Reportage

Power, vulnerability and scapegoats

WHAT WE NOW know as Gulf War One exploded into action on a Tuesday morning, January 17, 1991, taking with it any previous order in my personal life. The experience was by turns exhilarating, terrifying and sobering. I learned about the use and abuse of power, about powerlessness and the vulnerability of becoming a scapegoat.

The invitation to retrieve memories of a past life crisis coincided within days of significant victories for the Coalition of the Willing in Gulf War Two, 13 years later. Nothing like the same intensity of emotions that erupted around my ABC colleagues and me in 1991 occurred the second time round. Passions were inflamed throughout the country. But this time the ABC was not the lightning rod.

Instead, the political system behaved in a more orthodox way. What had been bipartisan support in 1991 dissolved into typical wrangling in 2003. The media had a straightforward task: reporting a divided polity, airing the views of pro– and antiwar spokespeople. It also had access to many specialist commentators – a vital change. It was only after the war was over that the ABC again became a target.

It was very different in Gulf War One, officially codenamed Operation Desert Storm. The Hawke Labor government and the John Hewson-led Liberal-National opposition lined up to support the war, along with most of the population.

The media was left to ask the tough questions. The mere suggestion that the media was not fully pro-war stirred acute indignation. Ultimately, it led to direct interference in the ABC's editorial affairs in a way not seen for years and not since.

The ABC attracted the most attention. It was positioned at the pointy end of developments in what was the first 'live TV' war. It was the start of the tradition of 'going live' that captivated us 13 years later.

Back in January 1991, when Australians were still savouring a lazy summer and most ABC news and current affairs staff were on holiday, few thought any war to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait would happen before February...or maybe we just persuaded ourselves of that.

Despite some US-imposed deadlines and the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops, there was widespread denial about the likelihood of a real war.

It is worth recalling the chronology. ABC historian, Professor Ken Inglis, outlined it in a Perspective commentary on Radio National in February 2003: 'Soon after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, Bob Hawke sent three warships to the Persian Gulf. Operation Desert Storm, as the Americans called it, the bombing of targets in Iraq and Kuwait, began on January17, 1991; and Mr Hawke committed Australia's naval task force to the war that same day. His government then virtually forced the ABC's Radio Australia to broadcast messages to the sailors in the three ships.

'The ABC's domestic services reported the war far more amply than any other media organisation. By the end of January, the ABC had eight correspondents in the region, more than all other Australian broadcasters combined. On television, the 7.30 Report became each night The Gulf Report (lasting one hour).'

My role was to present a five– to eight-minute item every night called War of Words. My colleagues Chris Masters and Jonathan Holmes collaborated on the other regular segment, War of Weapons; our aim to creatively cover different angles. The compere was the late Andrew Olle, who conducted interviews and reported as well.

Let me rewind. My memories of the lead-up to war are vivid. War-eve, Monday, January 16, 1991, was a perfect Sydney summer day. My close friend, Christine Jenkins, and I decided to adjourn our regular Monday coffee meeting to the sublime Clifton Gardens beach, a bayside wonder in the city's north. She brought her two children; my daughter and step-daughter were with me.

We swam, played imaginary games, had a picnic with freshly made cakes, rambled over the rocks and judged it an utterly perfect holiday event. Above all, it seemed so peaceful. It was week three of the journalist's regulation five-week summer break. The next fortnight promised great tranquillity.

As I recall, the portents for war in the evening news were not strong. But next morning, I was phoned with the dramatic announcement that war had begun. I was to report to work immediately.

I can still remember the shock. War! It was inconceivable that it had come to this at the end of the 20th century. With three children in tow, I rushed into work, appealing to my mother to meet me at Channel 2's Gore Hill studios to take them off my hands. She did, bless her.

At work, hastily called meetings dominated the day. People were recalled from holidays. Sets were quickly assembled. Amidst barely controlled frenzy, the penny dropped: this was a real war, more significant than the only other war in recent memory, the 1982 Falklands conflict.

A provisional decision had been made weeks earlier to continuously broadcast the unfolding drama. As well as The Gulf Report, news presenters like Richard Morecroft were drawn into long stints on camera, sitting with maybe one guest, throwing to the latest images arriving from outlets like the BBC and Visnews, doing spontaneous voice-overs and updates, responding to whatever occurred.

It was hard work. Anchors had no sophisticated round-the-clock support. We realised very quickly that the calibre of the studio guest was vital. He or she had to offer analysis and interpretation on a wide range of subjects; be confident about the politics of the war-torn region; comment on big-power strategy plus human-interest stories; and make it all accessible for the average viewer as well as the lounge-room aficionado waiting to 'spot the mistake'.

I remember being plunged into a search for 'talent'. We found there were three clear experts in Australia, only one of whom was readily available – but he was probably the best anyway: Dr Robert Springborg, associate professor of politics at Macquarie University. An American by birth, he had specialised in the Middle East and occasionally worked for the US State Department as a consultant.

The need for a competent commentator became even more urgent by Day Two. These were among the most pressured 24 hours I had ever experienced in my career.

I remember alighting from the lift at the third floor, Gulf Report offices, to have colleagues, breathless and wide-eyed, shouting at me: 'They're firing Scuds into Tel Aviv...they're firing Scuds at the Israelis.'

People seemed to be running around in ever-decreasing circles. Emotions were sky-high. If missiles were being used on Day Two, what might happen on Day Three? And Four? As it turned out, in terms of terror for the coalition, that was as bad as it got. The key to this was the Israeli decision not to avenge the attacks, to leave things to the US-led coalition.

Far worse was to happen to the Iraqis, of course, including the accidental targeting of the 400 or so civilians in the air-raid shelter and the carnage on the Basra road, towards the end of the 43-day war.

Working on various programs, we barely drew breath, convening in editorial conferences around 10 am and 3 pm to reassess the day's events and choose the best angles. We responded to unfolding events, unaware of the forces assembling against us.

PROFESSOR INGLIS DESCRIBED the domestic campaign: 'On January 22, Gerard Henderson, in a Sydney Morning Herald column headlined "For 8c a day, all the bias you can take", reproached the ABC for its use of Dr Robert Springborg...as expert commentator on the war. He quoted an article Dr Springborg had written for the Melbourne Herald...saying that (prime minister) Hawke's decision to send off the warships was so precipitous as to suggest "that we are every bit as much a one-man show as is the country we may be fighting".

'Next day Bob Hawke denounced the ABC for broadcasting analysis of the war that was ‘loaded, biased and disgraceful'. In Canberra on January 29, the prime minister roasted Mr Somervaille (chairman) and Mr Hill (managing director), complaining about The Gulf Report's presenters Andrew Olle and Geraldine Doogue, and above all about the program's extensive use of Dr Springborg.

'Mr Hill, responding to Gerard Henderson, had insisted that Dr Springborg had never stated on ABC a personal view about the war, or indeed about Iraqi politics, apart from not concealing his thorough disapproval of Saddam Hussein's regime. Mr Hawke was not mollified to hear that. Dr Springborg's position on Middle Eastern affairs, he said, should have been made clear to the audience and his analysis should have been ‘balanced' by an expert offering a different perspective.'

It was on! Day after day, new criticism turned up. We learned there was a 'war room' in Parliament House where the prime minister, with his widely acknowledged emotional attachment to Israel at full throttle, and several Cabinet colleagues, including future opposition leader Kim Beazley, pored over every detail.

I became aware for the first time of the Israeli/Jewish lobby and its power. Naive little me had never experienced organised opposition in my previous reporting life. In an odd way, it was enthralling to watch in practice what I had read and heard about. I just wish I hadn't been at the centre of it.

This campaign was conducted in public and private. Letters arrived by the dozen, plus phone calls to the program (including utterly sexist diatribes directed at me; I was after all, one of the first Australian women to be allowed to report a war on television).

We experienced the exquisite pressure of reporting the daily news and making it as well. It is not something I wish on others. Trying to grasp the rigours of war as well as stay out of trouble was like walking into a cyclone with no idea if there was any way out.

I like to think I'd cope better now, with years of daily radio and epic events like September 11 under my belt. No one can accurately anticipate the turmoil of 'making headlines', of 'being controversial'. The caprice of it, it preoccupies your life – there is no equivalent, except maybe divorce.

As the war progressed, the anti-ABC sentiments escalated. Professor Inglis noted: 'Back in Sydney, David Hill pressed Peter Manning, controller of TV news and current affairs, to have Dr Springborg's appearances in The Gulf Report accompanied by a caption saying where he stood. Mr Manning resisted, arguing that "to lock – via a screen caption – a commentator into some position the ABC designated for them was an outrage". David Hill agreed to Mr Manning's request to let him resolve the issue in his own way. In the event there was no descriptive caption, more sparing use of Dr Springborg and another academic expert on the region, Stephen Morris, placed on a retainer.

'Kim Beazley, Minister for Communications, publicly proposed on February 19 that the ABC should be made "more publicly accountable" for complaints about bias. The ABC's board resolved on February 27 to establish an Independent Complaints Review Panel, which can be seen in retrospect as a monument to ministerial pressure.'

I agree, though the longer-term wisdom of having and being seen to have such a body is probably undeniable. But Ken Inglis doesn't report the real behind-the-scenes drama that made this month such a crisis for me.

Towards the end of January, with tempers running high, Peter Manning told me that after a meeting with the prime minister, David Hill made it clear he wanted both Andrew Olle and me removed from The Gulf Report: sacked, by any other name, made the public scapegoats. Some high-profile scalps would give the appearance the ABC acknowledged unsatisfactory coverage. I never heard any confirmation, but assumed ABC funding had been threatened at the highest levels. There was a lot at stake.

Realistically, Andrew's reputation and following made him untouchable. I had only been back at the ABC a year following a stint at Channel 10. As a 'girl' I sat uncomfortably on the cusp of respect anyway. The brutal truth was that I was the expendable one.

But in a move I will never forget and always admire, Peter Manning put his job on the line for me. He refused to move against me or Andrew, in effect daring David Hill to risk sparking a huge row by removing him.

Thankfully, David blinked, but never really forgave Peter. His defiance over this issue led to repeated impasses between the two, probably damaging both of them, and certainly impeding Peter's ambition to lead the corporation. Leaving aside loyalty, Peter told me that acceding to David's wishes would have totally compromised his editorial independence. He might as well have packed his bags.

The morning this immediate crisis passed, Peter ran down the hill from his tower-block office towards my office near the Gore Hill canteen. He burst in the door, grabbed me, swung me in the air with delight and said, 'We've won!'

It should have been a moment to savour, but I was too pulverised by the ebb and flow of the arguments to enjoy it. To this day, many of my friends don't actually know what happened. I haven't talked about it and can't exactly say why – maybe the embarrassment of being naive.

When I paused for breath, I was terribly angry at being used as a pawn. As I saw it, I was being offered as the 'ritual sacrifice' to make a nasty problem disappear. It had little to do with the quality of my work, much more to do with mollifying people in power.

I never claimed to be the perfect reporter or expert on modern warfare. But I'd tried my heart out to be fair and accurate. And I had remained open and curious to as many different strands of opinion as possible.

I grossly underestimated the tensions in Australia related to Israel and the impact of those who believed Springborg had 'form' as a critic of Israeli policy. In this arena, accusations of anti-Semitism are never far away.

Allegedly, some students from Springborg's politics classes had reported that he was openly critical of Israel. The implication was that he was anti-Jewish, a slur he profoundly rejected. In personal conversations, he did not deny his belief that aspects of Israeli policy did not enhance long-term peace. But, to the best of my memory, we did not cover this issue directly on air.

He was a wonderful interviewee, awesomely well informed, cool under pressure and clear. Both he and I survived to enjoy other, much better days in our careers. He has gone on to august things, fulfilling the promise expected of him. He is now director of the Middle East Institute at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

During Gulf War Two I intended to interview him for Life Matters on ABC Radio National. Revenge, they say, is best enjoyed cold. Both of us could have revelled in the symbolism of once more wrestling publicly, on the ABC, about a Gulf war. Ironically, hostilities ended sooner than I had anticipated and I missed this opportunity.

But there'll be others. January 1991 proved one of the more character-building months for the ABC and me. I learned that, during wars, a nation's emotions could tumble into free fall. And that one person's conviction about editorial independence can make a big difference. Peter Manning, I salute you. 

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