Hard News by Russell Brown


Towards the Truth

Former Air Marshal Sir Bruce Ferguson, the ertstwhile chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, joked with me before I interviewed him on this week's Media7 that he'd done media training, and learned that if there were any questions he didn't want to answer he should just keep talking for the allotted seven minutes.

He didn't do that. Indeed, he acknowledged that, as noted in Nicky Hager's book Other People's Wars, he criticised New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance in conversation with the US ambassador; a conversation recorded in one of the "Wellington cables" liberated by Wikileaks.

Professional soldiers may often hold private opinions at variance with those of their civilian leaders, he said; that has always been true.

But it wasn't until the very end of an online-only "Extra" segment, as long as the broadcast show itself, that he spoke the words that made the news. My final question was about the military whistleblowers who were willing to speak to Nicky Hager for the book, and Jon Stephenson for his print media stories. Was it a breach of duty for a soldier to voice his disquiet in such a way -- or democracy in action?

It's probably a combination of both. My first, my gut reaction is very disappointed that people whisteblow with respect to the military. I do take Nicky's point though, there will be people who are concerned. In every war, again, soldiers will see things or be ordered to do things about which they are not happy.

It takes a very gutsy soldier, sailor or airman to go to the commanding officer and say "I don't want to do this". Now, until probably about 20 or 30 years ago it would probably end up with them being put in the slammer.

But if they get no traction from that and they still firmly believe in their views, I can understand, while not sympathising with them, I can understand why they may go further.

I would not ask Nicky for his sources because I know damn well he wouldn't give them  to me. And actually it doesn't worry me anyway, because I'm retired.

I would always continue to be disappointed that people felt so strongly about it they couldn't go to their commanding officers. But they may well have done, and I would not have known that. They may well have gone to their commanding officers and the commanding officers, to use their words, covered it up. I would not see that.

As is sometimes the case with a 24-minute show recorded as-live, what was said afterwards was more revealing than the show itself. I'm just grateful that on this occasion we recorded it. The extra discussion basically lays out the issues around the SAS, Afghanistan and the transfer of prisoners that have driven the journalistic work of Jon Stephenson in particular. There is also the response of Hager to last week's Wikileaks debacle -- nonplussed, basically -- and more.

It was remarkable to then see Jon -- for so long barely able to get anything from the NZDF and its communications warriors -- further engaged in conversation with Sir Bruce. I'm grateful to Sir Bruce for turning up. And I'm quite proud of the programme we made this week.

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