By Sasha Uzunov

Australia’s big name journalists who write on defence and national security issues have the double advantage of making a lot of money as well as indirectly influencing government policy but without having to face the electors.

However, in recent times certain sections of the media have been chucking a hissy fit at the Australian Defence Forces and its public relations arm for allegedly denying journalists access to combat troop operations in Afghanistan.

Johanthan Holmes got on his very high moral horse on the ABC TV’s Media Watch: “By contrast, until this year, the Australian Defence Force only permitted what the media derisively calls ‘bus trips’ – a few days on the ground, most of them spent on heavily fortified bases, escorted at all times by an officer from Defence Public Affairs.

Self appointed Defence Expert Cynthia Banham, who wears two hats as a Fairfax journalist and as an academic at the ANU, is organizing a taxpayer-funded gabfest with the usual suspects, such as Paul McGeough, to bemoan:

“The Australian Defence Force, for instance, uses its own photographers and video operators to create the images it prefers. These then get posted on the ADF website where the public can access them directly, in the process cutting out the traditional news reporters who might have taken a more objective view of whatever story the ADF is trying to push.”

All of this indicates that not all is well with the current crop of big name “war reporters” who because they have no previous military training are having a difficult time in navigating through a war zone. Should the taxpayer pick up the tab for reporters who make a killing, pardon the pun, in writing books, appearing on television and symposiums but who refuse to open up Australia’s defence debate and allow the taxpayer a voice?

Respected journalist and author Phillip Knightley in a brutally honest manner revealed:

“…we allowed those with a vested interest to exaggerate the terrorist threat. Counter-terrorism has proved a boom business, providing thousands of new jobs for security and intelligence officers, surveillance and forensic experts – and, yes, authors and journalists. All of these naturally tend to paint any threat in strong colours, because it is in their professional and financial interests to do so.” link:

Richard Farmer, a former ALP strategist, was hired in the early 1990s as a lobbyist by Australia’s Macedonian community to convince the Australian Federal government to recognise The Republic of Macedonia under its consititutional name. Neighbouring Greece had and still does object to that name. At a meeting at the Macedonian Community Centre in Epping, Melbourne, Farmer explained to his audience, largely made up of migrants who spent decades working in factories, Australia’s political process.

“Politicians are interested in only two things. They want to be elected and then re-elected.”

You could say that Farmer’s brilliant maxim, which people with low English language skills can clearly understand, still holds true. Politicians need the oxygen of publicity to achieve election and then re-election. Therefore, whatever big name journalists report or do not report has enormous influence. This would also apply to shaping government policy, namely on defence and national security issues.

It is the tax payer who eventually has to pick up the tab but journalists do not have to face the electors every 3 or 4 years.–power without scrutiny you might say. Commercial television stations are required to pay for a broadcast licence from the Commonwealth, that is they rent the airwaves from the landlord, the Australian public. But we know that the “tennant” holds more power than the “landlord.”

The media, both commerical and public owned, have in recent times scrutinized servants of the Crown: politicians who receive campaign donations, police officers and soldiers who take a leave of absence to work a second job as private security advisers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should we not also examine currently employed public media journalists, those from the ABC and SBS, who take on second jobs and influence defence and national security policy? First and foremost, there is nothing immoral or unethical in a journalist, who is paid tax payer dollars, from using their initiative and creating a niche for themselves. But we have to look at whether the tax payer gets value for money.

In the past Australian soldiers and Air Force fighter pilots were required to serve a miniumum amount of years in order to pay off their training. Soldiers who undertook expensive training courses incurred a Return of Service Obligation (ROSO) and had to serve more than their allotted minimum to pay back the Commonwealth.

Trying to extract information from ABC and SBS journalists is like having your sore wisdom teeth pulled: its is very painfull but very necessary. In trying to discuss defence and national security issues over the past couple of years I have encountered either silence or a haughty manner from our public funded journalists.

Media tough guy Peter Charley has a reputation for speaking his mind. As Executive Producer of ABC TV program Lateline in 2006 he issued this statement to me over my criticism of why Lateline was reluctant to open up Australia’s defence debate:

“It is neither wise nor clever to suggest that “little ol’ Lateline” is “afraid” to have anyone on the program…” (Friday 13 January 2006, email).

The rhetorical question is why is it not wise or clever?

I had observed that Lateline had only used one Australian journalist with actual military experience to comment on defence issues and that was legendary newsman Gerald Stone, the founding producer of Australia’s version of 60 Minutes on the Nine Network in 1979 and a former US Army officer. You would think that Stone would have been utilized more often and other journalists with military experience given a chance to speak on Lateline.

Sally Neighbour is an award winning ABC TV journalist with the Four Corners program who also writes for the commercially owned The Australian newspaper on terrorism and is an author of “In the Shadow of Swords.” Sally, who has no previous military, policing or security experience, also lectures on the lucrative public speaker circuit. In October 2007 at Monash University she thundered from her pulpit:

“I have to say I tire of people complaining that the media makes Muslims look bad, makes all Muslims look like terrorists. It may sound trite to say this, but the media didn’t crash those planes or bomb those nightclubs. Militant Islamists did it, and they did it invoking the name of Islam. The media doesn’t make Muslims look bad. Terrorists who kill civilians while shouting “Allah Akhbar” make Muslims look bad.”

We can safely conclude that Sally’s expertise comes from her time as an ABC journalist, that is at the taxpayer’s expense. We do not know whether the ABC, that is the taxpayer, receives a slice from her second income.

Then there is Peter Hartcher, a Fairfax journalist and strategic analyst with the Lowy Institute think tank, who boasts of his political influence: “He has been called twice to testify as an expert witness to Federal Parliamentary inquiries into Australia’s relations in the Asia-Pacific and commissioned to write essays on Asia for the Washington-based foreign policy journal The National Interest.

Not forgetting Greg Sheridan of The Australian newspaper:“Greg Sheridan is the most influential foreign affairs commentator in Australia. A veteran of over 30 years in the field, he has written five books and is a frequent commentator on Australian and international radio and TV.”

Freedom of speech is a valuable commodity and a two way street. If big name reporters from the ABC, SBS or Fairfax have a special licence to investigate, then that should also apply to humble freelancers, bloggers and the average Australian tax payer.

But it would appear that is not the case. Where ABC, SBS and Fairfax reporters believe they have a god-given right to go into war zones and stick cameras and microphones into people’s faces and on themselves wearing flak jackets to get the story, trying to scrutinise the credentials of these reporters is almost impossible.

I have emailed Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper asking him why he had never volunteered for military service in his youth considering his enthusiasm, passion and “expertise” in covering war but never got a response. Perhaps my question is more dangerous than facing a Taliban bullet or IED (Improvised Explosive Device)!

McGeough in defence of his “own freedom of speech” told the ABC:“If our government is eavesdropping on people’s phone conversations and on their email, without having a warrant, without any check or balance in the system, I think we have a right to know. I think we have a right to debate it.”

What Jonathan Holmes and Cynthia Banham need to do is not blame the ADF when the media itself is too afraid to open up Australia’s defence debate.

Only one man is the exception and that is brave John Martinkus, who has been able to navigate his way through a battlefield without help from the Australian Defence Force.

In a thought provoking story for New Matilda: (What Does The Australian Military Have To Hide?) Martinkus tells of his frustration at being denied access to speak to Australian troops on camera in Afghanistan. Having been to Afghanistan myself I can empathise with Martinkus but also understand that the ADF’s micro-management of the news flow is because during the Vietnam War the Australian Army got its fingers severely burnt and soldiers’ lives were destroyed by a bogus Viet Cong water torture story that was not true.

It propelled reporter John Sorrell to fame and fortune whilst Vietnam Veterans were tarred with the brush of brutal savages.