Army and Defence PR – an ungrateful mess

Australian Army PR was once a successful system which benefitted the troops, media and the community. Now it has been subsumed into a bureaucratic corporate brand management system closely controlled by Ministers and their staff.

Relationships with media and authors are dictated by complex approval and contractual arrangements and authors seeking Army cooperation face complex restrictions with punitive penalty causes – as Chris Masters found with his SAS book.

Indicative of the brand managerialist philosophy is that Army PR photographers and camera people are now called ‘image specialists.’

Back in the Vietnam era journos, Army PR and Army were all basically on the same side. That didn’t mean the journalists were in the Army’s pockets although independence was subject to the usual limitations of access and protection given the risk of journalists being killed.

On May 5 1968, for instance, four reporters were killed in a jeep ambushed by the Viet Cong in Saigon. They included AAP’s Michael Birch; Time magazine correspondent John Cantwell from Sydney; and two Reuters’ men, Bruce Pigott, from Melbourne, and Cornish-born Ronald Laramy.

Army PR was not just about war zone operations. It was also supporting Australian local rural, regional and metropolitan communities using displays, information sessions and promoting military visits.

As well as being bureaucratic Army PR is not helped by the fact that Department of Defence’s media unit is apparently not up to scratch. The unit was blasted by the Australian National Audit Office.

“Defence’s arrangements for the appropriate management of its public communications and media activities remain in transition and are not fully effective,” the audit found.

“While Defence has largely established a policy and management framework for these activities, it has not clearly articulated its overarching objectives or expected outcomes for undertaking them and internal reporting is primarily focused on outputs.” Code for measuring what you are doing, but not what you are achieving.

Many of the problems started with the children overboard scandal when the military told Parliament the truth about what happened contradicting John Howard’s false claim that refugees had thrown children overboard.

Now, under a government determined that there be no repetition of Howard’s embarrassment, all draft news releases have to be signed off by a one star general or civilian equivalent. The draft then has to go to the Minister’s press secretary for final approval and if there is any political mileage to be gained, the release is issued from the Minister’s office. Media officers can also no longer liaise directly with the media – a system purposefully designed to be defensive and risk averse.

In the past, news relating to the ADF was undertaken by the military and news with a political or policy context was released by the Minister’s media advisor.

The issue has been highlighted because a number of former Army PR officers and NCO photographers are angry at what they see as the destruction of what was once a very effective system – anger exacerbated by the Army’s refusal to award some PR Unit Vietnam veterans the Army Combat Badge awarded to their modern counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One Vietnam era unit member was initially awarded the ACB but when another veteran applied the application was rejected and the earlier award taken back.

The refusal was an arbitrary one based on PR people being technically posted to Task Force HQ even though they actually served in the field while, in a typical bit of military of Catch 22 other Task Force staff did get the ACB.

David Brown, a retired Lt Colonel, was recently refused the award. After being called up in 1966 he was commissioned and served 20 years in the Australian Army Public Relations Service. He did two tours of duty in South Vietnam from 1968-69 and 1970-71, where he was awarded the Unit Citation for Gallantry for his participation in the Battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral in May 1968.

He says there are 34 Army people who recorded and reported the Vietnam War from as early as 1964 until Australia withdrew its forces in 1972 affected. One of them, WO2 Bill Cunneen, served in Japan, Korea, Malaya and Borneo plus multiple back-to-back Vietnam tours more than 900 days.

For 18 years they accompanied Australian troops on operations in Vietnam, reporting, recording, and photographing the Australians.  Many of their dispatches formed the basis of civilian news agency reporting of the war, and many of their feature articles were published in full in Australian and overseas magazines and periodicals.

The results, when reported back to units and soldiers had a demonstrable effect on morale, particularly as the war became controversial in Australia.

The Australian War Memorial archives hold tens of thousands of their photographs, so many in fact that it has still not completed the task of cataloguing and posting them on its website, as well as hundreds of cine films which are a priceless historical record of Australians at war in Vietnam.

Major Peter Thomas, now retired, said in support of Brown: “I wonder what the bureaucrats would say about flying with Australian Navy Helicopters loaded with terrified SVN soldiers and one PR Officer; or bring lifted from a battle zone in a Chinook again filled with terrified SVN troops, panicking at the internal noise of the aircraft until the Loadmaster jammed .45 calibre pistol rounds in their ears to stop them from screaming and moving about”

“We may not have stormed bunkers but we were there supporting Australian soldiers and ensuring their activities were recorded, returned to Australia and published as factual events in a failing war.”

The Army was generally rather stingy with awards in Vietnam as Major Harry Smith found when campaigning for recognition of his Long Tan battle comrades.

An exception was Brigadier Stuart Graham, who ordered the First Australian Task Force to construct an 11 kilometre barrier fence minefield containing 20,292  M16 landmines in southern Vietnam’s Phuoc Tuy Province. The Viet Cong then lifted thousands of the mines which, as Greg Lockhart recounts in, The Minefield, became effective VC weapons causing many casualties. He received a DSO and was promoted General.