Mass Media: An instrument of war?


The idea that mass media can propagate war is a controversial notion, one that can be approached from several angles.

Firstly, the notion may seem to go against the assumption of public interest aspects and roles mass media are assumed to play in society. And, after all, more often than not war is not in the public interest, although it may be ‘sold’ as such in political circles.

Another position perhaps held by some readers is that this idea may assume some form of cooperation between the mass media and those who would engage in war and other forms of violence. Subjects such as these are often sidestepped in an attempt to avoid the intense emotion in the debate that will follow. However, putting these controversial topics ‘on hold’ does not mean that they are resolved. To bring some measure of resolution, these ideas need to be brought out of the shadows and discussed openly and frankly.

Why the reference to “an instrument of war”? It reference to a quote from a BBC news producer, Kenneth Payne, some years ago. He was referring to the effect of the media on the battlefield.

  • “The media, in the modern era, are indisputably an instrument of war. This is because winning modern wars is as much dependent on carrying domestic and international public opinion as it is on defeating the enemy on the battlefield. And it remains true regardless of the aspirations of many journalists to give an impartial and balanced assessment of conflict.” 

The journalist is put in an awkward position, especially when taking Payne’s view into account. Mass media’s role in modern warfare assumes an active rather than passive or watchdog role, if some theories are to be believed. Fourth Generation Warfare for example assumes a highly sophisticated programme of psychological operations will be conducted through manipulating the mass media. Kosovo, the Second Chechen War and the Israel-Lebanon Conflict of 2007 are all examples of this type of conflict.

War imposes specific psychological conditions upon society. As a part of society, mass media and journalists are not immune from these factors. One of these factors is the issue of patriotism. If one does not ‘play ball’ … the accusation of treachery and betrayal. This issue comes to the surface every now and then for those observant enough to catch a quick glimpse. There was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s call for patriotism during the Falklands War in 1982. Sergei Yastrazhembsky, then responsible for information on Chechnya, called for society (including mass media) to rally behind the Russian government in the Second Chechen War. The BBC Director General, Greg Dyke, warned of what he called “gung-ho patriotism” as he warned that “If Iraq proved anything, it was that the BBC cannot afford to mix patriotism and journalism.” 

Wartime situations have the potential to put journalists in a possible dilemma. If reporters act in the capacity of public guardian and report things as they are, they at the same time run the risk of being tarnished as being unpatriotic or even as a traitor by the authorities. This can also have practical repercussions. Access to key officials and information may become more restricted, thereby impacting upon the effectiveness of one’s professional duties. However, to retain access to those key officials and information may mean that there shall be a ‘compromise’ in a journalist’s reporting.

In the past, actors involved in conflict tried to woo journalists toward providing favourable coverage of their cause. But things have changed. Journalists are increasingly becoming a target of belligerent groups involved in conflicts around the world. And these groups are now creating their own media outlets. This danger is testified to by the increasing body count of journalists each year. The Committee to Protect Journalists has counted some 135 journalists killed in Iraq since March, 2003, which is but one conflict. Such conditions impose huge impositions in the quest to relay objective information to the public as a result of the sheer physical dangers present.

A cynic may also point to the role of the mass media in the Rwandan genocide, where some journalists became active participants in inflaming existing tensions. They were consequently brought before the international court on charges. However, it seems as though it is increasingly difficult to gain direct cooperation and other tactics are being used to insert messages in and through the media.

One of the tactics used to circumvent the scrutiny of watchful journalists who may shut out certain stories is to infiltrate the media or more specifically those that work in or for the news industry. The Pentagon news pundit story epitomizes this approach. Certain experts, in the form of retired military officers, were approached and put on television to generate good news stories about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan appearing in the mass media. The New York Times broke this story with a number of articles on the subject.

However, in spite of some gloomy news, the fact that there are attempts to clandestinely plant news in the mass media is a ‘good’ thing. It demonstrates that despite criticism of the mass media ‘failing’ in its duty at the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism, media are not following the state line. Otherwise, why the need to try and plant those stories? It is not a time to rest upon the laurels, though. There is a clear need to reflect on the past and to build upon lessons learned in the past so old mistakes are not repeated.