In recent days the issue of defence reporters and how they access their sources has come into the media spotlight. Sasha Uzunov, a Melbourne freelance journalist and ex-Australian Army soldier, reports.

“Watch out for the big fella,” was the warning I was given when I started my six-month stint in Defence Public Affairs Office in Canberra in July 1999. The big fella referred to The Herald-Sun’s and The Daily Telegraph’s Defence correspondent, Ian McPhedran.

This was a begrudging acknowledgement that Big Ian was keeping the spin doctors on their toes with his well-informed stories on defence and had developed an excellent rapport with sources, in particular the Army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers and officers. In fact there was a running joke in Russell Offices that the big fella had been “adopted” by the SAS.

I was a freelance journalist before I enlisted in the Australian Army in 1995 and eventually became an infantryman with two tours of duty to East Timor under my belt. From July 1999 to January 2000 I did a stint with DPAO, including a tour to East Timor in October 1999.

What I found surprising was that McPhedran was feared more than the ABC and SBS! And he was feared because he had done his homework; had been bothered to learn about the Army’s weapons, tactics and so on. This brings me to the issue of education or training for journalists who become defence or war reporters.

The number of Australian journalists and strategic analysts and academics who have served in the Defence Forces or fought in a war is very small. Yet these people, who I call Desk Warriors, have a bearing on how the debate is shaped by their reporting. During my time in East Timor the number of reporters who were confusing the standard Australian Army issue assault rifle, the Steyr, with the US counterpart, the M16, astounded me. We would not tolerate a lawyer who was not qualified representing us in court, yet we allow ‘unqualified” journos to report on defence.

When I left the Army in 2002, I became a freelance correspondent in The Balkans and the Middle-East. I bumped into a respected BBC War Correspondent on the Turkish-Iraq border during the Iraq war in 2003 who didn’t even know what an RPK was. It’s a Soviet styled heavy machine gun! He was driven around in an expensive 4-wheel drive vehicle by a local Turkish driver, and even refused to go out into the field!

This then leads to the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq, which has been a hotly debated issue in Britain, United States and of course, Australia. If a BBC War Correspondent doesn’t know what an RPK is, then how would he or she know what WMD looked like, assuming that they existed. So much energy has been expended on this topic in the Australian media. Unfortunately, some western journalists who go to Iraq or any other war zone head straight for the closest 4 star hotel. My advice is get on the road, and see things for yourself. Maybe WMD exist, maybe they don’t!

So what’s the solution? Well, one answer is for journalists who become defence reporters to volunteer to serve in the Army, Navy or Air Force Reserve for a period of 6 to 12 months. Currently, there is a program running for Federal Parliamentarians to serve a few days at a time in the Australian Defence Forces. This is done so that our pollies get a taste of what service life is really like.

Another is to consult journalists with actual military experience in order to gain an understanding of complex issues.

Once a journalist or strategic analyst knows what it’s like to carry a 40 kilogram backpack for many kilometres in extreme heat or cold, then he or she will start getting a better understanding of what soldiers have to go through on operations.

I am of the view that if you want to criticise society and its institutions, then you should get your hands dirty yourself.



Peter Fray

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