Herding Cats: The Evolution of the ADF’s Media Embedding Program in Operational Areas
Like other Western military forces, the ADF has used deployments since Vietnam to develop appropriate mechanisms to support media access to its operations. The ADF’s advances in this regard, like those of the US and UK, are almost solely linked to political and strategic direction issued on the cusp of operational deployments requiring last-minute adjustments to policy, procedures and processes. The nature of the ADF’s recent commitments to larger, long-term coalition operations has allowed commanders and planners to observe multiple approaches to battlefield media access and, in turn, develop a formalised Australian approach.
The ADF’s current approach involves a media embedding program which was established in 2010 following a trial event in 2009. The program seeks to provide media agencies coordinated access to ADF elements in remote and contested areas. Media embedding exposes journalists to the conduct of operations by ADF personnel at the tactical level with some scope for the provision of operational-level context by senior commanders. The media embed program is not designed to ‘create’ newsworthy events for journalists in a traditional public relations sense. Instead, it is simply the attachment of media personnel to tactical units on operations in much the same way other elements of the force may be attached for specific missions. Tactical units continue to operate as they would and incorporate media embeds into their daily program. It is the rawest view of ADF personnel on operations currently available to non-Defence employees. From a purely ADF perspective, the conduct of the media embed program, particularly its rapid expansion and advancement in the past two years, has done much to enhance the often maligned military-media relationship. Media embedding in Afghanistan and on other minor operations is the only current, regular interaction between journalists, commanders and junior ADF personnel. The program has done much to humanise what is perceived as an increasingly clinical and sometimes detached way of waging war.
Media embedding, correctly implemented, offers an opportunity for the ADF to appropriately manage the principles of communication by building both credibility and trust with the Australian public. Ultimately, the program must be about sustaining public understanding, not just facilitating media demands. While there are numerous risks associated with the program, the greater risk lies in not granting access to the media. At present, the ADF’s approach to media embedding offers the best access to operations in Afghanistan to date and, from all accounts, is largely meeting the requirements of participants.