Tuesday, May 18, 2004

REPRESENTATIONS OF WAR, YESTERDAY AND TODAY

Today the the Globe and Mail reports that new documentation relating to the military's public relations response to the disastrous 1942 Canadian forces raid on Dieppe, France has been discovered by a University of Victoria graduate student. Timothy Blazer discovered the documents while reaserching his M.A thesis on how the Canadian public was informed about the Dieppe mission. This is the kind of thing history graduate students (like me) dream of.

The discovered document, the minutes of a Combined Operations Head Quarters meeting, indicates that there was a calculated preplanned response to portray the battle as a success in the event that it failed. The document states the PR strategy was to "stress the success of the operation as an essential test in the employment of substantial forces and heavy equipment" and then to "lay extremely heavy stress on stories of personal heroism -- through interviews, broadcasts, etcetera -- in order to focus public attention on BRAVERY rather than OBJECTIVES NOT ATTAINED."

Blazer is quoted as saying "Of course the military would want to put the best possible spin on something, but I think this went beyond the pale of what was acceptable. It was total deception. That's crossing the line."

This of course raises the question of what is appropriate government action in releasing information to the public during a time of war? What are the government's responsibilities in presenting bad news to the public? What distinguishes between 'spin' and 'deception', and should such a distinction even be made? Does maintaining public morale during a time of war superceded the public's right to know? Also, what shoudl the role of the media be?

I think it is innevitable, particularly during a time of war, that the government would attempt to manage public opinion; this happens constantly. I think a government exhibits how much it trusts its citizens by the amount and type of information it releases about events such as this, however, I don't think that it is even possible for the government to release all available information, for what constitutes 'all'? Is reporting precise casualty numbers enough or is that still a 'deception'? Must there be descriptions of how people died?

This is why, in a free society, the role of an independent press is critical. No one source, government or otherwise, can give a full representation of any particular issue or event. A variety of perspectives represented by the press balance each other and that of the government. The formation of public opinion then further balances those.

In the case of Dieppe the real failure of responsibility (in terms of representing the event to the public) was the media's. Most Canadian newspapers and the Canadian Press mimicked the PR strategy of the military and government. The Globe story reporst that legendary CP reporter Ross Munro said of his Dieppe story that it was the one time he felt as if he had 'cheated' the Canadian public.

As always, however, the institutions of democracy functioned as they should. With the full publication of casualty lists the Canadian public learned of the enormity of the disaster. "There was no way to cover up 134 pages of names."

Today our free societies continue to struggle with these same issues of how to represent a war, whether it's the publication of flag drapped caskets arriving home, pictures from an Iraqi prison, or the brutal execution of one American man. That we are still debating these things, however, attests to the continued fundamental streangths of our democracy, and as always the study of history helps to inform these contemporary debates.

[thanks to Pogge for pointing me to the Globe article]

Posted by Matthew @ 2:15 PM