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Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

1 Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

Marina Caparini


The concept of media as the ‘fourth estate’ is now firmly established as a main
principle in modern Western democratic theory. Free and independent media are
considered a key element in democracies, where they perform a vital role as a bridge
or transmission belt between society and those who govern. By providing
comprehensive and reliable information and giving voice to a diversity of views and
opinions, the media facilitate informed debate and critical appraisal of state action.
And by showing their audience what is actually happening, the media helps to
subject the claims and actions of a government to public scrutiny and thus hold
political and state actors accountable.
Democratic civilian oversight and accountability of the armed forces, police,
and other elements of a state’s security infrastructure are also now well-established
norms of democratic politics, and progress in these domains is linked with
democratic consolidation (Hänggi 2003, p.14). Yet, of all the sectors of public
policy, the security sector has proven in practice to be one of the most resistant to
external oversight and public input. Lack of transparency and low levels of public
scrutiny are often legitimised by governments and security elites for reasons
pertaining to national security. Even in mature Western democracies, national
security – and by extension, the institutional apparatus existing to provide and
manage it – has traditionally existed as a domain of executive prerogative, secrecy
and lack of transparency. The events of 11 September 2001 and the heightened
perception of security threats in various regions have further contributed to the
curbing of freedom of expression, access to information and public scrutiny of the
security sector activities.
Many militaries and police services have established media relations offices in
recognition of the need to constructively manage their relationships and
communications with journalists. However, the interaction between media and
security policy-makers and practitioners retains many potential points of tension.
Journalists tend to encounter special challenges when reporting on security-related
topics, including blocked or restricted access to information that is considered
sensitive, heavy reliance on official sources, and apparent trends in which news
organisations are proving less willing to devote resources to following complex
issues over long periods. Government and security officials may block or delay
release of information, manipulate or ‘spin’ information, or may seek to influence
journalists through a wide variety of means – from creating conditions of
dependence and potential co-opting by embedding reporters with armed forces in
conflict situations, to intimidating or threatening.

Marina Caparini

This book aims to examine the role played by the news media in governance
and oversight of the ‘security sector’ – the area of public policy concerned with the
security of the individual, the community and the state. According to democratic
theory, those who govern in the name of the people should be accountable for their
actions and for their management of public policy. As a public good that is provided
by the state, security should be subject to oversight and accountability as are other
areas of public policy. The media in democratic states are held to play an important
role in facilitating public scrutiny of government. A cannon of Anglo-American
democratic theory holds that the media is a fourth power (or ‘fourth estate’) that
acts as an additional check on the three formal branches of government – the
executive, legislature and judiciary. The media performs that role by monitoring
power, by giving voice to a diversity of views and opinions, by providing
information to the public to enable it to understand and critically assess state action,
including through the presentation of alternative viewpoints and policy options, and
by fostering public debate on issues of public concern.
According to the concept of ‘security sector reform’, security – the protection
of individuals, communities and the state from violence – is an essential condition
for sustainable development. The overall security context of a country must be
considered as well as individual institutions (including governmental and
administrative, but also civil society and media institutions) assessed in order to
determine whether there is effective management, transparency and accountability
in governance of the security sector. The underlying objective of security sector
reform is adequate and efficient security provision that is democratically controlled,
accountably managed, and does not undermine democracy, human rights or
development (Hendrickson and Karkoszka 2002; Born, Caparini and Fluri 2002).
Since its emergence in the late 1990s, initially among members of the British
development community, security sector reform has steadily been gaining support
beyond the United Kingdom among those in the fields of democracy and
development as well as security specialists. Nevertheless, its discourse and
underlying assumptions remain strongly influenced by Western experiences and
models. This publication surveys the main features of the media in security sector
governance as understood mainly in mature democracies, with the aims of
identifying some of the norms underlying media performance of their watchdog
function, and identifying good practices as well as problems and obstacles in the
fulfilment of that role. This introductory chapter sets out the main challenges for
the media in fulfilling its watchdog role in democratic states, drawing on democratic
theory, media studies literature, and the experiences of mature democratic states.
The essays that follow examine the media-security relationship from various angles,
including legal and normative perspectives, the media professional perspective, and
perspective of security experts. The security institutions which are the focus of this
collection include the armed forces, police and intelligence services, as well as
civilian structures that have been established to control and oversee these security
structures, including ministries, parliamentary committees, ombudsmen and civilian

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

review committees. While a more comprehensive definition of the security sector

would include paramilitary forces, customs and border management agencies, the
judicial system and penal system, we limit our focus here to examining the role of
the journalist and media in oversight and accountability, and therefore in good
governance, of three of the most common elements of the security sector.
The collection also includes contributions on the role and impact of the media
in post-conflict and post-communist environments. Media in states that are in
transition from authoritarian or state socialist systems to democracy tend to
encounter additional obstacles in functioning as watchdogs as a result of the legacy
of recent experience with restrictions on journalists and on freedom of expression.
Such societies not only face the challenge of establishing an adequate legal and
regulatory framework to enable the establishment of an independent and pluralistic
media, but must also deal with difficult economic conditions and cultural legacies of
years of authoritarian rule, such as continuing intolerance among political leaders
and state officials towards investigative research by journalists, low journalistic
prestige, co-optation, manipulation or intimidation by political or economic elites,
an engrained tendency towards self-censorship on the part of journalists and editors,
the absence of a culture of public information among officials, and a lack of
awareness of citizens’ right of access to information about their government.
While there is general agreement that the media plays an important role in
democratic transition and consolidation, and in facilitating good governance, there
has been little systematic research with regard to media’s role in reporting on the
security sector and its role in holding security actors accountable. Comparative
research is even rarer in this field, not only comparing states at different stages of
democratic development, but assessing media-state relations as applied across the
different institutional components of the security sector. This book is an initial and
exploratory survey of the media’s relationship with security and its governance. The
book contributes to the growing academic and policy literature on security sector
reform and, more broadly, democratic transitions. We hope that it will contribute
towards developing a more comprehensive and comparative framework of analysis
for examining relations between the media and the security sector, and especially
that it will deepen understanding about the role that media can play in the processes
of public oversight, government accountability and security sector reform.

Media and democracy

Free and independent news media are a key element in democracies, where they play
a vital political role in keeping governments and citizens aware of, and in contact
with, one another. One of the basic assumptions of democracy is that power rests
with the people, and that those who are entrusted with public governance must
remain closely in tune with the views and preferences of ordinary citizens (Taras
2001, p.29). According to democratic theory, the media functions as a bridge or
transmission belt between society and those who govern. Because the mass media is

Marina Caparini

closely linked to the political system and the public sphere, it plays a dual role of
representing and forming political opinion. On the one hand, mass media
communicate information that individuals use to make informed decisions and
political choices. On the other hand, politicians rely on the media to present their
positions, take stock of public opinion and interact with the public. Media,
therefore, form a fundamental inter-connective tissue between society and the
government, communicating information, intentions, concerns, priorities and
reactions to policies (Mughan and Gunther 2000, p.1).
At a minimum, the media in a democratic society should make available
comprehensive and reliable information about the political and social processes at
work in order to enable the average citizen to make educated decisions and thereby
participate in the political process. The information and public discussion and
debate provided by the media should make it possible for citizens to see and
understand what is going on in politics and society, and to evaluate their own
positions on the political process by comparing them to other views and opinions.
Public communication via the media should also embody interplay among different
sources of information and argument to produce what can be termed ‘public
opinion’ (Neidhardt 1994 cited in Meyer 2002, p.9). An effective and independent
media can function as a government watchdog by subjecting the actions of the
government to public scrutiny and thereby holding governments to account for
their policies and management of the public sphere. Investigative journalists may
expose corruption, wrongdoing and misuse of public office in government. Along
with other civil society actors, such as non-governmental organisations, research
institutes and interest groups, the media may help to educate citizens on specialised
topics such as national security and public security, enabling deeper policy debates
and informed discussion of policy alternatives. The media consequently are both an
actor and mechanism in holding governments to account.
A free media is achieved in part through legal-constitutional guarantees of
citizens’ access to information about the government and its policies. Free media
exist when they are protected from the arbitrary exercise of government power and
when media pluralism is institutionalised. ‘Democracy is strengthened and its
integrity ensured by the free flow of information and competition among public and
commercial media articulating (often under force of law) a variety of political
viewpoints to educate the public and allow it to make informed choices, particularly
at election time’ (Mughan and Gunther 2000, p.5).
More than just observing and reporting facts, however, journalists have the
opportunity to contribute to developing critical debate and dialogue in their
societies, and thereby to shape public and political agendas. This derives from the
view that the news media are institutions central to democratic life, and as such are
expected to function not only in the pursuit of profit, but also in the public interest.
In the context of security policy, this means not only monitoring government
policies and their implementation, but also examining alternatives to existing
security policy. Yet while the media may help to identify policy options, they tend to

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

be more influential once a policy is in place than before it is decided upon. The
media can excel at holding political actors, governments and international
organisations accountable ‘by being eyewitnesses to events, by communicating what
they see and hear to their audiences, by publicly juxtaposing a statement made
previously with a comment made today’ (Moeller 2002). Effective oversight by civil
society is a product of their expertise and capacity to independently evaluate,
challenge, or endorse governmental decisions concerning defence and public
security affairs. The media may help to hold political and state actors accountable by
showing their audience what is actually happening, which may be quite different
from what policy-makers, politicians or diplomats claim to be happening.
Openness has a beneficial effect on governance in democracies. Interested
citizens will not often seek access to information to which they have a right because
they are unaware of its existence. Having a more engaged and informed citizenry
enables fuller discussion of policy and policy alternatives. A key role can be played
by civil society organisations such as specialised non-governmental organisations,
which can stimulate debate and focus public attention on policy issues. Active
citizens and groups in civil society can also help to ensure that information about
public issues and public policies are more fully disseminated and analysed, providing
‘more concrete possibilities for political participation in the deliberative process
itself’ (Curtin 2003, p.115).
To enable the media to function as the fourth estate in the United States, for
example, the press were granted special rights such as immunity from giving
testimony in certain circumstances, the right to withhold sources, protection against
many libel claims and access to official information, all of which ‘were designed to
allow journalists to serve as agents of citizens in checking an inherently abusive
government’ (Carey 2002, p.80). During times of heightened threats to national
security, the American press has been patriotic and subservient. However, generally,
the role of the reporter became that of an observer standing outside partisan politics
(Carey 2002, p.81).
Especially concerning sensitive topics such as those relating to national security
or law and order, the media-government relationship is often characterised by
conflicts over secrecy. Governments may suppress information if they believe its
release would harm the public interest. Information may be withheld for more self-
interested reasons as well, particularly if its release has the potential to embarrass the
government. Sadler (2001, p.254) notes that the longer a government is in power,
the more likely it is to perceive that its political interests are the same as the national
interest, and the more likely it is to resort to suppressing information that will harm
those interests. Tensions with the media may thus arise when the media suspect the
government is using national security as grounds for withholding information that
would cause embarrassment or scandal due to corruption or mismanagement.

Marina Caparini

Private media firms and public broadcasters

There are various categories of media, who serve different audiences. The implicit
focus in this discussion are ‘serious’ news outlets, and more specifically, ‘public
affairs news’, which is considered by some to be the heart of serious journalism.
Public affairs news is published by the main newspaper(s) of record in a country.
Examples include the New York Times or Washington Post in the United States or
broadsheet papers in the United Kingdom, including The Guardian, The Independent,
Financial Times, Telegraph, and The Times. In contrast, ‘soft news’ is also known as
tabloid journalism, and tends to be focused on entertainment and celebrity, with an
obvious emphasis on sensationalism.
The serious media in a democratic society have a responsibility for ‘keeping the
democratic conversation going’ and keeping society open to a diversity of ideas, but
it shares this responsibility with other figures such as politicians, media regulators,
owners of media firms and citizens (Taras 2001, p.27). According to what has been
termed the ‘trusteeship’ model of the media, the mass media function as a public
forum and a public meeting place. Their pervasiveness through society makes them
the society’s public space. They are not only profit-making firms designed to serve
the interests of investors; they must also serve the public interest. The public,
therefore, are both consumers and citizens for the media. The responsibility is not
only with the journalist, but with media owners to serve the public interest through
providing information and discussion on public affairs and serving as watchdogs
over government activities, and avoiding becoming the tool of special and
commercial interests (Taras 2001, p.3).
The mass media constitute a key component of the democratic system without
any of the checks or constraints that apply to the other institutions. While the news
media can and often do play a vital role in holding public institutions and
governments to account, it is also true that the media are not accountable to anyone.
While codes of ethics and media ombudsmen are becoming more widespread and
are indicative of efforts to make media more self-aware and self-critical, the media
remain deeply competitive, driven to increase circulation, audiences and profits, and
these motives do not always or necessarily operate in harmony with their informal
role as democracy’s watchdog. If the media are a fundamental public space, where
ideas can be debated, then they must remain open to dissenting views and
unpopular ideas. The media must embody and sustain the marketplace of ideas.
The view that media can function as a mechanism for holding government
accountable is based on the assumption of an independent media – or at least some
media outlets that are not closely linked politically or economically to the state. This
is not the case in many states that have established formal democratic systems but
are still consolidating democratic structures and processes. In many South American
countries, for example, the press’s historically close relations with economic and
political powers and inability to become autonomous of them have inhibited
investigative reporting of wrongdoing in business and government (Waisbord 2000,

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

p.5). Media organisations that rely heavily on state-funded advertising are more
susceptible to the use of advertising as a source of leverage and pressure to abstain
from critical reporting. The well-documented trend towards the concentration of
media ownership in the US and other Western countries, in which a small number
of transnational conglomerates dominate in numerous media sectors (for example,
film, television, radio, book publishing, magazine publishing, newspaper publishing),
is also argued to have harmful effects on free speech and diversity in the democratic
cultures in which they are located. As media conglomerates acquire more control
over the media landscape, they are better able to commercially saturate society and
maximise profit-making rather than providing quality products that serve the public
According to McChesney and Nichols (2002, pp.58-59):
The brave new world of corporate journalism manifests itself in many
ways. The primary effects of tightened corporate control are a serious
reduction in staff, combined with pressure to do vastly less expensive
and less controversial lifestyle and feature stories. Where there is
“news,” it often takes the form of canned crime reports that foster
unrealistic and unnecessary fears….there is an internalized bias to
simply shy away from controversial journalism that might enmesh a
media firm in a battle with powerful corporations or government
On the other hand, countries that establish public broadcasting organisations
may seek to protect and promote societal interests through maintaining a media that
is rather insulated from the competition and imperatives of the commercial sphere.
However, public broadcasters may encounter special difficulties, which constrain
their freedom in exploring and reporting on sensitive issues. In Canada, for
example, reporting on the highly sensitive issue of Quebec separatism and Canadian
national unity has been subject to political pressures, accusations of bias and
controversy. The CBC has been accused of bias in its reporting on this issue and has
had to tread a fine line. Because of the highly emotional nature of the issue (the
possible separation of Quebec from Canada and thus the breaking-up of Canada)
and the geographical differences in perspective (with Anglophone Canada
overwhelmingly in favour of national unity, Quebec split between separatists and
federalists), presenting balanced coverage of the issue is extremely difficult.
Explaining the separatist perspective in English Canada would alienate audiences,
while in Quebec journalists must give equal weight to both sides. As a result, ‘the
public broadcaster [CBC] has been placed under an intense scrutiny that has
prevented it from aggressively reporting critical national issues’ (Taras 2001, p.141).
A more recent example is provided by the recent conflict in the UK between
the BBC and the government of Tony Blair over alleged manipulation of
intelligence information by the government. The conflict derives from a report by
former BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan that Blair’s then Director of
Communications, Alastair Campbell, had ordered that the dossier providing support

Marina Caparini

for the decision to go to war with Iraq was to be ‘sexed up’ with assertions that Iraq
possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The government maintains that
the BBC demonstrated an anti-war political bias in the affair, low journalistic
standards, and accused it of ‘tabloid journalism’, while the BBC accused the
government of ‘political bullying’ and threatening its independence through
references to possible implications for the upcoming renewal of its charter (Hall and
Wells 2003). The incident essentially concerned the public broadcaster’s willingness
to draw attention to weaknesses in the government’s justification for going to war
with Iraq, and the government’s belief that the role of the public broadcaster is not
to undermine the government.
Thus, both private and publicly-owned media confront in the contemporary
environment significant systemic challenges to their fulfilling the fourth estate role
and advancing the public interest, as enshrined in democratic theory. The following
sections examine more closely the watchdog function of the media and its
implications for the methodology and practice of journalism.

Investigative journalism

Investigative journalism, defined as the active and sustained examination by a

journalist of possible abuse of power, is viewed as one of the more effective means
of exposing wrongdoing in government. Investigative journalism was given a huge
boost after the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate revelations. In order for there
to be a supportive environment for investigative journalism, however, three
conditions must be met. First, a good regulatory structure must exist, enabling the
development and existence of independent and pluralistic media. This includes
entrenching the right of freedom of expression in the constitution. Second,
journalists require access to information from a variety of sources. A key means of
achieving this is through an access to information regime, which would help to
legally ensure that journalists and the public enjoy a right to access information held
by the state about government and its operations. Finally, media must be free to
publish the findings of investigative journalists, free from censorship or the fear of
reprisals, including legal remedies such as libel, insult or slander lawsuits, but also
threats and harassment. In other words, what restrictions exist regarding what can
be published must be narrowly defined and tightly circumscribed (Article 19 2003).
Even in mature democracies media freedom can be and usually is restricted
through national legislation on the grounds of national security. International law
recognises national security as a legitimate restriction on freedom of expression and
information. State authorities are often permitted by law to curtail media freedom
and access to information held by state authorities for reasons of legitimate national
security or public order concerns, whether during normal times or in a state of
emergency. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
states that the right to freedom of expression may be restricted for the protection of
national security, public order, or public health or morals, as well as, the rights or

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

reputations of others. Such restrictions must be provided by law.1 Of these terms,

however, ‘national security’ is the most difficult to define precisely, being highly
dependent on the context and interpretation. In the past, national security was often
invoked to restrict freedom of expression and information. In order to avoid
exploitation and misuse of the power to derogate these rights, media watchdog and
human rights groups have campaigned for narrow and more precise definitions and
interpretations of the circumstances of exception, namely ‘national security’, ‘public
order’, and ‘public security’. This includes the requirement that in specific cases
when such reasons are invoked in order to abrogate media freedom, the state
authorities must substantiate their claim that legitimate national security or public
order /security interests are at risk. The Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and
Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights attempted to
develop a narrow definition of a legitimate national security interest. According to
this version, restricting fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of expression
and information would only be allowed on national security grounds when acts or
expressions would undermine the territorial integrity or political independence, or
pose a grave threat to the safety of the population through the use or threat of use
of force (United Nations 1985). However, this formulation may be perceived as too
restrictive to result in common usage by state authorities not willing to tie their
hands in the face of future threats to security.
While neither the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of
Expression and Access to Information nor the Siracusa Principles are international
treaties, and they have not been adopted by the UN as non-treaty standards, they set
a high standard for respect of freedom of expression and information, and are
particularly stringent regarding exceptions based on national security claims.
Formulated by academics and human rights experts, they aimed to ‘distil existing
standards from a variety of sources of international and comparative law’, and
constitute ‘the cutting edge of international standards’ based on the law and practice
of democratic states (Mendel 2003, p.9).

Factors constraining the media as a watchdog

Some media experts argue that the media’s influence on foreign policy decisions has
an inverse relationship to how clearly a policy is defined and maintained. A strongly-
articulated and firmly-held policy is less susceptible to being changed due to critical
media coverage (Power 2002). The media can play a strong role in setting the
agenda of national debate, and in compressing the time available in which decision-
makers must make policy decisions. This is especially the case in situations of war or
There are additionally several trends visible today in the US and other
developed countries that have led some observers to question the effectiveness of

1 Article 19 (3), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), available at
URL: <>

Marina Caparini

the oversight function of the media. The most immediate trend is the climate of
securitisation that has followed the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.
The impact on the media and journalism has been direct, as witnessed by the recent
policy of embedding journalists with allied forces for coverage of the 2003 invasion
of Iraq (Franks 2003), the renewed emphasis on government secrecy, the move to
reduce the amount of publicly-available state information on subjects deemed
sensitive (Schmitz 2003), the denouncing of leaks by senior officials of the Bush
administration, ostracism of outspoken opponents of US policy and retaliation
against White House correspondents who ask hard questions of the administration
(Confessore 2002), with a strong possibility that a ‘chilling effect’ is being produced
in the United States.
A second long-term trend has been the increasing emphasis on entertainment at
the expense of substantive and informational political news content, sometimes
referred to as the ‘dumbing-down’ of news, in particular, the decline in serious
public affairs journalism. In television broadcasting especially, there has been a
noticeable shift away from addressing public policy issues and towards
entertainment. The trend in many Western democracies towards ‘infotainment’ style
of political coverage portrays election campaigns as horse-race types of contests,
paying little attention to important issues and too much attention to gaffes made by
candidates (Mughan and Gunther 2000). When less substantive information is
communicated, citizens’ ability to assess the societal consequences of the electoral
choices before them is diminished, and democracy is degraded. Moreover, for the
majority of people in the United States and numerous other developed countries,
television has become the primary source of news. This has imposed particular
constraints in the reporting of complex security-and foreign policy-related issues,
such as war and participation in peace support operations, since the standard
television news item comprises about three minutes of air time. One consequence
of the shift towards television as a source of news is that there is less discussion of
the context and background of news items.
A third trend which is thought to have implications on the watchdog role of the
media is the establishment of large corporate conglomerates, which include media
outlets, and that potentially hold to abuse their control of the press such as through
deliberate political bias. Such conglomerates contribute to the creation of
monopolies of media ownership, reduce diversity in media perspectives, and link
corporate interests to the media, and in the process often form close ties with
certain political elites. There is a perception in many Western countries that
mainstream media has become increasingly linked to centres of economic and
political power through such conglomerates, constraining independent and critical
journalism and reducing the spectrum of perspectives that are aired, especially on
vital public issues. The present era of media mergers tends to result in huge, for-
profit conglomerates, which often co-operate even while they compete in other
domains. As a consequence, enormous political clout is wielded by the
conglomerates (Taras 2001). Two of the main questions that arise concerning the

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

media’s watchdog role in the broader context of media conglomerates is whether

such conglomerates stifle competition, and whether citizens are given access to the
news they require. Do media owners decide what news is not fit to print or
broadcast, and do journalists censor themselves through a chilling effect of media
ownership, afraid to harm their careers by writing articles that are critical of some
aspect of the wide-ranging media empire of the owner? The growth in media
conglomerates has raised serious issues of accountability, media diversity and
independence, leading one media expert to comment that ‘[n]ow more than before,
perhaps, the great potential private power over the public agenda, hidden behind a
mask of objectivity, is imperilling political democracy’ (Hackett and Zhao 1998, p.5).
The issue of objectivity in journalism is now deeply contested within the field
of mass communications. Long established with impartiality and balance as one of
the fundamental principles of professional journalism, particularly in the Anglo-
American tradition, objectivity has been criticised for making journalists ‘passive
recipients of news, rather than aggressive analysers and explainers of it’
(Cunningham 2003). What is ‘objective’ varies according to who is speaking. In
recognition of the problematic nature of ‘objectivity’, it was dropped from the
journalists’ code of ethics in 1996. Moreover, the quest for objectivity in reporting,
it has been argued, reinforces the tendency of journalists to rely primarily on official
sources. The truth that is conveyed is consequently the ‘official’ truth – the view of
state actors and officials. The news culture that pertains in a particular country may
also privilege official news, making it less likely that alternative perspectives to that
of the government or state actors will be presented. Similarly, old habits of self-
censorship may remain from an earlier time when authoritarian methods were
employed to repress criticism from the media and society.
The reliance on official sources is especially prominent in reporting on security-
related issues. This was most vividly demonstrated by the practice of ‘embedding’
journalists with allied forces in the US-British war in Iraq, but is also visible in
regular reporting on defence and security affairs throughout the West. One of the
consequences of over-reliance on official sources is that it becomes more difficult to
present alternative perspectives or critiques. If critical reporting on the decisions or
policy of a president, minister, police chief or chief of general staff is perceived as
‘political bias’, the journalist may jeopardise his or her access to the official source
(Cunningham 2003). This was vividly demonstrated during the Iraq war via the
exclusion of critical journalists during question and answer sessions with Bush
government spokespeople. Furthermore, the dependence on official sources makes
editors and journalists more reluctant to raise issues that are not raised officially, and
thus reduces the media’s capacity to influence the public agenda.
Over-reliance on official sources also increases the chances that journalists will
uncritically accept ‘spin’ – that is, the carefully manufactured and managed official
statements that constitute the government’s position on an issue. In other words,
journalists are more likely in such circumstances to ‘cover the story not as it is
occurring but as it is presented, which is to say it is manufactured’ (Woodward cited

Marina Caparini

Cunningham 2003). A major study recently criticised US media coverage of the issue
of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which not only failed to distinguish
between the various types of WMD and programmes, but uncritically accepted the
Bush administration’s equating international terrorism with the acquisition of
WMD. ‘Many stories stenographically reported the incumbent administration’s
perspectives on WMD, giving too little critical examination of the way officials
framed the events, issues, threats and policy options…The tendency of the US
media to lead with the most “important” information and the most “important”
players gave greater weight to the incumbent administration’s point of view on
WMD issues, at the expense of alternative perspectives’ (Moeller 2004, p.3). The
example underscores that media has not only a duty to inform, but a responsibility
to educate, particularly in areas that are in the public interest but which may be too
esoteric or specialised for widespread familiarity with the issue to exist.
In North America, there is growing criticism of the bias apparent in much
political journalism. Reporters, anchors and media ‘commentators’ do not merely
report facts, but interpret them and predict their impact and implications. The
presentation of highly opinionated and speculative commentary in the context of
newscasts is also seen as part of the move towards a more entertainment-focused
television, including the development of widely-recognised celebrity journalists
(Hachten 1998, p.109).
Another obstacle to media performing a watchdog role is the indirect
consequence of the phenomenon of ‘judicial deference’. Specific legislation to
protect media freedom, access to information regimes, and narrow definitions of
national security help to protect the scope of media independence. In view of
national security exemptions, however, the courts may ultimately determine whether
national security or public order claims are justified in law as grounds for restricting
media freedom in specific cases. In many states, however, the judiciary tend to
perceive themselves as partners of the executive, rather than a separate and
autonomous branch of government (Kanyongolo 1996). Courts also tend to show
defence to the executive in matters concerning national security. In states where
judicial deference is common, the courts are unlikely to assertively protect media
independence against government claims of national security.
Finally, it has been argued that journalists now tend to focus on individuals
rather than policies. Personalising issues and conflicts contributes to an increasingly
adversarial relationship between the media and its subjects, especially when what is
at stake is something broader and more systemic than an individual’s decisions and
actions, more fundamentally it is about an institutional culture and relations.

Media and the security sector

The relationship between the media and representatives of state security institutions,
whether the military, police or intelligence agencies, is by its essence in tension
because of the deep differences in institutional cultures, values and functions.
Militaries and police services are bureaucracies based on rigid hierarchy, obedience

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

to authority discipline and discretion. Their missions and institutional settings are
strong homogenising factors, and members often espouse more conservative values
and perspectives than other members of society. In contrast, the media are
fragmented into numerous competing entities and are self-regulating. Journalists
tend to question authority and demand openness. Its practitioners are known for
their individualism and scepticism, and view one of their key roles as exposing
abuses of power. Whereas security institutions relay official information, and often
need to keep sensitive aspects of their work hidden or secret, especially when that
information could be politically embarrassing or damaging to the institution, the
media seeks transparency and disclosure. Furthermore, the goals of the media and
security organisations differ significantly: journalists seek to relay a story that will get
printed and will interest the public, whereas those involved in the security sector
seek to protect national or public security according to the missions and policies set
out by their institutional and political leaders.
Nevertheless, the media and the security sphere are dependent on one another.
Security institutions, like governments, ultimately depend on public support for their
activities and budgets. In a democracy, the media has a responsibility to subject
political leaders and security elites to public scrutiny and to question their policies. It
is important, therefore, that the media and the security sphere work together to
educate the public, question government about security policy, and hold leaders to
An independent and accurate media facilitates democratic governance, and at its
best functions to uphold accountability, transparency and good governance in the
public sector. The media can help expose wrong-doing, identify policy alternatives
and enable a society to make well-informed choices. The media face challenges in
performing these functions vis-à-vis the security sector, traditionally among the
most opaque and secret of policy sectors even in mature democracies.
The conceptual understanding of the media role in good governance has so far
not been very well developed. Those promoting democratic control and
accountability of the security sector stress transparency and maintain that there
should there be regular official statements on security policy. One of the major
obstacles to effective oversight of the security sector is lack of transparency and
restrictions placed on the reporting of the activities, budgets and expenditures of the
security apparatus. The media, along with independent civil society actors, play a
vital role in monitoring security institutions and, therefore, helping to ensure that
they are effective and accountable. They are vital elements in shaping the public
debate on security policy and decision-making. The media can educate the general
public to follow politics and policies. However, a careful balance needs to be struck.
Shallow coverage of policy issues will inadequately prepare citizens to act
knowledgeably, but if media coverage is too specialised with specialist terminology,
it risks leaving many readers behind.
Another element of the media-security sector relationship is the putative and
real impact of public opinion on policy-making. According to Pierre Martin, public

Marina Caparini

opinion is generally not taken seriously in Canada’s security and defence community.
Despite a perfunctory nod in the direction of public opinion, there is in practice
little effort by Canada’s defence department to probe the extent of public support
for various options concerning its defence and security. He notes (2001):
Even if one cannot hope to train and certify thirty million experts in
foreign and defence policy in the coming years, the public’s
preferences should not be dismissed as mere whims and moods. It is
incumbent upon the policy makers and the broader security policy
community to engage the public in a dialogue and to use the available
channels of communication – including, of course, the media – to
explain the linkages between the aims of policy, which are widely
shared by all citizens, and the means to achieve these aims, which are
often matters of contentious debate.
Two important trends affect this: First, when the media tend to rely on official
sources to validate claims to objectivity in normal conditions. Also rely on experts
drawn from the establishment (in terms of September 11, most experts are drawn
from the military and intelligence communities. Some expansion of the elite debate
since war became likely). Both of these do not meet democratic standards. Second,
when media moves away from objectivity and professional detachment in times of
tragedy, danger and threat to national security. The security sector intersects with
When dealing with highly specialised subjects such as the military/defence,
intelligence and national security, or law enforcement and public security, journalists
ideally should receive some specialised training in the subjects. Although journalists
increasingly have taken courses at university in other subjects and standards of
professionalism are slowly rising, this is not always the case. In many smaller media
outlets, journalists are expected to cover a growing range of subjects. With the
exception of large media organisations such as the BBC, the major US networks,
and other major national papers and networks, few newspapers or local television
stations have a military expert or intelligence expert on permanent staff.
In some societies with a well-developed media sector, tensions may arise
between some of the media commentators and the government when important
policy decisions are made without much public debate. In the absence of
government-provided information on policy options and the parameters of the
issue, and without hard questions asked by the political opposition and legislature,
the media may fill the gap by taking the policy on as a major point of focus (Porch
Another problem that arises is when security institutions focus on the positive
to the extent that they appear to be making available only ‘sanitised’ news. One
example was provided by the Canadian Department of National Defence following
the Somalia crisis and the extended period of public criticism of the department.
When a government department maintains a ‘bunker mentality’, tightly controlling
any information that is released, being very selective about what information is

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

released, and carefully crafting each public statement to present events in the best
possible light, it starts to lose credibility with journalists and with the public
(Hobson 2000).
In the following sections, this chapter will examine more closely media relations
with three specific components of the security sector: the military, the police, and
intelligence services. The following discussion highlights some of the main
similarities encountered in relations with media, but also key differences.

Military-media relations

This section examines the relations between the media and the military in peacetime,
including the contribution of the media to democratic control of armed forces and
accountability of defence officials. The role of the news media in shaping public
perceptions, attitudes and understanding of the armed forces, defence and national
security policy is addressed. While popular culture is another form of influence
through books, films and television programs, news media provide a steady flow of
stories and opinion pieces about these topics, which periodically becomes a wave of
coverage during war, crisis or scandal. Media also provide feedback to government
about security policy, especially failures in security policy. This section looks at
media affairs approaches employed by defence bureaucracies, constraints on
government information, and the use and misuse of the media in environments of
heightened domestic security concerns.
The existence of a symbiotic relationship between the media and the state
security sector is especially evident when it comes to the armed forces. Independent
and critical reporting by journalists is necessary to hold political and military leaders
to account, yet during peacetime most journalists are dependent on military
authorities as sources concerning the armed forces. The media is also necessary to
help build public support for defence policy and for the armed forces and its various
missions, particularly at a time when threats to national security in many Western
democracies have become diffuse and essentially non-military in nature. Like any
other public institution, the armed forces are a national asset that must account for
its actions and identify its relevance and contribution to the public interest. In order
for this to be transmitted to the public, the armed forces must inform the public on
a regular and frequent basis.
The need for effective communication with the public has given rise to the
public affairs approach in modern militaries. Effective public affairs seek to ensure
that both soldiers and citizens understand the role of the armed forces. In order to
ensure that it has public support, the military must keep the public informed about
what it does and why it is important. Furthermore, effective military public affairs
also sends a message to allies and potential adversaries of the extent to which the
country’s armed forces are prepared to defend their national interests and their
friends (Johnson 2001). Many democratic states rely on the independent media as
the primary means of disseminating news about the armed forces to the public

Marina Caparini

because it is viewed as more trustworthy and credible source by virtue of its

independence. The mass media are the most effective means of communicating
information to the general public. The public affairs approach seeks to make
accurate information available to the public on a timely basis. If this is not done,
information may be provided by another source, and that information may be
inaccurate or incomplete. In such instances the armed forces must attempt to
correct the incorrect information. The public affairs approach maintains that it is
more effective to get the military’s story accurately out from the start, than having to
correct erroneous information and negative images.
Close media scrutiny is widely recognised as an important element in
democratic control of armed forces. A free and independent media serves the public
interest by inquiring into the activities, operations and management of the military.
The media may also facilitate national debate on a country’s foreign policy and
military operations. In the US, some have argued that a decline in debate among
political representatives on US foreign policy has compelled the media to step into
the void and fuel the policy debate that is not being provided by policy and political
elites (Porch 2001). On the other hand, there are also complaints about ‘advocacy
journalism’, that is, when the press is perceived as deliberately seeking to drive
foreign policy, such as through reports on humanitarian disasters.2
Much of the literature on media-military relations is focused on the US
experience; what is the experience in other democracies? In Canada, the Access to
Information Act opened the Department of National Defence up to more scrutiny
by the media than it had ever before experienced. The greater transparency of the
defence department also threw into relief the ‘clash of cultures between an
organisation that has always valued discretion – some might say secrecy – and the
media’s increasing demand for openness’ (Martin 2001).
Sharon Hobson agrees that the military and media cultures differ and naturally
produce tension when they come into contact. While the military is conservative,
corporatist and secretive, the media is more liberal, public, and open. The military
expects the support of public for the performance of its legitimate missions and
tasks, while the media seeks not only to inform the public about military policy, but
also political, ethical and legal issues relating to the military. In the face of strong
public criticism over the Somalia deployment, the DND issued a gag order that
sought to control all media access to the military. This in effect constrained
reporting on military affairs, even those unrelated to the crisis. However, as Hobson
(2000) notes, ‘if the military will not speak for itself, reporters will go to others –
usually critics – who will speak for it.’ The military cannot ignore the media. The
military needs to be more proactive in getting its message across, and should not
view the media as the enemy. It is in its interest to transmit the information it wants

2 Comments of Seymour Topping in Alexandre Tiersky, ‘Rapporteur’s Report’ on the

conference Journalists Covering Conflict: Norms of Conduct, Carnegie Commission on
Preventing Deadly Conflict, 28 April 1999. Report available at URL

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

disseminated to the public and to seek public support by informing the public.
Ironically, the military was more open to the media during the Cold War than
following its end, when threats were unclear and defence expenditures questioned.
Media-military relations got even worse following the Somalia deployment, and the
military felt under attack by the press and public. When people distrust the
information they are given or its source, they will resort to the Access to
Information request.
In national security affairs, a conflict sometimes develops between the media,
which wants to publish some information that it has received, and the government,
wishing to suppress sensitive information on national security grounds. Openness in
government is thus juxtaposed with public interest in not fully disclosing
information. The UK, and earlier Australia, developed the D-Notice system, based
on voluntary self-restraint or self-censorship of the press on sensitive issues of
national security. The D-Notice system is administered by a committee consisting of
media representatives and members of government departments. However, because
there is no independent member of the committee, but only members with vested
interests of either the media or the government, there is no one to speak objectively
for the public interest (Sadler 2001). The challenge is in maintaining the system so
that it sufficiently balances the interests of free speech and national security, only
restricting information that poses a genuine threat to national security. The danger
in having such a system is that the government may use it to conceal corruption,
mismanagement or ineptitude.

Media and the military during armed conflict

The decision to go to war is one of the most momentous decisions to be taken by

any society. In a democracy, such a decision should only be taken with the public’s
informed consent, given the potential for loss of life and the high political and
economic costs of war, including declining standards of living, reduced social
services, and constraints on civil liberties. Furthermore, the public is entitled to
timely and accurate information about military operations. During a war the media
are the essential filter for communicating military strategies and the state’s foreign
policy objectives to the public, providing an important means for developing public
understanding of, and support for, the military mission. The media are instrumental
in developing and sustaining legitimacy for the decision to go to war.
Because of the grave consequences and ramifications of war, when
one appears imminent it is the role of the news media to hold
governments accountable to a considerable burden of proof. Possibly
more so than at any other time, this is when news media must
perform their much-vaunted ‘watchdog’ function over governments.
The press and airwaves should be filled with questioning, challenges,
and diverse viewpoints. In the public interest, no effort should be

Marina Caparini

spared with respect to a full exploration of justifications and

alternatives (Winter 2001).
The war correspondent is a specialised type of foreign correspondent. In
covering a war, they often encounter restrictions and censorship from their own
government and armed forces. This speaks to the special conditions and constraints
of journalism during war. The journalist still seeks to get the story and inform the
public, but is more at risk and has more potential to cause damage to operational
activities or even human life by revealing sensitive information. Journalists also can
potentially undermine public support for the war as a result of the information they
impart. According to Taylor (1992), the journalist is also limited by what he/she is:
Because journalists are neither sociologists nor historians, their
concern is more with the detail than the overall picture. They work
for news organisations the role of which is to bring the public the
extraordinary rather than the typical, the ‘newsworthy’ rather than the
commonplace. The pressure therefore to produce competitive stories
tends to make them focus upon what they consider to be ‘news’
which can produce good copy and headlines. But perhaps the biggest
casualty of all in wartime news reporting, focusing as it does on the
spectacular incident or speech around which the story can be framed,
is context.
There are several approaches that have been tried to mediate the media-military
relationship during war. One approach is the creation of the ‘press pool’. A press
pool is a group of journalists who are chosen from among the major news
organisations to obey security regulations and to share their reports on a conflict.
According to a US DOD concept developed following the poor military handling of
journalists during its 1983 invasion of Grenada, this group would immediately be
moved to the location of a war, and would only remain in existence until most other
reporters arrived. In the future, a news vacuum such as existed during the UK’s
Falklands War or the American invasion of Grenada will likely be filled by on-line
journalists, NGOs, and other media-savvy actors and those who seek to influence
public opinion (Porch 2001). It behoves modern militaries to co-operate with
media in getting the story out.
American media-military relations did not improve during the Gulf War of
1991. The military organised press pools, according to which accredited reporters
who agreed to abide by security regulations would be taken by the military to visit
sites and be briefed by commanders. The major news organisations agreed to a co-
operative ethic, in which pool reporters’ stories, photos and notes would be
common property and shared with non-pool reporters. This system experienced
several problems. First, military control of the pools created a perception among
journalists that they were being censored and manipulated. The military maintained
tight control of the movements of journalists, limited access to the battlefield, and
were not very responsive to the particular needs of the media, especially regarding
breaking news. The great majority of reporters sent to cover the war never actually

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

saw the war, as less than ten percent of them participated in the pools. Moreover,
the pool system was antithetical to the competitive culture of journalism. Lastly,
media critics maintain that the output of the collective efforts of media pools was
generally of mediocre quality (Porch 2001). The US Defence Department’s National
Media Pool (DODNMP) ended in late 2001 after the pool was not deployed to
capture the beginning of the war on Afghanistan in October 2001, and not for
sensitive missions where only a small number of press could be accommodated
(Thompson 2002).
Another approach to media-military relations during war is the system of
‘embedding’ journalists. This practice actually preceded the 2003 US-British invasion
of Iraq and was implemented for the first time in the post-Cold War period during
the American intervention in Haiti in 1994. It was also practiced in World War II
and Vietnam. Embedding reporters in a military unit is viewed as having the
benefits of breaking down hostility and distrust between the media and military. By
enabling the journalist to blend into the operational setting and share the hardships
and dangers that soldiers face, they get the military’s story out, function as a form of
public relations for the military, and get more respect from the military. The
drawback of embedding reporters, however, is that the close bonds that may form
between the journalist and the members of the unit he/she is embedded in may
jeopardise the journalistic objectivity and professional detachment (Hess and Kalb
However, even when journalists are not embedded, there are strong pressures
during wartime to provide stories that their audiences want to hear. Domestic
audiences generally want to hear supportive and positive stories about their troops
when deployed away from home. This ‘rally-round-the-flag’ aspect is an implicit
advantage for both the government and military concerned, and should in theory
encourage greater co-operation between military and media during military conflict
(Porch 2001).
Another conflict situation where media and military are interacting is peace
operations – humanitarian missions, peacekeeping and peace enforcement. While
stakes are generally lower for military participating in peace operations, and the
focus of journalists is less focused on the military, tensions with the media can still
arise. There are more actors involved in peace operations, including international
actors, NGOs and relief organisations. NGOs in contexts such as humanitarian
disasters and post-conflict situations often seek to influence official policy of major
states. To that end, they may provide analysis, statistics, documentary evidence and
other convincing material to help sway public and political opinion in the target
state. Some observers maintain that NGOs get involved in troubled areas without
adequate precautions, and finding themselves in insecure situations, then attempt to
get Western militaries involved as peacekeepers in order to stabilise their working
environment (Porch 2001). However, it appears that more often the case is that the
media focus for the most part on the military contingent deployed, to the general
exclusion of the NGOs (Moskos 2000).

Marina Caparini

In the US, which has sent military forces abroad over seventy times since 1945,
most of these decisions were made without the informed consent of the American
citizenry (McChesney 2002, p.92). In each of the wars the US has been involved in,
the historical record shows that the media served largely as an organ for militaristic
propaganda (McChesney 2002, p.93). In the US, journalism during war has evolved.
In World War II, reporting was an ‘essential service’ and both government and
journalists saw reporting as another weapon of war. In the Korean War reporters
with UN troops traded access to information for agreement not to criticise the
troops. In Vietnam, late into the war, journalists dropped the patriotic deference to
military authority and adopted a more neutral professional detachment. Since then,
US journalists have sought maximum access to information and minimal
government control of information (Schudson 2002, p.44).
Yet in the US, like most liberal democracies, a common pattern is for media to
rally round the flag. The aftermath of the September 11 attacks can be seen in that
context. Following the attacks, there was no questioning of the assumption that the
US would engage in a global war against terrorism. There was virtually no
questioning of the militarised approach. The US military-industrial complex benefits
enormously from such a war, fortuitously given the decline in its fortunes following
the end of the Cold War. The war on terrorism induced a massive increase in
resources and police and intelligence powers, with less accountability to Congress.
Much US journalism after September 11 has been propaganda. For example, CNN
has two versions of its coverage of the war in Afghanistan, a more critical one for
global viewers, and one supportive of the Bush administration’s policies for
domestic viewers (McChesney 2002, p.94). Structural weaknesses of US professional
journalism: in order to avoid appearing partisan, journalistic professionalism takes
official or credentialed sources as the foundation of news reports. When a journalist
reports what official sources are saying or debating, that journalism is perceived as
professional. Anything outside official debate is less credible and not professional.
Official sources give legitimacy to news stories. Journalists have internalised this role
as ‘stenographers for official sources’. According to one media expert, ‘the best
professional journalism is when there are clear and distinct debates between official
sources; this provides considerable room for journalists to roam as they prepare
their stories’ (McChesney 2002, p.95). In international politics, official sources =
elites. In the present war on terrorism, press coverage is comparable to that found in
authoritarian societies with limited press freedom. Many journalists would disagree
and claim that relying on official sources is democratic because official sources are
elected or accountable to people who are elected by the citizens.
However, McChesney (2002, pp.95-96) argues that a basic assumption of free
press theory is that:
Even leaders determined by election need a rigorous monitoring, the
range of which cannot be determined solely by their elected
opposition. Otherwise the citizenry has no way out of the status quo,
no capacity to criticize the political culture as a whole. If such a

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

watchdog function grows lax, corruption inevitably grows, and the

electoral system decays. If journalism that goes outside the range of
elite opinion is dismissed as unprofessional or partisan, and therefore
justifiably ignored, the media merely locks in a corrupt status quo and
can offer no way out. If journalists require having official sources on
their side to pursue a story, it gives people in power a massive veto
power over the exercise of democracy.

Media-police relations

Public security concerns the responsibility of policing services for the safety and
well-being of individuals and local communities. The primary institutional provider
of public security is the police, whether at the local, regional or national level. In the
west, police power has evolved overlapping mechanisms of control, including legal
and constitutional constraints and oversight by executive, legislative, judicial
branches, interest groups and mass media. Many liberal democratic states have
developed the norm of ‘democratic policing’, which includes police responsiveness
to the needs of the community, adequate oversight mechanisms and public
accountability of the police, and police acting within the law to uphold the law.
The media and the police have an interdependent and often symbiotic
relationship in society that is characterised both by co-operation and conflict. The
mass media play an important role in shaping citizen attitudes towards law
enforcement agencies. Many popular television shows revolve around police and
others involved in the criminal justice system, and increasingly, reality-based
programs involving tag-along coverage of police chases and apprehension of
suspects. Print and broadcast news media tend to give extensive coverage to crime
stories. Numerous observers have criticised television’s unrealistic portrayal of
police work and the news media’s tendency to emphasise sensationalistic aspects in
their news stories such as violent crime. One of the consequences of such media
coverage is the exaggeration of the prevalence of violent crime in the public mind.
Another consequence is the widespread yet erroneous public perception that police
work primarily concerns enforcement and crime-fighting aspects. In reality, the
police role has broadened and the majority of police work typically involves
performing community services such as maintaining order, crime prevention,
community education, helping the ill, and performing administrative functions such
as traffic management and issuing licenses (Simmons 1999).
Today, policing organisations are among the most widely scrutinised of
government agencies, a consequence of the direct impact of policing on the rights
and liberties of individuals in daily life, but also of changes in technology and public
expectations. The average person is more likely to come into contact with police
officers than they are with members of any other institution in the security sector,
policing has a direct and immediate effect on people’s safety and liberty. In short,

Marina Caparini

the capacity of the police to affect the individual and community in a democratic
state is far more immediate and therefore attracts more public attention and interest
than other state security agents, such as border guards or intelligence agents. The
development of technology, particularly the proliferation of video cameras, both for
entertainment and for professional policing uses, has also affected the degree to
which the public can observe the police.
The media document and inform the public about crime, threats to the security
of individuals and the community, and sometimes about measures taken by police to
address community problems. The media may also, in theory, alert the public to
instances of police violence, abuse, corruption and mismanagement, or less
dramatically, policies that are misguided or simply do not work. This ‘watchdog’ role
with relation to the police, however, may tend to foster an adversarial relationship
between the media and law enforcement.
Otwin Marenin maintains in this volume that media scrutiny can best facilitate
police accountability with regard to specific incidents of police behaviour which has
violated accepted norms, such as the use of excessive force. In contrast, the media
has a weak influence on the policy accountability of police, that is, the extent to
which policing policies and approaches reflect public preferences.
Due to the secretive nature of police work, however, the media must rely to a
large extent on press releases, press conferences and briefings provided by police
media/ public information officers in order to write their news stories. Television
journalists are especially dependent on remaining on positive terms with the police
in order to continue getting the voluntary co-operation to provide access to images
and on-camera interviews. Consequently, there are strong incentives not to report
on police brutality and misconduct when it is caught on tape. In some instances
documented in the United States, where certain journalists and news anchors have
reported on police misconduct, they have been the subject of pressure and
intimidation techniques by police, including harassment and intensive surveillance
(Irwin 1991).
One institutional development for many police services is the office of the
media/ public information officer, who is the main point of contact for media
inquiries to the police. The media officer is responsible for providing relevant
information, keeping media informed of developments in important investigations,
and directing them to other sources of information. The establishment of the media
officer role in police forces is the result of growing public interest in law
enforcement issues, higher volume of demands by media for information from
police, and lower levels of trust between media and police officers (Simmons 1999).
It denotes the increasingly formal nature of media-police relations. However, the
more formalised relationship between media and police tends to diminish the
investigative element of media reporting involving the police, which may not work
to the advantage of its watchdog function. The establishment of media and public
relations units also indicates that the police are becoming more proactive in
managing their image and promoting their ‘product’.

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

The spread of mass communication technology, including widespread use of

video-camcorders among the public, has affected the context of police
accountability. On occasion, it has helped to hold police to account for abuse of
authority. A dramatic example was provided by the video footage filmed by a
bystander of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King, a black man stopped for a
driving violation in 1991. In the Rodney King case, the television-watching
members of the American public were able to directly witness a visual record of the
incident. The widespread dissemination of the videotape on television had an
immediate impact on public perceptions of the police, leading to a significant
growth in public distrust of police (Lasley 1994). On the basis of that video, many
people determined that police had acted in a racist and abusive manner. The public
perception of police behaviour was thus formed before police authorities could
construct and publicly disseminate an official version of the incident. The incident
demonstrated the potential impact of the media and mass communications
technology – especially the camcorder and television – on accountability of police
and other agents of the state. Direct images of police officers in action facilitate ‘the
blurring of the lines between experts and laypersons, in turn affecting conventional
perceptions of authority in particular fields. As traditional sources of authority are
called into question, so does public trust in these authorities become much more
contingent’ (Goldsmith 1996). In other words, Rodney King’s experience with the
police became directly accessible to millions of citizens through the media. They
relied on their own observation, rather than the recounting of the incident through a
police investigator, and many arrived independently at the conclusion that the police
behaviour was illegitimate.
The media can play also an important role in co-operating and working with
police and local communities to educate the public to help reduce crime and
increase public safety. Broadcasting programs such as ‘Crime Stoppers’ and
disseminating information about missing children and wanted criminals serve the
public interest and facilitate the work of the police. Law enforcement agencies are
also increasingly recording arrests by police and questioning of subjects as a means
of protecting themselves against charges of abuse. By allowing television cameras to
ride along with their officers, some police departments are able to communicate
directly to the public the complexity, uncertainty and danger that are often involved
in a police officer’s work (Katz 1993, p.25).
At the same time, one of the issues that arises in media-police relations, yet is
not often discussed, is the need for journalistic restraint and discretion. More
specifically, irresponsible journalism can play a major role in inflaming tensions in a
community when reporting on explosive subjects such as alleged police brutality
towards minorities. When not carefully and rigorously researched, or when
unreliable witnesses, speculation or unethical leaks are used, journalists’ reports can
severely damage police-community relations or can whip public fears into a moral

Marina Caparini

panic (Lisheron 2002, p.20).3 This issue speaks to the ethical conflict sometimes
encountered by journalists between the duty of informing the public and that of
minimising harm to news subjects, crime victims, public institutions and the public4
(Hanson 2003, p.34).
At the same time, journalists must exercise vigilance to maintain their
scepticism and avoid being pulled into the ‘competitive frenzy’ of media circuses. A
recent example was the eventual exoneration of five Harlem teens who were
wrongly accused and convicted of the brutal rape of the Central Park jogger in 1989.
The eventual confession of a third party to the rape and its substantiation by DNA
evidence has raised the issue of what role biased media coverage played in the
wrongful conviction of the teens. Journalistic lessons learned from the case point to
the need for media to remember the possibility of false confessions, which children
and juveniles are especially vulnerable to when subjected to intense police
questioning. In addition, the case involved the use of racial code words, notably
‘wilding’ and the persistence of racial stereotypes that were not challenged by
reporters despite contradictory evidence (Hancock 2003, p.38).
Police and journalists thus exist in a complex relationship of mutual
dependency and necessary cooperation, both seeking information. However, they
differ in their roles, values and responsibilities, accounting for many of the tensions
and conflicts inherent in their relationship. While the media may exercise infrequent
and relatively little direct impact on the accountability of policing policy
management, the high degree of public interest in questions of crime and public
security, as well as specific incidents of police corruption or misconduct and does
provide some scope, albeit limited, for media oversight in public security matters.

Media and intelligence oversight

While in virtually every other sector of public policy, the media and members of
civil society perform a self-evident oversight function, their roles in terms of
intelligence are more equivocal. Intelligence agencies are governed by secrecy in
their activities, operations and products. The normally low visibility of intelligence
activities and personnel, secrecy and classification of information relating to
intelligence programs, budgets and operations severely restrict the information
available in the public domain. The necessity for secrecy in this domain creates
special challenges in terms of parliamentary oversight and scrutiny by the media,
with the result that intelligence services are, among the state’s institutions and
agencies, one of the least subject to democratic control (DCAF Intelligence
Working Group 2003, p.2).

3 National news networks in the US were criticised for scaremongering during the
Washington sniper episode.
4 For example, see the Washington Post’s use of the leaked John Malvo confession and
the prejudicial effect of this information on jurors in the Washington sniper case.

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

Media oversight of intelligence agencies is particularly challenging as a

consequence of the very few journalists who actually specialise in this area, and who
more generally lack specialised education in national security affairs. Non-specialists
may use loose and inaccurate terminology, may lack the background necessary to
frame discussions about intelligence issues, and may fail to put intelligence-related
issues in context by discussing the conditions under which intelligence agencies
operate. The paucity of journalists with a relevant area of expertise is compounded
by the decreasing support for investigative journalism in many mainstream media.
Investigative journalism is expensive, and consumes considerable time and
resources. Moreover, ongoing coverage of intelligence-related issues – which is
more likely to provide scrutiny and accountability than event-driven coverage – is
unlikely except in states with large intelligence apparatuses, as in the US, or states
having a recent history of repressive intelligence agencies and deep societal interest
in the subject, as is the case in Romania.
Nevertheless, the media can on occasion play a significant role in monitoring
security and intelligence agencies and bringing serious misconduct to light, but the
informal oversight they may exercise often occurs through the lens of scandal. For
example, media exposés of CIA wrongdoing in 1974 (especially by New York Times
journalist Seymour Hersh) led to the official inquiries of the Church Committee in
the US and wide-ranging changes to intelligence control and oversight. In such
instances the press serves as a sort of ‘unofficial opposition’ or fall-back
accountability mechanism: when internal control does not check questionable
behaviour, and external control does not identify and challenge it, the potential
exists in a free society for insider whistle blowing (leaks) to draw a journalist’s
attention to misconduct, corruption or other serious infraction of expected
behaviour, and for the journalist to bring the issue to public attention.
At the same time, intelligence services in democratic states are increasingly
cognizant of the need to cultivate public support and public trust. These are
essential, for example, in order to obtain adequate resources, recruit talented people,
and be trusted in their judgements and assessments by those using the intelligence
product. A main challenge faced by intelligence services, then, is to maintain secrecy
while gaining public support. Further, if intelligence services do not adopt a
proactive approach to managing their relations with the media and the public, their
public image remains essentially in the hands of journalists who – in the absence of
other information – may concentrate on scandal or failures rather than success in
order to produce compelling stories that attract public attention. A degree of
openness is helpful in educating the public about the general role of intelligence
agencies and this can help to build credibility. As with the other parts of the security
sector, taking on the educational role is ultimately in the self-interest of security
The interest in educating the public, however, can also be corrupted and lead to
abuses, as was demonstrated by the manipulation and misuse of intelligence relating
to Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by the

Marina Caparini

governments of George Bush and Tony Blair to justify the war in Iraq. In both
cases, intelligence was apparently manipulated (‘cherry-picking’ supportive bits of
information) and politicised (via pressure on analysts) to create unequivocal
assessments on the existence of the WMDs in order to convince foreign actors and
domestic publics of the rightness of the decision to take unilateral action and invade
Iraq. Both governments released secret intelligence in order to manufacture public
consent. The presentation of secret intelligence thus became a systemic part of the
political process of legitimising the invasion by the US and British governments.
The episode involving the WMD claims is noteworthy for depicting some of
the consequences of political presentation of intelligence in the public domain. A
deliberate policy of selectively putting intelligence in the public domain may appear
to make the job easier for journalists because it suggests that intelligence
assessments will be more frequently aired in the public sphere where they can be
debated. However, it raises the danger that intelligence will be politicised, and that
this will happen earlier in the process, since if analysts know that intelligence is
going to end up in the public domain, they will make sure it aligns with political
preferences. The episode also revealed that the British and American media had
failed to explain the nature of the intelligence process and product adequately in the
lead-up to the war. Basic information, such as the nature of intelligence collection
and analysis, was not generally communicated to the British or American publics,
nor was the professional norm in democratic states that intelligence should not be
politicised because it raises a real risk of being misused. Similarly, as discussed
above, Anglo-American journalists failed to educate the public about basic
distinctions contained in the blanket term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and their
failure to deconstruct Bush’s argument linking the undifferentiated WMD with
threats of cataclysmic terrorism by al-Qaeda and Iraq under Saddam Hussein
(Moeller 2004). The uncritical dissemination of information coming from a
government by the media can thus all too easily serve as propaganda, and is
especially amplified and legitimised when disseminated by papers of record or other
distinguished journals.
The intelligence sector, then, is one of the most challenging of areas for
journalists. It carries the inherent risk of over-reliance on official sources and the
tendency to reproduce official statements and perspectives rather than critical
examination of the way that officials frame events, issues and policies. It also carries
the risk of deliberate manipulation of information provided to journalists. Relying
excessively on official sources and failing to call on independent analysts and
present alternative perspectives in the events surrounding the war in Iraq, Anglo-
American journalists failed to maintain a discerning distance from official
perspectives, and consequently allowed themselves to be used to mobilise public
opinion on the basis of deliberately distorted or incorrect intelligence.

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

The media and the ‘war on terror’

While the initial media response to the conduct of the Bush administration’s security
measures linked to the ‘war on terror’ was relatively muted, there has since emerged
vociferous debate and self-criticism among American media professionals of the US
media’s performance in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, in particular its relative
docility and absence of critical reporting. American investigative journalism
concerning the war on terror has been criticised for tending to air perspectives
drawn from a narrow ideological band of experts, usually white, male, and members
of the elite. Those who dared to publicise more marginal perspectives were accused
of disloyalty: ‘By this rationale, the task of reproducing Pentagon propaganda
became a patriotic duty, at least in the eyes of those fearful that critical reporting
would undermine the public interest’ (Zelizer and Allan 2002, p.12).
During times of crisis and trauma, mainstream media claim to have no ideology,
but actually have the ideology of the centre. Moreover, they ‘tend to internalise the
official line’ (Navasky 2002, p.xv). Following September 11, attempts to question
official US policy were condemned as disloyalty. The press not only internalised the
Bush administration’s official policy, but its secrecy ethic, which has degraded the
public’s right to know (Navasky 2002, p.xvi). The combined factors of media
conglomeration (produces homogenisation of viewpoints and content, and a chilling
effect on adversarial journalism), the orthodoxy of objectivity, over-riding patriotism
which stifles the airing of dissenting views, the move towards greater secrecy in the
Bush administration regarding even routine release of previous presidential papers,
and the acquiescence of the opposition Democrats to this clamping down on the
public’s right to know (viz the untrammelled passage of the USA Patriot Act). The
overall result has been to hamper the flow of information.
The events of 11 September 2001 brought several issues simultaneously to the
agenda of journalism – national trauma, censorship, impartiality, patriotism and free
speech. Some think that journalism has entered a new age. Detachment of the press
suffered, most obviously in the United States, but also to some extent in other
countries. Schudson argues that journalism has shifted from the ‘sphere of
legitimate controversy’ to the ‘sphere of consensus’ (Schudson 2002, p.40 and Hallin
1986, pp.116-117). The sphere of legitimate controversy concerns electoral races,
debates about law and public policy. Journalistic coverage of this sphere is ruled by
objectivity and balance. The sphere of consensus, as the inner circle, concerns
‘motherhood and apple pie’ issues upon which there is basic societal consensus.
This is the sphere of shared values and shared assumptions. Here, ‘the journalist’s
role is to serve as an advocate or celebrant of consensus values’ (Hallin 1986, p.117).
The outer circle is the ‘sphere of deviance’, where those political actors and views
viewed as illegitimate and unworthy of being heard are located (for example,
communists in North American political debate). According to one media observer,
immediately following September 11 American journalists felt that they were in the
sphere of consensus, and the normally accepted mode of objectivity and tough

Marina Caparini

assertive professionalism were not adequate. They sought instead to provide

comfort, reassurance, as well as, information and analysis. They also dropped their
tone of detached neutrality, and any criticism of presidential leadership tended to be
muted (Schudson 2002, p.40).
Schudson notes that there are three occasions when US journalists abandon a
neutral detachment: during moments of tragedy (‘pastoral journalism’, that is they
seek to comfort and reassure), in time of public danger (reassure and provide
practical assistance as a community service), and during threats to national security
(withhold or temper reporting). The events of September 11 included all three
elements, resulting in a ‘prose of solidarity rather than a prose of information’
(Schudson 2002, p.41). Although this receded eventually, the experience showed
that journalism can never be completely neutral or detached from the community it
Another media commentator argues that US coverage of the aftermath of
September 11 was extremely poor, due to the code of professional journalism which
prioritised official sources. This amounted, in effect, to ‘anti-democratic journalism’,
a trend which has been strengthened by media mergers and conglomerates.
McChesney notes that the same media conglomerates that are supporting Bush’s
war on terrorism are the same ones that are lobbying for media ownership
deregulation. This is a conflict of interest that is rarely noted. Despite the slight
widening of the debate beyond the military and intelligence establishments to
include a more internationalist-oriented elite, this is not a genuine democratic debate
or democratic journalism. ‘Fundamental issues will remain decidedly off-limits’ in
mainstream US reporting, including the centrality of military power, the idea that the
US is a benevolent force in the world, the assumption that the US has a right to
invade any country it wants to. This is ‘establishment journalism’ (McChesney 2002,
pp.97-98). This type of journalism also avoids contextualisation because ‘if done
properly, tends to commit the journalist to a definite position and enmesh him in
the controversy professionalism is determined to avoid. Coverage tends to be a
barrage of facts and official statements. What little contextualisation professional
journalism does provide tends to conform to elite premises’ (McChesney 2002,
p.98). The result is ignorance on the part of Americans regarding topics receiving
considerable journalistic coverage.
The war on terror provides a window on the issue of media neutrality in other
settings as well. For example, the Canadian media perspective following 11
September was uniformly supportive of the US ‘war on terrorism’. Much media
coverage contained elements of nationalism, patriotism, jingoism, but also racism,
classism, and xenophobia (Winter 2001, p.xiv). The Canadian media is viewed by
media observers as having adhered to the ‘prevailing orthodoxy’, which reflects the
policies, statements and priorities of the US government. However, at a time of
heightened security concerns, war and restrictions on civil liberties, critics argue that
adversarial journalism is more essential than a media that acts as a de facto extension
of the US administration.

Media and the security sector: oversight and accountability

Security concerns arising from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New
York and Washington, and subsequently the 11 March 2004 bombings in Madrid,
have resulted in expanded intelligence and law enforcement powers in many states,
and renewed vigour with which governments are engaging in domestic surveillance
and monitoring of suspect individuals and groups (Eggen 2003, p.A01).
Simultaneously, there has been a roll-back in the amount of public information that
has been provided by the state (in the US this includes such information as
environmental impact assessments, aviation security violations, nuclear plants,
defence industries and critical infrastructure such as power plants, water supply and
pipelines) and further derogations of freedom of information (Miller 2002). The
curtailing of public access to certain types of unclassified government information is
a matter of concern for those who deal with accountability and oversight issues, as
decisions to withhold information from the public may be taken for reasons that
have little to do with national security, and more with avoiding publicity on a
controversial issue, evading legislative oversight, or attempting to manipulate the
political system and influence political decision-making (Aftergood 2002).


When media expose wrong-doing or misconduct, they function as watchdogs, and

hence as mechanisms of accountability. Beyond the watchdog function, by
presenting accurate, balanced and timely information on issues of interest to society,
journalists help citizens in making informed decisions concerning who governs
them and how they are governed. When media help the public to make well-
informed choices, they function as an instrument of good governance. Good
journalism provides channels of communication in society, helping to educate,
inform, and exchange information between the public and its leaders. Journalism
thus plays a vital role in identifying what is at stake in a particular policy or decision,
in framing issues for the public, analysing the issues and identifying possible
solutions and alternatives. To the extent that the media constitute an essential
element of an informed public and responsible governance, it deserves deeper and
more sustained study by those in the business of democracy promotion and good
As described above, journalists encounter numerous obstacles and challenges in
reporting on security-related issues and performing the watchdog function. It
requires a media system has some distance from the state and ruling government.
Journalists need some measure of protection so that they are not unjustly accused of
libel, sued or imprisoned for ‘insulting’ high officials when they report on
corruption. Watchdog journalism also requires that the media enjoy a degree of
economic independence; heavy reliance by a media outlet on state-funded
advertising is an source of leverage that can be used to stifle critical reporting. In
many democratic societies, the watchdog role of the media with regard to security

Marina Caparini

and intelligence agencies is even weaker due to the comparatively few journalists
who specialise in the field.
But there are numerous other factors that can potentially undermine the
effectiveness of the media in its oversight role vis-à-vis governments and security
institutions and officials. One of the main factors is linked to the traditional
methodology in journalism which tends to privilege official sources and give greater
weight to the views and position of the government and its leader. A tendency to
reproduce official statements and perspectives rather than subject them to critical
examination is perhaps more common in the security field than others. Journalists
also risk internalising the official line in times of acute national trauma and
perceived threats to national security. Journalists also risk being manipulated by
insiders, including official sources but also those who leak information or whistle-
blow. In the security field, where getting access to reliable information can be more
difficult than in many other fields, the journalist may also risk getting co-opted by
becoming too close to the officials or institutions on which they are reporting, and
thus lacking a sufficiently critical distance.
Recent events surrounding the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism underscore
the vital role of the media as watchdog of democracy, and the essential contribution
of the journalist to helping citizens make informed decisions concerning who
governs them and how they are governed. While the obstacles and challenges to
producing accurate, balanced and timely reporting are greater in the security field
than in others, so too are the potential costs of failure.


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