Standing up for Canberra

War correspondents are our truth-bringers

On 18 April 1945 the people of Brisbane picked up their Courier Mails and read a dispatch from Osmar White.

His story from Germany charted a journey through the gates of hell.

“Today I’ve seen the Buchenwald,” he wrote, “and moved among its living dead.

“I cannot now nor ever will be able to write objectively of what I have seen. One cannot observe war for three-and-a half years as a newspaperman and remain either sentimentalist or supersensitive about spectacles of human suffering. Yet what I saw today moved me to physical illness.”

White’s account, and the humanity he brought to writing it, was immensely powerful. But it was what he foresaw that made him one of our great war correspondents.

“But the men who make peace should be required also to see such camps,” he said, “and be made to take an oath before mankind to make and keep the kind of peace in which never again will any nation in the human family be permitted the power to debase itself to such a level of bestiality as has Germany between the years of 1933 to 1945.”

It is because of journalists like White that we can still see Buchenwald today as vividly as he described it 70 years ago.

If truth is indeed the first casualty of war, we are reliant on our war correspondents - our journalists, our camera crews, our photographers and our artists who witness that truth, to untangle it, to interpret it, to protect it, and ultimately to ensure, often at great personal risk, that it is revealed.

Who, having seen it, can erase George Silk’s image of George “Dick” Whittington, his eyes bandaged, being helped along a bush track in Papua New Guinea by Raphael Oimbari?

His image speaks of nobility, honour and kindness in the face of brutality. It gives us a reason to hope for the best when things seem at their worst.

But we only get to see with such clarity because people like Silk bring great skills to their journalism and I am always astounded by the calibre of the writers, artists and photographers Australia has sent to cover war.

Perhaps the most enduring of them is Charles Bean.

In 1911 Bean, published a book called The dreadnought of the Darling in which he made a prophecy.

That, if ever England was in trouble, she would discover “in the younger land, existing in quite unsuspected quarters… the quality of sticking…to an old mate”.

Four years later he went ashore at Anzac Cove just five and a half hours after the first landing. From 1916 - 18 he was in France to observe every engagement of the Australian Imperial Force.

His work, “the only memorial which could be worthy of them… was the bare and uncoloured story of their part in the war.”

From 1919 – 1924 he and his team recorded the official history of Australia in the First World War while based at the historic Tuggeranong Homestead.

This record has been etched into our national psyche and is given physical form in the Australian War Memorial.

The work of war correspondents has helped shape our national identity and our democracy.

The War Correspondents Memorial dedicated this week will serve as a permanent reminder of the sacrifice of Australian war correspondents who risked their lives, and in some cases died, in order for history to be recorded. In order to tell the truth.

Today it is arguably more dangerous than ever to be a war correspondent – 43 journalists have been killed this year, and 221 were imprisoned in 2014. This statistic takes human shape in Peter Greste.

We owe these journalists much.

Despite our best intentions, nations can’t always avoid wars. The best nations fight them because their leaders steadfastly believe that there is no other choice.

And it is often because of the courageous work of war correspondents that the truth is brought back to our leaders and to the public.

Albert Camus wrote that a free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything but bad.

Free nations send journalists, artists and photographers to chronicle those wars… not to glorify them but to chart their progress and honour the sacrifice of our servicemen and women.

We also send them to be our conscience. To remind us of the horror of war and to urge us to do everything in our power to avoid it.

This opinion piece was first published in the Canberra Times on Saturday, 26 September, 2015.