For those of us on the Kokoda Track 12 months ago this week, news of Kevin Rudd trying to manipulate an Anzac Day dawn service to suit his own desire for publicity came as no great surprise.

For the then Opposition frontbencher — along with host of Channel Seven’s Sunrise program David ”Kochie” Koch and Rudd’s one-time Sunrise sparring partner, Employment Minister Joe Hockey — almost managed to hijack the service at the Isurava memorial last year. It was a display so breathtaking in its commercialism and self-promotion that many of us there felt the day and its meaning had been seriously demeaned.

The service became not so much a poignant remembrance of the Anzacs, and the thousands of Australians killed in Papua New Guinea, as a promotional vehicle for Channel Seven, the trek organiser Executive Excellence and, of course — for how can you not have the words ‘self-promotion’ with the names of politicians a short distance behind — our two friends from Canberra, Rudd and Hockey.

Seven’s grubby mitts were all over the service from the start. It began at 7am, so was not a dawn service at all, but a service timed to start with the Sunrise program back in Australia.

When the cameras rolled, Koch, Rudd and Hockey were positioned stage centre, either side of the man conducting the service, former Australian Army chaplain Monsignor Butler. The three trekkers wore black shirts emblazoned with the Channel Seven logo and unsubtle promotions for the Sunrise program and Executive Excellence.

The padre asked for a minute’s silence before the start of the service. The quiet contemplation was punctuated only by the noise of Kochie, earpiece attached, counting down the time for Monsignor Butler during the lead-in commercial break: ” … 40 seconds, 30, you’ve got 20 seconds to go, father …’’.

Wreaths were then laid by, among others, Rudd, Hockey and Kochie, as if a television presenter had anything at all to do with proceedings. Tellingly, the backdrop for the service was the four granite pillars at Isurava, a wonderful memorial built by the Australian Government in 2002, bearing the words: courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice — publicity and self-promotion not having quite the same currency in 1942 as they do now.

A few of us grumbled about the crassness of it all, but I wondered if we were being overly sensitive. After all, walking the track for eight days does strange things to your head. But I was delighted to see the ABC’s Media Watch take up the cudgels the following week when I got back to Australia. Dozens of Sunrise viewers had also apparently taken umbrage at the service and complained in droves to Seven and to Media Watch.

Emails to Media Watch included these three:

I want to give a brickbat to Seven Sunrise for having corporate t-shirts with large 7 logos en masse, degrading the broadcast of the Kokoda dawn service … I personally would have preferred Joe Hockey topless!!’’

Channel 7’s Sunrise coverage of the Kokoda Anzac Day service was commercialism at its grossest, and a desecration of Australia’s remembrance of those who served and died…

T-shirts shamelessly displaying the Channel Seven logo … Cashing-in on this special day…What idiots!

So, if you want to know the genesis of Rudd and Sunrise‘s plan to hold a fake Anzac Day dawn service at Long Tan this year, look no further than the jungles of PNG 12 months ago. But Rudd should have learnt his lesson. Playing around with the traditions of Australia’s most sacred day was a PR schemozzle then; now, it’s become a rolled-gold, top-shelf, five-star PR disaster in which he has managed to offend not just every digger, but a fair portion of middle-of-the-road Australia as well.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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