Crossing the Line
Hachette, $34.99 pb, 475 pp
When Justice Anthony Besanko released his judgment on the Ben Roberts-Smith versus Fairfax defamation case on 1 June, there was a lot more riding on his decision than the reputation of the principal parties and who would be landed with the eye-watering legal bills. Had the verdict gone against Fairfax, its reporters, Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters, and, to a lesser extent, Dan Oakes, would have struggled to return to or resurrect their careers. Defeat would have had a chilling effect on genuinely probing investigative reporting. In the face of such a decision, media organisations and editors around the country would have thought long and hard about letting their journalists pursue well-connected and well-resourced public figures, let alone defend their findings in court. But there was more at stake than that. The ‘defamation trial of the century’ was also widely, if inaccurately, regarded as a war crimes trial by proxy. While Roberts-Smith was not on trial for any of the crimes McKenzie and Masters alleged that he had committed or facilitated, had Justice Besanko found that the reporters had defamed him it would have made the pursuit of war crimes charges against Roberts-Smith more unlikely, or more difficult. The sense of relief at Besanko’s judgment was near universal. It not only emboldened the nation’s investigative reporters and their editors but also opened the way for the full and free pursuit of those members of Australia’s Special Forces credibly identified by the Brereton Report (2020) as having committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
Justice Besanko’s courtroom was the cockpit not only for detailed disputation about what Roberts-Smith did and did not do in Afghanistan and Australia. These arguments were also, in part, proxy for long-held, passionately contested myths about the Australian military and the public’s attitudes towards them, as refracted through the media. Hence, Besanko’s judgment also impinged on core matters of national self-image. Since receiving his Victoria Cross in 2011, Roberts-Smith had emerged as both ‘the poster-boy of the nation’s modern military’ and the living link to Anzac. One of his principal champions, former defence minister, Liberal Party leader, and, at the time, director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, was especially smitten. Swooning over the ‘most respected, admired and revered Australian soldier in more than half a century’, Nelson accused sections of the Australian media of running a campaign against the nation’s Special Forces, wondering what the nation stood to gain by tearing down its heroes. Not that the media ever got to see much of its heroes on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The fourth estate’s perennial quest for better access, freer movement, and greater liberty to report what it saw there had earned it little more than the enmity of the men and women in uniform, who came to regard reporters as inveterately hostile. As former Chief of Army Peter Leahy noted: ‘The military frequently questions the objectivity and impartiality of many journalists and sets them into camps – only bad stories, mostly bad stories and a precious few worth talking to.’ Had Besanko ruled in Roberts-Smith’s favour, the military and its champions would have pointed to irrefutable proof of the media’s default posture of hostility towards the nation’s armed forces, strengthening the hand of those in Defence and the ADF determined to keep the media off future battlefields and the public in the dark.