On 27 and 28 October 2009, in answer to a complaint by the ADA on 10 September 2009, the ABC finally admitted significant inaccuracies in a "7.30 Report" story broadcast on Wednesday, 09 September 2009. This concerned serious mistakes about the employment of females in the ADF and the program's serious and unprofessional misrepresentation of the ADA stance on broadening such employment.
On September 9, in a background story about women in the Australian Defence Force, the ABC reported three inaccuracies:
The story contained a comparison between women serving in other foreign defence forces and reported “But in Australia women have been kept away on the basis they're not strong enough to cope” is inaccurate.
The ABC acknowledges that female diggers do serve in combat zones.
The ABC inaccurately reported that “Women already make up about 13 per cent of the permanent Defence Force ranks, but those 7000 soldiers, sailors and air crew are limited to support roles”.
The ABC understands that women in the ADF are not limited to support roles and do serve in direct and indirect combat functions in combat units.
The ABC sought comment from Neil James of the Australia Defence Association, however, due to time restrictions and editing processes, Mr James’ comments regarding the possible capture of female diggers on the battlefield were misrepresented.
The ABC apologises for the lapse in standards."
Letter from the ABC
The more detailed email response sent to the ADA by the ABC on 28 October 2009 reads:
"Thank you for your email regarding The 7.30 Report story Aussie Combat Women.
In keeping with the Corporation’s complaint handling procedures, it has been referred to me for investigation and response.
The ABC acknowledges your concern with certain aspects of the report.
First, the ABC agrees that the reporter’s comparison between female diggers and women serving in a range of other foreign defence forces, with the statement “But in Australia women have been kept away on the basis they're not strong enough to cope” is inaccurate. The ABC acknowledges that female diggers do serve in combat zones.
Second, the ABC acknowledges that the reporter’s statement that “Women already make up about 13 per cent of the permanent Defence Force ranks, but those 7000 soldiers, sailors and air crew are limited to support roles” is inaccurate. The ABC understands that women in the ADF are not limited to support roles and do serve in direct and indirect combat functions in combat units.
Third, the ABC acknowledges your concern with the editing of your comments in the report’s conclusion and agrees that your point regarding the capture of female diggers on the battlefield was misrepresented.
I am advised by ABC News management that this occurred during tight deadline editing that required the story to be cut down to fit its allotted running time.
The ABC regrets that this resulted in your comments being broadcast out of context and sincerely apologises for its lapse of editorial standards (http://abc.net.au/corp/pubs/edpols.htm ).
You can be assured that your concerns have been brought to the attention of the producer of the program and ABC News management.
These breaches of the Corporation’s Editorial Policies have been discussed with the reporter and producer and will be reported to the ABC Board.
It is of course not possible, within the time constraints of such a brief report, to include all of the issues raised in your interview and correspondence.
The 7.30 Report endeavoured to encapsulate the major points on the matter through the presentation of a range of principal relevant perspectives. For example, on your point regarding the link between operational capability and employment policy, the Defence Personnel Minister, Greg Combet, made these points in the report: “This is about assessing at the end of the day, anyone's physical capability to fulfil a particular role within the ADF” and “It's extremely important that we send a signal to women that their role is valued within the Australian Defence Force and their opportunity to participate in occupations is considered on appropriate grounds.”
The program would have preferred to include the perspective of a female digger in the report and spent several hours of its limited production time attempting to locate serving and retired female personnel to interview, through contact with the ADF and the Department of Defence.
I am advised by ABC News management that repeated requests were made with the ADF media unit for comment throughout the day, but no response was received.
I am advised by ABC news management that the program intends to broadcast an on-air correction tomorrow tonight, time permitting, or as soon as reasonably possible.
The online transcript of the report has been amended, with an editor’s note explaining the errors. Those errors have also been posted on the ABC News corrections page http://abc.net.au/news/corrections/ .
Thank you for allowing the ABC the opportunity to respond to your concerns.
There were several unnecessary and serious mistakes in the way the story on employing female ADF personnel in combat was presented on tonight’s “7:30 Report” – not least the needless confusion about where our female personnel can and do serve and what constitutes “combat” and “support” and what a “frontline” could be.
Given that the well-known issues paper on the ADA website discusses the complex topic of women in combat in some detail (see http://www.ada.asn.au/Recent.Comment_files/Comment.Women&Combat.htm), and has long included a plea for the media to discontinue its frequent poor or sensationalist coverage of this issue, it is very disappointing to see yet another program include so many basic errors of fact, ambiguous terminology and apparent misunderstandings.
As the issues comment on our website notes, female ADF personnel serving in combat and on the “frontline” (on behalf of all Australians) are increasingly annoyed when media reports say they somehow do not, or supposedly cannot, exist.
Your program tonight is yet another example of such insult and the ADA is frankly puzzled how this could occur on one of the country’s premier current affairs programs (and after such specific explanatory warnings being available).
The line in tonight’s program that “… those 7000 soldiers, sailors and air crew [sic] are limited to support roles” is just plain wrong.
It is totally incorrect for female personnel throughout the RAN and RAAF because they can and do serve in direct and indirect combat functions in all combat units (with the tiny exception of airbase defence guards in the Air Force), and have done so for many years.
The “support” line is also largely incorrect for females serving in the Army because the use of the word “support” in such an unqualified fashion implies a logistic or administrative function only, whereas female diggers have long served in various combat-support arms units and for the last two years in combat-manouvre arms units.
The alleged comparisons with foreign countries were also all wrong and/or cases of comparing apples and pears.
Again the unqualified use of the term “frontline” caused confusion rather than clarity.
Israel, for example, has not had women in combat-manouvre arms units since the 1948 war and their employment in combat-support arms units on the “frontline” is effectively narrower than Australia.
Switzerland is surely not a valid comparison because the Swiss armed forces have not fought a war since 1803 so there is no empirical value in their purported example because it has never been tested in combat.
Similarly, Norway has not fought a serious war since 1945, Afghanistan is Canada’s first serious war since Korea in 1950-53 and so is Vietnam for New Zealand.
Valid comparisons would be countries that have actually had significant combat experience in modern wars with deployed forces including large numbers of women.
The best ones are the US and UK and overall the ADF is ahead of both of them in the ways female personnel are employed.
Some comparison with Canada is valid but only if explanations for real and apparent differences are used.
Such as Canada employing female gunners in field artillery units because the Canadians are equipped with self-propelled guns with largely automated first-line loading systems, not the (un-automated) towed artillery nearing the end of its operational life that the ADF has — a big difference when the shells weigh 43 kilograms each and loading the gun requires reaching, lifting and twisting actions beyond most women and many men.
This quite valid point about testing employment criteria and the physicality standards involved in actual combat, rather than purported comparisons citing untested and frankly peacetime tinkering, was entirely omitted from tonight’s program.
Such points need to be raised even if only to ensure informed debate on the merits or not of such combat testing.
It is also worth noting that each one of Eva Cox’s old-fashioned and outdated comments clearly showed she was not aware of the current situation regarding the employment of females in the ADF, nor indeed of anything else about the ADF, modern warfare or the international law governing both.
Finally, may I register a particular protest about the way the ADA position was included in the program.
None of the substantive points we made were used and the very short grabs involved were all truncated and/or used out of context.
The overall effects were that our views on the issue were misrepresented and that some key aspects of this complex and nuanced topic were missed or skated over.
Our key points about operational capability surely needing to be being the key determinant of employment policy, the effects of bio-mechanical differences and physiology on the employment principles involved, and the genuinely discriminatory risk of disproportionate female casualties in some cases, were all excluded.
That we have long advocated a reasoned and reasonable middleground stance between the extremes of absolutely denying or absolutely employing females in every combat function in the ADF was also absent from the program.
Moreover, in the program’s concluding sequence (in both senses of conclusion), my comment about the potential consequences of females being captured was unfairly edited by the removal of my concluding sentence and main point being made.
This utterly reversed the very point I was making — that the acceptance of such after-capture risks in this day and age was really a matter of personal choice for the female ADF personnel concerned.
To add insult to injury, there was then a cut to Eva Cox who was allowed to make virtually the same point in supposed contradiction of the ADA when no such difference of opinion exists in this matter.
This editing, and in the story’s finale was, at the very least, quite unfair.
It gave the completely false and misleading impressions that the ADA is somehow opposed to female ADF personnel having the right to make such vital decisions (when we stress the opposite in our website comments) — and that we supposedly have an “anti-feminist” stance overall when our views on employment policy in the ADF are not driven by gender-based assumptions at all (as our discussion paper on the issues has also long made perfectly clear).
The ADA goes to considerable and frequent effort to help the ABC with its coverage of defence and wider national security issues. We are therefore naturally disappointed when we are so badly treated for our efforts.
We are an independent, non-partisan, public-interest guardian organisation and we take our responsibility for contributions to informed public debate very seriously.
Tonight’s 7:30 Report segment has unfairly tarnished our public reputation in general.
Furthermore, over the next few days considerable time and effort will have to be diverted to answering emails to explain what we really said as opposed to what was broadcast — and what we actually believe — to those needlessly confused by the edited, misrepresented and frankly garbled versions broadcast tonight.
There are clear lessons from tonight’s program on the need to ensure fair and indeed accurate representation of the views sought from participants — and to not insult the many ADF females serving in combat positions today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future in Afghanistan.
I would be happy to discuss these important matters further because they surely go the heart of the need for professional and unbiased broadcasting of important national issues.
And in this case we must never forget that we are talking about a matter involving life and death literally not figuratively.