The media space as a theatre of strategic communications over Afghanistan has been losing its efficacy. Sending the right message from Afghanistan – one which will be heard by an increasingly one-dimensional media – has become a daunting task.
In the UK, the tabloids note with mounting anger the continuing loss of British soldier’s lives, while sizable chunks of the commentariat see little reason for remaining. The voices that argue for continued deployment are getting quieter, as the language used to argue the case – borrowed from the lexicon of the fast-unravelling ’War on Terror’ – wears ever thinner.
All this is compounded by the experience of a politically violent election period in Afghanistan, widely seen as flawed and which in any case returned a corrupt government that the people of Afghanistan have little obvious reason to support. The recent NATO air strike in Kunduz that killed around 70 only entrenches Afghan opinion.
An interesting phenomenon has sprung up in the British tabloids both in reaction to the growing dissatisfaction with deployment, and in reaction to the vacuum created by a message badly expressed or late in arrival. The result has been that the space in which reasoned debate on the subject of British deployment in Afghanistan in the public conception should take place has narrowed so such an extent that the mountain for the message-senders to climb seems almost insurmountable.
A quick evaluation of the Afghanistan campaign in the British tabloids is instructive. Currently, all headlines at the moment are about running out of time, withdrawal and impending ’defeat’.
Looking more closely, a narrow focus purely on British troops and their welfare dominates the narrative, almost to the exclusion of anything else. If a soldier has been killed, the Daily Mirror prints a photo of that soldier and his regiment’s insignia (or a bravery medal) in its editorial column, taking the place of editorial comment.
The Sun – and other tabloids – routinely substitutes the term ’hero’ for soldier to describe something personnel-related, irrespective of context, while the website of the Sun, for example, has a relatively newly-created sub-section titled “Forces” (in the same way that “Celebrities” and “Sport” have their own sections) under which stories related to Afghanistan are organised. Stories are about soldiers’ deaths, insufficient kit and the poor conditions in which returning troops find themselves living once back in the UK. Similarly, a gala-style award ceremony called ’The Millies’ – more officially titled ’The Sun Military Awards’ – now takes place, while The Sun is also a ’key supporter’ of the Help For Heroes campaign, a charity started in October 2007 to provide support for returning soldiers.
As these cultural phenomena dominate the narrative as it is digested in Britain, there is very limited space for expressing the benefit – to NATO countries or Afghanistan – of the deployment – a concept which has long since been forced to the margins of the media narrative.
Unsurprisingly, the broadsheets tackle the bigger picture better, but it is necessary to pay particular attention to the tabloids: according to August’s ABC circulation figures, both the Daily Mail and the Sun on their own exceed the combined circulation figures of the broadsheets, while the figures for the tabloids combined are over four times those of the broadsheets combined. The tabloids reach a lot of people.
However, it is not right to suggest that the increasingly narrow focus on British troops has been a unilateral move instigated by the media. It is more accurate to see this – at least in part – as a reaction to a vacuum (commonly filled with assumption and speculation for want of anything better) in the media space which was not being fed with stories the media considers publishable. The media can be pretty reactive, and do respond to the right prodding.
Afghanistan’s first national park, Band-e-Amir, was declared earlier this year in April. Given the current state of the media narrative on Afghanistan, how is this fact – positive, different – going to force its way into the narrative, if only for a fleeting moment? Duly, this fact passed under the media radar, but as this photo gallery on the Guardian website shows, the beauty of the park itself is a remarkable – and eminently publishable – thing. Were the media sufficiently alerted to it?
At the level of theoretical discourse, things have reached a point at which the way back is very difficult. Who would argue (effectively) that soldiers should not be called heroes, or that they are not ’Our Boys’? Slogans such as ’Support Our Troops’ are virtually unopposable, which is also why the media profile of the British forces has become almost sacrosanct.
The problem for the strat comm professionals is that this kind of discourse forecloses the necessary option of encouraging public thinking about the issues behind the stories. As an entity, the media deals with consequences so much better than causes – you can photograph the former much more spectacularly than the latter, yet broad-based support among the British and Afghan constituencies require convincing of the causes for deployment, while the consequences should be seen as symptomatic.
Given these difficulties, it has been interesting to note the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal’s recent media flurry. His pronouncements, in the form of a ’leaked’ report (available here), on the subject of Afghanistan are welcome. There is no use in pretending that things are not at a critical stage, so his message of ’escalate or evacuate’ is at least a clear signal of intent, something which has been lacking in recent times.
It is also interesting to note how McChrystal’s prognosis on the next year of deployment made its way into the public domain – via the Washington Post’s veteran journalist Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), which tells us that the story is being taken seriously and that the media will listen.
The commander of NATO forces warning of ’mission failure’ and ’defeating ourselves’ is something that will gain attention, but McCrystal’s emphasis on the operating culture of the NATO forces and protecting Afghans is also welcome. The General continues:
“Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”
The process, which is expected to last for at least four days, is taking place in the presence of several independent observers and representatives and agents of candidates.
Photo: Jamil Danish (UNAMA).
Although this represents an improvement in clarity and honesty of communications, many commentators, wary of the emptiness of what they call “buzz phrases”, have nonetheless pointed out that this is now eight years into the mission, and isn’t it a bit late to be releasing a report which includes the subheading “Getting the basics right”?
Faced with vociferous sceptics both in the US and Britain, calling for the slate to be wiped clean is a big ask of an increasingly protective public who feel its political leaders are not doing their duty in protecting their armed forces on a poorly-reasoned (or explained) deployment. The lionising of the Armed Forces in the tabloid media has been a consequence of this, but one which serves to narrow further the media space in which reason can be debated and expressed.
Guy Gabriel is a Journalist and advisor to Arab Media Watch