MARY ELLEN GREEN

Disarming the Media

At Wainwright, troops are trained to confront an unpredictable force: the people who bring us the news.

By Bob Bergen

In 2006, the Canadian Forces began hiring ethnic Afghan actors to play the role of Afghan residents, living and working in mock-up villages, mosques and markets at the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC), about 208 kilometres southeast of Edmonton. The goal was to give the soldiers expertise in working through interpreters, as well as fighting and providing civil reconstruction assistance in a complex battle space.

But there was another purpose. The soldiers were also honing news media skills in anticipation of the journalists they would have to deal with—and manage—over the course of their Afghan deployment. To that end, the Canadian Forces hired eight journalism students for each of 2006’s four different training serials from April to November. That was the idea of CMTC public affairs officer Captain Tom St. Denis. Before joining the Canadian Forces in 1990, St. Denis had served in Vietnam as a Royal Australian Engineer and worked in Zimbabwe, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka as a print and magazine journalist.

The CMTC commanders wanted to use reservists to play the role of journalists, but St. Denis was adamant that wouldn’t be realistic: “I was a journalist, and [journalists] have a different mindset. The questions they ask, a soldier wouldn’t.” For example, he explained, a commander might say that during an operation against a cave complex his soldiers used “a controlled application of force.” A civilian journalist would simply ask, “You attacked it?”

St. Denis’s argument won the day. His first act was to establish a “media cell” that includes a closed-circuit television production facility. The second was to hire Brian Koshul—a former newspaper editor, broadcast journalist and Canadian Forces public affairs officer—to run it. The third was to approach a number of journalism schools for students. Most of the students came from Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton and Mount Royal College in Calgary. St. Denis was able to offer each student a $100-a-day honorarium as well as accommodation, meals and transportation to and from CFB Wainwright.

The news media cell consisted of four components, each involving two students. The first was a television production facility called the Canadian News Centre (CNC), where field reports were consolidated into daily newscasts. The second two-student team formed the International news network (Inn)—the mock-equivalent of CNN. They were not embedded and often showed up in theatre unannounced. The third team was Local Network Television (LNT), representing Afghan journalists committed to the presentation of dissenting views, including statements from the Taliban.

The fourth component was a team embedded with soldiers for three or four days at a time. They lived and travelled in the field 24 hours a day, slept in sleeping bags and ate hard field rations. They also signed the embedding agreement that working journalists must sign before travelling with the Canadian Forces. It sets out nine benign categories of information which can be reported—such as the weather, or officially announced arrivals of units in operations areas—and 20 which can’t, including future operations and intelligence- gathering activities. An all-encompassing 20th category expands the reporting ban to anything else commanders think appropriate.

Every morning at 7 a.m., St. Denis met with Koshul to discuss the day’s scenarios, such as a suicide bombing or the search of a village for someone making explosive devices. Koshul then met with his news teams at 8 a.m. “Captain St. Denis gives us tips, not the whole story,” Koshul explained. “If I want the students to be at a specific village, I tell them to interview the mullah or mayor, and about a half an hour after they get there they may end up in a mortar barrage. I try to avoid giving them the actual story; they have to react to it. They’re expected to produce one story, but they get brownie points if they come back with two or three.”

The students often worked until 11 p.m. putting together newscasts, then started again at 8 a.m. the next day, seven days a week, rotating teams and assignments for 14 days straight. Each morning, St. Denis delivered a DVD of the previous night’s broadcast to exercise commanders, while the news reports were broadcast on closed-circuit television in the soldiers’ messes.

“They had Afghan actors who populated the villages, and special effects. There was a suicide bus bombing where a car came by and there were two suicide bombers in it and we showed up. The car exploded on impact.”

Koshul and St. Denis were frank about the primary purpose of the media cell: training soldiers to become comfortable working with and managing the news media. If the students learned something along the way about the military or about journalism, that was gravy. For example, public affairs officers pushed the students to be aggressive and to demand explanations when soldiers restricted their movements—most journalists the soldiers would meet overseas would be anything but passive.

Gavin Mealing, a second-year student in Grant MacEwan College’s two-year journalism diploma program, said he had no problem with being used as a military training aid. “I feel like I’ve taken away an incredible amount from it as far as tangible skills: gaining a lot of confidence in my line of questioning and my interview skills and being in situations where I might have been intimidated before—but realizing that soldiers are people too.”

“A lot of the soldiers, I didn’t feel, were that happy to talk to us,” said Irene Kuan, 23, who holds a degree in broadcast journalism from Ryerson University in Toronto. “Either they were afraid or they weren’t sure what to say, so they would just keep quiet.”

Still, Trevor Greenway, a third-year journalism student at Mount Royal College, described his CMTC stint as “amazing. It was one of the best experiences of my life, for sure. I’d never done stories that crazy before. I mean, you were right in the middle of the action. Stuff’s going on right before your eyes and it’s stressful and it’s loud. They had Afghan actors who populated the villages, and special effects. There was a suicide bus bombing where a car came by and there were two suicide bombers in it and we showed up. The car exploded on impact. There were limbs everywhere; a severed head; intestines; special-effects wounds; the car was on fire and there was smoke…”

It was during such scripted scenarios that soldiers learned how to “manage” the news media messages. Only the embedded student team, though, was restricted by the ground rules agreements. The other teams were subject to no such agreements. The soldiers had to learn how to respond to journalists seeking explanations of events they observed independently, often in highly charged and volatile situations.

“If the (Canadian) army says it was a successful operation, the Afghani looks around: his mother has been shot and his house burned down—from his perspective, it’s not successful at all,” said Koshul.

“The whole purpose is to train the Canadian troops,” he explained. “They have to be careful with the fact there is media and you don’t speak above your pay grade. If they (the media) ask how an operation was planned, Joe Soldier doesn’t know. He (the journalist) has to go see the major. If the media ask a policy question, they say: ‘Talk to the politicians.’”

At CFB Wainwright, actors are hired to play Taliban insurgents in a mock Afghan village. (Trevor Greenway)

At the higher ranks, St. Denis says, the “media cell” teaches a number of lessons in media management. The first lesson is to not let the local media seize the entire news agenda. “If this is the coverage we’re getting, we should do something about it. We can’t let the bad guys get all the air time. We can ramp up full-blown news conferences. We can exercise commanders in news conferences, for example, in handing detainees over to local authorities. We manipulate it (the news conference) to give them (commanders) experience at doing it. We tape it and we provide feedback. ‘Here’s your mannerisms; you ramble; use short sentences; don’t use so much jargon.’”

The “media cell” is the latest development in the ongoing military project of calculating how best to manage the media. As an institution, the Canadian Forces studies the news media, writes about them in its refereed journals—the Canadian Army Journal and the Canadian Military Journal—learns from them, develops policies for them and trains for them in a systematic way. As an industry, the news media do not reciprocate.

It is difficult to tell what effect the Canadian Forces media training will have on the coverage Canadians watch on TV and see in the newspapers. No evaluation of the embryonic “media cell” has been conducted to date. The established wisdom, however, suggests the asymmetric military/media relationship leaves individual journalists vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation.

There are few militaries more experienced in news media management than the US military. It aggressively courts journalists to build domestic support for its missions. That technique was developed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War when, in order to counter the reports of critical journalists, the American military flew planeloads of starry-eyed local television reporters to the Gulf to produce news reports on their “hometown heroes.” It was during that war that the Americans developed ground rules restricting what journalists could and could not report upon. Canada adapted those rules for its naval operations in the Gulf in 1991. The Americans perfected their army embedding agreements in the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the embedding agreement and ground rules the Canadians currently use in Afghanistan are modelled after those.

Meanwhile, beginning in September 2006—and for the very first time—Canada’s news media were not allowed to observe or report on any aspect of the training at the CMTC. This ban continued through to November 2006 during Exercise Maple Guardian, in which a 2,300-member task force trained for deployment to Afghanistan.

According to St. Denis, these restrictions will get worse before they get better. “Our original idea was to have a completely open regime where the media was concerned. But we had to rethink this because the kind of training we were doing was changing, and we were training soldiers more and more to counter the actions and procedures of the bad guys in Afghanistan, as opposed to more traditional combat training. At the moment, we are still trying to balance the need for security with the desire to have media cover the training and show Canadians just how well their soldiers are being trained for Afghanistan. In short, we are still wrestling with the issue. And we might in fact have to become more restrictive in order to protect our soldiers’ lives.”

No responsible Canadian could ever argue against measures to protect soldiers’ lives. But without seeing the training, it is impossible to assess whether reporting on it would jeopardize safety. Independent news media access to the CMTC training is already banned; it is difficult to conceive how media access could be restricted any further. Despite the rhetoric, there is no balancing here.

Similarly, studying the journalism students’ work to learn how commanders responded to it is impossible. After military trainees viewed the broadcasts on closed-circuit television, the DVDs were destroyed.

In the end, military censorship doesn’t get more absolute than that.

Bob Bergen is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military & Strategic Studies.

 

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