Earlier this week (7 October) marked 13 years of the international military campaign in Afghanistan. In that time 453 British troops have lost their lives, an estimated £37bn has been spent, more Afghans than ever are voting in presidential elections and there are now seven million more students enrolled in school in Afghanistan than there were under Taliban rule, 40 per cent of which are girls.
Throughout these 13 years, the British and international public remained abreast of every death, attack and development of the war owing to the vigilance and persistence of the media. Of course, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is the first to declare any of these aspects and to announce on any death, but it is then the media who informs the vast majority of the population.
The MoD informs the public on events and actions, and does not express opinion in the way the media can, after all, that is not its definitive role. No doubt everyone has read an article critiquing the war – our losses, its expenses and future consequences for both Britain and for those who fought – as well as articles supporting Britain’s involvement and praising what has been achieved over the years. Newspapers all have certain political affiliations and stances on the MoD. The Telegraph, for example, clearly stands its ground in consistently warning “of the perils of shrinking the Armed Forces” and defends Britain’s decision to send troops to Afghanistan against critics.
More often than not, all our knowledge of the war comes from the media. This can of course be factual, particularly television reporting where scenes from Afghanistan are shown. However, the complication lies in the opinion of individual journalists, which can often have a significant impact on the reputation of the government and key decision makers in the war.
Despite the media’s freedom of expression, rarely has so much time and vigor been spent on trying to ensure that the press and journalists conspire with the purpose of the war. A general in the US army described the Afghanistan situation as a “war of perception…conducted continuously using the news media”. Britain wants, and needs, to be united in its outlook of the conflict, even after our troops are withdrawn after more than a decade of both toil and achievement.
It is fair to say that the public will never be fully united in their opinion of whether the war was just or unjust, but the media must be aware of the impact they can have on public opinion on what has been a long, drawn-out conflict.
The key point to remember – in the matter of war, public outlook should never be underestimated.