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November 10, 2008

Defence chief: ‘Rapid’ media must not lose perspective

By Paul McNally in Bristol

The chief of the defence staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, has described media coverage of defence stories as ‘pretty balanced’ – but said more needed to be done to provide context and background.

Giving the keynote address at today’s Society of Editors conference in Bristol this morning, Stirrup said the Ministry of Defence was broadly supportive of the DA Notice system – a voluntary, self-regulatory code on national security stories.

But Stirrup said the demands of rolling news meant “considered reflection” was sometimes sacrificed in the pursuit of immediacy.

“The media has to operate within an intensively competitive environment where drama and conflict perhaps play better than considered reflection,” Stirrup told delegates.

“This isn’t a complaint about how unhelpful the media is. It’s not your job to be helpful. Any organisation has to respond to the needs of its own customers and to the pressures of its own circumstances.

“All in all, media coverage of defence is pretty balanced. But it does seem fair to ask how we square the imperatives for speed and up to the minute relevance with the ambiguities and complexities.”

In February, Stirrup and army chief Sir Richard Dannatt decided to withdraw Prince Harry from Afghanistan after news of his tour of duty in Helmand Province was leaked.

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The Society of Editors had brokered a deal between the Ministry of Defence and media outlets, who agreed to a news blackout until Harry’s period of service ended.

“We need to do better in building a mutual understanding,” Stirrup added. “Rapid media reporting can accentuate the highs and the lows. We need to find a way of covering the details of the moment without losing the wider perspective.

“If we do not have accurate reporting that not just details the instances of the moment but also gives the larger perspective it will be almost impossible to persuade the British public that what we are doing is in their interests.”

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