Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 23 November 2023


Media onslaught makes winning wars harder


The reporting from Gaza we have seen since October 7 raises a serious question about the nature of warfare in the modern information age. How do you win a war where your legitimate military operations are subject to a level of scrutiny that, by accident or design, can portray them for a global audience as brutal, even tantamount to war crimes? How can an army pursue a just cause when its actions depend in part on the support of domestic and international public opinion, and that public opinion is being formed by distorted information?

Israel’s challenges in Gaza are in part a problem of rampant media bias — a grimly familiar story in recent years across so much news coverage, as journalists have come to see their role as not simply to inform their audience, but also to instruct them constantly on what they should think. There has been plenty of such bias on display from Gaza. The BBC is certainly not alone in this, but given its scale and reach it has been criticised as the principal exponent of such bias, with frequent false information and slanted commentary.

Among many examples: initial reporting that it was an Israeli airstrike that hit the al-Ahli Arab hospital in the second week of the war; flagrant misrepresentation of a Reuters report by a BBC presenter who said Israel had been “targeting medical personnel and translators”, when the original report actually said Israel had sent in such personnel to help (this was subsequently corrected); and the public musing last week by a leading BBC journalist that the Palestinian weapons found by the Israel Defence Forces in the al-Shifa hospital — Kalashnikovs and hand grenades among them — might have belonged to the hospital’s “security department” rather than, say, a bunch of Hamas fighters operating there.

But more important than these instances of wilful or involuntary misinformation (on the latter it is striking how the BBC’s “mistakes” always seem to favour Palestinians and defame Jews) is the more arguably legitimate and accurate yet relentlessly one-sided coverage of the tragic civilian casualties of Israeli attacks.

Israel is prosecuting a war that was instigated when terrorists invaded its territory and killed, maimed or took hostage hundreds of people. By any reasonable judgment, Israel has the right to wage war against these terrorists. In the process it is inevitable — tragic, yes, but inevitable — that civilians, including women and children, will be killed. The primary responsibility for these casualties lies with Hamas, not only because it places civilians deliberately in harm’s way but because it was Hamas that incurred Israel’s righteous response in the first place. But of course Israel deserves some criticism for sometimes excessive or reckless actions.

The point has been made but it is worth restating: in the Second World War Germany lost more than two million civilians in aerial bombing and invasion by allied forces. Britain lost 70,000 civilians to enemy bombing; the US 7,000. Does that make the US and the UK the guilty parties?

Imagine if, night after night through 1944 and 1945, the BBC had broadcast detailed reports of the thousands of Germans who died every day. How might that have affected the ability of the British and Americans to win the war?

This problem is not new. The US first seriously encountered it in Vietnam. The freedom given to reporters to cover the effects of American operations in detail sapped US morale. Much of the reporting was valid and helped to counter the false narrative from US military leaders that the campaign was a success. But much of it was also simply reporting on the horrors and misery of any war, a just one or otherwise.

The asymmetry of the roles of the combatants causes particular challenges. It’s a conundrum of democracies that they allow greater access to and reporting of the consequences of their own actions than do authoritarian rulers or terrorists.

Israel does its best to present open and fair coverage of its actions within the demands of operational secrecy. The IDF’s actions are subject to scrutiny at home as well as overseas. Try criticising Hamas in Gaza. Try reporting from there consistently in ways that expose the cruelty of Hamas.

In their brilliant new bookConflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, David Petraeus and Andrew Roberts note that this often asymmetric information offensive has been one of the most important changes to the way war has been waged in the past 75 years.

Petraeus, who commanded US forces in the war in Iraq, told me recently this was among the most vexing challenges he faced and that in the years since it has become even more complicated. “In Iraq we didn’t have anything like smartphones with ubiquitous internet access, social media platforms and internet service providers that could allow you to upload videos, statements, whatever, and that makes it much, much more difficult obviously, and that’s before you add in the impact of disinformation.”

Roberts makes the point that some of the most effective military operations have been conducted away from the attention of the media. “One of the more successful wars that the British … forces fought was the Borneo campaign in the 1960s where they didn’t let any journalists in at all, and so the entire war was fought in secret, which would be completely impossible to do, needless to say, with smartphones and so on today.”

We can’t ban journalists or the public from documenting the horrors of war. Nor should we. The military must be accountable for its actions. But we can expect journalists and their employers to portray an accurate picture of the broader realities of war. Moral equivalence, or worse, between democracies and terrorists undermines the former and bolsters the latter.

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