The big story in Helmand?

Are the Taliban really in trouble, as a British commander now asserts? Don't look to journalism for

After the 97th British soldier died in Afghanistan - Dale Gostick, aged 22, from Oxford, killed by a roadside mine in Helmand province on 25 May - thoughts began to turn to a rounder number.

Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph wrote: "At current rates, it is, unfortunately, a good bet that the 100 mark will be passed in the coming month." Mark Townsend in the Observer explained, in a careful analysis of the toll, that almost all the deaths have occurred in the past two years, and that the summers have been worst. It was inevitable, he concluded, that the 100th death would be upon us "shortly".

With this landmark in view, Townsend interviewed a senior British officer, Brigadier Gordon Messenger, whose view of the conflict came as something of a surprise. "The Taliban are very much on the back foot," he declared, and their leadership "has been severely dislocated and fractured". He did not want to appear complacent, but British tactics were proving fruitful, the Taliban were "licking their wounds" - though they might bounce back - and the latest intelligence suggested that the fighting this summer would be less ferocious than in 2006 or 2007.

Let us hope he is right.

Some will see in the timing of his remarks an effort to head off questions about the war that are bound to arise with the toll so near 100, and it would be naive to imagine that the Ministry of Defence does not have a news management strategy for that. When people ask, as they will, what there is to show for the sacrifice of all these British lives, it looks as though the answer will be: progress on the battlefield.

But Messenger's message also reminds us of something else: we have no way of knowing how the war is going, apart from the word of military commanders. Not only is there no "other side" to hear from, no briefings from the Taliban press service, but journalism on the ground is of little help when it comes to that most basic of things, an estimation of whether the conflict is going well or badly.

Think of what we have read and seen in recent months (aside from all the stuff about Prince Harry). Every now and then, there is a British death, more often than not these days from a roadside bomb, prompting short reports and sometimes interviews with relatives. Every now and then, there is a row about duff equipment, though these are normally home-based stories, like the fortunes of soldiers who have lost limbs.

And, occasionally, we see reports from a journalist who has spent a few days embedded with British troops in Helmand. Well-written as these often are, their focus is on human stories and colour. They may give us an idea of how the war is being fought at a given time, and by what sort of people, but they do not tell us whether progress is being made.

Besides that, what is there? Only the opinions of generals, when they choose to speak.

A century and a half after W H Russell reported on the Crimean War for the Times, it is sobering to find, despite the unprecedented number, size and wealth of modern news organisations, and despite technologies capable of pinging pictures and words from a solar-powered laptop anywhere on the planet into your home in real time, that journalism is virtually blind to the big story of this conflict.

This is not the result of censorship, though the armed forces can be clever these days. It reflects, among other factors, the remoteness and the extreme dangers of Helmand, the fluid kind of warfare going on there, the nature of Afghanistan and its society, the mysteriousness of the enemy.

Ministers and senior officers in this country moan about the news media, but they have little reason to. Even in the First World War (when the press disgraced itself) the official monopoly of strategic information was not so complete. Right here in 2008, Brigadier Gordon Messenger can say whatever he likes about the progress of the war and we have nothing to measure his words by, no independent yardstick besides that last desperate refuge of the leader writer: "Only time will tell."

If you can't have facts . . .

Arsène Wenger is off to run a club in France. Cristiano Ronaldo is leaving for Spain. Harry Redknapp will manage Juventus. Michael Owen will play for Rangers. Go on, make them up yourself - the season of the football transfer report is upon us and, outside the Madeleine McCann case, there is no branch of British journalism more feebly rooted in reality.

If, at the end of the summer, a count showed that nine out of ten transfer stories in our papers had proved unfounded, few fans would be surprised. But nor would they complain. They are desperate people and for them these reports (like international tournaments) help fill the terrible, aching void before the new season begins. Truth has nothing to do with it.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.