A journalist would always like to believe that it is their responsibility to report the truth, and most would go to great lengths to achieve this. However, when it comes to war reporting there has always been a battle for the truth, and a mass of debates over the right of passage for a journalist onto the front lines. The relationship between the media and the military has always been uneasy. On the one hand there is the media’s perceived duty to serve the public and demonstrate the right to know the truth in time of conflict, yet on the other hand the media is forced to observe the demands of ‘operational security’ from the military in western liberal democracies.
The actions decided on for controlling the media and the public’s right to know the truth have been overridden to allow the military to manipulate the media coverage, in order for them to maintain high public support. This issue has long been the burden of the media world, spanning over the past 150 years dating right back to 1854 in the Crimea and still continues today. John Pilger, one of today’s most well respected war reporters, has witnessed many conflicts and has experienced first had the frustration suffered by a war correspondent. “The virulence of an unrecognised censorship often concealed behind false principles of objections, whose effect is to minimise and deny the culpability of Western power in acts of great violence and terrorism.”
William Howard Russel has been quoted as one of the first and the greatest war correspondents, and his coverage of the Crimean War in 1854 was a highly significant mile stone in the history of journalism. It marked the beginning of an organised effort to report a war to the civilian population by means of a civilian reporter, as appose to the prior method of either stealing the war news from foreign newspapers of employing junior officers to send letters from the battle front.
Russel’s war reporting was far closer to the truth than anything the public had been permitted to learn. He reported the hardship suffered by the troops and told how ill-equipped and poorly prepared they were for war. He also shocked the public by reporting to them the horrors of the war hospitals, where around 30% of the 56,000 allied forces were their suffering from dysentery, cholera or malaria.
Russel was denounced a charlatan and his editor, John Thadeus Delane, came under heavy political pressure. Russel was also accused of aiding Russian intelligence through his reporting, which put him under high suspicion from the troops on the front lines. He was deeply critical of many aspects of the war, from the soldiers to the tactics used. It became clear to the army well before the war ended that allowing Russel so close to the action was a mistake, but by then it was too late. Russel had inspired many, and five years later when the American Civil War erupted 500 reporters turned up to the action, declaring to the world the birth of the war correspondent.
Russel continued to report what he saw through the American Civil War, with the result being that the reporter was ‘wearing out his welcome’. This spurned the military to set up a formal system of censorship and start to fight back against the media. The United States Secretary for War, Edwin M. Stanton manipulated casualty figures, reducing losses, and threatened proprietors with court-martial if they did not support the government. This retaliation from the military set way for the formalisation of patterns of censorship and indirect political and military control.
The American Civil war also saw new and remarkable developments in the use of audience manipulation, as there was a real battle for international support through the media, with both sides engaging in explicit and concealed propaganda for their cause. The progress of communications and the newspaper industry, as well as the development of the use of photography gave the public a new hunger for war reporting, and left the journalist eager to fight to feed their public.
The Boer War saw further use of the government using the media for propaganda purposes. Cinematographers were first being used, and a release of an early news reel showing a British Red Cross team coming under enemy fire caused huge excitement with the British public. However, it was later revealed to be fake, as it had been staged by actors on Hampstead Heath. The Government had sponsored it to rally public support.
The military began to impose strict censorship at the point of access to the military telegraph. This first demonstration of censorship on such a grand scale set the pattern for military bias that has been of concern ever since. Correspondants were also manipulated by the military into sending dispatches acceptable to the commander This sparked off huge complaint from the media world, with the problem being summed up by Edgar Wallace of the Daily Mail, “If I wanted to cable from here that the situation from unusually optimistic, do you think that the censor here would offer any objection to it going? But if I wished to send the truth that the country around is full of boers and rebels are joining the commandoes daily, would the censor pass that without being called to book by Kitchener in three weeks time…..So much for censorship.”