‘Afghanistan, Matt Anderson, the Australian War Memorial $498m megabuild, Brendan Nelson, the Brereton Report, Nine Newspapers, the Prime Minister, Ben Roberts-Smith, Seven Media, Kerry Stokes, and lots of lawyers’, Honest History, 7 June 2021
Some important Federal Court defamation cases are getting under way today. Ben Roberts-Smith is suing the publishers of The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Canberra Times.
The following dot points are derived from the coverage on the Honest History site since November 2017. Our coverage has focussed particularly on the impacts of the Brereton Report on the received image and role of the Australian War Memorial, but the matters covered are also part of the context of the court proceedings. (We recognise that, in the criminal justice system, individuals are innocent until proven guilty, and, on the civil side, a finding of defamation depends on the balance of probabilities.)
We make no attempt here to join the dots. On the other hand, many of the articles at the above link argue that Australia has tended to define itself by its military history, as encapsulated in the Anzac legend. Look for items by Crotty, Daley, De Maria, Lockhart, Reynolds, Smith, Stanley, Alan Stephens, David Stephens, Stuart, Warhurst and others. Many of these articles refer to the Afghanistan revelations.
The Australian War Memorial has been the main repository of that Anzac-centric view of our nation, and the imminent $498m redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial will mean that much more space can be devoted to telling the same old simplistic, sanitised stories. Unless we change the stories.
Some essential points about the War Memorial-Afghanistan link were posted on the Honest History site on 19 November, after the Brereton story first broke. These points are repeated in the Appendix to this post.
- The government’s decision (announced by Prime Minister Morrison on 1 November 2018) to fund the redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial at a cost of $498m came after prolonged and intensive lobbying from War Memorial Council Chairman, Kerry Stokes, and the then Director of the Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson.
- The government decision to fund the redevelopment followed Mr Stokes’ personal guarantee that the Memorial would not come to the government for more than $500m. More details.
- The function on 1 November 2018 at Parliament House where Prime Minister Morrison announced government funding was paid for by Mr Stokes at a cost of over $700 000. Ben Roberts-Smith attended, spoke with the Prime Minister, and sat next to Mr Stokes’ son. Mr Roberts-Smith, his then wife, Emma Roberts, and the Prime Minister, at launch of War Memorial redevelopment, Canberra, 1 November 2018 (Courier Mail/Gary Ramage)
- Then Memorial Director, Dr Nelson, supported Ben Roberts-Smith on numerous occasions from 2017, while the Brereton investigations were under way. Among other statements, Dr Nelson asked where the public interest was in tearing down our heroes.
- During Dr Nelson’s tenure at the Memorial, Mr Roberts-Smith appeared with sporting teams who visited the Memorial, attended the unveiling of two portraits, and spoke at Anzac Day services.
- Michael Zavros’s 2014 portrait of Mr Roberts-Smith, entitled ‘Pistol Grip’ and miming the action of firing a pistol, still hangs at the Memorial and is featured on the Memorial’s website with this accompanying text: ‘Zavros observed that when he asked Roberts-Smith to pose in a fighting stance, “He went to this whole other mode. He was suddenly this other creature and I immediately saw all these other things. It showed me what he is capable of … it was just there in this flash.”’
- Mr Roberts-Smith has been seen by many Australians, in official positions and otherwise, as a personification of the Anzac legend.
- Mr Stokes has been a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial since 2007 and its Chair since 2015. He became a Fellow of the Memorial in 2015. His current term on the Council expires early in August.
- The Brereton report contained allegations of war crimes committed in Afghanistan, some of them alleged to have been committed by Mr Roberts-Smith. Further investigations are under way.
- Mr Stokes has provided moral support for Mr Roberts-Smith and is paying for his legal costs in the defamation action.
Mr Roberts-Smith at the War Memorial with relay torch for Gold Coast Commonwealth Games 2018 (gc2018.com)
- Following the release of the Brereton report, the current Director of the Memorial, Matt Anderson, said the Memorial should be ‘a place of truth’. This was followed by the Prime Minister saying the Memorial Council would ‘exercise the appropriate judgement’. At its meeting of 27 November 2020, ‘the Council agreed that the existing exhibitions should not be altered but future proposed exhibitions would be informed by the outcomes of the investigations as a result of the report’.
- At its meeting of 27 November 2020, the War Memorial Council also expressed its unanimous support for Mr Stokes in his role as chairman. Mr Stokes himself had raised ‘concerns about the impact of recent media interest regarding his support of war veterans [particularly Ben Roberts-Smith] on his role of Chairman, and the potential impact on the Memorial’s reputation’. The Minutes of the meeting stated the Council’s view that ‘anyone who did not support veterans should not be on Council in the first place’.
- Mr Stokes is the Executive Chairman of Seven Group Holdings Limited, which owns Seven West Media (Channel 7, the Perth Sunday Times, the West Australian). Mr Roberts-Smith has been an employee of Seven West Media since 2015 but is currently on leave.
- The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald are part of Nine Newspapers, owned by Nine Entertainment Co.
Mr Roberts-Smith with then War Memorial Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, c. 2018 (AAP/SMH)
Appendix: Five points about the War Memorial-Afghanistan link (first posted 19 November 2020)
- The War Memorial in recent years has to a large extent come to run its own show.
- The Memorial has been protected by the ‘Anzac cloak’ (which makes critics – and media – careful for fear of being seen to be anti-Anzac or anti-veteran or anti-soldier), by lax accountability mechanisms (especially in Senate Estimates, but also to government), and by the close connections between Memorial (narrowly-based) management and government.
- A sharp focus of the Memorial ‘show’ has been simplistic stories about ‘heroes’. (Former Director Nelson complained more than once that the Afghanistan probes were ‘tearing down our heroes’.)
- Consequently, Brereton’s revelations that there is much more to our war stories than heroes is particularly problematic for the Memorial. (The Memorial has traditionally focussed on how we have fought our wars, and not on more complex issues, like why, was it worth it, and the consequences.)
- If the Memorial’s $498m redevelopment is to be no more than a bigger, glitzier telling of heroes’ stories (complete with lots of retired military kit, made by the Memorial’s donors), that makes the project even more egregious.
* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of the Heritage Guardians group, opposed to the War Memorial redevelopment.