Ten years ago, I was embedded with Australian soldiers at a patrol base called Musazai, in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan. It was the ninth year of Australia’s war in that country.
For days, photographer Angela Wylie and I documented the lives of those soldiers as they patrolled the surrounding area and interacted with the villagers.
On one patrol, the Australian intelligence officer took me aside and said to me: “When you talk to the locals, take your sunglasses off, it’s sign of respect.”
It was a small thing, but it stuck with me.
Even then, I wondered why we were there.
Nobody could really articulate what our mission was; what we hoped to achieve or what we had actually achieved.
At the very least, if we were going to be there, I felt we should behave in a way that did not reflect badly on our defence force and our nation. The soldiers we lived alongside for those days exemplified that.
So as the years rolled on and I moved onto different beats and different media organisations, I was disconcerted to hear rumblings from my Defence sources: maybe bad things happened over there.
Maybe our guys weren’t as pure as we thought.
Then my producer Sam Clark and I came into possession of a motherlode of documents relating to Australian special forces’ activities in Afghanistan.
They also recorded serious concerns among Australian and Afghan military authorities about the activities of our special forces.
They talked of serious cultural issues and “de-sensitisation” among our SAS troopers.
There had been previous reporting about our special forces’ activities in Afghanistan.
But these documents were a strong indication that the facade of our special forces’ activities in Afghanistan, so carefully crafted by the media, politicians and the Defence Force hierarchy, might not be entirely accurate.
The documents suggested that our Defence Force, so secretive and sensitive by nature, so reluctant to submit to scrutiny by media and civilian authorities, had known — or definitely should have known — for a long time that there were problems.
So we published. And we waited. And in September 2018 the other shoe dropped: Sam Clark and I were informed we were suspects in a crime, and the Australian Federal Police were inviting us to come in for an interview. We declined.
The months dragged on. The AFP asked us to turn over documents. We declined.
They asked us to “self search”. We declined.
Finally, famously, in June last year the AFP came through the front door, raiding the ABC headquarters in Ultimo and carting off many, many bytes of documents.
Suddenly, we were international news.
We remained international news up until yesterday, when the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and the Australian Federal Police informed the ABC that, although we could have been successfully prosecuted, it is not in the public interest for that to happen.
Somebody, somewhere, decided that although we could have been convicted of a crime, the information that we uncovered was apparently significant enough that we should be left alone.
And so it ends.
I think it would require a lot of words to adequately convey the significance of what happened to Sam Clark and I.
I don’t say that in an attempt to invite sympathy.
We are big boys, and I personally feel a little uncomfortable receiving sympathy and congratulations this week (although I truly appreciate it).
But it is legitimate to ask why journalists who are trying to bring to the public attention something that is clearly in the public interest, and might otherwise remain hidden, should be investigated and subjected to highly intrusive investigations by the Federal Police.
I am fortunate enough to have a highly supportive family, but the toll on them has been significant.
To me, though, the most important point to make is that although there will be widespread satisfaction at the events of the past 24 hours, there is one man who still faces prosecution over this matter: David McBride.
A former military lawyer who was deployed to Afghanistan with our special operations task group, McBride has been charged with a number of offences and his trial is ongoing. Please follow his trial and speak up about it.
Embarrassment should never be reason enough for journalists or whistleblowers to be prosecuted.
Every action undertaken by our military, our intelligence services, our law enforcement agencies is undertaken in our name, the name of the Australian people.
We have the right to know what happened, what was done in our name. Never accept the proposition that there are some things you just shouldn’t know.