When Ben Roberts-Smith brought his suit against Fairfax Media and journalists Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie, much commentary ensued about the chilling effect of Australian defamation law. But Masters’ new book, Flawed Hero: Truth, lies and war crimes, shows that investigative journalists struggle against far more than just the legal system.
Roberts-Smith came from privilege. The son of a high-ranking officer turned Supreme Court judge, he attended Perth’s poshest school, Hale, which also educated Christian Porter – attorney-general in the initial phases of the war crimes revelations – and former ASIO director David Irvine, who later conducted a review of efforts to reform the special forces. Perhaps not surprisingly, a substantial section of the Australian political class backed a man described by his peers as “a dead-set psychopath, a fraud, the Lance Armstrong of the ADF”. As director of the Australian War Memorial, former Liberal Defence minister Brendan Nelson threw the weight of his institution behind the VC recipient.
Ben Roberts-Smith is appealing the Federal Court judgement that he had likely committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
Scott Morrison told 2GB Roberts-Smith’s accusers did not share Anzac values. Kevin Rudd said those watching from the “comfort of their living rooms” did not understand the war, while Julia Gillard lauded the military’s “profound sense of service and sacrifice”.
The Australian campaigned consistently against Masters and McKenzie’s investigation, as did Kerry Stokes’ The West Australian.
The honours showered upon Roberts-Smith created a formidable protective barrier. Stokes found a $700,000-a-year management role at Channel Seven for Roberts-Smith despite his self-confessed incompetence (“What do I know about fucking television? I shoot cunts in the face.”). Roberts-Smith served as deputy chair of Tony Abbott’s advisory committee on mental health. Who would believe he told other soldiers of his desire to “choke a man to death with my bare hands [and] watch the life drain out of his eyes”?
In Afghanistan, Roberts-Smith had reportedly boasted about killing a terrified Afghan youth. “ ‘[I] shot the cunt in the side of the head, blew his brains out, and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,’ he said.” Back in Australia, the Stay Kind initiative enrolled him in its anti-violence campaign. In 2013, Roberts-Smith became Father of the Year. He later allegedly told his ex-wife that unless she confirmed his lies, she’d never see their children again.
Flawed Hero does not dwell on the social meaning of Roberts-Smith’s celebrity. Nor does it examine the consequences for Afghanistan of the depravity Australia unleashed on it. Instead, it offers a step-by-step account of reporters taking on the legal system, the political establishment and much of the Australian media and – against those almost impossible odds – somehow emerging with the story.
Allen & Unwin, 592pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2023 as "Flawed Hero".
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