Subject: 2 Book Reviews: The Australian: Inside The Dark Tragedy Of Balibo [+SMH: Looking Back in Ager]

also: SMH: Looking back in anger

The Australian

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Inside The Dark Tragedy Of Balibo

Peter Rodgers

"Shooting Balibo: Blood and Memory in East Timor"

By Tony Maniaty Viking, 313pp, $32.95

FIRST, a confession: I have form on East Timor. I served in the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 1975 as the East Timor crisis unfolded and visited the territory after the Indonesian occupation. In 1979, as the Jakarta correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, I revealed Indonesia's shameful neglect of the East Timorese under its control. That action eventually put paid to my journalistic career in Indonesia.

Like Maniaty, then, I carry baggage over Indonesia and East Timor. The latter was always the bastard child of the Portuguese colonial empire. Indonesia behaved badly there, appallingly at times, but its initial concerns were not entirely concocted. In Canberra, the Whitlam government concluded that Indonesia mattered a good deal more to Australian interests than East Timor did. That was hardly a revelation, then or now. And the Portuguese, with the responsibility to manage East Timor's transition from four centuries of harsh, neglectful, rule, cut and ran at the first sign of trouble. Yet Portugal largely escaped the moral outrage sprayed at the other main players.

So much of what has passed for debate in Australia about East Timor has been refracted through the lens of events at Balibo in October 1975. Maniaty deftly weaves together his first-hand experience of that troubled time with his return to East Timor in 2008 to help make the feature film Balibo. The result is a fine book, with a tone and readability that is part Greek tragedy, part Boy's Own.

Balibo was a nonentity of a town, even by East Timor's standards. But its proximity to the border with Indonesian West Timor provided a rare vantage point for anyone seeking to prove that Indonesia was militarily involved in East Timor against the pro-independence, leftist Fretilin movement. Maniaty and his two-man ABC crew visited Balibo in the week leading up to the full-scale Indonesian assault on the town. They got out when it came under a brief bombardment from the Indonesians.

On their way back to Dili they encountered a three-man team from the Seven Network, led by Greg Shackleton, headed towards Balibo. They ignored Maniaty's and Fretilin's advice that this was an exceedingly dangerous venture. Shackleton must already have had some idea of the risk: the first five drivers he approached in Dili had turned him down.

Two days after the Seven Network team arrived in Balibo, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters from the Nine Network turned up. Those who would become ``the Balibo Five'' were in place. The term suggests unity. But this masked the competitive undertone of the looming tragedy. Maniaty writes that the arrival of the Nine Network's team ``would have annoyed Shackleton intensely and steeled his determination to stay, no matter what''. Shackleton's eyes were less on his own survival than the prize. Rennie ``realises that if he and Peters pull out, the Seven crew might just get what Shackleton desperately wants: an exclusive captured on film''.

The upshot was that decisions were being made on the spot ``in a very small bubble of reality by two young men who had no experience of war reporting and little sense of how immensely threatened their lives were''.

Fretilin made the Seven crew sign a piece of paper absolving it of ``any responsibility for our safety while in the border areas''. Peters wrote tohis sister from Balibo that if ``the Indonesians stage an all-out attack the Fretilin troops herewould not stand a chance''. Maniaty comments tellingly that Peters ``does not go on to state the obvious, that he and the other four newsmen would also not stand a chance''.

Maniaty, rightly, does not hold back on the foolishness of the five, especially Shackleton (who, after several changes, had taken this name in tribute to the Antarctic explorer). Shackleton seemingly wanted it both ways: to be a player onthe Fretilin side and a courageous seeker ofthe truth.

Crossing the line emotionally and damaging his credibility as an impartial observer, Shackleton ``indelibly painted himself as a key player in the Fretilin war machine''. This, Maniaty argues, provided the Indonesians ``with ammunition for their case that he and, by association, all Australian correspondents in the territory were aiding and abetting Fretilin''.

In 2007, in a NSW coronial inquest, magistrate Dorelle Pinch found that the five had been killed deliberately to prevent them from ``revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo'' but that ``the journalists themselves bear the responsibility for being alone in Balibo at the time the Indonesian and partisan military forces enter''.

The argument that the journalists were deliberately killed immediately after the attack is one thing. But does this lead to the conclusion that Balibo was targeted because the Indonesians knew journalists were there? Maniaty rightly dismisses the view that if the Australian government had taken a stronger public stand against Indonesia over the deaths of the newsmen, a full-scale invasion of East Timor might have been prevented. He describes this as ``fanciful in the extreme''.

But just as fanciful, in my opinion, is Maniaty's conviction that Balibo was attacked primarily to stop embarrassing media revelations of Indonesian military activity in the territory. Maniaty writes of his own hasty exit from Balibo: ``We surely had been targeted. The aim was to scare us out of Balibo, or stop any coverage of the events to follow by killing us outright.'' There is an extraordinary journalistic conceit at work here, which conveniently ignores the much larger political and strategic fixations driving Jakarta.

Maniaty joins this conviction with an even more damaging suggestion that the Australian government knew what would happen and if ``a bunch of news workers had to be sacrificed, so be it''. Maniaty wants us to believe that Shackleton was unstoppable but the government should have stopped him anyway by telling him and the others that Indonesia was about to invade. Yet on the very material Maniaty provides this only would have added to Shackleton's determination to get the story first-hand.

Seven weeks after Balibo, Indonesia launched its all-out invasion. That came as no surprise to anyone who had been watching events unfold. The presence of journalists in Balibo was of much bigger import for the journalists than it was for Indonesian military planners.

Yet Maniaty persists, taking the idea to ludicrous extremes when he argues that the timing of the Indonesian attack on October 16 was calibrated to ensure that the camera crews would not have enough daylight to identify the attackers ``as anything other than blurs of war''. Perhaps we should revisit the timing of the military battles of the 20th century to check how camera-friendly they were. The idea is so journalistically egocentric it belongs in Monty Python or the Chaser.

That criticism aside, Maniaty has written an incisive account of the complexities of Indonesia and East Timor, of the fine line in journalism between reporting events and participating in them and its occasional edge-of-life calls.

Most of all, Shooting Balibo is the compelling story of the sometimes fateful decisions that young men make.

Peter Rodgers spent almost six years in Indonesia as a diplomat and journalist and received the Graham Perkin award for Australian journalist of the year for his reporting on East Timor.


The Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Looking back in anger

Reviewed by Gideon Haigh


"Shooting Balibo: Blood And Memory In East Timor"

By Tony Maniaty

Penguin, 320pp, $32.95

The events leading to the deaths, 34 years ago, of the Balibo Five are vividly recalled.

THE Balibo Five have an honoured place in Australian journalism five newsmen murdered in the iciest of cold blood by Indonesian troops storming East Timor in October 1975. Less well known is that it might well have been the Balibo Eight or Nine had not other reporters, including the ABC's Tony Maniaty, chosen to evacuate the same Timorese village just before the invasion.

In Shooting Balibo, Maniaty returns to the scene of the crime, in which Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham of Channel Seven and Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters of Channel Nine were victims. Maniaty is part of a crew filming the movie Balibo, whose storyline also encompasses the tale of freelance journalist Roger East, murdered while investigating their deaths.

As he confesses, this is very much a personal pilgrimage: "Anger about East Timor has been brewing in me for years. It's not only about the abuses, about the torture and waste, it's also about me." Which proves the strength and the weakness of a book that ultimately fails to deliver on considerable promise.

The best of Shooting Balibo is Maniaty's first-hand narrative of the events 34 years ago, crowded with detail and alive with immediacy. He encountered Shackleton and co on the Balibo road heading in the opposite direction and warned them of the dangers ahead. "Don't do it," he told East of the idea of founding a news agency for Fretilin. "You'll die if you do."

The man his colleagues ignored became the reporter all Australia heard and nothing is quite so evocative in the book as Maniaty's contemporaneous dispatches. This first-hand narrative, however, is encased in an account of the making of the film that seldom rises above the pedestrian and shrinks from the analysis, including the self-analysis, that would have made it truly memorable.

A born reporter, Maniaty seems bound to describe what he sees and hears on the set, which is ultimately pretty mundane.

"How the head?" asks Angi, and Tom smiles: "Better."

"They breed 'em tough at Channel Nine," I offer.

"'Typical knockabout cameraman' is, I think, the phrase . . . "

At worst, it is rendered in stultifying magazine-profile prose, such as this intimate view of Anthony LaPaglia: "In a nylon bomber jacket and white runners, munching on a Caesar salad, he's trying to work out if Roger East was a saint or a lunatic, straight or gay, a marxist or CIA spy, altruistic or suicidal. 'I figure this guy had a lot of baggage,' he says dryly."

"Cinema is clarity, they say," Maniaty observes at one point. Who's "they"? There's no evidence of it here; no particular insights are unearthed; no journey of self-discovery occurs.

Sometimes, fleetingly, it's a little spooky. Otherwise there's simply a series of constipated stutters: "In the labyrinth of East Timor, emotions are buried deeply"; "We're coming into Balibo. My defences are up; I'm excited and tense"; "Balibo, for all its deeper appeal, remains a difficult place for me"; (of the cast and crew) "Balibo to them is different to Balibo to me."

Where the charismatic Shackleton is concerned, too, Maniaty's speculations read like the lamest cod psychology. Maniaty becomes obsessed, for example, with Shackleton's surname, which puts him in mind of the polar derring-doer Ernest Shackleton a connection that he regards as substantiated on learning that the journalist had changed his name to Shackleton by deed poll two years before his death.

Unfortunately, Maniaty progresses no further than perceiving parallels in their bravery: "The two Shackletons. Ernest and Greg together." But it doesn't fit at all. The feat for which the explorer is recalled is rescuing his co-venturers when their ship Endurance was crushed in the Antarctic floes in 1914.

The reporter, by contrast, steered his colleagues into harm's way which raises questions about his culpability in their deaths and left behind a wife, a son and a mistress which, likewise, invites ethical consideration.

Maniaty also concludes that "the last thing the Seven Network would have wanted was for Shackleton and his team to risk their lives to the degree they did", while revealing that his ABC boss told him when he wished to withdraw: "Tony, a good correspondent stays on the job."

While the Balibo Five might have entered the annals as heroes of their trade, they surely also attest to both the enticements of martyrdom and the thrall of '70s journalistic machismo.

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