Tribute to war correspondents

September 23, 2015

Thank you very much Rodney and Brendan, so many distinguished friends, parliamentary colleagues.

Let me deal with the greatest role of war correspondents, indeed of all journalists, and that is to stand up to the powerful – to hold up the truth to power. It is often said that in war the first casualty is the truth and it is the war correspondents that have to tell the truth, often in the face of considerable criticism.

It takes courage for any journalist, for any correspondent, to stand up to big businesses, to vested interests, to governments and never more so in a time of war, when all of the arguments of patriotism can be levelled, inveighed against a journalist who seeks to tell the truth.

And so it is wonderfully fitting that we, a great democracy, one of the world’s greatest democracies, are dedicating this memorial on the centenary of Keith Murdoch’s letter to Andrew Fisher. What Keith Murdoch did – an Australian journalist and war correspondent – what he did was tell the truth. He told the truth in the nation’s interest. He told uncomfortable truths because, my friends, our democracy depends not just on the politicians, not just on the judges, it depends on the armed services defending our freedoms but it depends vitally on a free press; on a free and courageous press; on free and courageous correspondents who are not cowed by governments and by big vested interests.

Now we have had a very long tradition of courageous journalists covering our nation’s wars. They have, as Brendan said, written the first draft of history. Arguably, the first war correspondent, arguably the world’s first historian, was of course Thucydides who wrote and who was a participant in the Peloponnesian War. Although, I’d say to the Admirals and the Generals, he was also a General so he was multi-tasking – perhaps that wouldn’t be allowed, wouldn’t be acceptable nowadays.

Can I say that it is wonderful that the Charles Bean Foundation has sponsored this because Charles Bean, like Keith Murdoch, broke the mould of the war correspondent that, in effect, becomes part of the military’s, or the Government’s, publicity machine. And as those of you who have read Ross Coulthart’s excellent book would know very well, some of his dispatches were rejected because they were not jingoistic enough, they strayed too close to the facts, to telling the full horror of what was going on.

So this is a memorial about courage in the face of death, courage in the face of physical threat but it is also a memorial to the courage of men and women who do what is so essential in our democracy – hold up the truth to power and at a time when the power is more powerful than it ever can be. That is when Governments are at their most powerful and the pressure they can exert on a free press is the greatest. So we are talking today about a tradition of courage, a tradition that is absolutely fundamental to our democracy.

Now we remember our war correspondents who were killed doing their work. Damien Parer, who died with a camera in his hand, like Bruce Piggott, John Cantwell and Michael Birch who were killed in Vietnam. Neil Davis, who filmed his own death while covering a coup in Bangkok and Paul Moran from the ABC who died in Iraq. And, of course as Brendan noted, Shirley Shackleton is here, the widow of Greg who, together with his four colleagues, television reporters and camera men, who were killed in Balibo forty years ago.

The trauma of covering war is considerable. We should not forget that and I would just record, or repeat, what the Australian journalist Michael Ware wrote about returning to what was supposed to be a normal life after covering the war in Iraq and I’m quoting from his work, he said:
“I felt chewed and spat out by my past employers. In the field it was only a colleague, a mate and a true brother-in-arms with me everywhere who helped me at all and then in New York two other friends, both cameramen, discreetly found the doctor I went on to see, in secret, for almost two years. His bills came out of my pocket, no recompense from those who paid me for my wars, from them came only rebuke and lectures.”

Bean, of course, was originally offered the role of Chief Censor and he rejected that and instead became our chief journalist, he wrote the first draft of history and then – well the final draft is never written, but he wrote a very advanced draft as well. I mentioned Thucydides earlier, the Athenian General and writer who wrote his history, the Peloponnesian Wars and, you know when you reflect on how Bean was chastised by editors for not being romantic enough in his coverage and often reproached himself for not having enough poetry in his copy – preferring to set out the facts. I can just quote to you from Thucydides’ work, two and a half thousand years ago, and he wrote:

“The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest but if it be judged useful by those who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation to the future I shall be content.”

So there is a long thread of telling the truth from Thucydides right down to our war correspondents of today.

Now we also have with us Peter Greste. Peter Greste’s courage and his dedication to telling the truth and paying a very heavy price for us is understood by us all and I want, Peter – as I said to you yesterday – you to know that the Australian Government continues to support you and your colleagues and will continue to press the government of Egypt to pardon you and the other journalists with whom you worked that are still imprisoned in Egypt.

So, finally, friends, I want to acknowledge the support of the benefactors here today, particularly those in the Australian media and – without running the great, very grave risk for any politician to single out one part of the media over another – I cannot but help note a friend, Kerry Stokes, whose generosity as one Australia’s greatest philanthropists and his generosity to the Memorial is truly remarkable and a great example to all of us.

I want to thank the War Memorial itself, led by Dr Nelson, for the great care they have given to the creation of this Memorial and their dedication to protecting and preserving Australia’s heritage.

And, finally, may I just conclude where I began. We are one of the oldest democracies in the world. Our democracy depends on many men and women, on many institutions – all of them vitally important – but none is more important than a free and courageous press and today we are honouring the war correspondents, but in doing so, we are honouring the freedom they have worked so hard to preserve.

Thank you very much.

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