“I wouldn’t touch Syria with a barge pole”

York alum and conflict correspondent Mark Laity on the war of words

Mark Laity (History and Politics BA, South African Studies MA, 1978) has an impressive CV; BBC Defence Correspondent, Special Adviser to the NATO Secretary General, personal adviser to the Macedonian President, three tours of Afghanistan and receiver of the NATO Meritorious Service Medal – to name a few.

Laity-Bosnia-Warrior
Mark inside a British Army Warrior armoured vehicle. BBC Defence Correspondent, 1994, Central Bosnia

Laity is currently Chief of Strategic Communications at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) which commands all NATO military operations.

His deep voice crackles as it travels across the phone line from Belgium where he is currently based: “I’ve always wanted to do something I could believe in,” he says.

“Ever since I was a kid I was drawn to defence – especially military aviation. I originally went to York on an RAF scholarship [but] as it got close to graduation I realised I wasn’t at all suited to join the RAF so I bought my way out.”

After his Politics and History BA Laity stayed at York to take a Masters in Southern African Studies while he worked out what he was going to do instead of an RAF career.

Mark with the 5-a-side football team he played with at York. Mark is wearing the tracksuit jacket. Others: Dave Howard (beard), Dave Robinson, both kneeling, and to the rear from L to R Duncan Lyons, John Tugman
Mark with the 5-a-side football team he played with at York. Mark is wearing the tracksuit jacket. Others: Dave Howard (beard), Dave Robinson, both kneeling, and to the rear from L to R Duncan Lyons, John Tugman

Journalism

“It’s always been important that whatever I did I could believe in,” Laity repeats, “equally I didn’t want to be poor!”

At the University of York Laity presented a late night show on URY (University Radio York) called ‘Night Flight’.” The theme tune for the show was from the movie 633 Squadron. He was also Nouse News Editor.

“Journalism was exciting and had a degree of glamour. You weren’t going to get rich but it was reasonably well paid and respectable – and was something I could believe in.”

After graduation Laity started on the Western Mail newspaper in Wales before moving to the BBC where he was a Producer at various BBC current affairs programes, before being promoted up the ranks to BBC Defence Correspondent.

This promotion, he explains was down to lucky timing: “The BBC had just decided it wanted to put more emphasis on expertise. My background and lifelong interest in defence got me the job. I’d never usually have got it”

Laity describes his time as BBC Defence Correspondent as “a very happy journey.” He spent over a decade as the BBC Defence Correspondent covering the Yugoslav conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia & Croatia, and the first Gulf War.

Mark setting up a satellite dish to file a radio broadcast for the first time - amazingly advanced for the time. BBC Defence Correspondent, 1991, Gulf War.
Mark setting up a satellite dish to file a radio broadcast for the first time – amazingly advanced for the time. BBC Defence Correspondent, 1991, Gulf War

Rolling news

Mark about to fly as a passenger in a Jaguar RAF fighter-bomber
Mark about to fly as a passenger in a Jaguar RAF fighter-bomber

“The Gulf war in 1991 was the first time the BBC radio did rolling news. I was the defence correspondent in Saudi Arabia and we were working 18-20 hour days to keep up. I can remember being so tired I once fell asleep recording; it was only hitting the floor that woke me up.

“That [conflict] made my reputation; after that came the Yugoslav conflicts – Bosnia, then Kosovo and Croatia. During the Bosnian conflict I did a lot of front line reporting and got a lot of exposure.

“I was able to analyse the strategic aspects military affairs but at the same report the more personal side by being in the trenches. People say ‘how horrible’ – and war is horrible – but it’s what makes a journalist’s reputation.”

Modern conflicts

I ask Laity how he perceives the war correspondent scene to have changed since his departure. Would he report on a conflict today, for example?

“It depends on the conflict – for instance I wouldn’t touch Syria with a barge pole,” he says decisively.

“Although Bosnia had its risks and I lost a couple of colleagues and friends there, it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as today’s middle eastern conflicts. Journalists weren’t targets then – now they are.”

Mark sitting on a tank during the Gulf War. Mark wears a bag around his waist containing a gas mask in case of Chemical Weapon attack
Mark sitting on a tank during the Gulf War. Mark wears a bag around his waist containing a gas mask in case of Chemical Weapon attack

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 1992 some 19 journalists have been killed reporting on the conflict in Bosnia; in the same period 166 have been killed in Iraq and 80 in Syria.

“In the Balkans [people] accepted you weren’t a participant in the conflict – they saw you as a tool to use, not to kill,” Laity continues.

 “IS (Islamic State) see journalists as symbols of the West that they hate. Journalists have become targets because of the cultural disposition of the place they go.”

Citizen journalists

This dangerous attitude towards journalists has been accompanied by the disruption of traditional media with the rise of social media and citizen journalism.

“Think of all the video we’ve seen from Ukraine over the last year; almost all of it was taken by people on smart phones,” says Laity.

Social media and easy-access technology has made it possible to “bypass traditional media [allowing] people like IS to run their own TV station and put out highly professional products that reach their audiences. Journalism is a weapon and people like Russia and IS are using it today to prosecute their aims.

“We’re seeing an extraordinary change in the way people look at media,” he continues.

“When I started in journalism I wrote something and people read it; today’s media is interactive.

“All newspapers are on the web, they’ve all got huge comment columns. News consumers now expect to become participants. We’ve moved away from the broadcast model to an interactive model.”

Communications in conflict

Today Laity works on the other side; instead of reporting on conflict, he is now responsible for communicating NATO’s message.

Mark speaking at a press conference in Kabul along with the ISAF military spokesman. NATO spokesman, 2006 tour of Afghanistan
Mark speaking at a press conference in Kabul along with the ISAF military spokesman. NATO spokesman, 2006 tour of Afghanistan

He currently works as Chief of Strategic Communications at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) which commands all NATO military operations.

“Organisations like NATO have to follow that same [interactive] model because people won’t just be spoken to anymore, they want to be part of a debate,” he says.

The role of “a military organisation is to try and persuade people to do something. That’s the same with all organisations – whether you want people to buy your soap or support your political party – it’s all about persuading people to do what you want them to do. NATO is no different.

“Communication is not just media – everything you do sends a message. Communication is dropping a bomb, sending out a press release, doing an interview, digging a well and having a military parade. All of these things say something; it’s my job to ensure each action sends over the intended message.”

NATO is a military organisation and uses its forces to deter adversaries and, if necessary, fight wars.

Laity works to use communication to reduce the need for violence: “We try to explain to people what we do, how we can help them and how we can work together.

“There’s nothing illegitimate about that. It’s much better to persuade people you’re a good guy and get them to cooperate – rather than have to go in there and kill them.”

Something I believe in

I want to know whether Laity has achieved his long-term desire to find a career he can believe in. “I support NATO,” he says stoutly.

“The defence of our country and the defence of Europe is a profoundly good thing. I have no trouble speaking for NATO. I would much rather be defending [NATO] than be a marketer for a company whose products I don’t support.”