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Real heroes and media heroes

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Wednesday, 9 September 2009

All the fuss surrounding Victorian State Minister Tim Holding surviving a two-day ordeal in the state’s snow country after being lost would suggest a society yearning for real life heroes and role models.

Some pundits have either downplayed or missed this trend, even though it is the elephant in the room! Dare I say it, in case of being accused of being on a “curious crusade”.

Neil Mitchell, Melbourne talkback radio king, wrote:


But for at least some of those worrying 48 hours, the politicians let their masks slip. They accepted a diminished sense of self-importance and became real people, with genuine fears. And we liked what we saw.

The only one apparently untouched by the mood change was Mr Holding, who stepped from the rescue helicopter like a prince on a royal tour, and shook hands with his shaken father, as though greeting another boring diplomat.

While young Mr Holding has never been given to public handstands, let's hope he spent some of those hours awaiting rescue thinking about the meaning of life, the universe and his place in it.

Perhaps we'll see a new Tim, who cares nothing if a memo has spelling errors and presents to TV cameras as something other than a wind-up doll.

Surprisingly, Mitchell, who is a protégé of Les Carlyon, legendary newspaperman and the Zeus of the Anzac Legend bards, has ignored Holding’s previous military service but focused on the young Minister’s penchant for grammar.

In fact it was quite refreshing seeing Holding not over-celebrate or break into tears when rescued as has been the fashion on some of those contrived reality television shows of late.

Perceptive novelist Anson Cameron wrote in, of all places, The Age on September 5:

The blogs and talkback (listeners) are a cacophony of the aggrieved wondering why a body would want to wander alone in far places.

It's sad to live in a time when a man is slated for walking alone on a mountain ... Could John McDouall Stuart have foreseen a day when Australians upbraided one another for going close to the edge?

Could Albert Jacka have imagined so many of his countrymen would come to believe mollycoddling themselves through their allotted span and dying amid a symphony of chirps and beeps given off by medical machines was a life lived?

What might Nancy Bird have made of an age where her fellow Australians sit there and tut, immersed in disapproval ...

How despondent would Sir John Monash be to see so many of his countrymen lost in a Bermuda triangle of couch, TV and fridge?

Jacka and Monash are World War I warriors and national icons.


Tim Holding served two years as an Army Reservist with elite 126 Signals Squadron , attached to 2 Company, 1 Commando Regiment at Fort Gellibrand, in Melbourne’s Williamstown suburb.

Lindsay Lorrain, vice-president of the 1st Commando Regiment Association, served with Mr Holding between 1991-93. Lorrain told the Herald Sun newspaper: "He underwent basic soldier training so he would have been subjected to the elements, and taught to cope with extended periods of cold or without food."

"He is a very likable and committed guy, but unfortunately he went down the path of politics and left the army."

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a turbulent time in Australia’s history with Vietnam seen as a controversial war (1962-72) and a conservative society undergoing dramatic change. It was simply un-cool to serve in uniform. Popular films and rock songs reflect this mood:

In 1971 the controversial US movie Dirty Harry, actor Clint Eastwood plays an unorthodox police officer pursuing a psychotic killer, Scorpio, who wears Army boots, a peace badge as a belt buckle and is a trained sniper. The inference, though never spelt out in the film, is that Scorpio is a Vietnam Veteran who enjoys killing.

Australian rock band Cold Chisel, fronted by Jimmy Barnes, had a massive hit in 1978 with a song titled “Khe Sanh”, about an Australian Vietnam Veteran, ignored and disillusioned:

How there were no V-day heroes in 1973
How we sailed into Sydney Harbour
Saw an old friend but couldn't kiss her

However, by 1985 the mood had changed. Barnes’ solo smash hit “Working Class Man” has a Vietnam Veteran as a man of strength:

He believes in God and Elvis
he gets out when he can
he did his time in Vietnam
still mad at Uncle Sam
he's a simple man
with a heart of gold
in a complicated land
oh he's a working class man

In the late 1970s, a clever newsman Gerald Stone, a former US Army artillery officer and famous war reporter in his own right, probably sensed an Australian society needing strong masculine heroes to fill the void with a “media tough guy”. Stone recruited three journalists, Ray Martin, Ian Leslie and George Negus.

As canny Mark Day, a newspaperman of the old school, observed:

I guess we can blame Gerald Stone and George Negus for the emergence of the celebrity journalist - at least in Australia.

Stone was executive producer of the Nine (TV network) clone of CBS’s “60 Minutes” when it launched here in 1979 with the premise that the reporter was the story.

George, along with Ray Martin and Ian Leslie were sent into war zones, deep jungles, and dark places in search of ripper yarns, and the cameras tracked them tracking down the story.

George, coat slung over his shoulder, embraced this role with a particular gusto, adding his idiosyncratic commentary into which he wove his personal beliefs.

It wasn’t long before George was a bigger celeb than any of the news makers he pursued, even after being savaged by the likes of Margaret Thatcher.

George Negus was dubbed the Balmain Cowboy after a tough working class inner Sydney suburb because of his macho image: he was a school teacher who dabbled in journalism and later became a press secretary to a politician.

Rival Australian television networks, in a game of one-upmanship, have inadvertently brought the notion of the warrior-as-reporter to the surface. A famous case involved veteran Nine Network reporter Jim Waley, wearing a the flak jacket in Iraq in 2004 as opposed to his competitor Adrian Brown of the Seven Network who did not. Both were just metres away from each other in Baghdad.

Channels Seven and Nine were at each other’s throats over the Holding rescue story, both claiming that their news helicopter found him first.

I was once given some excellent advice by a crusty old Army Warrant Officer, who had fought in Vietnam:

“Digger, you don’t have to wear uniform to be brave or a hero. Take people as they come.”

One man who is a real hero is Australian academic Dr Damien Kingsbury. He has risked his life in East Timor and other hotspots to get a better understanding of our crazy world. In a previous life, the motor cycle riding professor would have been a cross between writer George Orwell who had fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and British World War I military adventurer TE Lawrence of Arabia.

But as Mark Day has mentioned above, society does not buy the media tough guy image. It is a concept past its use-by date. Tim Holding and Damien Kingsbury are what society wants and needs.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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