Come in Spinner: A momentous day

It’s a little over a month away from one of those immensely important historic dates – April 25 – which prompt us to think about who were are and how we got here.

After all, April 25 is the birthday of Oliver Cromwell and within 89 years of it the Civil War he was decisive in, and the 1688 Glorious Revolution, had entrenched the Parliamentary supremacy on which our democracy is built. April 25 1846 saw the beginning of the Mexican-American War which symbolically ended one North American empire and introduced another (although demography is currently reversing the result in much of the US border territories). And April 25 1915 also marked the beginning of the end of another centuries old empire, the emergence of a remarkable new nation, and a significant step in the career of the nation’s founder, Kemal Ataturk.

Oh, sorry, you thought I was talking about Anzac Day? In Australia it’s an easy mistake to make given the way Australian historical memory has been militarised and the wall-to-wall clichéd coverage of Anzac day observance. Particularly when “controversy” is created in The Herald-Sun, as it has been today, over research which shows not all Australians uncritically accept the official view of how important the day is. The research, commissioned by the government into the forthcoming centenary Anzac Day basically found that a lot of young people aren’t that keen on wars, that Anzac Day creates mixed feelings among many in our multicultural society and that not everybody accepts the dominant narrative of Anzac day as the defining Australian experience.

All this is hardly surprising, but a horror story for all those who have invested so much in our big day, and a field day for The Hun who can emote over political correctness and how it is probably all the fault of ungrateful refugees.

But The Hun journalists might not have been quite so shocked if they had consulted a new guide on Anzac Day Media Style Guide published by Monash University and the University of South Australia. It’s available here.

It is the work of a University of South Australia researcher, Sharon Mascall-Dare, who has worked in journalism here and in the UK. She is currently completing a PhD on media and memory in the making of Anzac Day. She was helped by an editorial advisory board comprising leading journalists (John Hamilton for instance) and academics such as Professor Bruce Scates and Nigel Starck and drew on interviews with Anzac Day reporters, broadcasters and commentators.

It summarises the legal restrictions on Anzac usage; and, gives sensible and accurate guides to everything from military ranks and precedence to Anzac day protocols and processes, appropriate dress for media people and medal wearing protocols. There is also an excellent, and balanced, background history on the landings, a simple chronology and some valuable guidance on various controversies about myths, legends and people. The brief section on Simpson and his donkey is excellent and objective. It even warns about avoiding the risk of being run over by vehicles in the parade and has a useful prompt guide for reporters to questions which will help establish rapport with veterans being interviewed.

What is most valuable about the guide though is its combination of data which contexts the Anzac story and suggestions for how Anzac Day reporting and commentary can be freshened up and freed from clichés. In terms of data it publishes a brief table on who fought there, how many were involved from each country and what the casualties were. The raw data puts Australian participation and losses in the Gallipoli campaign into perspective – less than the Ottoman Empire, Britain and French. It gives due recognition to French colonial troops, ‘native Indian troops’ in the British force and the Newfoundlanders who, while a small presence in this campaign, experienced one of the highest per capita losses of life during the entire First World War.

The guide is an outstanding reminder of the very multinational and multicultural nature of the conflict – much more multicultural than stereotypical bronzed Aussie reporting implies – with troops from Senegal, Nepal, Morocco, Algeria and a contingent of Russian and Syrian Jewish refugees (the Zion Mule Corps) drawn from refugees deported to Egypt from Palestine by the Ottoman Empire. The guide points out that Anzac Day has many different points of significance to Australia’s diverse population. For instance, in Darwin, Japanese migrants participate in Anzac Day commemorations in recognition of Japan’s status as a First World War ally and the provider of shipping to get Australian troops to the Gallipoli campaign. Such participation is an unlikely development in other towns and cities.

In terms of what sort of angles reporters can take, it talks about Anzac Day ‘grand narratives’ which result in coverage in which “particular words, phrases and story-lines have become clichéd and overused.”

“A ‘grand narrative’ means that one, over-arching story is being told over and over again, in the case of Anzac day, that narrative has emphasised particular qualities, the lead characters are male, bronzed and brave, known for their larrikin behaviour. There is no doubt that this description fits many of the men who served at Gallipoli and conflicts since then: it is true to some extent. But it does not tell the whole story. The truth is as varied and complex as the many Australians who have experienced war, conflict, peace-keeping operations from the Great War to the present day.

“As a result, one way to cover Anzac Day is to reflect the stories, memories, experiences and observations of a range of people, rather than focus on one ‘grand’ or over-arching narrative. These people may come from a range of backgrounds and hold different beliefs about Anzac Day and its significance. This approach poses a challenge in news terms – it is hard to sum up in a headline or lead. It provides an opportunity, however, to look at Anzac Day from a range of angles and capture its complexity more accurately,” the guide says.

…and that’s exactly what characterises all the best war and commemorative reporting.

Declaration of interest: The author is a returned serviceman and a Cromwell Association Life Member.