The saga of media coverage of the SAS in Afghanistan took another turn on the weekend with National MP Eric Roy bizarrely blaming Helen Clark for the ‘ degeneration’ in media coverage of our special forces. According to Roy, Clark triggered the whole unraveling of media secrecy by publicly acknowledging Colonel Willie Apiata when he received his Victoria Cross a few years ago. By this ludicrous logic, Apiata was somehow supposed to anonymously receive his VC ? Yeah, that would happen.
If the NZ Herald had been having any second thoughts about its decision to run the contentious Apiata photo last week, Roy’s dopey intervention would have sealed the matter. As I said last week, pure politics and not the security of the troops has been driving this secrecy issue all along. If Apiata – having been made into the poster boy of the armed forces for the past three or four years – now wants anonymity, perhaps everyone now decrying the Herald could start with the NZDF itself. And ask why, as Greens MP Keith Locke has done, a photo of a bearded Apiata apparently out in the field, has been prominently featured on its own website.
The reality is that it has suited the armed forces and the government to turn Apiata into a media star. Having done so, it is they who have put Apiata at risk by sending him back into one of the most highly publicized war zones in the world, where he was photographed walking in full combat gear down a public street of the capital of Afghanistan, in the wake of a firefight. Demanding obedience and a pact of secrecy from the media in those circumstances is absurd. Furthermore, if the MoD and the government want the media to play ball, perhaps they can start by telling the truth when approached by the media for comment.
Instead, the first response by armed forces spokesperson when asked about the initial New York Times report was to deny the story – and misleadingly couch their reply not in terms of the SAS being present at the Kabul firefight, but in terms of the defence personnel attached to the ISAF command, who were clearly not present. Then Prime Minister John Key and defence Minister Wayne Mapp conceded the SAS were present, but claimed they were not involved in the firefight or in its vicinity. Now, foreign media reports indicate that the contentious Apiata photo was taken just after he and other SAS soldiers emerged from a room in which three bodies were found, in circumstances which strongly suggest our special forces were jointly involved in the fighting. As a rule, wilfully misleading the media is never a good way to win their co-operation.
None of this would be happening if the government operated a more sensibly open policy with regard to information about our special forces. Of course this does not mean telling anyone in advance where they will be, or what they will be doing there. After the fact though, there is no reason why summary information on the kind of tasks they are engaged in cannot be released. This is normal practice for almost every other country involved in the conflict.
Only last week for instance, Radio Netherlands carried a report about how the pullout of Dutch forces might affect Australian operations, got comment on this point from the Australian general involved, and cited the presence of 300 Aussie SAS forces in the province. Contrast this with a New Zealand refusal to say which province the SAS are in, much less what kind of work they are doing. It was only when the Norwegian media reported that our SAS would be replacing their special forces that we learned our contribution would no longer be, as previously, in long range patrols beyond Kandahar but in operations within an urban setting in and around Kabul.
Also, Since the Norwegian press had freely reported their special forces were involved in finding and neutralizing those responsible for making and placing roadside bombs, running the finance networks and drug running operations (while also training the Afghan counter-terrorism units ) we can reasonably conclude that our SAS are currently doing much the same. What possible value is there in concealing such information from the public? The Taliban know that’s what they are doing. So does every other country involved in the conflict.
The only reason is political. It is all about a domestic political agenda in New Zealand, and has nothing to do with the security of troops in the field. By keeping a lid on any information about the role of our special forces in Afghanistan, the government stifles the grounds for protest about our involvement. The less that people know, the less they can complain about. That how totalitarian regimes operate. In any real democracy though, the government should expect the media to challenge that agenda of secrecy, and not be browbeaten into colluding with it. Top marks to the Herald, for rising to the challenge on this occasion.