Australian war reporting commenced with Howard Willoughby of the Melbourne Argus, who accompanied Victorian volunteers to New Zealand during the Third New Zealand War (1863–64). In 1885, several Australian journalists travelled with the NSW detachment to the Sudan, which saw very little action. However, one of the correspondents, William Lambie of the Sydney Morning Herald, suffered a leg wound—the first Australian journalist to be injured in reporting conflict.
The Second Boer War (1899–1902) involved much larger Australian forces than the conflicts described above. The Boer War also attracted a large number of Australian war correspondents. Several of them were already well known, the most famous being A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, who witnessed the capture of one of the Boer capitals, Bloemfontein. Another prominent name was A.G. ‘Smiler’ Hales, who was captured by the Boers in a skirmish at Jasfontein on 9 February 1900. The luckless William Lambie was killed in the same action, becoming the first Australian war correspondent to die in battle.
By October 1900, Australian correspondents had left South Africa, as it looked like the war was about to end. Thus they missed the bestknown Australian story of the Boer War—the execution in February 1902 of Lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock. Yet the Boer War still had some significant features for future war reporting. First, political and military censorship was extensive in South Africa, paralleling similar moves in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05). Second, Australian reporters frequently emphasised the specific Australian contribution to the wider imperial cause—a trait that would be even more marked in World War I. Australian journalism often described 486 war reporting native South Africans in the most blatantly racist manner—also a feature of Australian reporting from the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901).
World War I (1914–18) dwarfed the Boer War, and remains one of the most important events in Australian history. The scale of Australian enrolments and the huge casualty rates are well known. Yet the massive war effort was not matched by the number of Australian war reporters. Generously interpreted, 11 Australians served as war correspondents and two—Frank Hurley and George Hubert Wilkins—as photographers. Louise Mack, who was working in London, reported on the German invasion of Belgium, making her one of Australia’s first female war correspondents.
The towering figure of Australian First World War reporting is C.E.W. Bean, though his journalism was less significant than his other roles as official war historian, founder of the Australian War Memorial and leading spirit in the establishment of the Anzac legend. Bean defeated (Sir) Keith Murdoch in a vote of their journalist peers to become Australia’s first official war correspondent. He then travelled with the Australian forces to Egypt and Gallipoli. Famously, British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett beat Bean to the punch in publishing the first account of the Australians on 25 April 1915. While at Gallipoli, Bean—as was inevitable when living on the peninsula—was close to the action and the life of the troops. On the Western Front from 1916 onwards, he was more distant from the fighting.
Most reporting from World War I—including Australian reporting—was of poor quality. Fighting was described unrealistically and was bleached of detail. Journalists operated under several layers of censorship, which stifled accurate and timely journalism. There was field censorship and then several layers of military and political interference. Importantly, selfcensorship also occurred. Correspondents like Bean believed in the Allied cause and, while chafing at inane examples of censorship, wished to spare their readers the horrors of industrialised slaughter.
In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese conflict provided the opportunity for two Australians working in London to commence long careers as war correspondents. Noel Monks’ account of the aftermath of the bombing of Guernica by German aircraft in April 1937 is one of the most significant pieces of war writing by an Australian. Ronald Monson briefly covered Spain and was then sent to China, writing about the aftermath of the Rape of Nanking.
In terms of size, Australian coverage of the World War II dwarfs that of World War I. By 1945, well over 250 Australians had served as journalists, photographers, radio broadcasters and cinematographers. The range of occupations indicates the technological changes that had occurred over the previous 20 years. Newsreels and the greater use of photography in newspapers meant that some of the most enduring work by Australians in the Pacific theatre came from Damien Parer and George Silk.
At the outbreak of the war, the Australian government was happy to again limit the number of war correspondents, but the vast canvas and multiple theatres of the conflict made this impossible. As well, in World War II politicians and generals often took a more sophisticated view of war reporters, rather than seeing them as nuisances to be barely tolerated. Wearing uniforms and holding honorary commissions, war correspondents played an important role in disseminating the idea of the ‘people’s war’. Yet General Sir Thomas Blamey, the Australian commander, was unforgiving towards those journalists who crossed him. Kenneth Slessor, a controversial choice as official war correspondent, and Chester Wilmot both lost their accreditation in New Guinea after offending Blamey.
Australian journalists had long been a presence on Fleet Street. From their number came many correspondents who reported on the desert campaigns, the fighting in Europe and the air war. Two of these were Monson and Monks, but the most famous Australian expatriate reporting on World War II was Alan Moorehead, whose work prompted his London editor to label him the ‘prince of war correspondents’. Closer to home, the New Guinea campaign—especially Kokoda—established enduring reputations for Wilmot and Osmar White. Like Moorehead, George Johnston parlayed his fame as a war correspondent into a post-war career as a wellpaid writer. Possibly the best piece of Australian journalism from World War II was one of the least known at the time: Wilfred Burchett’s account of the consequences of the bombing of Hiroshima, ‘The Atomic Plague’, published in the London Daily Express.
Australian media coverage of the Korean War (1950–53) divides into two halves. In the first year of the war, the rapid movement of the armies and the charismatic presence of General Douglas MacArthur attracted much media interest. For example, one of Australia’s longest serving foreign correspondents, Denis Warner, was on the spot in the first confused days of the campaign. However, from mid-1951, the fighting settled down into the prolonged stalemate known as the Static War. For much of 1951 and 1952, there were few Australian journalists of any sort in Korea. Public interest in Korea had waned, and newspapers were discouraged by the high cost of maintaining their staff on the peninsula. In May 1952, the federal government introduced a limited sponsorship scheme to encourage some reporting of Australian troops’ activities in Korea. However, this had limited success.
The Malaysian Emergency was by its nature a difficult war to cover. By the time Australian 487 warnecke, glen william (‘george’) (1894–1981) troops went into action in January 1956, clashes with communist guerillas were sporadic and small in scale. Furthermore, British authorities did not always welcome the media’s presence. The Indonesian Confrontation (1963–66) was even more difficult for Australian journalists to report on. Australian troops fought in Sabah between 1965 and 1966, but the military’s disinformation policy meant that the Australian public knew little of the fighting and were not told that our troops had ventured into Indonesian territory.
The Vietnam War has provoked much discussion of the media’s role in shaping its course. From an Australian viewpoint, the media’s performance was patchy. First, some media outlets, such as commercial television, sent few of their staff to Vietnam for prolonged periods. The Sydney Morning Herald did not send a single journalist to Vietnam throughout the entire period of Australian involvement. The ABC’s effort was more sustained and, towards the end of Australian participation in Vietnam, programs such as Four Corners and This Day Tonight had partly overcome their management’s fear of controversy to produce high-quality programs on the war. The most famous Australian journalist from Vietnam was photojournalist Neil Davis. The stuff of legend, he was a brave but not foolhardy correspondent in South-East Asia until he died filming an attempted coup in Thailand in September 1985. The American military’s willingness to assist the media was not always matched by that of the Australian Task Force in Vietnam. As ABC veteran Peter Couchman remarked, ‘you were sort of welcomed through gritted teeth’.
In the same year that the Vietnam War ended, Indonesian forces invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. The deaths of the Balibo Five, and later Roger East, in 1975 at the hands of the Indonesian military rightly shocked Australians, with their deaths continuing to resonate today. In 1999, with the UN-sponsored ballot on East Timorese independence, Australian journalists returned to Dili, with much attention given to General (Sir) Peter Cosgrove and the INTERFET peacekeepers.
Australia played a minor role in the First Gulf War (1999–91). This was probably just as well, as journalists were frustrated by their inability to report from close to the battlefield. The United States exercised tight control over the media, on the one hand bombarding them with information and on the other keeping them at arm’s length from anything vital. The more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have raised a number of questions about the media in modern warfare. One significant issue is the embedding of correspondents—the placing of reporters within military units, ostensibly to enable them to understand war at its most immediate. Many Australian journalists have complained that they were unable to report fully on Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan. This was partly due to the major role played by the Australian SAS and partly due to the threat posed to friendly civilians if their identity was inadvertently exposed. Whatever the reason, Australian reporting from Afghanistan struggled for distinctiveness.
Thus censorship has been a perennial issue for Australian war reporters, as it has been for most of the world’s press. More recently, the Australian Defence Force has publicly stated its wish to work cooperatively with the Australian media so that each party can more fully understand the other’s role. It is fair to say, though, that Australian governments of all persuasions have been quite happy for the media to be sidelined in our Middle Eastern engagements. It is perhaps not surprising that some of the best Australian war reporting over the last two decades has been of conflicts in which this country has not been involved—for example, in the Balkans and the Arab-Israeli stand-off. An excellent example was Cameron Forbes’ moving descriptions of the Rwandan genocide for the Australian.
The advent of new technology has meant that war can be reported in real time, going to air as it happens. While this has meant that images of fighting and its casualties are commonplace, it has not necessarily resulted in more profound analysis of the complexities of conflict. If anything, the closer reporters are to the action, the less acute are their observations. There is also a more profound change occurring to journalism. With the ubiquity of mobile phones and social media, many of the most disturbing images and stories from unrest in Iran or the Arab Spring have come from civilians, non-journalists and the participants themselves. Newspapers are in retreat, leaving much foreign reporting to the global networks. The days of the ‘traditional’ war journalist might be numbered.
REF: F. Anderson and R. Trembath, Witnesses to War (2011).