THE BLOG

How BBC3 Changed the Future of War Reporting

09/12/2014 21:37 GMT | Updated 08/02/2015 10:59 GMT

I will always remember the first time I saw Our War, the helmet-cam series that returns to Afghanistan for the final time on BBC3 this evening. It was 10 June 2011, and I was sitting in the Joint Media Operations Centre at Camp Bastion, watching the opening episode on a wall-mounted 42-inch television. The Taliban had ambushed a British patrol in the rubble of Now Zad, and things were not going well. Every time one of our boys let off a burst of gunfire, or something exploded, I thought the television was going to come crashing down onto the floor. The patrol sergeant's Go-Pro footage, blown up on the widescreen, looked extraordinary, showing an uncensored version of the war that was both extremely loud and incredibly close.

That first episode shook our flimsy, prefabricated office in more ways than one. I was running the British Army's Combat Camera Team (CCT) at the time, filming and photographing British troops in partnership with their Afghan colleagues, showing the world the progress that was being made in Helmand Province. By the summer of 2011, our remit had shifted from combat to redevelopment. That meant a greater focus on training and recruitment, and a move away from the mixed messages of actual fighting.

Our War rather flew in the face of that. The firefight in the opening episode had been filmed back in 2007. The narrative it conveyed - British troops are fighting and dying in the War on Terror - was already starting to look 'off-message'.

"This isn't good," said Ali - the CCT photographer - sitting next to me. "Where are the key messages in this?"

Dale - the officer in charge of Strategic Messaging - was sitting at the next desk. He already had the answer.

"We have thought about this," he said. "In the next few days, we'll put out a story about how much Now Zad has improved."

The Our War footage had been cleared by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) back in the UK. Now they wanted us to highlight 'modern-day' Nowzad with a 'Then and Now' piece, showing the town centre in all its reconstructed glory.

No plan survives contact with the enemy - as everybody in the British Army is fond of saying - and this is true even in the cosseted world of Media Operations. It didn't take us long to remember that a NATO jet had dropped a number of bombs into the centre of Now Zad just two weeks earlier. Tragically, at least nine Afghan civilians had died, and the locals were still clearing up the rubble.

Needless to say, the 'Then and Now' piece was scrapped.

The Our War series, however, was up and running, with a second series getting the thumbs-up from the MoD the following year. The format had proved a hit with viewers and critics alike, and at a time when 'Afghanistan fatigue' was threatening to derail the military's media campaign, it was at least one way to keep the British public engaged with the war.

The series has since won two Baftas, paving the way for tonight's feature-length episode on BBC3. The trailers have already promised yet more striking helmet-cam footage, including one extraordinary sequence in which a soldier on his belt-buckle scratches at the ground in search of an IED.

The beauty of Our War is that it represents war reporting in its purest form - not relayed through the filter of a correspondent with one eye on their career ladder, but told - quite literally - from the combatant's point of view. No actual reporters are required.

In that respect, it also suits the MoD. Whitehall still gets to clear the final cut for each programme, just in case there are any issues relating to operational security.

Whether another series like Our War ever gets the go-ahead remains to be seen. Earlier this year the government ordered a review of communications across the MoD, the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. This has resulted in the establishment of the Directorate of Defence Communications, a body employing around 500 staff - both civilian and military - which has been given much greater control over the wider armed forces communication set-up. One of the more notable aspects of this transformation is a greater reliance on social media, allowing the MoD to engage in 'direct-to-audience communication'. That means the military devoting more of its resources to filming and photographing its own operations, before transferring the edited material onto the internet.

The beauty of this particular set-up - for the military, of course - is that it allows the MoD to side-step the big media outlets. By producing its own content - not just through CCTs, but through the soldiers, sailors and pilots themselves - it's recreating the Our War effect, but with the added bonus of total editorial control.

As the world becomes an increasingly dangerous place for foreign correspondents, the MoD is rebooting its relationship with the media, drawing upon the skills of the servicemen and women already out on the ground.

Who needs reporters, when you can do it all by yourself?