Learning from Bin Laden

Bin Laden knew a thing or two about the media; especially the Western media. On the rare occasions on which he permitted an interview, he always had the entire exchange recorded by his own videographer. It’s a lesson a good many Australian public figures could have benefitted from. The latest of them is Andrew Hastie.

When Major-General Brereton released his report, Andrew Hastie, as a former officer in the Special Service Regiment (SASR), was anxious to put his point of view. He wrote an article published in The Australian, and then he was interviewed by Andrew Probyn for the ABC. In his Australian article, Hastie wrote, “The report is hard reading. It is comprehensive, detailed and unsparing in its judgment on those ­alleged to have committed war crimes.” A problem jumps out from this, a problem that characterises the whole media circus. It does accurately characterise the report, and it seems also to characterise Hastie’s attitude. How can unsparing judgment be made on allegations? Such language implies pre-judgement.

Hastie criticised the approach of the ADF to the media in recent theatres of deployment. He contrasted the ADF’s careful restriction and stage-management of the media with the approach of the US and UK forces which had practiced “embedding” reporters with units, even into very exposed and forward positions. He even suggests that “some of the events alleged…might never have happened,” had such an approach been taken, tangling himself up again. It may have been with his flattery of the media in mind that Hastie approached his ABC interview, and there may have been a fugitive thought that high-profile media appearances wouldn’t hurt his push for a Joint Defence Committee holding classified hearings, for which a chairman would be required.

It is possible, just possible, that he went into this interview without preparing the ground, but hardly feasible. What sort of assurances might a prudent man have sought? Well, the report has a trendy design featuring an abundance of big black blocks; far too many, though, for coherent reading. But I don’t think that’s what Hastie meant by it’s being “hard reading.” The “comprehensive, detailed and unsparing” report he refers to, it seems to me, might be the one without the black blocks. A prudent man might have insisted that this interview be “no names, no pack drill,” given that nobody, least of all in the ABC, had any official access to most of the report’s contents. So, assuming Andrew Hastie to be a prudent man, how did that work out?

Hastie: I made it very clear what my expectations were, my junior leaders knew that. And despite that, we had some incidents that were made public in the Australian media…I’m confident I am not under investigation myself. There had been rumours for some time…
Probyn: What about this cult of personality? How much of an influence did big characters like V.C. winner Ben Roberts-Smith have on patrols.
Hastie: (Blink, blink.) I’m not going to discuss individual cases, Andrew, but I can say there were two warrior cultures…

This is what makes us different. We are a democracy, we have the rule of law, we have the separation of powers, we have values, and the Brereton report confirms that.
Probyn: Would you be disappointed if Kerry Stokes funded the defence of soldiers who faced war crimes?
Hastie: I’m not going to comment on individual cases…
Probyn: Would it make his position as chairman of the Australian War Memorial difficult?
Hastie: As I said, people are accountable for their own positions…
Probyn: Where do you stand on the Meritorious Group Citation for Special Operations Group…?
Hastie: It’s very tough…it’s been a decision that’s been taken by…the CDF…and I have to respect that decision.

Assuming the best – that he holds no animus towards any individual NCOs or troopers from that time – Andrew Hastie has been drawn into an ongoing trial-by-media of Ben Roberts-Smith, VC MG, and of the SASR as a whole, and, like it or not, has given his imprimatur to that mob. This best-of-Andrew also needs to brush up on the law whose rule we have. It’s contradictory to skite about the rule of law, while conveniently forgetting about the presumption of innocence and the right of every accused person to the best possible defence. Riding your own hobby horse into the attack alongside the most disreputable gang of cutthroats in the Australian media is no recommendation for the rule of law.

Of course, there is the possibility that Hastie knew exactly what he was doing.

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