) is evolutionary in approach. However, media to sustain democratic polity is revolutionary — vital to accelerate the pace of change in the society. While they both are essential to the success of a free society, contradictions in professional requirements tend to, at times, post each other as an adversary.

This clash came to the fore in Kargil. Army and the media witnessed synergy as well as conflict of interest. On discovering intrusions, media mercilessly questioned the intelligence failure. At the outbreak of hostilities the same media walked an extra mile to build up national sentiments. On termination it raised prickly issues of command failure. The top brass became extremely sensitive to criticism. It de-linked incoming and outgoing telephone calls subsequently from civil exchanges to cut the negative information flow. Media continued to access information from military personnel on leave, their families and former soldiers — thereby, defeating this shortsighted measure.

“¦ enormous benefits can accrue to the military (thereby the nation) if they learn to use media as a force multiplier.

Instead of being rankled, it is time, generals, admirals and marshals meticulously examine the shortfall in the legitimate flow of information due to an ancient mindset bedeviling their public relations offices. At best of times the military public relations offices are in tatters — from paucity of funds, poor accessibility, to lack of real time information. The simple truth is that with extraordinary technology and means of communications available to media, it will ferret out information anyway. Frontline reporting will be mostly by twenty something reporter. Neither is he bound by the traditional parameters of restrain exhibited by elder journalist of the yore nor can he afford to miss the deadlines. With enormous pressures, his attention span will be short.

Therefore if one cannot quickly and credibly put across his/her viewpoint, one ends up losing half the battle even before it begins. Impacting on this is another factor. Just the way military today competes for manpower in the open market; similarly different channels, news agencies and newspapers/magazines vie with each other for news in a free society! Sensationalism? Maybe. Enhancing viewership/readership? Definitely. Enticing sound byte or a headline? Positively. Hence, as the story breaks out, the military must learn to act decisively and with dispatch to correct the tilt, if any.

Tactical appreciation of the expose produces the following picture. First New Delhi recoiled and refused to battle it out for the first twenty-four hours. Result: Public perceptions were allowed to go into a tailspin. These withdrawal symptoms are reminiscent of 1857 Mutiny. Despite a superior ratio of 3:1, Indians lost as they continued to fight from fixed positions. Fort mentality haunts us even today. As in Kandahar or Kargil. Similarly, in the Red Fort shoot out, Army headquarters was placed out of bounds for the legitimate visitors.

By imposing restrictions like these, a nation state is emitting signals of weakness by admitting that it is unable to conduct normal transactions. This exactly is what the enemy is trying to enforce from Kashmir to the Red Fort. Let’s not get into the famous Indian defensive-defence (a no good posture) that continuously added layers of woes to the Republic. The tehelka expose once again demonstrated the fallacy of fighting from fixed positions by withdrawing inside the deemed superficial security of a fort. Second. When the elders finally did manage to respond, they were unfocussed.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Bharat Verma

A former Cavalry Officer and former Editor, Indian Defence Review (IDR), and author of the books, India Under Fire: Essays on National Security, Fault Lines and Indian Armed Forces.

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