Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, have crept into modern warfare as quietly as the airborne killing machines themselves and, on the whole, media reporting on them has been just as subdued.
Last week, the veil of silence was finally lifted when two of the most important and influential newspapers in the United States – the New York Times and the Washington Post – ran stories on a secret airbase in Saudi Arabia from which the US military has operated its 'drone war' campaign over Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen for the past two years.
However, as the story broke, it also came to light that reporters at both newspapers had known about the base long before the story went to print. They had agreed to conceal newsworthy information at the request of the US intelligence establishment, on the basis that reporting the truth would have harmed American national security interests.
The complicity of journalists with government officials to keep the base a secret has been justified on grounds of national security but the issue has raised troubling questions of when military secrets – as defined by the government – pull rank on the public duty of the fourth estate to inform.