How has embedding changed since the Falklands?

is the BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent: @CarolineWyatt

Caroline Wyatt reporting from Iraq in 2003

The lessons from embedding journalists with the Royal Navy during the Falklands war were taken up enthusiastically by military planners in both Washington and London for the First Gulf War in 1991. Correspondents were embedded with specific units and given military uniforms, so they looked indistinguishable from those they were reporting on - something I suspect most media outlets today would not allow: reporting on your own nation's forces in a war blurs the journalistic boundaries enough as it is.

The Iraq conflict of 2003, a much more contentious war, was rather different, and embedding became increasingly controversial. It was indeed a way for us in the media to secure first-hand access to the battlefield, but in return, we had to sign up to the MoD's 'Green Book' agreeing that our reports would be read for 'operational security' and promising that we would not betray operational plans or secrets.

Despite a sometimes scratchy relationship between the embedded journalists and the units we reported on, there were again fears amongst our bosses back in London that the 'embeds' had gone native. All our reports were prefaced on air with a health warning that we were reporting under military restrictions - not dissimilar to the warnings the BBC had given about the despatches from its correspondents reporting from Saddam Hussein's Baghdad during the earlier conflict.

The debate over the Iraq War still rages too intensely to make a judgment on whether journalism or self-censorship and military management of the media triumphed. The BBC's own internal report concluded that many lessons could be learned on both sides.

The military's determination to stay in charge of their battlefield and use the media as a weapon of war within the 'information battlespace' has remained, with the use of embeds now a matter of routine in Afghanistan for those wishing to report first-hand on the NATO campaign.

With media employers more mindful of safety than ever, embedding is often seen as a less 'risky' proposition than sending un-embedded reporters to places such as Helmand. But even embedded journalists face real risks, as the death of the Sunday Mirror's defence correspondent Rupert Hamer, and the severe injuries suffered by his Mirror colleague, photographer Philip Coburn, in Afghanistan while reporting with the US Marine Corps showed in 2010.

Today, those embedding with American forces are allowed relatively unlimited access to the troops, with no 'media minder' present, while those embedding with British forces in Helmand still have civilian or military 'media minders' with them. These days, military 'media operations' are far more organised and structured than they were in 1982 - the product of many years of sometimes bitter experience.

But what you get from them remains a delicate balance between what the MoD or military want you to see, and what actually happens while you're filming, when events don't always conform to anyone's plan. All you can do as a journalist is go, film, ask questions and try to report fairly on what you've seen and heard.

Not all the developments over the three decades since the Falklands have been welcomed by journalists. Today, British service personnel in Helmand or elsewhere are almost always given 'lines to take' before being allowed to take part in interviews. The stilted nature of some of those interviews - with the same lines repeated time and time again - suggests that perhaps the media training of servicemen and women has gone a little too far, while senior officers are well-aware that an excess of candour can prove career-limiting.

So are embeds worth the compromises undoubtedly made by those who rely on the military for transport, food and safe lodging, in return for a certain measure of security and that crucial access to the frontline?

I'd say yes - as long as media outlets are able to deploy 'non-embedded' correspondents too, because journalists who turn up to film with a group of British or American soldiers receive rather different answers to those given to non-embedded journalists, especially if they are compatriots of the interviewees, sharing their language and culture.

So have embeds changed much since the Falklands? 

For access to places such as Helmand, Western journalists still have to rely on embedding to get the perspective on that battleground from those doing the fighting or attempting to rebuild.

Yet satellite communications are now much more sophisticated, meaning we almost always have our own means of communicating with London. That offers a crucial measure of independence, even if reports still have to be cleared for 'op sec'. The almost total control by the military of the means of reporting in the Falklands would be unthinkable in most warzones today.

And the growth of 'citizen journalism', or tweeting and blogging by those living through a conflict, whether in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya or Iraq, now means that there is almost always another side of the story and a much freer flow of information and pictures than there was in 1982 on a set of remote islands in the South Atlantic. 

Caroline Wyatt has also written an earlier reflection on the Falklands anniversary here.