Armed conflict, the media and the responsibility of discernment

By Jill Segger
March 20, 2011

Eighty years ago, the conflict in Libya would have been glossed over as a “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. In an age of 24 hour news and of media conscious politicians, we are saturated with images, comment and spin. It is essential to be vigilant about the relationship between the authorised version, what its presentation really tells us and – not least – our own responses to it.

Watching news programmes over the last 24 hours, I have been struck by the undertone of excitement in the demeanour of the various senior military officers, both retired and currently serving, who have been called upon for comment. These men are in many ways impressive; they are authoritative and articulate, their faces are appropriately grave, but there is no mistaking their controlled zest for what is unfolding. As we so often hear from the lower ranks describing their readiness for combat “this is what we were trained for. It's time to put our training into action”.

There is no question about either the courage or technical ability of our armed forces and the eagerness of very young males to test themselves is entirely understandable in this context. But it is a matter for concern that these attitudes are permitted to go largely unquestioned. Pride in the job is one thing, the matter of whether that job is beyond all challenge or examination is very much another.

As military action began, both the broadcast and print media presented us with images of sleek fighter planes being readied for action and of missiles discharged from naval vessels. There are whizzy graphics of the relative logistical capacities of the military forces involved and much detail on the technical attributes of the hardware. This all feels uncomfortably close to war as a computer game. A culture at ease with playing 'Call of Duty' and 'Black Ops' is perhaps not so discerning about the realities of war as their fathers and grandfathers.

The politicians are a great deal less straightforward than the military men. Leaders of every political stamp have always known the potential gains of wrapping themselves in the flag and basking in reflected military glory. David Cameron may display a little more subtlety than Margaret Thatcher, pictured looking determined in the turret of a tank during the Falklands war, but the agenda is the same.

The Prime Minister who, only six months ago was authorising the sale of weapons to Muammar Gaddafi's regime, appears on our screens with a self-consciously tight-lipped expression, to extol our service personnel as “the bravest of the brave”. No one is likely to call them cowards but their courage is not the issue here – that attribute is being abused as an insurance against criticism and a smokescreen to conceal the moral failure and myopia of succeeding governments.

So long as we remain alert to the ploys of the politicians and the partiality of the generals, there is truth to be heard. Governments may propose but war has its own way of disposing. The pledges that there would be no invasion, no “boots on the ground” was blown away by the hubris of George Osborne on the Andrew Marr Show this morning (20 March), who, as well as bragging that the UK has the fourth largest miltary budget in the world, let this slip: “We are not considering ground forces at the moment”. William Hague has claimed that “We want the Libyans to determine their own future”. As long as that future serves UK interests, presumably.

Hypocrisy and untruth will not survive exposure and watchfulness. The time will come for us to hold government to account. But to do that, we must keep our own vision clear and not permit patriotism, partisanship or self-interest to cloud our humanity. For me, the anguish of a doctor in Misrata, unable to treat the injured or save children from harm, is the authentic voice of this conflict.

I would not have heard it but for our modern media. My grandfather did not hear the voices of the suffering Czechoslovakians whom Chamberlain dismissed so lightly in 1938. Whatever the message, to hear it well remains our own responsibility.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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