The poignant D-Day remembrance ceremonies have as ever been turned into a media circus. The BBC has trotted out the same tired old formulae they use at such events synonymous with Royal Weddings, Trooping of the Colour and so on. Obama even sought to justify the war in Afghanistan by having the sheer cheek to compare it with our war for national survival 70 years ago.
The media were delighted when 89-year-old Royal Navy veteran Bernard Jordan refused to obey the diktat of his care home Fuhrer and went AWOL to be with his shipmates at Ouistreham. This gave them that splash of personality to leaven the solemnity and get it back to being entertainment. Mr Jordan even made it across the Atlantic where D-Day was a purely American affair – into The Washington Post and USA Today, along with every World War Two cliche you could think of.
We’d earlier just survived a month of the media predicting, and even at times seeming to be demanding, World War Three in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea.
War reporting is the ultimate “selfie” of journalism – best practised by television reporters at the scenes of actual mayhem and violence. We’ve had the usual disproportionate amount of D-Day stories about WW2 journalists.
They particularly love being “imbedded” with fighting units – which tolerate their presence by knowing that self-preservation will ensure favourable reporting. Afterwards journalist write books, which are commissioned and sell – because their names are known. They then give talks at literary festivals about how difficult it is to report from war zones.
The much-proclaimed bravery of journalists in the name of truth isn’t quite as it seems. They are protected by very serious people like a mate of mine from my old 148 Commando Forward Observation unit, and can – and usually do, get the hell out when things really do kick off. Some ignore military and police advice (the authorities always lie) and get captured or killed; at which truly brave people have to go and rescue them – or bring back the body. This is usually glossed over by their outlets, in making further headlines from their eulogies.
As Defence Correspondent of The Sunday Times, I never went to Kosovo or Bosnia – which kicked off and rumbled along throughout my five years at that particular coal face. We had special people who went out to report it all from “the front”. I’m extremely glad, as that job would have required me making even more of an ass of myself than usual by going to places that were simply stupid to go near, plus pretend not to understand just about everything that was going on.
It may be that front line journalists are that ignorant – although I have to say that the ST‘s Jon Swain is not, even though I had to get him rescued by British troops in East Timor when he got caught somewhere ill-advised. The news desk told me he had problems, and I spoke to him on his mobile from the hut in which he was hiding. I then phoned my friend David Richards – now Baron Richards – our recently retired Chief Of Defence Staff, who then was commanding the East Timor operation.
David laughed to hear The Sunday Times needed his help. I told him he should extract a very serious IOU from both the news desk and from Jon, after which he told me he’d ring Jon’s mobile. I don’t know what he got them to promise, or whether he collected on that, but Mr Swain was rescued… (David probably just ordered the rescue mission, but I’d like to think there was a bargain. He was always rather good with the media.)
Journalists are not like soldiers. They don’t have to be there, can leave whenever they like, and are there for their own personal benefit – and with some, for other more complicated, ego-oriented reasons. They seek out the grim, sensational and brutal with all the prurience and enthusiasm of a school boy; and like the school boy, they think they’re somehow allowed to go anywhere or do anything because they’re not really there like other people are there. They think they’ve got a valuable job to do – like doctors; and the right to know and photograph everything.
But worst of all, they revel in war, which they see as the ultimate human drama; the tragedy to end all tragedies that will sell the most copies or earn the most clicks. This enthusiasm may well play a part in the starting of wars. The fatal miscalculation of George W Bush’s post-911 “Axis of Evil” invasion of Afghanistan, just three weeks after 911, was in response to media frenzy for revenge and retribution – and Presidential action.
The media say they only reflect public feelings, but so as to get a jump on their rivals, they have to anticipate these feelings. Thus they dictate them, in the process forcing politicians to overreact, so as not to seem weak in times of crisis.
There are however very few crises in which politicians really need to order immediate violent action. A year of reflection and investigation post-911 would have come to very different conclusions. The Middle East today would be very different – and more peaceful – had Bush not invaded.
And of course, once troops are in action, the media feel free to report everything they do – or are planning to do. They also stimulate debates over whether the war is ‘just’, and highlight with relish any misdemeanors by their own nation’s troops. It’s all fair game – in fact it’s the best game in town.
And that’s the really big problem. For soldiers, war is not a game.
Trying to have this rather obvious point recognised was why I wrote The Scars of War , in which all the complicated and brutal reality of modern warfare is revealed. The media lost the Vietnam War when militarily it was won, so my book has quite a lot about its influence.