Scholar Warriors- Media & Information: Unexceptional Elements for the Indian Armed Forces
Examining various events that the Armed Forces have been involved in over the last two years my continuing belief is reinforced. This belief revolves around the fact that for years the Armed Forces have been discussing and attempting to teach and evolve policies on media and information but somehow have not risen above the basics in resolving the issue. The information revolution hit India just around the turn of the millennium and the Kargil War (Op Vijay) gave us the first clues of how important the media was going to be. Surprisingly, the understanding of media, its force multiplication effect and pitfalls were well understood in 1999. In fact most Pakistani military officials and strategic analysts ascribe India’s success in 1999 to its ability to take the media along and use information subtly to turn the tables of world opinion against Pakistan. However, ever since then it’s only been downhill. The Pathankot air base terrorist attack and the response followed a trajectory which usually takes the course in all such incidents; there were temporary moments with mistakes and loss of initiative. The latter was regained early and the terrorists limited to a segment of the air base. Yet the media and public information continued to be critical. The deliberate nature of the operation could not be easily understood by the public. Why ‘only’ six terrorists could hold off a sizeable strength of the Army and NSG could not be perceived, resulting in exceptional pressure of public opinion on the operating forces and the leadership at different levels. Mercifully veterans went on air to explain this in detail and took away some of these misperceptions.
All the above is due to lack of a coherent doctrine on operating in a media and information heavy environment. The realization is all there and it has been so for long. However, operationalizing that is another story. As an example the Pathankot incident called for full activation of media interface at operational and strategic levels; that meant a media center type of set up at a facility at Pathankot where there could be continuous flow of authentic information and regular media briefs by an authorized representative; a similar one at New Delhi to handle the subtleties of information for international media and issues at strategic level. In the absence of both we had media all over the place outside the air base, wild guessing, dramatizing, looking for leaks, breaking news and all that goes with media.
‘Media cannot be managed’ is an age old adage and media persons hate to be told that they have to adhere to certain norms of information sharing. Yet, there are subtleties in this game in which no black and white rules exist. These subtleties are understood once it is accepted that media will be there and there is no gain in trying to deny information. Knowing how much to share and at what stage comes from experience once there is authorization.
Our rules change with personalities and with bad experience and there are media gags issued every other day. Why does this happen? Primarily because of lack of confidence and the inability to comprehend that if we do not go to the media and satiate its hunger for information, it will get it anyway using means fair or otherwise. My own experience revealed to me that the more I was in outreach mode to the media the less it questioned the information that I was parting with. The more time I spent in media briefs the lesser was the interest to hunt for information. There will be bad media days and good media days but if we stick to some norms and do not pull back after bad experience perhaps we will make greater strides.
I have no doubt that the change can only change with directions and monitoring right from the top. The MoD’s PR system still remains archaic, while the army maintains its own Additional Directorate of Public Information. Of late it has made some brave attempts at changing image with some good presence in social media, proactive feed of generic information about the Army, important Regimental and Battle Honor days, exceptional feats during disasters and gallantry award winners. However, when it comes to the crunch in a situation such as Pathankot it could not raise its level. Not enough advisories seem to have gone down to the field formations involved in operations. One should be asking how exactly the Defence PR organization deal with such situations. If it is not mandated to manage information during crises then shouldn’t the archaic norm/rule be reviewed to give it an operational charter? Who exactly will control it? Not the civilian bureaucracy in the MoD, not the Raksha Mantri himself. The task of operational PR falls automatically to respective Public Information Directorates or equivalent in the other services. Yet, they are not actually authorised to handle it. It cannot afford to languish without someone pegging it down. A whole scale review of information handling needs to be executed early under the personal watch of the Raksha Mantri, who has displayed enough drive and will to change things wherever needed.
The model in existence in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) which has evolved over time seems to be working well. Rarely do you find the Minister of External Affairs having to appear in person before media. A MEA spokesperson is authorized and does the honors in terms of all information sharing. During Operation Vijay 1999 it may be recalled that General (then Colonel) Bikram Singh became the Army spokesperson which led to excellent media handling. The media persons in the field were given balanced access and the run of authentic information reaching the public kept it enthused and the Army received its share of accolades. At the end of the day the purpose of information sharing and media involvement remains two fold; first, the necessity of the right information reaching the public; second, the motivation of your own forces. There is a third dimension which I will not discuss here and that is the disinformation and information control with regard to the adversary. No media person would like to be officially involved with this.
Whatever transformational changes may occur in terms of organization and doctrine, unless the culture of interaction and confidence in media handling increase all this will come a cropper. That is where irreversible training procedures must be set up and continuous trial and error should be the norm in all functional areas where the media makes a difference. J&K and the North East are ideal grounds for this. J&K has a lively media presence and outreach should be encouraged to build a culture of comfort level while dealing with it. Mistakes will have to be condoned if any progress is to be made.
The Armed Forces have to invest long term if there is to be any success in this quest. The Air Force is seen to be better at this. Therefore, all three Services need to pool resources and HQ IDS should take the responsibility on conceptualization of an Information Culture. There is already much concern about proliferating social media and the dangers that it portends. How can this be garnered for positive gain instead of allowing it to make negative inroads; this should be form the second intent of the project.
Lastly, our adversaries are well ahead in the field of information management with Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations having understood and operationalised the information domain. Psychological warfare has become a part of its operational culture. This has been possible only because of the seriousness that Pakistan has accorded to the entire domain of Information Warfare. It is about time we set aside reservations on this all important domain and stopped looking at media as an adversary. Closing our eyes to it is not going to make the problem of proliferating needs of information management go away.