When the Toronto Star arrived on my front porch last Friday morning, I was shocked to find a front page picture of two Canadian Special Forces officers identified by their names and photographed full-face in all their gear. The photo showed them in the company of Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, Jonathan Vance, who was visiting Canada’s special operations forces in the field in northern Iraq. The headline trumpeted that the Toronto Star and CTV News were given “unprecedented access” to Canada’s elite special operations forces training peshmerga soldiers on the ground. The story continued with yet another full-frontal picture of another special forces soldier (this one, unnamed) on guard duty.
What’s going on here? Wasn’t there a scandal not so long ago when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the troops in Iraq and a Canadian special forces officer was photographed by the video team covering his trip? Wasn’t Harper excoriated for his apparently careless breach of Canadian military policy that prohibited media photography and identification of our special forces soldiers out of concern for their safety? In the current asymmetrical war against ISIS, Daesh and other terrorist groups at home and abroad, isn’t the safety of our special operations forces a continuing concern?
I was so upset that I immediately banged off a Letter to the Editor of the Toronto Star, as follows: “There are three full-face pictures of Canadian special forces in this morning’s Toronto Star. Isn’t it Canadian military policy to prohibit photographs of special officers to protect their identity and their safety? Has Chief of Defence Staff Vance, who appears in the front-page photo, changed the policy? Is this at the direction of the new government, which needs some positive press about the changing mission in Iraq? If there was a good reason for the no-photographs rule in the past, how are such full face photos justified now? Is the safety of Canada’s special forces to be sacrificed to the expediency of ’embedding the press with our special forces?’”
The Toronto Star did not publish my letter. But later in the day, I checked the internet version of the same Toronto Star article and found that the two special forces personnel had been cropped out of the photo with CDS Vance. I checked the CTV internet coverage of the same event and found no photos or identification of the special forces soldiers they quoted.
Saturday morning, the same story continued as a front-page story in the Toronto Star. This time, the headline was “On the ground with our ‘Warrior Diplomats’” and the article featured a head shot of Major-General Mike Rouleau, who commands Canada’s special operations forces in northern Iraq. The story continued on page A23 with a picture of a “Canadian special ops soldier in northern Iraq teach[ing] peshmerga soldiers how to help casualties after a mortar attack.” It was a photo of the same soldier as on the previous day, but this time, the photo is shot from the side and his face is obscured by his helmet and sunglasses. Several special ops soldiers were quoted describing their work with the caveat in parentheses: “(The soldiers asked to be identified by their rank only).”
Is the writer of the story, Star Ottawa Bureau Chief Bruce Campion-Smith, implying that the non-identification of the soldiers was at the initiative of the personnel and not an army policy? Has the old non-identification policy changed or not? If not, the Toronto Star ought to explain what occurred on Friday and make sure that it never happens again. If it has changed, CDS Vance or Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan should tell the public why the change is appropriate.
I have no problem with the Canadian military, and the Canadian government, permitting the media to report about the work of our Canadian special forces in the field. It is important work, well-regarded by our allies, and Canadian citizens should know about it. As was the case in Afghanistan, embedding reporters with the troops increases respect for the work of our military and encourages support for their (‘our’) efforts abroad.
But we have to recognize our responsibilities to our troops abroad, and to their families at home. In the Second World War there was a saying well-known to military and civilians alike: “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” In the current climate, the slogan could well be “Careless Cameras Lose Lives.” Lapses matter.