The UK’s new Minister of Defence, Bob Ainsworth, gave his first public speech on Wednesday 8 July at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), wordled below. Now, Ainsworth, unlike his predecessors, has previous in the area of defence, as in he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces from June 2007, so he’s pretty much up to speed on what it’s all about. Further, he’s known as a straight talker.
So his first speech as Minister of Defence could have been expected to be a no-nonsense justification of UK military operations and presence in Helmand, especially with casualty rates amongst his troops currently so appalingly high, which has given the media extra focus on Afghanistan. The circumstances, unfortunate and saddening as they are, the timing and the platform gave an opportunity for the MoD to give heightened voice to a message which is not being heard by the British public, a message clearly articulating why the UK is doing what it’s doing, and suffering because of it, in a far off counry.
Indeed, Ainsworth was refreshingly forthright, admitting that the problems faced are grave and serious. Further, he did attempt to show signs of a strategy, articulating several steps necessary, many already under way, to stabilise the situation and reach an ‘end state’, not an end date. Indeed, he stated that ‘more lives will be lost and our resolve will be tested’ – no pulling of punches here. In fact, that was the message received by the media, as scores of headlines, from the BBC to the tabloids reiterated the warning of further lives being lost.
Yet as to explaining why, an opportunity was missed. Of the 2943 words of the speech, only 220 words, less than 10%, were invested in that crucial element of explaining why. Any message explaining why it is vital that the UK continue to puts its people in harm’s way was drowned out, if really attempted at all.
The MoD itself seemed to be caught up in its own tight worldview, panglossian in its attempt to be seen to be filling this yawning information gap. As can be seen from its own website, despite the lack of real attempt to deal with the ‘why’ question, MoD were keen to portray the speech as one in which “Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has given a speech today explaining why the British Armed Forces are on operations in Afghanistan”.
Unfortunately he didn’t. A fine speech it may have been, but it didn’t do what it says on the tin.
Of course it would be naive to think that good old-fashioned politics would merely allow such a speech to go ahead. Yet politics is about power and influence and retaining it. And modern democratic politics cannot achieve such things without an informed public. With operations at high tempo, and serving personnel working bloody hard to achieve their objectives, and suffering in order to do so, the media ensures that Afghanistan remains in the spotlight in the eyes of the public. Under this spotlight and with a new, straight talking Minister, there is a window of opportunity to articulate the governments reasons for pursuing such a difficult course, to inform its public so they may at least understand. Those at Chatham House might understand (and remember this was a public speech – Chatham House was the location not the audience), CB3 might understand, most journalists might understand, but the majority of the British public remain unclear as to why our Armed Forces are being asked to do what they are doing. The window of opportunity for changing that won’t stay open for long.
Who’s the ‘Man’? You know – the ‘Man’! Jack Black, School of Rock? The ‘Man‘! What we’re talking about is The Establishment, The Elite, Them – sometimes elusive to pin down and definitively categorise but definately there – that’s the ‘Man’. Yet if you live in certain societies, then the ‘Man’ is very visible – think of Iran right now – or if not so visible, then presenting a pervasive and omnipresent shadow – think of the People’s Republic of China. However, today even the serious ‘Man’, wielding his riot baton or spying on every move, is facing a problem – a serious problem. And at the core of that problem is communicating with its subjects, or publics.
There was a time when government enforcement and counter culture knew their places – the former within officialdom, ceremony, uniform and a conventional media who knew not to rock the boat too much, and the latter in dark, smoky bars (where have they gone?), underground leaflets, Che Guevara t-shirts, folk/pop songs and grassroots communication. It was all so straightforward. But then came the Summer of Love, Winter of Discontent, Punk, fall of the Berlin Wall and loads of other stuff which really messed up the status quo of society and state. And throughout that period there was a growing and rich seam of information, through modern technology (we all think its so now but the microchip began life in the 1960s and zero-G (as opposed to 3G) mobile telephone network kicked off in 1971 in Finland).
With little choice, democracies have rolled with this wave of universally availablable information capability, have even been created as a by-product of it, and democratic governments have had to adjust to the competetiveness of the contemporary information market. But after years of staving it off, trying to eliminate it or simply ignoring it, governments with a less than unblemished democratic credentials are really starting to feel the impact of this ubiquitous wave of communicative ability.
In Iran, much has been made of the effects of a technologically savvy and educated population using digital technology, via twitter, youtube, e-mail and blogs, to make their voice heard by the government. The Iranian government, too late, appeared to understand that they no longer had the monopoly on information via their state-owned outlets. Regardless of the political outcome of the Iranian situation, whether Ahmadinjad and Ayatollah Khamenei retain power or not, a fire has been lit which will have lasting repercussions in how that society is governed. Not least, communication and access to information will be at the heart of Iran’s future. A crackdown is likely but the genie is out of the bottle – empowerment of the counter culture is not going away. In Iran, the ‘Man’ will have to think hard about what to do about the information factor.
And as likely as it is in the short term, crackdown is not an easy option, as China now testifies. After years of developing Green Dam, a compulsory software system to allow a degree of government control over the internet, the government is now wavering. Further, as Al Jazeera reported last week, the Chinese government is appreciating that it has to enter the information ring, not merely block it. The government is taking steps to make its own state-controlled media operation more competitive in the market, making it more attractive and of consequence to possible viewers – it is entering, like in any other democracy, a battle to grab ratings. With some 300 million Chinese online and therefore having a choice over who informs them of what’s going on (and most not referring to Chinese state media), the government is going to try to win them back, not coerce them back. Even if Green Dam does eventually get the green light, this is a major change of attitude by the ‘Man’.
This realisation is ground-breaking. If essentially undemocratic regimes are finally understanding that they cannot control information, then they will have to seek methods of joining the battle for audiences, just as democracies have had to do gradually over the last fifty years. The ‘Man’ is waking up to the fact he is playing a new game with different rules, and he’s going to have to learn fast if he is to survive. The problems are manifest – there is no legacy for playing this game, information structures will have to undergo major transformations, the very game encourages democratic and free market ideologies and the old guard may just never accept or understand the rules. Public relations, public affairs, new media, public diplomacy – these are all big factors in the game, all of which will have to be recalibrated, and dialogical communications must feature as part of a new engagement strategy. The impact will have deep political and socio-cultural consequences. There is historical precedent – post-Gutenberg, it took some time before the pamphleteers of the 16th Century would contribute considerably to the demise of the Ancien regime, the ‘Man’ of the day. Sure, the new game may not bring forth real revolution in the near future – it’s all about playing for the long term – but democratic or not, the ‘Man’ will have to adjust and will also have to accept that some accession of power will be necessary.
There are several regimes out there who are finding themselves at this juncture – they know who they are and we know who they are. In these regimes, the ‘Man’ has a stark choice – adjust to the new game, understand the rules and accept the limitation on state power, or die … slowly.