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VC winner heralds a new era of heroes

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Friday, 23 January 2009

The award of the highly prestigious Victoria Cross to SASR Trooper Mark Donaldson for outstanding bravery under fire in Afghanistan is not only significant because it is the first time in 40 years since the Vietnam War but it heralds the end of one era and the beginning of another in Australian society.

“Trooper Donaldson's bravery will forever be engraved in Australian history,” the Prime Minister Mr Kevin Rudd said. “Generations of schoolchildren will now know of the story of Trooper Mark Donaldson.”

Society now has heroes to look up to who are not media creations. As more and more heroes emerge from Australia’s war in Afghanistan the need for the media tough guy surrogate hero is probably finished.


Those who are highly paid observers or futurologists such as the well respected Bernard Salt should be taking note of this trend and passing it on to those powerful people who shape our media agenda such as news bosses John Westacott of the Nine Network and his Seven Network counterpart Peter Meakin.

The 1960s were a turbulent time in Australia’s history with Vietnam seen as a controversial war and a conservative society undergoing dramatic change. The notion of strong young men undergoing military service as a rite of passage was seen as anachronistic and this view probably lasted until the 1980s. Moreover, some within Australian society felt strongly that Australia and America were simply wrong to get involved in Vietnam.

Author Michael Caulfield, in his excellent book, The Vietnam Years: from the jungle to the Australian suburbs, wrote of the 1960s:

What was “now”, what was “happening”, was the photograph of a long-haired dissenter, courageously resisting a phalanx of overweight cops as they dragged him away to jail. He looked vaguely like one of Christ‘s apostles, definitely “cool”, a modern icon.

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. 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, even though he never served in Vietnam but was a school teacher who dabbled in journalism and later became a press secretary to a politician.

But with the resurgence of the Anzac Legend and in particular a new respect for those who serve in uniform, where does that leave the war reporter in society’s eyes after having fulfilled the role of surrogate “warrior” stereotype during the 1970s and 80s?

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, who coincidently did not serve in the military in Vietnam, 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 metres away from each other in Baghdad.

Trooper Donaldson’s award of the VC has now well and truly put an end to the era of the media tough guy as society’s hero.

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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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