Australian Experts with Egg on Their Faces?
Australian Experts with Egg on Their Faces?
July 7, 2011
Lance Corporal Andrew Jones was first and foremost a trained Australian soldier who was also an army cook. His tragic death at the hands of a rogue Afghan soldier in May of this year highlights the dangers that support troops face in the Afghanistan War and also hammers home how out of touch our highly paid defence experts are.
The irony of it all is that the Australian taxpayer, not once but twice, has to pick up the tab every time an “expert” comes up with a harebrained scheme or a journalist from the state owned Australian media chases a “boutique defence scandal” in the hope of winning an award.
Let us start proceedings with the Lord High Priest of Australian defence experts, Professor Paul Dibb. In 2008 I wrote:
“Let us not forget some of the hair-brained schemes to save money from the Defence budget. Highly paid academic and a former Secretary of Defence, Professor Paul Dibb, proposed in 2006 to "civilianise" some trades within the Army. He complained that there were too many Army cooks.
“But what he failed to understand is first and foremost cooks are trained soldiers who can be used to patrol bases, and secondly how many civilian cooks are prepared to work in a warzone. Maybe if we hired many Gordon Ramsey styled chefs, they could hurl abuse at the Taliban!
“Maybe we need to employ some unorthodox methods to beat the Taliban. Here is a suggestion to the Defence Minister why don’t you commission Professor Dibb to go to England and recruit these foul-mouthed cooks who would strike terror into the terrorists.
“Let us call it Dibb’s Deli. It would also be televised. Great reality television.”
Dibb together with his disciple, Hugh White, a former Fairfax newspaper journalist turned defence expert, came up with the “brilliant idea” of cutting back our frontline combat troops, such as infantry, in the mid 1990s. When the East Timor crisis erupted in late 1999 the Australian Army did not have enough infantry “gunslingers” and was forced to canabalise reserve units for soldiers.
In 1998 the then Chief of Australia's Army Lieutenant General Frank Hickling was so concerned that our army was run down at the hands of Dibb-White that he issued his famous back to basics directive ordering all soldiers sharpen up their war fighting skills. A year later his move had potentially saved the lives of many young Australian soldiers engaged in a conflict with pro-Indonesian militia in East Timor. General Hickling had to fight off opposition from some of Canberra's desk warriors and self-appointed experts who "knew better."
Moving right along here…The Australian My Lai Massacre that never was story, being pushed by the taxpayer funded Special Broadcasting Service’s (SBS TV) Dateline program, and aided and abetted by the other state owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC TV) as well as Fairfax newspapers.
In February 2009 Australian Commandos entered a Taliban compound in the Oruzgan province of Afghanistan and were fired upon. And in the fog of war a grenade was thrown into a room to subdue the Taliban but instead six civilians were tragically killed.
The Australian newspaper’s Rory Callinan and Jeremy Kelly summed up the dilemma for the soldiers involved:
“A source said the troops came under fire from a building in the compound and they responded with a grenade. When the firing continued they responded with another one as their training required, the source said. "What were they supposed to do?"
“The source said there was anger among the troops about what they would do if prosecution for a possible manslaughter went ahead. "Every time someone goes into a compound and gets shot at they will be thinking will we get charged with manslaughter if we use a grenade."
SBS TV’s Dateline program reporter, the self-styled media tough gal, Sophie McNeill, broke the story, which initially got off to a false start, and Tom Hyland and Rafael Epstein, self-appointed defence experts, have followed it for Fairfax.
In 2010 I predicted that the McNeill story would win an award, simply because it had the media template of “bad” Australian soldiers, a controversial war and an obstructionist Defence Department. But as we shall see the story simply had no legs. Why it won an award is hard to fathom:
“The ABC TV’s Media Watch program, hosted by Jonathan Holmes, revealed that SBS Dateline on 8 March 2009 with such haste put together a story by McNeill, which ended up quoting Zahir Khan, a survivor of the commando raid. But it turned out he was an imposter.
“A year later McNeill went to Afghanistan and finally tracked down the real Zahir Khan. SBS Dateline threw the blame on wily Afghan media fixer Fazel Reshad “Arshad” Wardak for the mistake in the first story. If all else fails, blame the hired help!
“You can see Wardak boasting about his services to SBS in 2008 on this Youtube clip.
“Jonathan Holmes then smacks naughty Sophie McNeill on the hand with the full force of a feather duster: as if the second story somehow redeems the first big mistake, a sack able offence. Great spin by Holmes. If only all journalists got such second chances.
“Sophie McNeill's second report is compelling. It includes film of the surviving family, and the graves of the victims, in their village in Oruzgan. And it poses serious questions about the ADF's original account of the incident, and why a year later it has said nothing more, and not even interviewed this family.”
“You’re now beginning to get the picture: a boutique scandal which has Walkley Award, Australia’s version of the Pulitzer Prize, written all over it”
As a consequence, taxpayer dollars were spent in prosecuting some of the Commandos involved in the raid. But the charges against two were thrown out this year.
The honourable thing for McNeill to do is to apologise and return her Walkely Award and for the Executive Producer of Dateline Peter Charley to fall on his sword and resign. The media expects politicians to be accountable, why not journalists?
There is a public perception that journalists have become a law onto themselves that is they have a special media sheriff’s badge they can flash, whilst the rest of us cannot even ask a question.
Let us take Rafael Epstein, former ABC TV reporter and now with Fairfax. In 2010, the taxpayer funded journalist got up to some shenanigans and tied up valuable court time:
“Victoria Police will not prosecute
a former ABC journalist accused of breaching police
roadblocks after the Black Saturday bushfires.
“Rafael Epstein and a cameraman were stopped by officers in the main street of Kinglake on February 24 last year.
“Mr Epstein, who now works at The Age, admitted to deliberately entering an area restricted by the coroner. Mr Epstein's lawyers and the Office of Public Prosecutions agreed charges would not proceed, no conviction be recorded and that the matter would be dealt with through the Magistrates Court diversion program.
“Under diversion, Mr Epstein donated $2000 to Strathewen Primary School and admitted wrongdoing. He said: ''I apologise to local residents and police. I do wish to stress that my intention was to provide constructive and responsible coverage.''
I am trying to come up with a nick name for Epstein: Rafael “Roadblock” Epstein or Rafael “Smokey and the Bandit” Epstein:
I can just picture Epstein with a Burt Reynolds moustache and cowboy hat in a car with Sophie McNeill, as the Sally Field character, and the former Victoria Police Chief Simon Overland playing the role of Buford T. Justice.
Perhaps Epstein did not have a media sheriff’s badge but simply a note giving him permission to breach the roadblock “signed Epstein’s Mother!”
Would the law have been lenient with a 17-year-old boy or girl, acting as a citizen journalist, with a video camcorder wanting to shoot a youtube clip?
Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001).
In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. It picked up a Platinum Reel Award from the 2009 Nevada Film Festival (US).
He blogs at Team Uzunov. His camerawork featured in a 2010 Canadian documentary film, "Afghanistan: outside the wire," Produced by Scott Taylor.