A LENGTHY season of patriotic reflection has begun – the centenary of the first world war, the winding up of the Australian military engagement in Afghanistan and, next year, the anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign.
Unexpectedly, my own season of reflection began early and oddly.
Writing in the Australian in early March, Nick Cater linked me with a group he called the Anti-military Bohemian Collective. Cater believes the “Collective” operates within the Labor Party and my former employer, the ABC. Having come late upon the article, I found myself checking the date of publication. Could this really be topical? The events he describes – those in which I participated as acting general manager of the ABC’s international broadcasting service, Radio Australia – took place almost twenty-four years ago, just prior to the first Gulf war.
In the course of his article, Cater names just two former ABC employees and one current radio broadcaster (Jon Faine, host of 774 Melbourne’s morning program) to support his sweeping assertions about the corporation’s behaviour over five decades. Since the 1960s, he argues, “the ABC has proved to be a treacherous guide to public sentiment on defence matters” and “could not be trusted to provide a balanced picture of a modern military campaign.” Referring to a talkback segment on Faine’s program in 2011, Cater goes so far as to associate “this most treacherous category of cultural debate” with the activities of the Wobblies – those followers of the left-wing Industrial Workers of the World who agitated against conscription during the first world war and were eventually outlawed.
The Australian publishes so many stories critical of the ABC that it is tempting to dismiss them as a job lot. So concerted are their attacks that when the Australian accuses other media of systemic bias it verges on self-parody. Certainly Cater’s article – amid the overall confection – invited a here-we-go-again sigh.
But then it began to niggle.
For several decades after the end of the second world war, when the ABC took permanent control of Radio Australia, international broadcasting pricked political nerve-ends. Foreign governments didn’t always appreciate the broadcaster’s capacity to reach across borders with news and information presented in their local languages. Australian government ministers and bureaucrats made fitful attempts to influence program content in pursuit of foreign policy goals. In the 1960s, one external affairs minister, Paul Hasluck, even sought to gain the power to direct Radio Australia as to what news it should or should not broadcast. (He was unsuccessful.) These pressures made for a sometimes uneasy relationship, with the ABC trying to balance editorial rigour and cross-cultural and political sensitivities.
Over time, however, what might be described as the BBC model of international broadcasting (rather than the more pro-government American approach) became widely accepted. Radio Australia could most effectively project Australian values and exercise cultural diplomacy if audiences perceived it to be accurate, impartial and credible. By 1987, one of Hasluck’s successors, foreign minister Bill Hayden, argued that he would rather the government close down Radio Australia than try to use it for propaganda purposes. Two years later, a Foreign Affairs submission to an ABC review of Radio Australia made a similar cautious endorsement of editorial independence. “In the end,” it said, “Radio Australia’s independence, along with a record for accuracy, has been the source of its authority.”
Even so, the notion of independence and impartiality remained one of some delicacy. Officials from non-Western countries, for example, would often ask how it could be that Radio Australia was owned by the government, yet was not required to act as the mouthpiece of government. They were not readily convinced that the two were compatible.
At the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, in August 1990, the international service was relying principally on shortwave radio transmitters to broadcast to particular geographical areas. Its endorsed priorities were multilingual services in the Pacific, Southeast and North Asia, and English-language content as far west as the Indian subcontinent. Broadcasters primarily sought to reach the citizens of those countries, with Australian expatriates a lesser priority except during times of crisis.
Using shortwave transmission, signals were beamed up and would then deflect off the ionosphere and “bounce” to earth – on target, it was hoped. Because they would continue bouncing to more distant points around the planet with rapidly depleting energy, people in Arabian Gulf countries might pick up signals from time to time, but not reliably and not in a way that could be monitored effectively.
In other words, Radio Australia had no reliable presence, significant profile or reputation in the Gulf region or the wider Middle East, prior to the invasion of Kuwait. In accordance with its legislative mandate and the policy consensus it shared with the government, the organisation operated independently of government. It was against this backdrop that the confrontation between the ABC and the Hawke Labor government took place in 1990–91.
Cater sees the incident as a result of the ABC’s clear “anti-military bias.” What he misses is the reality of how coincidence, emotion and ego can help escalate a political confrontation. Inasmuch as such events have enduring relevance, it is by way of illustrating how quickly public debates can go awry, especially when played out in a context of heightened patriotic sensitivity and politics. They also raise once again contested notions about the role of public broadcasting and its obligations to government.
Wobblies and bohemians
The affair in question became a significant matter of public interest on 22 January 1991, when the Senate adopted, without dissent (indeed, without specific debate), a resolution condemning the ABC for ceasing what was portrayed as a service for naval personnel in the Gulf.
The Senate had reconvened to debate the government’s decision to join a military coalition to expel Iraqi invasion forces from neighbouring Kuwait. The prelude to a UN-sanctioned counterattack had gone on for more than four months, for much of which period the Iraqis had detained thousands of foreign citizens, who had been visiting or working in Kuwait. The US-led Operation Desert Storm had commenced a few days before the Senate convened, on 17 January, and prime minister Bob Hawke had committed Australian troops before consulting parliament.
After two days of the special sitting, during which all but one senator spoke at length, the chamber supported the intervention, with only nine senators dissenting. Speakers highlighted the fact that 75 per cent of opinion poll respondents believed Australia should participate in the campaign – a figure that Cater would no doubt consider conclusive. Unlike “Wobblies and bohemians,” he wrote in March, the broader Australian population recognises the sterling military qualities of “discipline, self-sacrifice and professionalism.”
Those are undoubtedly qualities to be upheld and respected. (Incidentally, like many others, I am pleased to possess a lapel pin issued recently to the next-of-kin of defence personnel on deployment – in our case, to Afghanistan.) But patriotism – indeed, good citizenship – demands more of a person than to be a cheerleader or an unqualified supporter of the conduct of the military. And public sentiment alone is insufficient as a guide to the performance of any institution that can inform or influence public debate and the decisions of government.
Values, patriotic sentiment and historical experience certainly help frame community responses to a conflict like the war in the Gulf. But people receive specific information and analyses of issues from policy-making and opinion-leading elites, in particular from parliament and the news media.
In this respect, the mass media, in particular, don’t always serve the community well. Academic studies in the United States have reached conclusions that I suspect would be mirrored in Australia. They show that exposure to television coverage of hostile events tended to create anxiety and fear in the American viewing public, which could initiate a cycle of issue identification, public anxiety and political reaction.
Examining the years following the terrorist attacks of 2001, one study found that viewers discerned no qualitative difference in standards of fairness or accuracy between news stories presented in a neutral way and those employing patriotic language and symbolism. That is not because editorial tone lacks significance. By their nature, patriotic feelings tend to be held subjectively and uncritically. The authors argued this was important because uncritical patriotism underpinned the normative or values-based component of policy legitimacy. People are more likely to perceive examples of bias directed against, rather than in favour of, their own side. Emotion and subjectivity readily dominate.
At the same time, policy legitimacy requires government and its agencies to demonstrate, through their conduct and performance, the capacity and preparedness to achieve national objectives. So, while subjective feelings are understandable in the general community, they are not an adequate response from those in high office or privileged positions of public influence. It’s been argued, indeed, that “patriotic journalism” is dangerous because it denies people the information and detached perspective necessary for sound decision-making. The practices of policy-making and opinion-influencing journalism must reflect “from the outside in” – and communicate an issue in its overall context.
Yet so often players within the society – the politician, the editor and the citizen – tend to feed off one another. An incident begins with a dramatic moment. Momentum builds. Emotion kicks in. Perspective shifts. The politics redefine the issue. And that largely is how I came to be associated with the alleged Anti-military Bohemian Collective of the ABC.
Prelude to war
In December 1990, according to Nick Cater, Radio Australia “stopped its two-hour daily service of messages to Australian sailors in the Gulf.” It was this incident, and what followed, that won me the not-so-coveted place in the Collective.
The claim isn’t new, but it has always suffered a basic flaw. Radio Australia had not, in fact, established a messages service for naval sailors. Rather, it had responded to the plight of Australian civilians held hostage when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The Iraqis used some 800 foreigners as human shields at strategic locations to discourage a counterattack. Many other expatriates suffered detention and isolation for as long as four-and-a-half months.
Via Australian diplomats in the region, Radio Australia learned that the hostages were experiencing mounting distress and lacked access to reliable information. Our response was twofold: to redirect certain shortwave transmitters to deliver English-language news and information programming to the Gulf; and to establish a daily program enabling families in Australia to send messages to the detainees to support them through the crisis. This response could be thought of as an international variant of the ABC’s important role as an emergency services broadcaster during domestic crises such as floods and bushfires.
A number of well-known professionals from outside the ABC agreed to be studio guests and help deliver the messages. They responded immediately and with enthusiasm, providing familiarity and warmth, day after day. Among them were entertainer Bert Newton and former AFL coach and player Ron Barassi. The latter talked about the business of coaching football teams as an oblique way of advising hostages on stress management techniques.
Over time, the service included a small number of messages sent from the families of other nationalities. It also attracted a proportionately small number addressed to Australian naval personnel in the Gulf.
Although this use of the international service was well-received, we had no funding of our own to sustain the effort. As a news editor once observed, Radio Australia was resourced to deal with anything but “news” – it ran tight rosters and basic services but had no provision to deal with exceptional events. The overwhelming bulk of operational funds were committed to staff salaries and routine transmission, and discretionary expense budgets were minimal. So we negotiated with Canberra to obtain temporary additional funding to support transmissions to the Gulf.
By November 1990, many of the hostages had been released, and others had been taken from Kuwait to Iraq. Australian diplomats reported that replacement batteries had become ever more scarce and fewer of those people still detained in Kuwait could power their shortwave radios. Moreover, the volume of messages received for broadcast had fallen sharply. In Canberra, the Department of Transport and Communications made clear its wish to discontinue the additional funding as soon as possible.
All Australian hostages had regained their liberty by 14 December 1990. Some messages continued to arrive from the families of naval personnel deployed in the Gulf. Advice from Canberra was that the Royal Australian Navy had an established system to enable family communication with sailors on deployment. The defence minister, Robert Ray, later told parliament the department had also established a twenty-four-hour telephone inquiry service for families.
On 21 December, I attended a meeting of the ABC executive committee in Sydney, chaired by managing director David Hill, and recommended that the Gulf service cease because its purpose in responding to the plight of Australian civilian hostages had been fulfilled. Radio Australia’s ongoing responsibility would be to report and analyse developments as accurately and fairly as the volatile situation allowed.
The executive group agreed. We also decided to keep the matter of Gulf broadcasts under review because Saddam Hussein still had several weeks to withdraw from Kuwait before the expiry of an ultimatum from the United Nations. War in the Gulf was not yet inevitable. Within hours, though, hostility would flare at home.
Coincidence, emotion and ego
We didn’t carry mobile phones in 1990 and it took me some hours to return from the executive committee meeting in Sydney to Radio Australia’s base in suburban Melbourne. Immediately I was called to speak with a voluble David Hill. What the hell was going on? Just hours ago the ABC executive had taken a decision on my recommendation; now he was being told everything had changed. What was I playing at?
At first I could only protest that I knew of nothing that had changed and that the recommendation stood. Soon enough, though, I would learn otherwise. An ABC senior executive, in Sydney, had taken a phone call from Canberra, that same day, probably while the executive committee was in session. The defence minister wanted the messages service to continue, having heard it while visiting an Australian warship in the Gulf. Although he had no functional relationship with Radio Australia, the executive in Sydney apparently reached an understanding with Canberra. He didn’t wait to speak to me and be briefed on the operational context. Whatever then occurred resulted in my short and stressful telephone conversation with an understandably agitated managing director.
As the saying goes, shit happens. And when it does, the big men fly. Like so many confrontations, this owed more to timing, crossed wires and contested power than it did to Nick Cater’s imagined rising of Wobblies and bohemians. It demonstrated again how potent the blend of politics, patriotic fervour and headlines can be.
As usual, David Hill played from the front, publicly defending the decision to end the service. He experienced increasing pressure from Canberra. But Hill was nothing if not a robust advocate for the ABC. When he had the political ball in his hands, he would run hard and argue articulately. He was not about to take direction from the defence minister, who was also a hard man.
Hill ordered me to write him a confidential briefing note to justify the ABC decision. The document presented the arguments for and against cessation of the service while, “on balance,” reiterating the decision and the agreement to keep the matter under review in case war did occur. Almost immediately, someone leaked the document to the press.
My briefing included the following statement, which provided a focal point for subsequent accusations of bias:
Editorial independence – real and perceived – is a delicate matter. It is one thing to identify with civilians caught suddenly in crisis. It may be another to respond to pressure seeking Radio Australia’s overt support for a government political/military endeavour.
In journalism it is not necessarily what you say but, to some extent, how you say it that can make a difference. The same can be said for the writing of confidential briefing notes.
Perhaps, for those inured to the shrill and adversarial tone of political debate in the Australia of the 2010s, it may seem quaint for editors to engage in nuanced decision-making such as that to which my note referred. Yet, even in the saturated contemporary environment of 24/7 “borderless” media, there are implications to consider when projecting the values of your own news service – which is, after all, a manufactured cultural product – into other cultures and systems where English is, at best, a second language. More than once, during my postings as an ABC foreign correspondent in South Asia and the Pacific, I had been challenged aggressively about the content or tone of news coverage. (The imprisonment in Egypt of Australian journalist Peter Greste and other journalists from Al Jazeera is a current and unsavoury manifestation of cross-border “sensitivities.”)
Although it was a well-regarded and longstanding presence in Asia and the Pacific, Radio Australia had no verifiable reputation or credibility in the Middle East. With war likely, I took the view that we were effectively a “new entrant” in the Gulf and should position the service carefully.
On matters of judgement, there are always choices to be made. The one we made to end the messages service was reasonable given its purpose and in the circumstances outlined above. Other persons in our place, in the same circumstances, may have arrived at a different conclusion.
Radio Australia’s general manager at the time, Richard Broinowski, who had been on leave, later went on the record supporting the position adopted during his absence. Broinowski was a career diplomat who held ambassadorial posts prior to and following his employment at the ABC. A messages service to the military, he said, “could be seen to be uncomfortably close to being a kind of government propaganda service.”
The matter quickly became a contest of will between the government and the ABC. Once Operation Desert Storm commenced on 17 January 1991 all attention was focused on the US-led assault and the role of Australian forces. As the Senate Hansard reports of 21 and 22 January show, parliamentarians felt keenly the onerous nature of their role in endorsing the Australian commitment.
A former defence minister, Kim “Bomber” Beazley, brought to a head the impasse with the ABC. As transport and communications minister he met with the ABC’s chairman, Robert Somervaille, and David Hill at their request. Beazley reminded the pair of Section 78 of the ABC Act, which empowered him to direct the Corporation to broadcast matter deemed to be in the national interest (with the requirement that he justify the order in a statement to parliament). This would have been the first and, to date, the only instance of the power being invoked.
After brief reflection, Somervaille and Hill agreed to negotiate a face-saving solution for both parties. The Royal Australian Navy commenced its own messages service using Radio Australia transmitters. Because this was a separate programming stream, it was not technically an ABC service. By agreeing, the chairman and managing director avoided the prospect of government intervention.
Over time it became clear to me that the controversy was as much a product of stressful circumstances as it was a reflection of any substantive need to maintain a service for sailors. Never since has there been such an expectation within government.
Why this matters
Almost a quarter of a century later, Nick Cater has used a few previously published words from my briefing note to David Hill to help make his case about the anti-military bias of the ABC. As has been demonstrated in recent months, hostility flares readily in times of political stress or when the public broadcaster reports unfavourably on the government or agencies under its direction. No doubt, like all journalists, ABC content-makers have sometimes erred in fact or the presentation of stories.
But the point remains: in our system, the legitimacy of public policy depends not only on whether it fits with the nation’s values – including patriotic sentiment – but also on whether it reflects our faith in the efficacy and capacity of government and its agencies.
Developments internationally – not least how great power relationships evolve in the Asia-Pacific region – will keep throwing up challenges for Australia’s security and economic prosperity. Australians will need to think rationally and not just sentimentally, and they will be best served by those institutions that identify and interpret major issues. This calls for the engagement of serious patriots, not just cheerleaders and polemicists.
Shock jocks may bellow emotively and the Australian and its News Corp stablemates may continue to campaign against public broadcasting. But the very presence of the ABC and SBS makes a difference. International studies have shown that in societies without strong public broadcasting systems (the United States and Russia, for instance) free-to-air television contributed to a heightened sense of fear in relation to hostile events such as terrorism. In Britain, by contrast, public broadcasting values had a strong moderating influence. Public broadcasting contributes to media diversity, with an obligation to respect audiences as citizens, not just consumers to be delivered to advertisers and commercial sponsors.
In 2007 Sarah Oates (then at the University of Glasgow) published the results of a substantial study of media coverage of the terrorist threat in the context of British elections. (Terrorists had attacked travellers on the London Underground in July 2005.) The study found that British television and British citizens had remained relatively “rational and resilient” about the terrorist threat. By comparison, Oates recalled her earlier research on Russia and the United States, where the media – rather than “using its ability to inform the public about the complex underlying causes of the terrorist actions” – mainly framed terrorist attacks as justification for war.
Oates’s study, funded by Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council, identified three factors to explain why British television had not apparently played on “fear, insecurity or implicit racism”: the community’s prior experience of domestic terrorism (carried out by the Irish Republican Army as recently as the 1990s); a relative emphasis on policy over emotion in election campaigns; and the existence of broadcast media that adhered to socially responsible reporting.
Oates’s study concluded:
It shows that it is not inevitable – as many assume – that television must contribute to a sense of fear and political inefficacy on the part of citizens. While television seems to have this effect in the United States and Russia… objective measurements show that the BBC model of public journalism (which resonates through the British broadcasting industry) does lead to less trivialisation and less sensationalisation of important civic coverage such as election news and terrorism.
That should give all thinking Australians some cause for reflection. •