Stephens, David: Skirmish in Canberra Times letters column over a War Memorial that ‘has lost its way’

David Stephens

‘Skirmish in Canberra Times letters column over a War Memorial that “has lost its way”‘, Honest History, 18 October 2017 updated

Today’s Canberra Times (online and hard copy) included a letter from me which was butchered by the paper’s sub-editors to the extent that the letter’s sense was changed and an important piece of evidence was left out. The letter as published read thus:

Of arms and the man

Keith Mitchell (Letters, October 16) is right to criticise the Australian War Memorial for pinching a line from our national anthem to advertise the memorial.

The memorial market-tested the “we are young and free” line late last year and presumably found the words publicly acceptable.

Dr Nelson certainly likes them, though: he has used them in at least eight speeches since 2013. There are more important reasons to be critical of Dr Nelson: his tendency in his speeches to deliver sentimental and tendentious guff, learned by heart, rather than turn his considerable intellect to new ways of looking at Australia’s wars; his unwillingness to engage with the memorial’s critics (institutions that believe in their mission should defend it in the marketplace of ideas); his apparently deficient oversight of accountability procedures; the memorial’s pursuit of funding from arms manufacturers, a practice that led former senior public servant John Menadue to write recently, “The AWM has lost its way.”

The advertisement that Mitchell complains of carries the note “proudly supported by Northrop Grumman” *.

This is the world’s fifth largest arms company by value of sales.

On the other hand, Dr Nelson has presided over some welcome changes at the memorial (the Holocaust exhibition, the recognition of Indigenous deaths in the frontier wars.

David Stephens, Honest History, Bruce

[* The advertisement at the Canberra Airport carries this notation. DS 18 October]

6161921Drawing for a cartoon in Smith’s Weekly, c. 1919 (AWM ART90240/CL Hartt)

The Canberra Times changed my letter in two important respects. In relation to Dr Nelson’s accountability role, I said ‘his deficient oversight of accountability procedures (the Memorial’s 2015 and 2016 Annual Reports contain deceptive figures and clanging errors)’. The paper inserted ‘apparently’ before ‘deficient’ and left out the words in parentheses. There was no ‘apparently’ about it: my letter pointed to the evidence. The detailed evidence can be found in articles on the Honest History website: see the appendix to this post.

Secondly, the Times left out an early sentence from my letter, where I said Keith Mitchell was wrong to attribute the advertisement to Dr Nelson’s personal feelings. I pointed to the market testing as evidence that there was more involved than Dr Nelson’s whims. The paper’s editing completely changed the meaning of that paragraph. (Honest History knows that the market testing happened – late in 2016 – because one of our researchers was ‘tested’, though the Memorial at the time would not confirm that a specific ‘young and free’ question had been asked.)

Wouldn’t it be great if newspapers resisted the urge to edit carefully composed letters, particularly as in this case, where the main reason for editing seems to have been to fit the letter neatly in a column of the hard copy version of the paper?

The original letter from Keith Mitchell read thus:

AWM signs thoughtless

While it has been a pleasure not to see advertising material hanging from the front of the heritage listed Australian War Memorial*,  we now have another exercise by the War Memorial director, Dr Brendan Nelson, in the form of redone signs at the entrance saying “for we are young and free”.

These are words from the anthem and are nothing to do with the War Memorial.

If the director was bent on putting his personal feelings on the signs he could have used a more appropriate line “here is their spirit in the heart of the land they loved”.

Could I remind the director that the AWM is not his personal property. He is the caretaker for all Australians.

The Australian War Memorial deserves considered planning and thought.

Keith Mitchell, Campbell

[*As of 21 October, these banners had been replaced with banners advertising the new Special Forces exhibit at the Memorial. DS 21 October]

Note: Honest History occasionally writes letters to newspaper editors, although we do not claim that every letter tagged with our corporate name reflects the views of every one of our hundreds of followers and supporters, including the historians and others who are our distinguished supporters.



David Stephens

Cooking the (visitors) books: the Australian War Memorial struggles with statistics – again’, Honest History, 7 February 2017

The article looks at the statistics in the Memorial’s Annual Report 2015-16 for real (flesh-and-blood) visitors to the Memorial and virtual visitors to the Memorial’s website. As with the equivalent analysis 12 months ago, the Memorial’s report leaves us puzzled and perplexed.

The article finds that claims in the report about an increase in real visitors in 2015-16 are not supported by the Memorial’s own statistics – although there is some confusion at one point about which year is being considered. The article finds slightly less confusion than in 2014-15 about website metrics but, instead, describes a major problem where the report uses words and a key statistic from its annual report for the previous year, instead of the year under review. The article concludes that

the claim of an increase in real visitors – ‘visitors walking through the front doors’ – is not supportable by the Memorial’s own statistics and suggests at least sloppiness, if not an intention to mislead. Similarly, there is still a degree of carelessness, even obfuscation, in the Memorial’s website statistics. Most organisations will gild the lily in presenting statistics but they will usually be cleverer at it than the Memorial is – and they will avoid clanging cock-ups like using last year’s statistics.

Read more …

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