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Reporting from the Western Front

War correspondent Keith Murdoch (right) with Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes (AWM E02650)

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Posted on May 14 2018

How did news get from the frontlines of Belgium and France to newspapers on Australian breakfast tables?

Initially journalists were banned from the action but within a year of the outbreak of war they were being integrated into the military system.

This enabled authorities to select reporters, promote censorship and produce reports that enhanced their position.

Britain, leading the Allies, limited its accredited war correspondents to five, while Australia had 11 journalists and two photographers over the course of the war.

Australia’s official correspondent was Charles Bean but there were other notable figures, including Keith Murdoch who reported for The Herald, A.B. (Banjo) Paterson for The Argus, and writer Katharine Susannah Prichard who was working in London’s Fleet Street.

Reports by the Australian correspondents were censored twice, first by British censors in the field and then by the authorities in Australia under the War Precautions Act 1914. They also practised a degree of self-censorship.

Authors Fay Anderson and Richard Trembath found there were ‘moments of rebellion’ when journalists, who regarded themselves as eyewitnesses, refused to produce sanitised, heroic reports:

“Keith Murdoch made explosive revelations of military incompetence … and Bean’s inner turmoil found occasional expression,” they wrote in their History of Australia’s Conflict Reporting.

“Battles were censored to the point of inaccuracy and were consistently portrayed in a positive light; news was delayed for months; and the lexicon of war remained upbeat and victorious: failure, carnage and defeat did not enter the vocabulary. …

“The only clues that Australian audiences were given of devastating defeats were the lengthy casualty lists published separately in the newspapers.”

Sometimes reports were pooled but Australian newspapers were decentralised and competitive and Britain did not appreciate their independence, which stemmed from Australia’s desire to receive its own reports.

Reporters such as Bean travelled to the front line each day, covering a 130km stretch. Newspaper copy was carried by pigeons or shipped to London for transmission by telegraph.

Delays were often lengthy and unexplained. For instance, the Australian Imperial Force arrived in France on 19 March 1916 but the first official report did not appear until 10 May.

This created a vacuum with unintended consequences. The ‘glory’ of Gallipoli continued to dominate, idealising the ‘Anzacs’ as ‘super soldiers’ – physical, dashing, brave, funny and dependable.

Many of these qualities were evident in Egypt and France but the celebration left little room for alternative stories, especially for those repatriated with disabilities and trauma.

And, for journalists, their ethical standards were tested, especially when Australian soldiers were used in British strategy. At the Battle of Fromelles (July 1916), which was designed as a diversion, 5,530 Australian men were killed or wounded in just 27 hours.

The men were taken down by German machine-gun fire or they slipped from duckboards and drowned in mud.

Bean described the battle, which was the Australians’ first major action, as ‘ill-starred’ and ‘a little show’.

In private, he wrote: “The wounded can be seen crawling into shell-craters by the river and we are to try to get them in tonight … It is not quite the disaster, which at first appears. I should say we lost something between 4000 and 5000.”

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