Peta and the wolves

To Peta Credlin, there is little that separates Winston Churchill and Ben Roberts-Smith. Both made difficult decisions and lived with their consequences. To her, Roberts-Smith is a brave and rugged man, a soldier’s soldier, “a hero, even if very possibly a flawed one, whose excesses, if any, are understandable in the cauldron of war”.

Credlin, a former chief of staff to Tony Abbott, writes this in the newspaper Roberts-Smith used to intimidate witnesses. The soldier had a private investigator place a false story in The Australian about one of the people testifying against him. He had the same private investigator send threatening letters to another witness. Credlin does not mention this.

Instead, she writes: “And even if he were to be convicted of a war crime, to what extent, if any, should that detract from his undoubted heroics in winning the ultimate military accolade?”

She writes: “And if mistakes were made, at least some of the fault lies with us too; and with the senior commanders, now tut-tutting about the excesses of military culture.”

Credlin repeats the central argument of Roberts-Smith’s defence: that the men complaining about his conduct are jealous of his courage. She argues that a criminal court might find differently to a civil one. She pretends that the evidence was of heated decisions rather than calculated, ritualistic killing. “I’m not sure that any of us,” she writes, “who have never been exposed to deadly combat, can fully grasp just how psychologically fraught and morally deadening this could be.”

Credlin likens the treatment of Roberts-Smith to the treatment of George Pell and Bruce Lehrmann. She sees them as victims of moral indignation. It is no coincidence that The Australian has been a champion of all three men. The paper is a paranoid defender of privilege. It views all events through the lens of identity.

Not even war crimes can offend its fixed positions. The paper is untroubled by a court finding it true that Ben Roberts-Smith kicked an elderly shepherd off a cliff and then had him shot. It is untroubled by evidence he ordered another man be killed while he was being questioned. It doesn’t care that he machine-gunned a man to death and then took his prosthetic leg as a novelty drinking vessel.

The Australian pretends it is taking a nuanced position, that it has wrestled with complexity and is publishing what others won’t. This is nonsense. Its coverage of Ben Roberts-Smith is identical to its coverage of climate change. It is contrarian to the point of incoherence. It mistakes its agenda for doubt and treats this error as a virtue.

Ben Roberts-Smith is not the victim of what Credlin calls “the obloquy we seem so ready to confer on the pariah du jour”. He is the victim of nothing more than his own actions, actions that killed innocent men, that diminished this country and the soldiers who serve it. On the evidence that has been heard, he is a vain and dangerous man whose capacity for violence thrills and titillates his supporters, whose hubris has finally caught up with him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Peta and the wolves".

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