The last weeks and months in Australian journalism demonstrate that all is not lost, says “The Gadfly” columnist ROBERT MACKLIN. “Against the odds, investigative journalism lives on despite the forces of repression that would bury it forever.”
IN his 2018 memoir, “Reporter”, the distinguished American journalist Seymour Hersh, who uncovered the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, wrote these perceptive comments:
“The newspapers of today far too often rush into print with stories that are essentially little more than tips, or hints of something toxic or criminal.
“For lack of time, money or skilled staff, we are besieged with the ‘he said, she said’ stories in which the reporter is little more than a parrot. I always thought it was the newspaper’s mission to search out the truth and not merely to report on the dispute… Was there a war crime?”
Happily, the last weeks and months in Australian journalism demonstrate that all is not lost. Against the odds, investigative journalism lives on despite the forces of repression that would bury it forever – most recently the revelations beginning with Brittany Higgins; the friends of Christian Porter’s accuser; Andrew Laming’s victims; and ending (so far) with Christine Holgate’s backlash. They have rocked the powers that be.
And there’s more to come.
Then there’s the great work by a combination of Nine Media’s “60 Minutes” program and reporter Nick McKenzie that led to Judge Bergin’s inquiry into Sydney’s Crown Casino, which blew James Packer’s board out of the water. Our own “CityNews” has taken over from “The Canberra Times” in holding the ACT government to account and even broken national stories such as the Witness J secret-trial scandal.
But perhaps the most difficult and time-consuming story has been – and remains – the accusations against a cohort of SAS operatives, and particularly, Ben Roberts-Smith, holder of the prestigious Victoria Cross.
I first heard of him when writing the biography of my friend, Rob Maylor in the bestselling “SAS Sniper” in 2011. When Rob did the tough “Selection” course in February, 2003, he shared a room with “RS”.
Rob’s wife, Georgina, was on hand when they completed the course. In the book, Rob said: “George brought some beers, pizza and chocolate biscuits to the main gate of Campbell Barracks and I shared this with RS.
“I put the biscuits in the fridge for the next day but RS decided to have a midnight snack and ate the whole packet; he is a bloody eating machine.”
They were deployed in different units in Afghanistan where the alleged war crimes took place. Moreover, Roberts-Smith strongly denies any wrongdoing and has sued Nine, the indefatigable Nick McKenzie and the distinguished Chris Masters, who have not only broken the story but have persistently brought new elements to public attention despite the threats, lawsuits and unceasing political and official pressure to desist.
The ABC has also joined the task with excellent work from reporter Mark Willacy.
However, there is a militarist streak in the Australian community that really doesn’t want to know. It goes back to the earliest colonial days when the Troopers under government orders “dispersed” the Aboriginal peoples in the armed invasion of the continent. It received a huge boost in the propaganda surrounding the British disaster called Anzac. And the World War II rescue by the US from the “yellow hordes” sealed the deal.
The horrors of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan notwithstanding, it lives on and the Morrison government is aghast at the thought of holding the military to account. Deputy PM Michael McCormack, when confronted by the allegations of RS and others partying with the prosthetic leg of a dead Afghan, responded: “Ben Roberts-Smith was sent to Afghanistan, to the Middle East to do a job for and on behalf of Australians. And he certainly did that.
“He was honoured with the highest award of valour that any Australian could possibly receive. And if there are allegations against him, then they should play out in the proper processes.
“Everybody is certainly innocent until proven otherwise in this country and the media should respect that and appreciate that there’s a lot to play out in this regard.”
Indeed there is.