I was only in primary school in the late 1960s but I have vivid memories of hearing and watching news reports on the Vietnam War on radio and TV. We would tune into the news at half past six and watch front line footage from war correspondents embedded with Australian or American platoons out in the field with the occasional glimpse of North Vietnamese troops firing back.
We’d see footage of burnt out villages and Hueys coming into land to evacuate wounded troops. We would hear crackling telephone lines on the radio as journalists filed their pieces and we’d see the photos in our newspapers.
In those days our access to the media was limited to the radio, four channels on a black and white TV and the newspapers. It was the coverage of that first television war that raised awareness and questioned the government’s reasoning for taking part in the first place.
The TV footage, the sound bites, the newspaper photos gave us a much clearer understanding of the horror of war. This was the first electronic media war and unlike the edited and censored newsreels of World War 2, Vietnam was brought into our homes and we saw it right there in black and white both literally and figuratively speaking.
This led to a groundswell of opposition to the war and sadly, a nasty backlash against those who were involuntarily enlisted and sent there to fight. Nonetheless the media coverage played a very big part in the peace movement’s ultimate success in troops being pulled out in the early 70’s.
Let’s now fast forward to 1982 and the dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina which led to the Falklands War. This saw the return of heavy censorship by the government, limited access to the media and a major lack of still or moving images from the field. News reports on TV were nothing more than “radiovision” with a map and the photo of a journalist. A total of 907 people were killed in that 75 day conflict and we saw nothing of it. This is despite major improvements in satellite communications.
The only major difference in 1982 was that our TV sets were now in colour. The Falklands War was regarded as the war with the least amount of pictures. The only footage we saw was that released by the british government. For most people, this was a war short-lived. Quick and dirty. But the casualty rates were high. The lack of reporting was not an accident. Margaret Thatcher saw to it that the media must be controlled to avoid any public backlash. Governments saw what happened in Vietnam and never wanted to make the same mistakes again.
It only got worse from there…
In 1990, Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. This led to the first Gulf War. Looking back on it, one could be forgiven for thinking they were taking part in one huge computer game. The reporting of this war was so sanitised it bordered on surreal. There were no field reporters on the ground embedded with front line troops and all we saw were daily briefings from US Command in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia with a few maps and video footage of smart bombs blowing things up. Oh and there were the burning oil wells. The last footage we saw was a trail of burnt out trucks on a road and that was it.
Then came 9/11 and the Iraq invasion and Afghanistan. For the last twelve years there has been very little in terms of on the spot news coverage from these wars especially by Western news outlets. Tune into any news broadcast and you see nothing. Any footage that has been released has been handpicked by the military media managers. We have seen more real coverage of the Vietnam war with a black and white TV than we have of the Afghanistan war with the information technology we have at our fingertips 24/7. There is nothing wrong with the method of distribution. The issue is the way the content is managed.
So what does this all have to do with compassion?
Australia has always had a proud history of accepting refugees. Post World War 2 refugees from Eastern Europe started the migration boom in the 1950s. In the late 70’s Australia began to take in refugees from Vietnam. “Boat People” arrived in Darwin Harbour and apart from the banshee-like screeches from Bruce Ruxton and the RSL, most people accepted their reasons for seeking asylum because they saw what was happening on TV. Australians were also conscripted to fight there and of course many of our sons, brothers, fathers were getting killed and injured. We accepted the Vietnamese and processed their applications on shore. They were allowed to work and lived in migrant hostels in suburban Australia.
Pauline Hansen’s One Nation won a seat in Parliament in 1996. Her maiden speech to the House of Representatives displayed her nationalist ideologies which struck a chord with a large number of Australians. Most of whom would have normally voted Liberal or National and to a lesser extent Labor. One Nation ran the immigration and race card and spooked the Liberal National coalition who were losing a share of their traditional voter base especially in Queensland.
Both major parties were quick to condemn Hanson as a racist. Rightly so! However, there reasons were more political than moral.
John Howard acted swiftly to regain his voter base which included Tony Abbott’s establishment of a slush fund, “Australians for Honest Politics Trust” to help bankroll the civil cases against One Nation Party and Pauline Hanson.
In August 2003, Hansen was jailed and released in November of that year after the case was quashed. It was enough to end her political career.
And then came 9/11 during an election year in 2001. John Howard’s political spin doctors couldn’t believe their luck.
Howard’s polls were flagging and he quickly jumped on the fear and hysteria surrounding the 9/11 attacks. From there came the fear of Iraqi boat people fleeing the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The ludicrous theory that terrorists could be coming in by boat. Fridge magnets with a national security hotline number, the Tampa incident and the “children overboard” lie.
We have boat people arriving from places like Iraq. We know who Saddam Hussein was, we knew that there was a war in Iraq but the coverage gave us very little in terms of what was happening on the ground. We saw no footage of the kind of destruction and carnage that happens in a war. We’re told by our leaders that the Al Qaeda led by Osama Bin Laden caused 9/11 and as a result, a backlash against Muslims built up to fever pitch.
Under John Howard’s watch we had the Cronulla riots where people who “looked Muslim” were beaten up by paranoid racist flag waving bogans whose anger was fuelled by the rantings of shock jocks like Alan Jones.
Australian troops were fighting in Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam, our troops are volunteer career soldiers not conscripts like so many were in the 60’s. So none of us are threatened with a call up via a lottery.
The reasons justifying the war changed each week from finding Osama Bin Laden, finding weapons of mass destruction , saving Iraq from Saddam Hussein and saving Afghanistan from the Taliban. All under the so-called War On Terror. And still no footage.
Australia has lost 40 troops in the line of duty in Afghanistan so far. No one knows what the battlefield looks like. We haven’t seen footage of wounded troops being airlifted or villages destroyed and the Afghani people grieving over their dead loved ones.
Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed and we’re told that out of respect for Islam that we don’t see any proof. Yet you can easily access pictures of Muammar Gadafi’s dead body when he was killed in 2011.
The truth is the first casualty of any war and it’s no accident. Without media coverage to inform us we cannot be educated, outraged, informed and have any empathy towards those who are fleeing tyranny.
It makes it so much easier for our political leaders to tell us that boat people are illegally entering Australia when in fact they are not. It makes it easier for our leaders and media commentators to demonise asylum seekers because we can’t see what they are running away from like we have in the past.
Despite the efforts of many hardworking foreign correspondents, the heavily controlled media coverage of war, the xenophobia generated by our political leaders to gain votes has turned us into an ignorant, insular and cruel society that selfishly refuses to share the riches this country has to offer and has ruined Australia’s reputation as an open tolerant society.
This will come back to haunt us.