Traditionally, armed forces the world over have had a love-hate relationship with the media. Be it American General Robert Lee or British Field Marshal Joseph Garnet Wolsley in the 19th century or the Gen Collin Powell in the 20th, most military leaders have had some thing sarcastic or negative to say about the media.
Robert Lee in 1866 : "It appears we have appointed our worst generals to command our forces, and our most gifted and brilliant to edit newspapers! In fact, I discovered by reading newspapers that these editor-geniuses plainly saw all my strategic defects from the start, yet failed to inform me until it was too late. Accordingly, I’m readily willing to yield my command to these obviously superior intellects and I’ll, in turn, do my best for the cause by writing editorials—after the fact."
Talking about William Howard Russel--London Times' Correspondent during the Battle of Crimea--and other journalists, Field Marshal Wolsley (who was a Captain during that war) remarked contemptuously in 1870s: " Those newly invented curse to armies who eat all the rations of the fighting man and do no work at all."
A century later, in the 1980s however Collin Powell took a more pragmatic view. He remarked: " Once you have all the forces moving and events have been taken care of by the commanders --turn your attention to television because you can win or lose the war if you do not handle the story right."
A random survey among Indian armed forces during my extensive interaction with them at various levels--Staff College, Higher Command and NDC courses and various seminars--tells me that the officers have a low opinion about the Indian media at large. Most regard media as self-centered, sensationalist, prone to exaggeration, ignorant and most importantly egoistic.
The anger and contempt against media in the armed forces is understandable. As respected journalist Arun Shourie has written some years ago: "Professionalism is grossly lacking. There are hardly any experts. The media likes to discuss persons rather than issues. Short memory of the reader is being exploited to the best by the media. Systematic reorientation of the media is taking place with focus on consumerism and immunisation of the reader."
And yet, like increasing cases of corruption and nepotism in the Indian armed forces do not mean the entire military is corrupt, sections of the media being irresponsible and even 'anti-military,' does not mean the entire media fraternity is equally guilty!
The fact is: Media and military come from two different backgrounds, they have diametrically opposite cultures and are trained differently. While the military demands total obedience from its personnel, media practitioners have an in-built rebellious DNA; the military functions on a need-to-know basis, the media is hungry for and goes after every scarp of information possible; the military functions under a strict hierarchy, the media has a fairly flat structure. Finally military is orderly, media is totally chaotic!
So can the twain meet?
Within the given constraints, yes. But it needs a paradigm shift in thinking and application of available resources within the armed forces. For a more effective media engagement (and not media management) policy the armed forces need to: