Print Issue 198 Autumn 2010
The Australian military’s influence on the media
On March 2009, four journalists from the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and Sky News accompanied troops from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) on patrols in the area surrounding the Australians’ base outside Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan Province, southern Afghanistan. Though the patrols were entirely routine, they were notable because in the seven and a half years since the ADF arrived in Afghanistan this was the first occasion in which reporters were embedded with its troops as they moved beyond the wire. Even then, the ADF made it clear that the venture was a trial run and that its effectiveness would be evaluated before any final decision was made.
Five months later, on 10 August 2009, the Australian announced that three journalists had arrived in Afghanistan ‘to begin an unprecedented [sic] trial to be embedded with troops for three weeks, in the lead up to the national election’. The Deputy Director General of Public Affairs, Colonel Mark Elliott, noted that ‘if successful the embedding project would be replicated’, but he gave no indication of how success might be measured.1
Whatever the military’s views on the experiment, one of its guinea pigs, News Limited’s Ian McPhedran, regarded it as a lost opportunity, if not an outright failure. In a report sent to the Minister of Defence about his ‘embedding’ experience, McPhedran noted that ‘unlike British and American reporters, our movements and access were tightly controlled by the commander of MRTF 2, Lieutenant Colonel Pete Connolly. Despite being attached to a number of his sub-units during our 10 days “outside the wire” in Oruzgan Province, decisions about where we went and what we did were always made by Lt Colonel Connolly and his headquarters staff.’ McPhedran thus argued that what the ADF were offering Australian reporters could better be described as ‘media hosting’ than embedding: ‘True embedding, as practiced by US and British forces, involves journalists agreeing to a set of well-defined and binding ground rules and then being attached to a military unit without an escort officer. The level of access granted to the journalist becomes a matter between the commanding officer and the journalist.’2
A brief look at how the US military’s experiences in Afghanistan led from initial hostility towards the media to enthusiastically embracing embedding provides a revealing comparison with the Australian model of military-media relations. When the American military invaded Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, its twin aims – the destruction of al-Qaeda’s safe havens and the removal of the Taliban government – were prosecuted in the first instance by Special Forces on the ground and the Air Force bombing nominated targets from high altitude. As a result, although thirty-nine accredited correspondents were scattered among US naval vessels and Air Force bases in the region, none of them participated in or witnessed the first wave of assaults. Not only were they kept at arm’s length, they were forbidden to file the stories they did have.
Neither the reporters nor their parent organisations were happy, and they let the Pentagon know it. Less than a fortnight later, when Army Rangers raided the compound of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, they were accompanied by a Combat Camera Unit. Its green-tinged night-vision images of Special Forces troops parachuting from aircraft and entering abandoned buildings on the ground were played the next day in the Pentagon briefing room while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff provided a voice-over for the assembled correspondents. The military thought this was great stuff: immediate, vivid, authentic and patriotic. The media were not as impressed. CNN’s Bob Franken noted that substituting independent reporters with uniformed news-gatherers meant that information about the conflict was ‘controlled absolutely by the military and the government’.3 This situation, untenable by its nature, was exacerbated in the early weeks of the campaign when the accuracy of military news was repeatedly questioned. Sarah Chayes of National Public Radio noted that ‘when the Pentagon said something and the Taliban said the contrary, the Taliban were usually correct’.4
The Americans learned through a number of painful experiences such as these that control of the ground and airspace availed little when it was not allied to information dominance and control of the cognitive battle space. The only way to fix this problem, argued Terry McCreary, Special Assistant for Public Affairs to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was ‘to have the truth told first. The only way to do that is to have an independent truth-teller tell it first. The only way to have an independent truth-teller tell it first is to have them with us. And the only way to have them with us was to embed.’5 It was this recognition that underpinned the Public Affairs Guidelines (PAGs) (2003), which laid out the ground rules governing military-media relations in the Second Gulf War, including the practice of embedding journalists with military units.
It is important to be clear that the US military embraced embedding not out of any inherent respect for First Amendment rights or a more generalised love of press freedom. Grenada, Panama and the First Gulf War amply illustrated the military’s readiness to disdain the principle of press freedom when operational or political considerations demanded. The US military embraced embedding because they needed the credibility it brought to their accounts of events. They needed the media to relay the truth on their behalf. They came to see that the information dominance that embedding helped secure was key to the fulfilment of their broader military objectives.
A key difference between the Australian military’s relations with the media and the American model is that the ADF neither needs nor wants the media to tell its story or endorse its credibility. It is, then, little wonder that we are so ill-informed about what the ADF are up to in Afghanistan.
So what are the Australian forces doing in Afghanistan? As at December 2009, the ADF deployment to the country, mostly located in Oruzgan Province, totalled 1550 personnel principally divided between two forces, with smaller commitments to a number more. The major force commitments comprise the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) of around 350 personnel from the SAS and Commando regiments, and around 440 personnel in the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force (MRTF). While the SOTG provide security and force protection for Australian and coalition forces operating in Oruzgan, the MRTF is engaged in construction works, infrastructure development and the civilian training and capacity building that such security makes possible. The MRTF also includes Operational and Mentoring Liaison Teams (OMLT) who embed with the Afghan Army, accompany them on patrols and assist with training and capability development. Australian journalists have been visiting ADF troops at Camp Holland, their base outside Tarin Kowt, since their redeployment to the country in March 2006. In the twelve months to April 2009, twenty-eight journalists from seven agencies – and twelve more accompanying visiting politicians and other VIPs – were hosted by the ADF in Afghanistan.6
Despite the candour that these numbers might imply, it is, as photojournalist Sean Hobbs has noted, ‘notoriously difficult’ to secure a place on an ADF media tour to Afghanistan and numbers of ‘respected Australian journalists and photojournalists have tried, repeatedly and without success, to embed with Australian forces’.7 According to Ian McPhedran, those who were passed over needn’t be too disappointed since the visits are little more than ‘bus tours’ in which ‘members of the media are ferried to and escorted around operational zones by a cadre of Public Affairs personnel’.8 When Hobbs made it to Camp Holland, the Commanding Officer treated him to
a standard media spiel … detailing the excellent work being performed by the Australian Army provincial Reconstruction Task Force (RTF) who, I was told, were building schools, hospitals and renovating mosques. However, I would not be permitted to travel outside the wire to see any of these philanthropic activities. No explanation was forthcoming as to why this was the case … I was to be told nothing and taken nowhere – with one notable exception. At the first opportunity I was escorted to see the Afghan ‘Trade Training School’ on base, where Australian Army Engineers taught a select bunch of Afghan youths to use a hand-plane, wire a light switch and build a pergola.9
Though more worldly journalists like Hobbs and McPhedran could see through this ham-fisted PR, they were an unrepresentative minority among those who made up the bulk of the media on the bus trips. These were drawn disproportionately from ‘lads’ mags, commercial radio, breakfast talk-show hosts or reporters from news outlets linked to the soldiers’ home bases. Few of these reporters – when they were reporters – had experience with defence or overseas postings and, as such, they were the kind of journalists the ADF preferred. They could be relied on not only to provide an ostensibly objective channel for the ADF’s public affairs message, but also to assist the military in communicating with and recruiting from its target demographic. British journalists complained of a similar phenomenon in the Ministry of Defence’s information management of the war. When the Guardian’s James Meek was embedded in Helmand in 2006, his requests to visit bases where soldiers were fighting were refused. ‘I was told quite candidly’, he recalled, ‘that the priority was the tabloids and television because it was important for recruitment’.10
If the British military is going out of its way to engineer media opportunities for the red tops, the ADF seems dedicated to keeping a healthy distance between its combat personnel and all Australian reporters, regardless of their provenance. This is not merely because many of the men are Special Forces, and so off limits to the media, it is also – if not principally – the result of the ADF bringing the nomination, gathering and editing of news from the front lines in Afghanistan in-house. Tasks that were once the sole province of the media are now undertaken by Deployable Field Teams (DFTs), small teams of ADF personnel trained to operate cameras, take photographs, conduct interviews and then edit the material for press or broadcast. The media are brought into the process only when newspapers and television networks transmit the material gathered for them by the military.
Determined to close the promotional circle, bypass the media and take its message directly to the public, the ADF established its own YouTube channel, which provides a platform for more overtly propagandist material. For example, the video entitled ‘Afghan and Australian forces offer no let-up against Taliban insurgents in Operation Zamarai Lor’ is notable for its contentious assertion that the ADF’s OMLTs are enjoying great success and that the Afghan National Army (ANA) troops are taking on more active and more effective roles in operations against the Taliban: ‘The Australians say that the Afghan forces are showing real promise as a fighting force and have grown in confidence and capacity to plan and conduct operations’.11 The message contrasts with more critical assessments of the ANA’s performance from elsewhere within the ADF. The official ADF inquiry into the death of Corporal Matthew Hopkins on 16 March 2009 reveals that when Hopkins’ joint patrol came under fire from the Taliban near the village of Kakarak the Afghan troops failed to respond: ‘Throughout the main part of the contact there appears to have been limited involvement by the ANA patrol personnel.’12 In private, journalist Tom Hyland notes, Australian soldiers ‘were scathing, particularly towards the Afghan commander, who they complained was obstructive, lazy, reluctant to fight and unwilling to conduct the detailed planning that is normal for Australian troops’.13 In its failure to concede the slightest ambivalence about the ANA’s capacity and performance, the YouTube broadcast says less about the troops’ actual experience of the OMLT program than it does about their senior officers’ determination to promote successes, regardless of the facts.
Back in Australia, the ADF’s news management practices are, of necessity, more subtle, as the case of the repatriation and funeral of Australia’s most recent fatality in Afghanistan, Private Benjamin Ranaudo, reveals.14 In the last days of July 2009, when Private Ranaudo’s body was returned to his family at Avalon Airport near Melbourne, a media release from the Department of Defence advised that ‘at the request of the family, media will not be invited to attend this solemn event’.15 The next day, in a further media release describing the ‘solemn repatriation ceremony’, the family repeated its ‘request that the media respects their privacy as they grieve their loss and lay Benjamin to rest’.16
One can hardly complain about this. Intrusive media scrutiny of the family at such a time would be callous. Yet if the Ranaudos were hoping that the ADF would help safeguard their privacy they were sadly disappointed: the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Defence Personnel, Material and Science, the Chief of Defence Forces, the Deputy Chief of the Army and their entourages and attendants were all at the funeral, almost outnumbering the dead man’s family and friends, and the ADF ensured that the whole country knew that they were there. To make certain that the public were exposed to and appropriately affected by the ‘solemnity’ of the repatriation and the funeral, the military did not exclude media from either ceremony, they simply invited their own – contrary to the express wishes of the family. Both of the press releases I have alluded to above offer details about where and when the moving and still images of the ceremonies captured by the ADF’s in-house or approved media would be made available. Clearly, the Department of Defence and the military were not opposed to media coverage of the ceremonies per se, they simply wanted to ensure that they organised, directed and controlled it.
They were assisted in this by a political establishment that sees in the ecumenical acclaim for all things military the one cultural institution in the country, other than cricket, that guarantees bipartisan support, public popularity and a natural platform for statesmanlike projection. The nation’s politicians have a vested interest in draping themselves and the parliament in khaki and in making military matters a special form of political theatre. Again, it is important to recognise just how exceptional a state of affairs this is. In the US and the UK, the repatriation and burial of the dead is a matter for the family and the military, with the Defence Secretary/Defence Minister on hand only in exceptional circumstances.17
By contrast, the death of any Australian serviceman in Afghanistan is, by dint of the relatively small commitment of troops to the country and the resulting sensitivity to casualties, a political event that triggers a now familiar response from the nation’s elected leaders. The first announcement of an unnamed casualty is followed by a sketchy account of how the soldier died. With the release of personal details, we get a fuller, though not necessarily accurate, record of what happened. While this is going on the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister of Defence, uniformed chiefs, unit commanders, colleagues, friends and neighbours fall in with the choric recitation of tribute and obsequy:
The Prime Minister led the nation’s mourning … ‘Our troops in Afghanistan are engaged in dangerous work … And they perform their role with distinction and with dedication, with bravery and with professionalism. They perform their work in the best traditions of ANZAC. There is no higher call for any person than to wear the uniform of Australia and today we are tragically reminded of the terrible risks that come with that calling.’18
As Rudd’s response suggests, the whole performance is scored with the sort of platitudinous soundtrack that the trench poets of the Great War had exposed as the ‘old lie’. Yet in Australia the dead language of glorious sacrifice has made a comeback – if it ever went out of fashion. The determination of the nation’s leaders, senior ADF commanders and the media to embalm casualties in the language of ceremony abstracts them from the immediate circumstances that brought about their deaths. It translates the compromised political landscape of Afghanistan into a platform for national reaffirmation, in which any awkward questions about how or why these men died propping up a corrupt narcostate and its privileged elite while ordinary Afghans continue to suffer are drowned out in the chorus of cultural validation.
All military organisations operate as much in the realm of myth as they do in the world of politics or news. Mythic self-construction is crucial to unit cohesion and morale, and has real outcomes in terms of performance. There are practical reasons why units emblazon their battle standards with the record of their triumphs. The unit that invests in the myth of its own pre-eminence will, given the right training, equipment and leadership, perform better than one convinced of its own mediocrity. I would, however, argue that what distinguishes the ADF from the US, UK, Dutch and Canadian militaries is the vigour and success with which it has shaped the myth of its own exceptionalness, promoted its embodiment in physical form and overseen its entrenchment within the national consciousness. The ADF and its civilian devotees zealously police the myth, ritually invoking its key components while challenging any hostile media or historical critique of it. Accordingly, its reiteration and reinforcement play a key role in shaping the ADF’s current practices, not least in its relations with the media. To that extent, when Australians are sent overseas, either as the lead group in smaller Pacific ventures or as support for their allies elsewhere, what matters to the military as much as the successful completion of the mission itself is that its troops should be seen to be operating within and upholding the traditions of their forebears, that they should be seen to be honouring and re-animating the Anzac spirit.
The role of myth in shaping contemporary practice in the ADF has been enhanced by the relations between the Australian military and the media. Where the US, UK, Dutch and Canadian military operate on the basis of doctrine – an endorsed national policy that explicitly mandates cooperation with the media, laying out a detailed account of what assistance can and will be offered, and what can and cannot be reported – the ADF and the Australian media have no equivalent.19 Brian Humphreys, former Director General Communication Strategies in the Department of Defence, has noted that ‘the department has no formal strategy for media relations … While there are tactical public information plans, a general policy direction and a number of informal strategies, there is no considered and documented media strategy.’ As a result, the department relies on an ‘informal, unwritten, media strategy’ that, Humphreys argues, ‘is based upon expediency, mistrust, understandable security concerns and an unfortunate disinterest … in building a positive working relationship with the media’.20 As Humphreys’ assessment implies, without the explicit organisational direction and coordinated policy enshrined in doctrine, the ADF falls back on the tacit knowledge about the media that circulates within the wider organisation and the default attitudes this informs. While there are no surveys recording ADF personnel’s opinions about the media, the ADF’s open mistrust of reporters in Afghanistan, contempt for their professional practices and determination to use them and their organisations as channels for its mythic self-projection all demonstrate its deeply ingrained hostility towards the fourth estate.
What happened that led the ADF to so despise and mistrust the media? Where, in the experience of Vietnam, the US military had a clear – if highly contested – basis for its subsequent hostility to the press, and while the UK, Dutch and Canadian militaries can all look back on some very testing times in their dealings with the media, the ADF can point to no single traumatic event souring its relationship. Indeed, the historical record reveals that the ADF have been the beneficiaries of overwhelmingly approving, if not reverential, coverage from their media. And that, it seems to me, is a central problem – not because I think there should be more military-bashing but because without an established tradition of forensic scrutiny or a compelling narrative within which such a critique might sit, legitimate failings within the military cannot be exposed and corrected. Raised on a diet of veneration, the ADF and its proponents choke on anything less, regarding close media scrutiny of its policies or actions as an assault not merely on its integrity but on the nation and its founding ideals.
A two-part essay by Mervyn Bendle in the June and July-August 2009 editions of Quadrant offers a compelling example.21 In the first of these, Bendle contrasts popular histories of the Great War with the work of contemporary academics. Where the former ‘connect very effectively with the popular understanding of Anzac and all it represents’, the academic historians, he argues, are committed to ‘an elitist agenda of national self-laceration’ and uniformly denigrate the Anzac virtues of ‘courage, endurance, mateship, sacrifice and … leadership’.22 Bendle’s motivation here is not to examine the substantive differences between popular and academic approaches to the war. His essay is less a historical analysis than it is a religious exegesis, asserting that a crude division between the sheep and the goats, the faithful and the false, those wholeheartedly committed to Anzac and those dedicated to its destruction, can be drawn along the fault line of academia.23
Bendle offers the fundamentalist expression of a more widely held faith in the Anzac myth and what it says about the national character. If this faith’s Jerusalem lies on the coast of the Dardanelles, its Vatican can be found in Canberra, somewhere between the Department of Defence on Russell Hill and the Australian War Memorial in nearby Campbell. To the zealots who tend its eternal flame, the media’s endeavours to regard as secular matters that the military holds sacred marks it and its followers as apostates and heretics.
This makes Defence the most challenging ministry in Australian government, placing the minister in a uniquely conflicted position. On the one hand, the minister oversees a modern military organisation with a budget in excess of $22 billion a year, a workforce of more than 60 000 managing complex operations across three continents, supplying its personnel with everything from state-of-the-art fighter jets to flak jackets. On the other hand, the minister’s role is as much papal as it is bureaucratic or technical. As head of the nation’s defence forces, the minister is, ex officio, chief celebrant in and defender of the Anzac faith. In these dual roles he is compelled to walk a fine line, to balance his ministerial responsibilities against his duties as custodian of the national myth. Any actions or proposed amendments to organisation, strategy, policy or practices that run counter to the creed or seem to lack reverence, any point at which political considerations cut across articles of faith, can bring on a crisis.
Hence it is no surprise that the department has had six ministers over the past decade, with Senator John Faulkner assuming the role early in June 2009 after the resignation of his predecessor, Joel Fitzgibbon. Fitzgibbon’s stated determination early in his tenure to shake up what most politicians, senior bureaucrats and media commentators considered a dysfunctional department was perceived in certain quarters of Defence as a lack of reverence for the institution.24 As soon as that view gained a toehold, the minister’s days were numbered. He was ultimately toppled after only eighteen months when damaging allegations about political and business contacts with a Chinese benefactor and his brother’s role in the tendering process for defence health contracts were leaked to the press and his position became untenable. An official investigation was launched to determine whether members of the department had spied on their minister. Though the report found no such evidence, it is widely believed that he was undermined and eventually driven out by a department hostile to change and defensive of its values and the lore that informs them. As such, while he is rightfully regarded as the victim of disloyalty and treachery from within his own department, he was as much a religious sacrifice as a political one.
When the military refuses to open itself to objective scrutiny, when, as a result of the core values it serves, it disdains its accountability to the public who equip and fund it, then the challenge for ministers, bureaucrats and the military is as much cultural as it is political. In the face of the ADF’s profound commitment to cultural values that render it unaccustomed, if not resistant, to forensic scrutiny of its actions, it needs to be made to see that laying itself open to public view, within appropriate bounds, does not offend its most sacred values – it vindicates and augments them. At a cultural level, this demands a move away from the militarisation of Australian identity and the fostering of a more democratic mythic tradition, one that celebrates the values of tolerance and critique which are central to democracy, and in which a number of competing narratives of national foundation and values – Indigenous, feminist, multicultural and others – can find a role.
The Anzac tradition will continue to occupy a central place in the myth of national foundation. But just as it can no longer enjoy a monopoly over the definition of authentic national identity, nor can it be used by the ADF to justify its exemption from the same processes of accountability and review to which every other public organisation is subject. A fair go for all. Isn’t that a key article in the Anzac faith?
In memory of my father, Kevin Foster, 1929–2010.
1 Scott Murdoch, ‘Journalists embedded for Afghan election’, Australian, 10 August 2009.
2 Ian McPhedran, ‘Embedding’ trial report, submitted to Senator John Faulkner, Minister of Defence, 9 September 2009.
3 Quoted in Thomas Rid, War and Media Operations: The US Military and the Press from Vietnam to Iraq, Routledge, London, 2007, p. 102.
4 Quoted in ibid., p. 103.
5 Quoted in ibid., p. 108.
6 Zoë Hibbert, ‘Managing the “battlefield effect” of media in Afghanistan’, in Kevin Foster (ed.), What Are We Doing in Afghanistan? The Military and the Media at War, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, p. 47.
7 Sean Hobbs, ‘How to build a pergola: With the ADF in Afghanistan’ in Foster, op. cit., p. 92.
8 Ian McPhedran, ‘War! What war?’ in Foster,
op. cit., p. 71.
9 Hobbs, in Foster, op. cit., p. 95.
10 Stephen Gray, ‘A lack of cover’, Guardian, 15 June 2009.
12 Colonel WR Hanlon, Inquiry Officer’s Report into the Death of Corporal M.R.A. Hopkins in Afghanistan on 16 March 2009, Department of Defence, Canberra, 2009, para. 30.
13 Tom Hyland, ‘Death inquiry reveals Afghan troop failings’, Age, 26 July 2009, p. 4.
14 Though subtle, they are still subject to foolish errors. The original Defence media release (MSPA 223/09) on 19 July 2009 announcing Private Ranaudo’s death spelt his surname incorrectly (‘Renaudo’).
15 Return to Australia of Private Benjamin Ranaudo, media release (MSPA 233/09), Department of Defence, 25 July 2009.
16 Private Benjamin Ranaudo Returns Home, media release (MSPA 234/09), Department of Defence, 26 July 2009.
17 When Bob Ainsworth, the British Defence Secretary, attended a soldier’s funeral in Coventry in September 2009 his mere presence made news. Ainsworth, the Guardian noted, ‘does not normally attend military funerals’, but was there on this occasion in his capacity as local MP. Stephen Bates, ‘Bob Ainsworth attends soldier’s funeral’, Guardian, 9 September, 2009, p. 13.
18 Michael Harvey, ‘Road bomb kills Aussies’, Herald Sun, 28 November 2008, p. 9.
19 The policies dictating British relations with the media in times of war are set out in the Ministry of Defence’s Green Book (2008) and the Dutch doctrine is enshrined in the Communicatieplan Uruzgan Definitief (2006). The only equivalent document in the Australian Department of Defence is the Defence Instructions (General) Public comment and dissemination of official information by Defence personnel (2007).
20 Brian Humphreys, ‘The Australian Defence Force’s media strategy: What it is and why, and why it needs to change’ in Foster, op. cit.,
21 The two essays are ‘Gallipoli: Second front in the history wars’, Quadrant, vol. 53, no. 6, 2009, pp. 6–14, and ‘The intellectual assault on Anzac’, Quadrant, vol. 53, no. 7–8, July–August 2009, pp. 7–14.
22 Mervyn Bendle, ‘Gallipoli: Second front in the history wars’, op cit., p. 7.
23 This leads him into predictable absurdity, mustering conservative academic critics, like Jeffrey Grey of ADFA, alongside more heterodox historians like Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds and Mark McKenna.
24 A declassified version of this document can be found at www.defence.gov.au/publications/finalUnclasInvestigationReport.pdf.