In April 2017, while completing a new book on the thirteen-year engagement of Australian special forces in Afghanistan, veteran investigative journalist Chris Masters arranged a meeting at Canberra’s Hyatt Hotel with a former Special Air Services Regiment corporal who, at that stage, had little more than a cameo role in his narrative.
Ben Roberts-Smith was already the most famous and celebrated soldier of his generation. During multiple operational tours in Afghanistan, he had won the Victoria Cross, the Medal for Gallantry and the Commendation for Distinguished Service — making him the most highly decorated Australian serviceman since the second world war.
After retiring from the army in 2013, Roberts-Smith had done an MBA and traded his $120,000-a-year soldier’s pay packet for a $700,000 package as Queensland manager of the Seven Network. Venerated as an exemplary role model in war and peace, he was named Australian Father of the Year in 2013 and served as chair of the National Australia Day Council from 2014 to 2017.
During his research in Afghanistan and Australia, Masters had heard claims that Roberts-Smith was not quite the paragon of virtue that political leaders, powerful business figures and the Australian public had come to embrace. There were mutterings that he was a headstrong bully, that the circumstances in which he had won his medals were dubious and that he had been involved in multiple battlefield abuses. But there was nothing concrete.
The meeting in the privacy of the Hyatt Hotel rose garden had been arranged as an opportunity for the former soldier to rebut various criticisms being levelled by his old comrades, rather than as an inquisition. “While I was obliged to ask difficult questions, which is the job of a journalist, I was in a mood to mediate,” Masters, an admirer of Australia’s special forces and supporter of their engagement in Afghanistan, would write. But while Roberts-Smith had begun by revealing himself to be “articulate, measured and persuasive,” the conversation soon degenerated into anger and vitriol.
The war hero went to war on his accusers. He blasted some of the soldiers who had served with him as cowardly, incompetent and toxic. He said his critics were driven by jealousy and were smearing him with lies. He was “vicious” in his angry rebuttal of their accusations. As Masters later watched the two-metre-tall figure in the tailored business suit depart, he would reflect: “My overwhelming impression… was that Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG was not behaving like a man with nothing to hide.”
A few days later, Masters received a late-night call on his mobile phone from an anonymous source on an encrypted line, who said: “He kicked this bloke off a cliff. As his face spun down, it smashed against the wall and his teeth sprayed out. The bloke who saw it can’t get the image out of his mind. He said he had to get away from Ben Roberts-Smith. It was not the first time he said this stuff happened. RS is a bloody psychopath.” After Masters pursued further details from sources, “the outline of a shocking story emerged, cruel to the point of abomination.”
He realised he was on the cusp of perhaps his biggest story since the 1980s, when he had exposed the French government’s involvement in the sinking of the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior and revealed the police corruption in Queensland, helping to trigger the Fitzgerald royal commission. But the former Four Corners star was now a freelance journalist and writer with limited resources. “I needed an ally,” he would concede.
And so began one of the most formidable partnerships in the history of Australian investigative journalism — Chris Masters and the Age’s Nick McKenzie. Despite being thirty-three years younger than Masters, McKenzie had a CV to rival if not surpass that of the man who had once mentored him as a cadet journalist. After two decades of spectacular investigative journalism, McKenzie had won an unprecedented fourteen national Walkley awards for journalism and twice been named Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year.
Their six-year collaboration delivered a series of shocking revelations about the conduct of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and a marathon defamation trial that ended last month with a finding by Justice Anthony Besanko in the NSW Supreme Court that Ben Roberts-Smith was a liar, a serial bully and a war criminal. Besanko found it was “substantially true” that the VC winner had been involved in the murder of four unarmed Afghan prisoners and civilians, had intimidated and threatened court witnesses to hide the truth, and had lied repeatedly in his sworn evidence.
Despite Roberts-Smith’s decision on Tuesday to lodge an appeal in the Federal Court challenging Besanko’s findings, the dramatic conclusion of the case has starkly framed the prospect of years of sensational war crimes prosecutions that are likely to shred the reputation of our armed forces at home and abroad and scar the Anzac mythology that has been a cornerstone of our national identity for more than a century. The failure of Roberts-Smith to hide what Besanko found to be true must give new impetus to the work of the Australian Federal Police and the Special Investigator appointed in the wake of the internal defence department inquiry into war crimes in Afghanistan headed by NSW judge and army reservist Major General Paul Brereton.
Brereton reported in 2020 that there was credible evidence that thirty-nine Afghan non-combatants had been unlawfully killed by or at the direction of Australian special forces, “which may constitute the war crime of murder.” His report identified twenty-five current or former Australian soldiers who were “alleged perpetrators — either as principals or accessories.” Brereton described one of the unspecified incidents he investigated as “the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history.”
Had Besanko found in favour of Roberts-Smith, it would likely have dampened if not derailed the cumbersome process of bringing appropriate criminal charges against those identified by the Brereton inquiry. It would have re-energised the many powerful voices who continue to argue that whatever happened in Afghanistan should be left behind in Afghanistan. And it would certainly have discouraged the media from further interrogating matters that might risk ruinous defamation costs.
Instead, the chief of the defence force, General Angus Campbell, this week declared that thoroughly investigating those Australian soldiers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan was “utterly critical” to Australia regaining moral authority at home and with its allies. Campbell, who deserves great credit for initiating the Brereton process in 2016 in the face of strong military and political opposition, told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s journal the Strategist that it was also imperative to deal more broadly with “the breadth of the cultural professional issues” that had been highlighted by the inquiry.
“Our operational capability is in large part about our capacity to win the friends and partners who will stand with us in conflict,” he said. “We need to be a force that people want to serve in, but also to join with in partnership across nations. We have never fought alone. We never want to fight alone. What a tragedy if because of real or perceived lapses in our military conduct we found ourselves alone.”
While the tenacious partnership between Masters and McKenzie secured victory in what became the biggest and, with costs now estimated to be as high as $35 million, the most expensive defamation case in Australian history, it would not survive the final reckoning. Their plans to jointly write a book about the saga unravelled. According to Masters, he and McKenzie “worked well together as investigators, but regrettably could not coordinate the writing” of a joint book.
That apparently amicable literary separation has now delivered two compelling accounts of the partnership that complement and illuminate each other — Nick McKenzie’s Crossing the Line and Chris Masters’s Flawed Hero. Both are powerful, passionate and often moving narratives infused with the personal impacts of fighting the most protracted and enervating journalistic battle each of them had ever experienced. Had they lost, it would have been a serious setback late in the illustrious career of seventy-four-year-old Masters. For Nick McKenzie, it would have been the end. He writes that he could not have coped professionally with the failure and, aged forty-one, would have quit journalism.
The two journalists reveal how perilously close they thought they came to losing. While they were sure of the accuracy of their reporting and the details of the atrocities they had helped to uncover, they concede that they faced an uphill battle proving it to the standard required for a defence of truth in a civil defamation case.
To succeed, it was essential to persuade soldiers who witnessed the abuses to agree to give evidence or, if they were compelled to appear, to tell the truth about what they had seen. When the case began, they were pessimistic about the prospects of persuading even those soldiers who were appalled by what they had seen and supported their reporting to willingly give evidence. They were sure Roberts-Smith had the upper hand at the start of the hearings and held it until close to the end.
Had the hearings not been delayed many months by the intervention of Covid, they felt it unlikely they would have had enough time to persuade reluctant witnesses to cooperate. But in the end, the defendants called twenty-one serving and former soldiers, and it was the compelling testimony of a number of them that ultimately defeated Roberts-Smith’s claims.
For both journalists it was, before the final victory, a deeply disillusioning experience. For Masters, who had spent decades working closely with special forces and growing to admire their dedication and professionalism, this was especially so. Beyond the shocking evidence of the multiple murders of unarmed prisoners and civilians, there was what Liberal MP and former SAS captain Andrew Hastie would describe as a pervasive “pagan warrior culture”: rookie soldiers “blooded” by being ordered to kill Afghan captives, “throw downs” in which radios or weapons were planted on the bodies of unarmed victims to pretend they were legitimate battlefield casualties, and “kill boards” kept by SAS units with targets of Afghans to be killed. “It amounted to a descent into the depravity we fight against,” writes Masters.
For McKenzie, seeking justice for the most famous of the victims became a driving force. Ali Jan was the innocent farmer and father of six who was visiting the village of Darwan in Oruzgan province to buy flour and a pair of shoes for his young daughter on 11 September 2012 — the eleventh anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks in New York — when Australian soldiers swooped on the village. Justice Besanko would accept the evidence of multiple witnesses that after he was handcuffed and questioned, Ali Jan was taken to the edge of a nearby cliff and kicked off by Ben Roberts-Smith, who later ordered the execution of the helpless and badly injured farmer.
In 2019 McKenzie travelled to Afghanistan to meet Ali Jan’s widow, Bibi Dhorko, who was desperately struggling to support her young family after the loss of her husband. “One of the soldiers who’d been at Darwan the day Ali Jan died told me something just before I made the trip to Kabul,” he writes. “I’d thought about it ever since. Ali had lived a relatively meagre existence confined to a few villages, a cluster of kin and a daily struggle to survive. Once the story of his death was exposed in our newspapers, it had viscerally exposed the barbarity of those few Australian soldiers who had gone rogue… In death, Ali had reinforced to my war-bitten source the sanctity of human life, even in conflict. This was why the laws of war mattered. Maybe that was Ali’s ultimate legacy.”
As much as the Roberts-Smith saga showed the best of Australian journalism through the determined work of our finest investigative reporters, it also showed the worst of Australian journalism in the outrageously partisan conduct of rival media organisations. They not only failed in their professional duty to help expose the scandal but also worked hard to undermine the credibility of the fine work done by McKenzie and Masters, gormlessly joining the Roberts-Smith cheer squad.
“I can’t say I handle well being beaten up by fellow reporters,” Masters writes. “My view is that there is a shared responsibility. We work first for the public, so there should be some shared values and purpose.” He derides in particular the reporting of the Murdoch press: “The Australian’s reporting on the war crimes now under scrutiny, and especially on Ben Roberts-Smith, was flimsy and partisan. Probably because they had not done the work, because they were incapable of catching up and had an ingrained oppositional stance to Fairfax, and because they could not resist the spoils of a drip-feeding by Roberts-Smith’s lawyers.”
The magnitude of Roberts-Smith’s fall from grace has been amplified by the heights to which he was elevated in popular perception, in large part a product of jingoistic and uncritical coverage in the popular media. Chris Masters dubbed him the Anzac Avatar — the superman soldier whose fame and legendary battlefield exploits made him the embodiment of Australia’s self-perception as a nation of rugged, fearless and independent individuals.
“Craving identity,” Masters writes, “Ben Roberts-Smith found the shape of who he wanted to be in the persona of the killing machine. The special forces operative, amped in popular media to superhero veneration, became a poster boy. We could not help ourselves. The seven-foot-tall and bulletproof Anzac avatar assumed that pedestal.” This, says Masters, is where it went “monstrously wrong.”
Ben Roberts-Smith was one of four Australians to win the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan. Why was he the household name when most Australians would be unaware of the three other Australian soldiers who also won the highest award for gallantry, let alone know their names? How many know the story of Trooper Mark Donaldson who rescued a wounded Afghan interpreter under heavy fire, or Corporal Daniel Keighran who drew enemy fire away from a wounded colleague, or Corporal Cameron Baird who was killed in action storming an enemy-controlled building?
While it was central to Roberts-Smith’s case to portray himself as the victim of a reckless media smear campaign, Masters points out that the complaints about the soldier “originated not from the pampered, irresponsible media but from battle-hardened colleagues.”
Both McKenzie and Masters argue persuasively that Australians rightly dismayed by the scandalous misconduct within the ranks of our elite forces in Afghanistan should be heartened by the fact that the truth would probably never have been revealed without the courageous stand of many decent and professional soldiers appalled by the actions of their comrades.
Says McKenzie: “It was the good men and the moral soldiers of the SAS who stood up and told the truth in court.” Masters writes: “There are soldiers in Australia’s Special Air Services Regiment who have moral as well as physical courage. While those who spoke endured condemnation from many of their brothers, it is hoped that some glancing consideration might be given to the probability that they saved their regiment. Had these revelations erupted as a scandal that was unforeseen and not self-reported, the SASR would have been lucky to escape disbandment.”
As Australia braces for years of traumatic testimony with the twenty-five potential war criminals identified by the Brereton inquiry facing prosecution, we might hope that the courage and decency of those who called out the renegades and forced the reckoning will be the narrative that begins to salvage the tarnished honour of our armed forces. •
Crossing the Line: The Inside Story of Murder, Lies and a Fallen Hero
By Nick McKenzie | Hachette | $34.95 | 488 pages
Flawed Hero: Truth, Lies and War Crimes
By Chris Masters | Allen & Unwin | $34.99 | 592 pages