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Scrutinising the media's scrutiny of defence

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Tuesday, 30 March 2010

If the media scrutinise the tip of the spear in combat - recent Australian soldiers' behaviour on the ground in the Afghan war - then they need to scrutinise the spear throwers - the politicians and defence experts and journalists.

A case in point has been SBS TV reporter Sophie McNeill and Fairfax newspaper journalists Jonathon Pearlman and Tom Hyland who have been ferociously targeting the Australian Army’s 1 Commando Regiment over a botched raid which resulted in the killing of children in Afghanistan last February.

Soldiers from that unit, largely reservist, could possibly face legal proceedings for murder, manslaughter, negligence and so on. But there are three important issues about the Afghan incident: due process of law, the presumption of innocence and who shapes Australia’s defence policy.


McNeill, Pearlman and Hyland have probably sensed Army blood and a possible Walkley Award for what they perceive is “Australia’s My Lai”. But some of us who are journalists and ex-soldiers believe that McNeill, Pearlman and Hyland have a democratic right to scrutinise the military. We would uphold their freedom of speech. The irony is that the media do not believe that the ordinary tax payer has the right to scrutinise the media in its coverage of defence issues.

In 2008 McNeill requested I not contact her to discuss defence issues, including Afghanistan. Hyland has gone on the record to allude that those who are not Fairfax journalists but who scrutinise defence experts are involved in a curious crusade.

The question is why are Australia’s big name reporters so tough when it comes to “exposing” defence scandals but are so panicked by a few straight forward questions about their war reporting credentials?

McNeill’s boss at SBS TV’s Dateline, Peter Charley, also does not like being questioned over how defence issues are covered.

Methinks SBS, the ABC and Fairfax protesteth too much!

Hyland the “defence expert” for The Sunday Age wrote in “Deadly Afghan raids expose leadership failings” on March 21, 2010:


The regiment's experiences have triggered an intense debate within army ranks - about Special Forces tactics, and wider questions about a political and military preference for sending Special Forces, rather than large infantry units, to conflicts like Afghanistan.

It is funny for Hyland to ask this question because the answer may not be to his liking. In fact it might be too close to home, if you pardon the pun. Let me explain.

On January 21, 2005 I wrote an op-ed piece for The Herald Sun newspaper in which I was the first to indentify this change in Australian Army warfighting doctrine.

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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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