Afghan scandal & Australian media response
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Scrutinising the media’s scrutiny of defence
By Sasha Uzunov – Tuesday, 30 March 2010

If the media scrutinise the tip of the spear in combat – recent Australian soldiers’ behaviour on the ground in the Afghan war – then they need to scrutinise the spear throwers – the politicians and defence experts and journalists.

A case in point has been SBS TV reporter Sophie McNeill and Fairfax newspaper journalists Jonathon Pearlman and Tom Hyland who have been ferociously targeting the Australian Army’s 1 Commando Regiment over a botched raid which resulted in the killing of children in Afghanistan last February.

Soldiers from that unit, largely reservist, could possibly face legal proceedings for murder, manslaughter, negligence and so on. But there are three important issues about the Afghan incident: due process of law, the presumption of innocence and who shapes Australia’s defence policy.

McNeill, Pearlman and Hyland have probably sensed Army blood and a possible Walkley Award for what they perceive is “Australia’s My Lai”. But some of us who are journalists and ex-soldiers believe that McNeill, Pearlman and Hyland have a democratic right to scrutinise the military. We would uphold their freedom of speech. The irony is that the media do not believe that the ordinary tax payer has the right to scrutinise the media in its coverage of defence issues.

In 2008 McNeill requested I not contact her to discuss defence issues, including Afghanistan. Hyland has gone on the record to allude that those who are not Fairfax journalists but who scrutinise defence experts are involved in a curious crusade.

The question is why are Australia’s big name reporters so tough when it comes to “exposing” defence scandals but are so panicked by a few straight forward questions about their war reporting credentials?

McNeill’s boss at SBS TV’s Dateline, Peter Charley, also does not like being questioned over how defence issues are covered.

Methinks SBS, the ABC and Fairfax protesteth too much!

Hyland the “defence expert” for The Sunday Age wrote in “Deadly Afghan raids expose leadership failings” on March 21, 2010:

The regiment’s experiences have triggered an intense debate within army ranks – about Special Forces tactics, and wider questions about a political and military preference for sending Special Forces, rather than large infantry units, to conflicts like Afghanistan.

It is funny for Hyland to ask this question because the answer may not be to his liking. In fact it might be too close to home, if you pardon the pun. Let me explain.

On January 21, 2005 I wrote an op-ed piece for The Herald Sun newspaper in which I was the first to indentify this change in Australian Army warfighting doctrine.

Some have criticised General (Peter) Cosgrove on his over reliance on the SAS (Special Forces) to do the fighting in East Timor that would normally have been taken up by the regular infantry. But I think this criticism is unjustified.

Criticism should be aimed at the government of the day (Howard 1996-2007) and those at home squeamish about seeing a 19-year-old lad away from home for the first time fighting a war. Better to send the SAS, whose identity cannot be revealed …

On September 9, 2008 I wrote:

To top that off, a legacy of the Nelson-Howard military doctrine has the Special Forces doing most of the fighting (in Afghanistan), because of the fear of casualties to our regular infantry units. The long term effect could be burn out of our Special Forces. But the irony is if we withdraw our SF units and do not replace them with infantry units, then the pressure on Taliban is eased. It is one contradictory military doctrine, to say the least.

Here is a key point that has been missed, until recently: why is it Australian Defence Policy to use Special Forces in an infantry role in Afghanistan, as well as throwing Army reservists in the deep end? Who caused this dramatic shift in defence thinking?

Something Hyland has not touched upon is that the change came about in Defence policy when two key “experts”, Professor Paul Dibb and ex-Fairfax journalist turned government advisor Hugh White, decided to cut back the number of infantry. This led to the consequences of using reservists in combat roles and stretched our Special Forces to breaking point.

During Bob Hawke’s Prime Ministership (1983-91) he brought in British academic Professor Paul Dibb and ex-Fairfax journalist Hugh White. Their brief was to transform the defence department with a number of reports, Defence White Papers and so on. Instead we ended up with a mess that took more than a decade to bring under some form of control.

Mr Bruce Haigh, a former diplomat revealed during an interview with SBS TV’s Dateline program on September 27, 2000 that:

Defence is the department that’s divided amongst itself, as far as I can gather, and there are certain people inside Defence who’ve taken a certain line for a long period of time – the Paul Dibb line, if you like, which is high-tech, US-alliance – and you’ve got others who are saying, “No. We’ve got the situation to the north- we need to have more people in uniform, we need to have them trained, we need to have night-vision equipment provided for them. “… the Australian Army can see what needs to be done, but many of the civilian Defence personnel, who’ve built their careers on playing up to this particular line, are arguing the other case, and feeling increasingly isolated, because they are not facing reality. That’s the problem.

Respected Brigadier Jim Wallace, former Special Forces Commander, wrote in 2003:

Unfortunately, Australian defence policy has been mainly wrong for the whole of this period. Even after we committed troops to East Timor, Professor Paul Dibb, the policy’s chief architect, was standing in front of parliamentary committees vowing that Australia would not be conducting what he called “expeditionary” operations out of the region. This was despite a series of major UN deployments over many years to places as far afield as Rwanda and Somalia. Afghanistan and Iraq have hopefully now discredited this logic.

At the same time, Dr Hugh White was arguing in initial drafts for the 2000 white paper to reduce the size of our army to about 19,000, on the basis that, like Professor Dibb, he didn’t see the Government needing options for deployment out of the region, particularly for sending the army. The result has been an incredible demand on the dedication and professionalism of our special forces as they have again been thrown into the breach that our supposedly expert defence planners couldn’t predict.

We now await to see if McNeill, Hyland and Pearlman will be ferociously chasing ex-Fairfax journalist Hugh White for answers. Perhaps this is not part of the script. Only those who serve in uniform can and do make mistakes, those who are arm-chair generals can do no wrong!