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Across the wire

Vaughan Smith left the British Army as a captain 20 years ago to become an independent video journalist. Three months later he was filming a group of mujahideen fighting outside Kandahar. He tells NATO Review what he found on both sides of the media line.

As a journalist I have always hated war, having seen much of it, but I have remained soldier-friendly.

My grandfather never mentioned the Second World War. Nor, I have noticed, do today’s British soldiers much like speaking about their experiences fighting in Afghanistan.

When I left the military, it was from a peacetime army who broadly thought that the press was irresponsible and mainly motivated by money or politics. The press was considered a threat to the military.

By 1991, I was an independent journalist. So I applied for press accreditation to cover the Gulf War. I wasn't granted it. I had no chance as an independent and the mainstream news industry presented no opportunity for a beginner.

But I was determined to cover the conflict and so I impersonated a British Army officer and spent two months filming the conflict incognito. As a result, I managed to bring back the only uncontrolled footage of the war.

Accredited journalists found that the Western militaries managed their access very strictly. They got very little of what they were looking for. Editors at home considered the whole process a news disaster.

I was determined to cover the conflict and so I impersonated a British Army officer and spent two months filming the conflict incognito

In those days, I filmed on a small consumer video camera and ran a fringe freelance news agency that depended on this technology to acquire material.

We were the first group to use these cameras for gathering news. But we depended on selling our material to the broadcasters of the day and, because of that, needed to subscribe to their journalistic standards.

My last trip to Afghanistan in September 2007, was to film my former regiment, the Grenadier Guards, who were mentoring units of the Afghan National Army on operations in Helmand, southern Afghanistan.

I used an array of new tools, some of which revolutionized my ability to reach my audience.I had the use of much-improved portable cameras, but also satellite telephones that meant I could transfer my video to the internet and reach my own audience online.

I called myself a video-blogger, or a web-logger, and I joined other bloggers, citizen journalists and a rapidly expanding array of outside commentators - the vast majority of whom do not need to subscribe to the same professional ethics.

My main motivation in going there was out of concern at how the British public seem to be failing to take ownership of the war in Afghanistan.

They never supported the invasion of Iraq, and British politicians had never really admitted to getting anything wrong in that campaign. So the British people seemed to consequently lose a sense of responsibility for the British military engagement in Afghanistan too.

The British Army's press management has come a long way since the first Gulf War. There is now a publication called "The Green Book" which outlines press policy and sets out rules that "embedded" journalists must agree to before accepting the facility.

The terms of the Green Book allow the "appropriate operational commander" to restrict embedded journalists from reporting information that might be of military use to an enemy, from reporting on prisoners of war, and more controversially, from reporting on casualties.

Managing correspondents in the field has become very much more complex, not least through the expansion in the size of the international press over the last two decades.

Less than 500 journalists applied for accreditation for the first Gulf War. By 1998 more than 2,500 journalists were seeking to follow NATO into Kosovo.

The huge demand for the limited number of "embed" places available with the British Army in Helmand allows the Ministry of Defence to choose journalists they prefer.

While in Afghanistan last year, I was accompanied by a British military "minder". I know many British army press officers quite well as I run London's club for the international press, the Frontline Club. This has become a venue for exchange between the press and the military.

Less than 500 journalists applied for accreditation for the first Gulf War. By 1998 more than 2,500 journalists were seeking to follow NATO into Kosovo.

There is a level of discomfort among some military press officers that accompany journalists as minders. Not only is it a demanding job, but also familiarity with journalists does not usually breed the expected contempt.

Many of them begin to wonder who they are serving: the career of government ministers, the welfare of their fellow soldiers, the progress of the campaign, or the interest of the wider public. Failing to "manage the news" is likely to be detrimental to a military press officer's career.

Despite this, journalists on "embeds" in Afghanistan now get a level of access to operational activity that few of them will have experienced before. It is not since Vietnam that journalists have been able to get this close to this level of action.

Access, when you get it, is exceptional, as is illustrated by one of the news pieces I made, which can be seen here.

In the event I had no editorial difficulties with my minder. If I had filmed a seriously wounded British soldier then maybe I would have. I have heard British officers suggest that it is not in the interests of the wounded soldier or his family for him to be filmed. But I am personally convinced that the prime reason for these restrictions has more to do with upholding public morale at home.

I think this is dangerous. An uninterested public makes little commitment to such conflicts and I have seen the misinformed behave unpredictably when surprised by uncomfortable truths. Suppressed truth can also sound louder when it does break out. Showing war without suffering is simply an inaccurate portrayal of the truth.

There are enormous challenges facing the military in coping with an ever more complex media environment. For now, the British army seems broadly supported by domestic public opinion.

But a long war is predicted in Afghanistan. Some observers think that buying friends in the region would have served us better than trying to kill all our enemies. Public opinion may well turn against this war.

Perhaps a concerted effort to build trust might be a more rewarding strategy than news management in the long run.

Working together? The military and news media are increasingly trying to find ways of both getting their jobs done at the same time.

On the frontline: how missions are covered can have a major effect at home.

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