Ben Roberts-Smith: free press; competitor books; and accountability
A conversation with Chris Masters about 'Flawed Hero', and a review of both BRS books
News & Reviews Magazine
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The piece you’re reading now is by Astrid Edwards. Astrid is the host of The Garret: Writers on Writing and has interviewed more than 200 of Australia’s most prominent writers and publishers. She is a teacher in the Associate Degree of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University and sometimes judges literary prizes, including the 2023 Stella Prize. In 2023 she began a PhD at the University of Melbourne exploring potential and perceived barriers to publishing and selling climate fiction in Australia. In 2021 Astrid contributed to the anthology Growing Up Disabled in Australia and made her debut appearance on Q+A in 2021.
Astrid writes for News & Reviews every month. Her last review piece was of R. F. Kuang’s books, Yellowface and Babel, in the August edition of News & Reviews Magazine.
In 2017 journalists Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie began to report rumours of alleged war crimes, bullying and ‘blooding’ by Australian soldiers, including Ben Roberts-Smith. The reporting appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times (all now owned by Nine Entertainment). Roberts-Smith, backed by Kerry Stokes and the Seven Network, sued for defamation. The trial began in June 2021 and was dismissed in June 2023. Justice Besanko ruled that Roberts-Smith murdered four Afghans and had broken the rules of engagement. When the judgment in their favour was handed down, Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie immediately published competing books.
Reading Flawed Hero made me realise I’d blocked out most of the coverage of Roberts-Smith’s rise and fall. Before picking up the book my knowledge of him was limited to a series of offensive images: smiling as another man drank out of a prosthetic leg; towering over Queen Elizabeth in oddly-tight military regalia; and sprawling near a Bali pool in fluoro budgie smugglers. On reflection I realised I’d deliberately checked out of the defamation trial. It played out in 2021 and 2022 when I was either in one of Melbourne’s lockdowns or recovering from them. I made the choice to avoid news about war crimes.
Chris Masters was affable in that rough-around-the-edges, elder-of-journalism way. He was up for a Zoom interview with me and curious about the questions someone thirty years his junior was going to ask him about writing about war crimes.