Australia’s media is — rightly — getting plenty of accolades over breaking open the story about war crimes by elements in Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan. It’s an example of journalism that delivered on its promise: deep reporting that empowered courageous whistleblowers and gave voices to the victims in Afghan villages. It refused to pull punches, sticking at it over years despite continued state harassment.
It would not have happened without an institution like the ABC, that trained and employed the journalists behind the story, gave them the space, the resources and the time, and defended them and their work.
Now, the official inquiry has rendered it safe for all media to follow up in depth and the reporting has become that rare thing: a deeply Australian story that genuinely shocks the world.
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But if Australia’s media takes the accolades for breaking the story, what’s its responsibility for the “toxic culture” that allowed it to happen?
Australia’s popular media — particularly television — has been a willing follower of the Liberal government’s long campaign to Americanise Australian attitudes to the military. There’s been a deliberate PR strategy to turn the Australian military in part into a secular saint of Australian values and in part a tool to provide an apolitical shield for the government’s most political acts.
Scott Morrison has long been eager to wrap himself up in these signifiers of service. Here he is just last month campaigning in the Queensland election complete with his own tank for the evening news. Last year he revamped the acknowledgement of country to stuff in a call out to veterans, giving a sly wink that undermines the acknowledgement’s core.
But Morrison is just making overt the process started with more nuance under John Howard. Sometime in its second term, the Howard government had a light bulb moment, a recognition of the enduring benefits of using the military to implement policy by other means.
Got political dirty work? Here’s the military to help out. In 2001 the special forces seize MV Tampa with its load of asylum seekers; in 2007 the army leads the Northern Territory intervention; in 2013, the navy is tasked with stopping the boats. In between it pre-paid Australia’s deposit for the US alliance, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it’s on offer to the states for the local tasks of fighting bushfires, or hotel quarantine.
Need a neutral face for, say, governor-general? Who better than an actual general — like the past three appointed by Liberal prime ministers?
It’s been accompanied by a transition from the traditional Australian mourning of “lest we forget” into the more American celebratory “thank you for your service”. In Canberra half-a-billion dollars is being spent on expanding the Australian War Memorial, in the process accelerating its transition from a shrine of remembrance to a showroom of military technology.
The “lest we forget” tradition always captured the spectrum of genuine responses to war, from recognition to horror. It provided space for respectful debate. “Thank you for your service” is weaponised by governments and culture warriors alike to turn aside criticism of public policy as an ungrateful attack on the services.
This shift hasn’t happened by accident. The Department of Defence has its own public relations arm. It (cautiously) embeds journalists and, through the War Memorial, both writes its own official history and provides resources for those popular military books that fill up the shelves of Australian non-fiction.
As war has become less relevant to our day-to-day lives, it’s become more dominant in our cultural lives. Up until the 1980s, both media and politics were full of people who had real experience of war as returned soldiers. Their experiences shaped our cultural understanding of war — with pride, sure, but with more elegy and self-deprecation than bombastic jingoism. In media it’s an understanding held by the remaining handful of front-line war reporters.
Now, understanding of military service is more usually shaped from the outside. It’s more carefully curated, with all the rough edges sanded down — and it’s more readily turned to political ends, pummelling the genuine respect that Australians share for military service into a more shallow appropriation of the ANZAC myth for political ends.
How should the media cover the armed forces? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.