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Generals must unhurriedly prepare a media plan

November 27, 2013 08:44 IST

The military knows very little about the world of journalism and has no plan in place to learn more, says Ajai Shukla

The world's fourth most powerful military worries that negative media coverage is eroding its image. For decades after 1947, even through the humiliating rout by the Chinese in 1962, India's press placed the military on a pedestal.

Foreign correspondents who rode into Dhaka with the Indian military in 1971 described our jawans fondly, even admiringly. This is no longer so. Now everyone is fair game for a brash, iconoclastic new breed of journalists and news organisations that operate in real time on digital media platforms. This is evident from the ongoing feeding frenzy around one of the media's own -- a news magazine editor who faces accusations of rape.

The military community, both serving and retired, finds it hard to deal with this new environment. In forum after forum where I meet the military, officers bitterly criticise what they call an anti-national media and an ungrateful nation. They point to numerous poorly sourced news articles critical of the military to dismiss even legitimate criticism.

Critics of the military reject this prickliness with the jibe that the services are stuck in a time warp and must understand that they too are subject to scrutiny. But that would be short-sighted, because self-esteem is a crucial driver that induces soldiers, sailors and airmen to function in professional situations where death is a real possibility. If militaries were compensated monetarily for the risks they encounter, employee costs would be unaffordable. The respect that a military is accorded, therefore, should be viewed as cost-free remuneration that drives soldiers to do what they do.

One winter morning in the early 1980s, I was a young lieutenant motorcycling down from Ferozepur to Delhi for a weekend of leave. With my shiny new Yezdi (yes, there was once a motorbike called that!) stalled by a tyre puncture, I was admiring the mustard crop in the fields around me when a passing farmer saw my uniform and stopped his tractor. He loaded my Yezdi on his trailer and took me to a tyre repair shop in Moga, the nearest town, waving aside my offer to pay him. The tyre shop owner peremptorily told his other customers to wait, fetched me a steaming glass of milk, repaired my tyre and had me back on the road in 20 minutes. There was no question of payment -- it was only a puncture, he said. This public regard kept us functioning as soldiers, not the princely Rs 790 that I was drawing each month.

Yet, the defence services are not beyond criticism; nor can the military justifiably dismiss all criticism as anti-national. So sensitive has the military become that the top brass even allege that the military's image is being deliberately smeared by journalists acting at the behest of bureaucrats and politicians.

The truth is that the military knows very little about the world of journalism and has no plan in place to learn more. It has no filters to distinguish one report from another - credible from amateurish, one that needs rebuttal from one that should be ignored.

Instead of a careful evaluation of reportage, what comes to the fore is an unstoppable urge -- rooted perhaps in military training -- to respond, and respond now. Even as officers respond to a news report with reflexive denials and inadequately cross-checked "facts", the digitisation of the communications space permits others inside the organisation to pass on contradictory narratives.

A senior television journalist who specialises in this tit-for-tat says that 70 per cent of the calls that he receives contradicting army statements come from the rank and file, not from officers.

Nor does the army know when to be silent. In the recent intrusions in Keran, Jammu and Kashmir, top generals appeared repeatedly before the media, promising a swift end to the operations. With no end in sight the conspiracy theories began, terming the intrusion "another Kargil". Why did the army set deadlines when a simple statement could have sufficed -- that the army has the situation under control and would brief the media when operations were concluded?

This readiness to comment on ongoing operations is matched by an inexplicable need to cloak administrative matters in secrecy. Instead of letting journalists file "exclusives" and "exposes" on issues like rape by military men, there must be a website where administrative statistics are freely available. The generals seem unwilling to admit that 1.6 million soldiers, sailors and airmen represent a slice of society that will reflect the trends and ailments of the broader society they are drawn from.

The military operates in the harshest of environments. Things will inevitably go wrong, and the military must realise that suppressing the truth is neither feasible nor desirable from a professional standpoint. Misrepresenting or denying a bungle may seem convenient, but this engenders a dangerous culture of tolerance in an organisation where news of a cover-up can hardly be suppressed. Like other vibrant organisations, the military must have the confidence to acknowledge mistakes and institute measures to remedy them.

With survey after survey underlining that the military remains India's most respected organisation, the generals must have the confidence to step back and unhurriedly prepare a media plan. In 2003-04, the army set up a new department to interface with the media -- the Army Liaison Cell. The ALC must now be manned by specialists -- officers who have worked as journalists, who can conduct daily briefings, put mistakes and even debacles in perspective, and release harmless information that continues to be treated as secret.

Ajai Shukla in New Delhi