The release of the Chilcot report revives a memory from late 2002 or early 2003. Washington, London and Canberra were abuzz with talk of military action against the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein. President George W. Bush accused him of having weapons of mass destruction and aiding al-Qaeda, the 9/11 terrorists. The war drums were sounding. Alan Moir, of the Sydney Morning Herald, had a cartoon showing Bush in a cowboy hat whooping it up aboard a missile heading for Baghdad. Tony Blair, the British PM, was sitting behind him looking just as enthusiastic. But sitting at the rear was our John Howard looking nervous and uncertain. He was portrayed saying something to the effect of ‘Seriously, we still haven’t decided’.
But he had really. Australian military personnel had been attached to a US war planning committee for some time. Canberra treated the whole question of Australian involvement with the greatest of secrecy. The Defence Dept called a meeting of all media organisations on a Friday afternoon as a way of delicately tip-toeing into the subject. I attended it in my capacity as being in charge of ABC international news operations at the time.
It was chaired by, as I recall, a brigadier in an immaculate uniform. He was serious and devoid of humour. He presented media guidelines in the event of, er, just in case of, um, the unlikely possibility that Australia should find itself involved in a war with our troops, planes and especially the Navy. The RAN at the time had warships patrolling the Gulf as part of sanctions against Iraq. He called it Operation Chad. I queried him later why the choice of name. He asked me what was wrong with it. I pointed out that Chad was a land-locked country.
He presented each of the media representatives with proposed not so much guidelines but restrictions with which we had to agree if we wanted media accreditation. We were informed they had been drawn up by a leading law firm. The main restriction was, unbelievably, censorship. It was informally accepted that we would never report details of an impending operation. Yet all other stories while attached to ADF personnel had to be submitted first to a military censor. It was pointed out to the officer that news broadcasts were often ‘live’ and such a restriction was unworkable. He was not impressed. He sent us away with a legal document which we all had to sign if we wanted the Defence Department’s cooperation. It was later unanimously rejected. As I recall, the head of the ABC legal department said at least one clause was contrary to the Australian constitution. The Defence Department quietly dropped the subject.
It was four days before the start of the Iraq War in March 2003 when Howard finally confirmed our active involvement. By then, Australian SAS troops were already deployed in the back blocks of the Iraqi desert searching out Scud missile sites. ABC personnel being withdrawn from Baghdad actually encountered a unit when driving back to Jordan. The most memorable of the ABC coverage of that war was not with ADF personnel, but embedded with a unit of US marines who drove across the desert from Kuwait to Baghdad. ABC reporter Geoff Thomson and cameraman Michael Cox were made welcome with no restrictions apart from a ban on reporting operational intentions. There was a brief shooting incident as they entered the Iraqi capital. Thomson’s eye-witness version of what happened was at variance with the marine commander’s, but the American respected his right to report it as he saw it. Just as well Canberra was not involved.
Looking back, I was incredulous at the time that the invading forces did not bring with them medical supplies and field hospitals with generators for the Iraqis themselves. Saddam Hussein’s main propaganda weapon ahead of the war had been pictures of people suffering in hospital because of a lack of medicines and drugs due to UN sanctions. It would have been a powerful message of goodwill when a priority should have been winning the hearts and minds before setting Iraqis off on their promised road to freedom and democracy. Nor did they have a real plan to maintain civil order. Iraq’s national museum was looted of priceless Biblical treasures. ‘Stuff happens’, observed Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence. It certainly does as Iraq and its peoples have discovered to their terrible cost since then.
FOOTNOTE. If the media today want to cover Australian Defence Force activity overseas, they must first complete a bureaucratic four-page form with the possibility of more to follow which is assessed by:
Entertainment Media Liaison Officer | Corporate Identity Coordinator Corporate Communication Branch | Ministerial Executive Co-ordination & Communication (MECC) Division, Department of Defence.
In short, good luck in trying!
John Tulloh has had a 40 year career in foreign news.