Trust, the General and the journalists

Hit and Run

New Zealand is incredibly proud of its armed forces.  ANZAC day and the Gallipoli landings are a cornerstone of national identity and so when a book published last week suggested that the New Zealand SAS had committed war crimes in Afghanistan in 2010, killing innocent civilians and destroying their homes in a revenge-motivated and ultimately botched attack,  people paid attention.

Hit and Run – the New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour – by two investigative journalists is a very detailed account of the raid and includes photographs, maps and summaries of interviews with the victims and some of the participants.

Not surprisingly the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has a different account, which, eventually, they too have published in statement, press conference and published Q&A form.

And the ensuing debate is complicated involving details about 30mm guns, names and positions of villages, valleys and victims as well as a quasi-legal debate about rules of engagement.

If the authors are right, the NZ SAS has committed a war crime. If they are wrong they have done huge damage to the image of the armed forces and harmed the country’s ability to operate militarily abroad.

So how do people decide who to believe?  Who do Kiwis trust and who is a credible spokesperson? Do they believe Generals or journalists?

Some clues from the recently launched published Edelman/Acumen Trust Barometer:

  • Media is the least trusted institution in New Zealand. Only 29% of kiwis trust the media to do what is right, versus 46% trusting government.  Which looks better for the Generals if you assume they are part of government

Slide1

  • However, New Zealanders are skeptical of authority figures; only 28% say CEOs are credible sources of information. Less good for the Generals perhaps if the CEO parallel holds.

Slide2

  • ‘Traditional media’ does score higher than the institution of media at 47% and both authors are high profile journalists and so might benefit from that, but the most trusted media source is search engines which shows how low these figures really are

Slide3

  • The most credible spokespeople in New Zealand are technical and academic experts and it is amazing how little each side is getting these out to support their case. A technical expert is seen as credible by 59% and an academic expert by 58%. Contrast that to the 27% credibility of the government official or regulator.   That looks less good for the Generals.

Slide4

  • And finally, the most trusted of the four institutions we measure is NGOs at 51% and these have tended, not surprisingly, to side with authors (see top slide).

The trust landscape on this is pretty level – and by that I mean low on both sides.  The communications challenge each side faces in a highly complex debate like this is that very few people will look into the detail.  I am the only person I know amongst my friends who has read the book.  The prize for the authors is an independent enquiry into the raid.  For the NZDF and the government the prize is this all dies away and they can move on without one.  In these circumstances, and in the absence of new revelations, the onus is on the authors to do a better job at bringing in more credible spokespeople and commentators or putting up a first-person interview with one of the villagers or witnesses, or better still one of the soldiers they say they have spoken to.  Stalemate means the government and the Generals win.

David Brain

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