Burying the lead

For all the government secrecy, it seems that the SAS is back in Afghanistan, ready to be sent to the frontline. It says so in the paper on, er, page 35, paragraph eight.

Some times New Zealand journalists just don't get the news. Oh, they gather it, but then they – or someone up the editorial chain – don't 'get' what they've got and good stories are wasted.

The Herald on Sunday ran an otherwise excellent feature on Afghanistan by David Fisher yesterday; not that you would have known that a quality piece of reporting was on offer if you read the front page headlines: "Star arrested"... "Kristin's bond with Sophie's mum"... "Shock frocks"... I'm being slightly facetious. It's sad that the HoS doesn't make more of its features, because with Fisher back from the Listener and now Matt Nippert on board the paper has significantly strengthened a section that had been a real weakness. But I understand that they're a mass market rag and that stars sell.

No, what got me when I read Fisher's piece was that the HoS – and other media – had missed an important story (and to add insult to injurious journalism, Fisher's feature isn't online, hence the lack of a link). Journalists have been asking the question about where and when the SAS would go. As NZPA reported when John Key announced the decision to return the SAS to Afghanistan:

He said the deployment would be in the "foreseeable future" but kept with convention in refusing to say when, or where, the elite troops would go.

So New Zealanders will never know when the SAS will actually be back on the ground, back on the front... Hang on! Check out Fisher's eight paragraph:

"Even as they [New Zealand PRT deployment] rebuild, preparations are already under way for a very different kind of mission in the south of the country. Members of New Zealand's secretive Special Air Service have already been seen in the southern military base near Kandahar, where they are preparing for the squadron's first official deployment in Afghanistan since 2004."

Right there. That's news. The SAS are already in Kandahar? Why didn't that sneak onto the front page alongside the "Shock Frocks"?

That's either a classic case of what journalists call burying the lead or the writer only has the one source and isn't confident enough to let his editors go big with it. Either way, it's sloppy journalism. If there's any doubt about the SAS's presence in Kandahar it should have been left out of the story altogether. But Fisher seems confident in his assertion, because later in the piece he repeats the claim:

"They are now in Afghanistan again, seen in Kandahar".

Still, we might know when, but I guess we'll never know where... Even the BBC has reported that, "Mr Key did not say where the SAS troops would be serving". They could be anywhere and we'd never... Wait, what's this?! Fisher again:

"Private military contractors who have worked out of Kandahar predict the SAS will be sent into the Panjwayi district, where Canadian troops have fought fierce battles over the past three years. It is known as the 'birthplace of the Taleban'... It has also been suggested that the SAS will be posted to Uruzgan, just to the north of Kandahar. About 70 Dutch special forces have been working there alongside Australian troops, and are due to be withdrawn by 2010."

It's not the same as the SAS being seen in those locales, but if Fisher has reliable, multiple sources – and he says "contractors" – then that's sufficient for a news story. He even goes on to say that the SAS will be conducting surveillance and calling in air-strikes.

Just what the SAS will be doing in New Zealand's name is of significant public interest. With no word from government or the armed services, Q+A on TVNZ asked David Kilcullen, a senior adviser to General McChrystal, the head of the allied forces in Afghanistan. The interview went like this:

PAUL ...The SAS, the New Zealand SAS first of all is going back to Afghanistan at the request of the United States, what do you think they'll be asked to do?

DAVID Well there are a number of different jobs that special forces are doing in Afghanistan, one of them is what we call time-sensitive targeting which is about dealing with enemy what we call high value targets, that is Taliban leaders, Al Qaeda, and sort of other military type targets on the ground.  The other big task that the special forces are doing is partnering and mentoring which involves training and supporting and advising Afghan forces, both Police and Military, so I would suspect it'll be a combination of both of those, and there's a few other tasks as well.

PAUL When you talk about time-sensitive targets, that has quite a specific meaning of course, it means you find out someone is in some place and they rapidly move to apprehend or to I suppose liquidate that person.  Leon Panetta, the Director of the CIA has ruled out official assassinations of Al Qaeda leaders and the Pentagon we understand's got some 50 opium barons on a kill or capture list.  Might our men be expected to deal with some of those people?

DAVID I don't think I really know enough about the operational targeting to answer that, I think that the pattern that we're likely to see is that we'll continue to do operations to protect the population, and to work with them on the ground, and a lot of that will be the same sort of work that the New Zealand PRT has been so good at doing in the last few years, but then when you do that the enemy does tend to come out of the woodwork and try to attack you and disrupt those efforts that you're making with the population, and that's where the special forces come in, in terms of sort of keeping the enemy off your back to allow you to work with the population.

That too was significant news, but no other New Zealand media picked it up. For someone who works in current affairs rather than news, this remains a huge frustration for me. I've seen numerous news stories like this lost because the daily media either isn't paying attention or doesn't want to follow-up on a story broken by a competitor. In the US and the UK, other media would be all over it, furious they didn't get that bit of news and determined to take it on further.

It could be that there's pressure not to highlight this information. I've spoken to a former military officer who's furious Key has said as much as he has about the SAS. The SAS are feared and targeted by the Taliban, he said, and as such they rely on secrecy. If Key says the SAS will be back in the "foreseeable future", the Taliban will be looking for then, he said. When I argued the public's right to know about all and any military deployments made under the New Zealand flag he replied, "you go tell their mothers when that public information gets some of those soldiers killed".

Whether you agree with the former officer or not, the HoS covered that story yesterday, and they buried it. Will any other non-blog journos pick up that news and run with it? I doubt it, and for me that's just poor journalism.