Media: The Army learns art of spin doctoring

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The Independent Online
ONE PARTICULARLY fraught and tense day after the arrival of Nato forces in Kosovo, an agitated reporter stopped beside a Household Cavalry armoured car to ask: "Can someone please tell me what is going on?" A young lieutenant replied in a lazy drawl: "Well, New Zealand has lost to Pakistan, and South Africa has tied with Australia. Anything else?"

That particular soundbite was unrehearsed. But television viewers who had seen a succession of well-groomed officers handling questions from journalists with aplomb may well wonder at the reinvention of the British Army. Unlike the Gulf or Bosnia, this has been a British show.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Clissitt, one of those in charge of the British Army's Kosovo media operation, says the new generation at the top has seen the growing media influence, especially television, and has learnt the need to harness it for the benefit of the armed forces. "We've learnt that perception is just as important as reality," said Lt-Col Clissitt sitting in Pristina's Grand Hotel after 17 hours chaperoning the media. "Images and words of war have tremendous impact on people back home, and it would be extremely stupid to ignore that. The British Army is a relatively small force: we can only operate with the consent and backing of the people of the UK, so it is vitally important that we explain ourselves."

The mishandling of the media during the Falklands war was one of the defining moments in re-thinking policy by the armed forces but, Lt-Col Clissitt points out, the idea of winning hearts and minds was present in the forces long before that. Frank Kitson, of Malayan guerrilla campaign fame, advocated the vital need to gain public support back in the Sixties.

The Gulf war showed both the UK and US high commands the impossibility of trying to control totally the news flow. Briefings in Washington, London and Dhahran were stage managed, but there was also the continuous rolling news coming from Baghdad. That war taught the services they had to acquire the expertise to keep up with television's voracious appetite. The process continued in Bosnia where British commanders, such as Lt-Col Bob Stewart, found that having journalists along made the protagonists behave better at times. Even paramilitaries, it seems, are wary about their television image.

The Kosovo media operation is also the result of a drastic change in attitude among British officers. In the past, dealing with the media was seen as a backwater, but in the new army it has become prestigious, attracting some of the brighter officers.

There has been another method of disseminating black propaganda: psychological operations or psy-ops, much practised in Northern Ireland. But senior officers stress that media dealings in Kosovo are open and should not be compared to Ulster. Indeed the set-up here in Pristina is more Millbank than the Falls Road. Last week Alastair Campbell himself paid a visit to Pristina and broadly found everything to his satisfaction.

Can there be a more potent example of how the British forces' media team has come of age?

Kim Sengupta

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