The military and the media have always had a slightly tense relationship.
It seems both organisations do not comfortably understand the other, the culture, the motivation or the drivers that make people act the way that they do.
But this relationship is a necessary evil, with the military needing to work with the media to create programmes that inform, educate and, hopefully, inspire the next generation of recruits, while the media want access to the people and equipment that can so often make visually impressive stories and bring the public closer to the Armed Forces.
Sometimes this relationship can be problematic, and end up in a place where the desire to get good entertainment could be seen to damage the military’s image.
The TV show ‘Lads Army’ is a good example of where things might not have turned out as comfortably as initially hoped.
Intended to imitate the national service experience of the 1950s, the show, which ran for four seasons between 2002 – 2006, simulated carrying out basic training for volunteers who wanted to learn about life in the Army.
Each season trained a platoon of volunteers through Phase 1 training, complete with authentic uniforms, bad food and a cast of recently retired NCO’s playing the role of training staff with considerable relish. Marked by a story of redemption of ‘bad lads’ and trying to change the path of some people’s lives, the show made for popular entertainment on ITV, securing more than 5.5 million viewers at its peak.
The Ministry of Defence (MOD) had provided some limited support to the first series, including access to MOD training estate and possibly permitting some reservists to take part.
The problem for the MOD was that the audience for the most part could have seen the show and assumed that this was still the modern British Army.
The outcome was not good. If you had left the British Army in the 1950s and 60s you might have assumed that nothing had changed in the intervening period, while those who were thinking about joining might have seen the show and assumed that this was what life in the Army was like today – iron discipline, poor food, bullying NCOs and a generally miserable life.
It was thought that 'Lads Army' could likely have a negative impact on recruitment, and that people would decide not to serve, with the military moving to rapidly distance itself from any future series of the show – to the extent of warning Regulars and Reservists that they would not be permitted to take part in it in any capacity either.
It got to the stage that even years afterwards, senior British Army officers involved in recruiting had to defend recruiting practices. In 2011, Brigadier Jolyon Jackson, head of recruitment was quoted as saying: "We're nothing like TV programmes such as Bad Lads Army (which whips delinquent youths back into shape using gob-spitting, shouting sergeant majors)."
This perhaps highlights the problem the MOD has in its relationship with the media - the modern reality of military life is so different from the lived experience of people from previous decades that trying to show this is difficult.
It's even harder when people see television content and assume it’s real, and that joining the Army means walking into a world of ‘Bad Lads Army’.
Perhaps uniquely in public life, the MOD has an ability to control and restrict access to its people and operations in a way that other parts of the public sector do not.
This means any media films made need to be done so working in collaboration with the MOD, and not as a truly independent outsider.
When a film crew is dependent on MOD support to get on site, to get into operational theatres and at times in those theatres, for life support itself, it is hard to not reach the view that the MOD holds all the cards in any relationship between itself and the media.
Given this, what is the MOD approach to media these days and how does it balance off these very real challenges to try and inform the public without damaging its chances of successfully attracting recruits to join?
The MOD approach at present seems to be built around trying to create programmes that appeal to different audiences, and for very different reasons. These can broadly be summed up as being ‘recruits journey’, ‘life in the unit’ and ‘operational deployment’ films that try to build a public understanding of how the military works.
Recruitment films are always a popular choice for producers as they give a chance to show a variety of people on a journey that doesn’t always have a happy ending. Regardless of the service involved, these documentaries seem to follow a deeply predictable pattern, from episode one where the group are brought together as strangers, via challenges, disasters and at least one departure through to the successful pass out of the team at the end.
For the MOD, these shows are a good opportunity to highlight how training has changed, by, for example, showing off the better quality accommodation, good food and the chance to highlight the prospects a career in the military can give.
The target audience for this sort of show is perhaps two very distinct groups – parents, and the likely future recruits themselves.
For parents, the show needs to highlight the opportunities on offer, allay any fears (so prevent worries for instance of ‘Bad Lads Army’ type experiences) and try to highlight just how good the offer is. Oddly perhaps, film footage of bathrooms and bedrooms is powerful as many people want to know what the domestic arrangements are like onboard. Parents (and to a lesser extent grandparents) can be powerful motivators to their children to join – the nudge power of these shows can be considerable.
For the potential recruit, the show needs to sell a life which not only looks interesting, but which also seems attainable. Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes the Royal Marines made in their advertising material in recent decades was the ‘99% need not apply’ campaign – the goal was to make out that the individual Royal Marine was someone who most could not be. The problem appeared to be that 99% of people didn’t apply, perhaps feeling put off by the tone of the campaign.
While building a message that your team is tough and elite and better than anyone else may work for those inside the system, it’s little use if you cannot attract new recruits. This means that recruiting documentaries need to be carefully calibrated to show that with a bit of work and effort, most people can make something of themselves.
This was particularly felt in shows like Navy School and Royal Marines Commando School. Both shows focused heavily on the individuals and their stories, building messages about the friendships being built, plus the growing confidence each person had in themselves. To a target audience of people that may have grown up in difficult circumstances, or who felt that life had given up on them, the opportunity to see a new life and a new you can be very powerful.
It is telling that in the aftermath of both shows being broadcast, recruiting offices reported a surge in the expressions of interest to join. Clearly something in the show appealed to people, although it isn’t entirely clear whether this led to an increase in the number of trained personnel passing out from HMS Raleigh and Lympstone as a result.
Interestingly, shows like Navy School sometimes receive a very poor reception from serving military personnel. On many online forums, there was strong opposition to what was broadcast, feeling that it encouraged the wrong type of people to join (by implication too soft or weak to meet the self-defined warrior ethos that people wanted) or that it perhaps suggested service life was too soft.
There is perhaps a wider question too about the challenge for people who sign the consent forms and agree to take part in these sorts of fly-on-the wall documentaries.
By definition, the producers are looking for some characters or individuals who make for interesting television – hence the focus on people who leave for odd reasons, or who do embarrassing things. One of the most popular themes seems to be individuals who are failing, but somehow scrape past.
The risk though is that viewers only see a fraction of the footage and don’t know how it has been edited.
Consequently, when people who starred in the documentaries get to their units, they might then find the whole unit aware of their experience in training. Never mind that probably everyone in the unit had a nearly identical experience themselves, the public footage could be enough to cause them problems. Not for nothing do many people now actively advise against signing up to be filmed in these sorts of documentaries for fear of the percieved future damage it could do to their careers.
Training documentaries are popular because they highlight a phase of life that is easily relatable and makes good television. More complicated are the documentaries that focus on the operational role and employment of UK military units as this requires a different focus.
There have been many different documentaries in recent years that have tried to tell the story of the British Armed Forces – some have been with film crews embedded at sea (for example Britain’s Biggest Warship), while others have been with people filming on the ground, often in combat situations (Ross Kemp’s Afghanistan documentaries).
The challenge with this sort of film is to find a story that is both interesting, but also tells a human story that is relatable to a wider audience.
A perennial challenge that the MOD faces is in trying to communicate a message to many different audiences, including those who have served, those who have never served but know huge amounts of technical detail and those that have never served but may want to learn more about the military.
Producing a documentary that meets the approval of many disparate groups is perhaps difficult – make the commentary too focused on detailed information and those who know little about the military switch off, while make it too general and you find complaints from the audience who probably understand more about the Armed Forces than the programme makers. This makes it very difficult to strike a balance that lands effectively without mildly annoying some groups.
A wider challenge for the MOD, and Services is how to work with documentary makers to produce footage that casts the MOD and the military in a good light, or at the very least doesn’t embarrass it, while not resorting to censorship.
The military is understood to have felt badly burned by the documentary ‘HMS Brilliant’ in the mid-1990s which examined some of the challenges in integrating men and women at sea, but in military circles it was thought that it did not present the Armed Forces in a good light as some suspected it was aiming to highlight vastly different ‘them and us’ cultures between Officers and Ratings”.
Even the then First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jock Slater felt compelled to complain, and it is telling that some years elapsed before the MOD seemed willing to consider similar projects again.
When working in operational theatres there is a balance to be struck between permitting access, but also protecting operational security.
For example, how do you film in a way that shows what sort of work UK troops are doing, but which also doesn’t risk their lives – for instance showing tactics or equipment used in a way that could compromise them?
But equally, if the accompanying MOD press officer steps in too quickly, does this not only make for poor TV, but also open the MOD up to accusations of censorship and that it has something to hide?
It is this sort of difficulty that has in the past put the MOD off supporting these sorts of documentaries.
Ironic then that Chris Terrill, producer of HMS Brilliant, has since gone on to make some of the most successful and popular shows of the last few years on both Royal Marine training (in which he actually earned his own green beret) and also two seasons of Britain’s Biggest Warship, all about the sea trials and deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth.
More widely than documentaries, the MOD has also occasionally supported some drama shows when they try to make use of military assets.
The old Warship TV show dating back to the 1970s was one of the most popular shows of the decade, and was actively supported by the MOD – including access to ships, film footage and advice. Later attempts to resurrect the format with the drama ‘Making Waves’ were less successful, with only three of the six filmed episodes ever being screened.
Similarly, the 1990s drama show ‘Soldier Soldier’ was a good example of how MOD support was initially offered to showcase military capabilities and opportunities, particularly in the post ‘Options for Change’ British Army, which was downsizing from 150,000 to nearer 100,000 soldiers with hugely emotional regimental amalgamations underway, particularly in the Infantry, but as time went on and the plots appeared to be more far-fetched, and more about off duty high jinks than the life of a soldier, it seemed that MOD support was waning.
This is perhaps the biggest problem that the MOD faces when working out what sort of programmes to support. Does providing access to military equipment and units, perhaps even to the extent of disrupting programmes while filming goes on, make sense, particularly if the show doesn’t necessarily put the MOD across in a great light?
There is a complicated balance to be struck here – a drama show that highlights British military roles and capabilities may on paper be brilliant, but if it perpetuates inaccurate clichés, or out-of-date stereotypes, then is it worth supporting, or would the damage to the MOD brand be too great?
The constant worry must be that a misjudged show that purports to show life in the Armed Forces may actually do more harm than good.
For example, it is hard to imagine that the MOD is particularly keen on the plethora of reality shows that focus on things like ‘SAS Are You Tough Enough’ – while they may be compelling TV showing exhausted people being pushed beyond their limits, the worry must be that this is what people think the modern military is like – despite in reality only a fraction of people ever going through Special Forces selection for real.
This isn’t just a problem for the MOD though. In the US there is a constant tension between Hollywood and the US Armed Forces.
The Pentagon spends a lot of time trying to work with producers to support film production to make it look authentic – for example permitting film crew access to active sites and even providing troops for use as extras, in return for having a say over how these are depicted on screen.
This has led to a tension with Hollywood film makers who have to strike a balance between depicting things accurately and appropriately, but also ensuring that there is the right level of character and drama in a film.
This can be difficult as what looks good for film may be sufficiently inaccurate to the point that it causes frustration with the active duty / retired community who not only call out inaccuracies, but wonder why Government support was provided in the first place?
The longer-term question that the MOD perhaps needs to address is how to continue to market the military, and support the media in making content about the Armed Forces in an era when television is just one medium among many?
While there were strong arguments to support access for filmmakers to sites to make recruit training documentaries for television, in part because it helped send positive messages to potential recruits and the families, is this still relevant in an era when many of the target audience are just as likely to be on TikTok and YouTube as they are watching TV?
A real consideration for the MOD is going to be to work out how it can strike a balance between support to established broadcasters, while also working with new mediums to produce relevant content that lands with its intended audience.
The future is going to be increasingly about how to make use of every media channel, and working in different ways to capture audiences that are ever more niche, and which will not all sit down in front of the telly at 7.30pm on a Sunday evening to watch a TV show together.
So, while the age of the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ TV documentary may not be over quite yet, it is looking increasingly pressured in an era when multiple ways of communicating exist.
The challenge from an MOD point of view is perhaps to find ways to showcase the work of the Armed Forces, but also provide good quality entertainment that people want to spend time watching – and which hopefully sends a positive message about the armed forces, and inspires others to join too.
This is likely to be a real challenge.
This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.
This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.
Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.