John Stackhouse addresses military

Stackhouse, Editor in Chief of the Globe and Mail, spoke to Royal Military College about war and media in history

John Stackhouse delivering his talk on Wednesday night.
John Stackhouse delivering his talk on Wednesday night.

Globe and Mail Editor in Chief and Queen’s alumnus John Stackhouse visited the Royal Military College on Wednesday night, delivering a talk on the relationship between the military and the media.

Stackhouse spoke on how the two can affect each other, and historical tensions between the two groups.

“We have a rather testy relationship, but an essential relationship,” he said.

The talk, titled “Media and Democracy in a Digital Age”, was held in Currie Hall at the RMC, and was attended by approximately 50 people, most of which were RMC students and staff.

The public event was sponsored by the Queen’s Department of Political Science, which worked with the RMC to organize the event.

The role of journalism in a democracy, Stackhouse said, is to “test” information and ideas, so the public has a bias-free source of information.

This requires gathering as much information as possible, and then editing, or “curating” it, to make it easy to read, he noted.

Stackhouse told the audience that the nature of journalism has changed enormously throughout the last century, particularly after 9/11.

“One hundred years ago, the media was parochial,” he said. “There was little of what we now call war correspondence.” During the First and Second World Wars, he said, few people in Canadian society knew what was happening on the front, and they rarely heard about military failures.

“Nothing that could embarrass the military got published,” Stackhouse said.

This changed during the Korean War, and especially during the Vietnam War, he said, when broadcast journalism became prevalent and newscasters became more aggressive in reporting from war zones — showing a different, less favourable, side of war than past decades.

“The term ‘unwinnable war’ became a popular phrase,” he said.

Tensions ran high between the media and the military, he said, during the 1970s and the 80s, until peacemaking operations began in the 90s.

A surprising development during the 90s and 2000s, according to Stackhouse, was the targeting of journalists by enemy forces.

Journalists began to regularly move with military forces for safety — known as “embedding” into a military group — rather than covering war zones individually.

“Embedding became the norm,” he said.

Technology also changed the nature of journalism, he said, since readers could be updated in real-time on recent developments.

It meant the media could influence actions on the ground as well as public sentiment in Canada, Stackhouse said.

He recalled covering the war in Afghanistan, when a fellow journalist updated a map of a forces on a battleground in real time. Nearby soldiers began yelling corrections, he said, when they noticed inaccuracies on their own newsfeeds.

“We learned later that the Taliban was receiving [and reading the] battle updates,” he said.

Stackhouse described three areas where the media is vital for keeping the military in check: awareness, accountability and context.

Awareness, he noted, means keeping the public aware of battlefield realities.

“Too much information coming out of Afghanistan was one-sided,” he said.

According to Stackhouse, Canadian generals predicted that victory was “just around the bend” every year, despite evidence that violence was actually increasing.

Keeping the military accountable may be painful, but it’s required if the military is to represent the public interest, he said.

“Lack of accountability is terrible not only for society but also any military,” he said.

However, he added, the media kept certain information private if it had the potential to damage national security.

“We are not agnostic to the security and safety of our country,” he said.

Seeing the context behind military operations is also essential, Stackhouse said. He stated that military leaders with an engineering mindset often miss the cultural and historical contexts of an area.

“They see the most efficient way between A and B, but not the context surrounding A and the context surrounding B.”


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