There were many times when the phone would ring at a very dark hour, and a message would come through that at least one UK service-person had been killed in action – often only an hour or two previously. At this point a well honed service was already kicking into gear, ensuring that next of kin were being contacted, and that the welfare support was being activated. The authors role was to contact Ministers offices and ask them to notify their principals of the casualty – at the time (and the author has no reason to suspect this has changed) all Ministers asked to be informed when casualties occur, regardless of the time. To this author, this was a small gesture, but one that felt as if the human cost of the department was brought fully home to roost for them.
Many is the time that the author has thought about the families of those whose death he in a small way helped report, and wondered how they took it on the darkest hours of what must have been a desperate day.
Today, these thoughts came back as a result of the utter tragedy that has occurred in Afghanistan, in which six personnel are reported missing presumed killed, following an incident involving a Warrior IFV. This tragic event takes the total number of reported UK deaths in Afghanistan to 404.
The author feels an immense sense of frustration today – not at the news, for that is a tragedy, but instead at the manner in which the media have conducted themselves. To his mind there is something deeply ghoulish about the way that the media have spent the entire day whipping up a frenzy of coverage over these deaths – chopping to different reporters at different times, merging speculation, with rumour, with idle gossip and a small sprinkling of fact. This has been a great day in their eyes – a tragic story with death, merged with the passing of a self imposed figure of total casualties. No doubt tonight the evening news shows will be full of people debating the wisdom of the war, the value of the operation, and whether the sacrifices paid by our troops was worth it. No doubt tomorrow the papers will be full of that combination of tributes, merged with analysis of the Warrior IFV, doubtless researched by a junior hack on Wikipedia who thinks the Warrior is in fact a tank. There will be breathless commentary from retired officers, demands that something must be done, conspiracies linking this to other events, and a general sense that a bad thing has happened.
There is a media feeding frenzy going on here – Humphrey was repulsed at the sight of a reporter going ‘I’m not sure if it was an anti-tank mine, or a large Taleban roadside bomb’. The media are so desperate for a story, any story, that their humanity and basic common decency appears to have been sold out in a desire to come up with ever more sensational headlines and fill the large gaps of airtime demanded of a 24 hour rolling news channel. Personally Humphrey would really like to run up to a lot of these reporters, shake them by the shoulders and shout at them to STOP.
Lets take a deep breath, step back and try to remember what exactly is going on right now, in several homes across the UK. As these words are being written, families are having to come to terms with the knowledge that their father, husband, son, brother, is dead and will never come home again. Life as they know it has changed forever in under 24 hours. Right now, it is likely that kinforming is still going on. This means it is highly likely that not everyone who has links to the dead men knows what has happened.
Personally, the author finds it the height of bad taste to broadcast endless speculation about what may, or may not, have killed these men. At its simplest, it doesn’t make a material difference right now to anyone outside of the Defence community. The UK public will not sleep more safely tonight knowing that it was a really large Taleban bomb, and not an old Russian anti-tank mine. There are doubtless sections of Defence which do need to know, and will work hard to find out whether anything needs to change in tactics, operational procedures or any of the other ways in which the military work.
The author has long held a bit of a grudge against a large media organisation for the way it covered the 100th death in Basra. He was told from a very reliable source, whilst he was serving out there at the time, that they had rung up and tried to insist on embedding a media team to cover the local reaction to the 100th fatality – as if that made it somehow magically more important than the 99th, or the 101st. Personally, the idea that the Media think that waiting around for one of the authors friends, colleagues or acquaintances to be killed, just so that they can have a warry looking outside broadcast and reaction as their anchor asks “and well Bloggs, how do the people here feel tonight” – as if anyone is going to make their true feelings clear live on national telly – is one that at the time made the author and other friends extremely angry. My life is not a statistic. The lives of my friends, colleagues and fellow service personnel are not statistics. Waiting around for us to die so you can try to get whatever award it is that journalists get for slumming it without aircon, G&T, and cockroaches that don’t talk back is so far beyond bad taste as to be untrue.
The media has an obsession with numbers – they are obsessed with when a certain number of people have been killed, because this enables them to run deep meaningful stories and have debates about whether the UK should withdraw from whichever commitment it is involved in. This sort of debate is really important, and it needs to happen, and it needs open debate in society. However, personally, this author wishes the media would have the common decency to allow even 24 hours to elapse before running newsnight style panel discussions where people who in all likelihood never knew those killed are able to use the tragedy of their deaths as an enabler to allow them to mount their soapbox.
The author doesn’t know the time of the attack, but he would imagine that it’s a safe bet to assume that 48 hours ago the people killed were alive. They had no intention of dying – they probably focused on doing their job and getting home again. None of them went out there to become a statistic – when the author was in Afghanistan, he often worked outside the wire, and knows what it feels like to be in an even relatively low threat environment. You don’t spend your time thinking ‘you know, if I were to be killed today, then that makes me No150 or 300, so I’d better not be killed in case I become a cause celebre on the TV’…
Personally, the author wishes that the media had exercised a tiny amount of self-restraint today. They should have stood back, reported factually that 6 people were missing presumed killed in an explosion and that next of kin were being informed. The debates, the discussions, the breathless hyperbole surrounding a newsflash of a report that it may have been this kind of bomb or that kind could have waited. The author passionately believes that casualties should be reported to the media – we live in a free society, and we must know as soon as is reasonably possible the fact that people have died to protect us. But, wall to wall television coverage isn’t healthy – people seem to forget that in their desire to see this on the news, right now several families are going through the worst torment imaginable and their lives have changed forever. Having their own private hell played out repeatedly on TV seems to only make things worse. A dignified, decent exercise of self-restraint, holding back the deeper analysis and breathless comment for another day, even 24 hours, would have been to this author a much more appropriate way to conduct oneself. Clearly though the media feel the need to report NOW because tomorrow is another story.