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A special licence to investigate

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Fairfax newspapers' self appointed defence expert Tom Hyland has made a very clever and subtle attack against the Defence Department over its refusal to divulge details about the heroic and ferocious battles being fought by the Australian Army’s elite SASR in Afghanistan.

However, it is a bit rich for Hyland to be complaining that freelance journalists/bloggers are on a “curious crusade” if they scrutinise or criticise defence experts, in particular journalists and writers such as Vietnam War draft resister Garrie Hutchinson.

Hyland’s piece ran in the Sunday Age and Sun Herald on June 14, 2009 and reveals the story of a brave Dutch commando Captain Marco Kroon who fought alongside the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) in Afghanistan in 2006. Here’s the tone:


The story of a Dutch soldier's courage reveals what our army keeps secret, writes Tom Hyland.

A veil of official secrecy shrouding combat involving Australian SAS troops in Afghanistan has been lifted in Holland, revealing details of harrowing fighting that is still withheld by the Australian military.

Perhaps Hyland is not aware of the reason why the SASR remains successful: it is because it keeps away from the glare of publicity.

What is surprising is that it has taken Hyland three years to track the full details. Surely, with the bevy of highly paid defence experts in the Fairfax stable such as Paul Daley, Peter Hartcher, Hugh White, Nick McKenzie and Paul McGeogh, all of whom have never served in uniform, they would have helped Hyland out? Ah, but perhaps this is a curious crusade …? We must not go there!

The reality is, for all its faults, the Defence Department bends over backwards to satisfy the whims of Australia’s big name journalists. But then again, the Defence Department now would probably be wary of dealing with Fairfax newspaper, The Age. The Age was recently found to be wrong in reporting that the Defence Department spied on the then Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon.

Big name journalists, because of their power and influence, can become accustomed to getting their own way. They can also suffer from Selective Freedom to Scrutinise Syndrome (SFTSS): that is some of them believe they have a special licence, or a media sheriff’s badge, to kick down doors and investigate - but this does not apply to freelance journalists or bloggers or non-ABC TV journalists.

Ex-ABC TV reporter Max Uechtritz is a classic example of SFTSS.


Paul Moran, 39, was killed on March 22, 2003 by a car bomb while covering the war in Northern Iraq for ABC TV. He was an Adelaide-raised freelance cameraman who worked on and off for the ABC as well as US public relations firm Rendon, which had ties to the CIA and the Bush Administration.

Walkley Award winning Australian journalist, Mr Colin James, of the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper, was the first to break the story about Moran’s shadowy past when he attended Moran’s wake in Adelaide. He talked to relatives who revealed that Moran had a James Bond other life but the ABC did not follow up on this story.

ABC TV news boss Mr Uechtritz, in his reply to ABC program Media Watch aired on April 14, 2003, wrote: “The ABC is not in the habit of following up Adelaide Advertiser stories.”

The Media Watch program chastised the ABC and Uechtritz: “The story was followed up by some parts of the media, but not by the ABC. It should have been.” (“Death in Bagdad”, April 14, 2003).

The irony of all this is Mr Uechtritz complained to The Age newspaper on June 30, 2003 about freedom of speech after coming under attack from the then Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, for alleged biased reporting of the Iraq War by the ABC.

“It is the duty of independent journalists in a robust democracy to question everything,” Mr Uechtritz wrote. “The senator seems to think the media's duty in time of war is to fall meekly into line with the government of the day.”

But it appears this does not apply to non-ABC journalists scrutinising Paul Moran!

Another example of SFTSS is the bizarre legal case involving a reporter with the London Times newspaper, Patrick Foster, taking action to find out the name of an anonymous blogger NightJack, who turned out to be a Lancashire policeman, Richard Horton.

Legal Eagle who contributes to the blog Skeptic Lawyer (run by Helen Dale of Helen Demidenko infamy) wrote:

I can’t help finding the action of The Times rather petty and malicious. For some reason, some journalists seem to despise blogging and bloggers …

There’s a suspicion in my mind that this journalist thought to himself, Let’s bring down a blogger who is writing something that is interesting and exciting. Jean Seaton, the director of the Orwell Prize, said:

“… But, surely what matters is the accuracy and insight of the information. No one has disputed what this blog said: it was not illegal, it was not malicious. Indeed, in a world where local reporting is withering away as the economic model for supporting it disappears, we know less and less about our non-metropolitan selves and this lack of attention will surely lead to corruption. So this blog was a very good example of reporting bubbling up from a new place.”

Further confirmation of The Times story can be found here.
What is puzzling is The Times’ attack. The paper has made an intelligent use of blogs, and has been good at fighting the use of the courts to close down expression. NightJack was a source and a reporter. They would not (I hope) reveal their sources in court. Even odder is their main accusation against him: that the blog revealed material about identifiable court cases. The blog did not do this - cases were disguised. However, once The Times had published Horton’s name then, of course, it is easy to find the cases he was involved with. The Times has shut down a voice.

When Herald Sun newspaper reporters Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey were fined $7,000 for contempt by the Victorian Country Court over the publication of leaked documents, there was an almighty uproar about freedom of the press.

Once again the question is, whose freedom is it to scrutinise?

Rather than whingeing about the Defence Department not talking about the heroic exploits of the SASR, Hyland should examine two options open to him. First cultivate SASR soldiers as contacts or better still jump on a plane and travel to the frontlines of Afghanistan without a military escort. Respected Australian war reporter John Martinkus has been doing it for years in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps Hyland should be taking tips from him. Ah, better not suggest that it might be seen as a “curious crusade”.

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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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