I know that Australian soldiers dying isn’t good news, but I used to think it was at least newsworthy. Until yesterday, that is. When news of three dead and seven wounded Australian soldiers collides with a Qantas shutout, guess which event dominates the media?

I looked at the SBS and ABC news on Sunday night. Both accorded Qantas the lead, and discussed it in great detail. ABC, the national broadcaster, initially said the two main stories of the night were the Qantas dispute and the Australian deaths. However, by my reckoning the first 19 minutes were about the Qantas dispute (with a special edition of 7.30 coming after). This was followed by two to three minutes on the Australian deaths, of which nearly half was taken up with the suicide attack that killed 13 US soldiers the same day.

Perhaps leading with a minute on the deaths before launching into the orgy of Qantas news might have been more appropriate, but then again, why would people need to know about the deaths of three Australian soldiers when there are all those stranded passengers out there?

The ABC also wanted to look at how returning Qantas passengers were coping with the delays, and the impact on people wanting to travel to the spring racing carnival. No mention of how three families somewhere in Australia were going to cope with their loved ones not returning at all, or of what the wounded might think about missing the Melbourne Cup.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian online news also had Qantas as the only lead story, with the soldiers’ deaths relegated to the “other news” sections. The SMH gave the incident the same online prominence as “Gillard wraps up overshadowed CHOGM” and “String of suburban drive-by shootings”.

The Australian got close to a military headline, proclaiming somewhat insensitively that “Qantas declares industrial war”, while down the page in the national news section you could read about the multiple Australian deaths from a real, as opposed to industrial, war. If you missed it, the story about the dead Diggers was just above one called “Burlesque artist lifts stakes in style”.

Our soldiers are robust and well looked after by the government, which is only appropriate given the tasks we require them to perform. And while they don’t ask to be the centre of attention back home simply for risking their lives, it would be nice if they knew that the shooting of 10 of their number was more newsworthy than whether people are going to be able to fly to Melbourne for the cup on Tuesday.

Perhaps our news editors should ask if, in the future, our soldiers in Afghanistan could avoid being killed on grand final weekend, the Boxing Day Test, budget night or any transport strike.

Based on today, it would certainly help them avoid having to make those tough editorial decisions. What a joke.

*Dr Rodger Shanahan was the Chief of Army Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and is now a non-resident Fellow at the Institute. In the Army he had extensive service within the Parachute Battalion Group and was a staff officer in the operations and planning fields. This article was originally published at The Interpreter.

Peter Fray

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