What to read next? The gripping inside story behind the ‘trial of the century’

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

Crossing the Line
Nick McKenzie
Hachette, $34.99

Nick McKenzie is an investigative journalist. Yes, this is an over-used job description – all journalism is investigative up to a point – but in McKenzie’s case, it’s the only way to describe his relentless pursuit of a story, the forensic dismantling of a legend and the laying bare of a lie that has gone into Crossing the Line.

To investigate is to ask uncomfortable questions, to unpick truth from falsehood. McKenzie’s book is the riveting story of how he and veteran muck-raker Chris Masters spent six years demolishing the heroic myth created by Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC, and his backers, financiers and gullible hero-worshippers.

Ben Roberts-Smith and reporter Nick McKenzie.Credit: Janie Barrett; Supplied

Over time McKenzie had become convinced, to the point of certainty, that it was all bullshit, and worse; that far from being a hero, Roberts-Smith was a homicidal war criminal. But being convinced wasn’t enough. He had to prove it.

Roberts-Smith was a military hero. Of the 101 recipients of the Victoria Cross celebrated in the Australian War Museum’s Hall of Valour, he is one of only two to have his own dedicated display case, complete with a mannequin wearing his uniform.

It mightn’t be there much longer. Years after their allegations that Roberts-Smith had committed war crimes had been published, and the former soldier had sued The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times for defamation, McKenzie and Masters were finally proved right in a court of law.

But it had taken a long time and some courageous journalism to get there. When McKenzie became aware of dark stories circulating about Roberts-Smith’s conduct in Afghanistan, partly through leaks about a secret 2016 inquiry into possible criminal actions by SAS soldiers headed up by NSW Supreme Court Judge Paul Brereton, he started asking questions.

The answers, though hard to come by, were horrifying. As he writes in the introduction: “In mid-2017 I embarked on an investigation that would change many lives. Exposing the involvement of Australia’s most famous and revered soldier in the nation’s worst war crimes scandal has been the most difficult undertaking of my 20-year career.

“But this book is [also] about Australia’s media, its justice system and its defence force, and how history can be hijacked by vested interests.”

The brute facts, or some of them, are these. McKenzie established that Ben Roberts-Smith VC was a multiple murderer by interviewing SAS soldiers who had been on the ground with him, Roberts-Smith’s ex-wife, and senior officers, and by travelling to Afghanistan to talk to villagers and family members of his victims.

Roberts-Smith had kicked a handcuffed Afghan farmer off a cliff, and finding him still alive, sat him up under a tree, placed a radio in his hand so that he could later claim that he was a Taliban “spotter” or reconnaissance fighter, and shot him dead. The man had done nothing. He had come to the village with a donkey to collect food for his family, and found himself with his hands bound in a hut with a psychotic Australian war hero.

McKenzie had a lot of trouble finding SAS men who’d talk to him about all this. Some were simply afraid, some followed the regiment’s code of silence, that you “didn’t rat on a mate”. Others just wanted to leave the ghastly experience of war behind them and get on with their lives.

But not all. He found some who’d had a gutful of their celebrated comrade and were willing to testify against him.

“‘Roberts-Smith is the Lance Armstrong of the Australian military’, one of the SAS soldiers who’d become a confidential source told me,” McKenzie writes. “This source suggested that by 2012, Roberts-Smith was so confident he’d never get caught he’d begun to do things without checking who might be watching.”

It’s a fitting analogy, tempered by the fact that while Armstrong was a lying cheat who won millions of dollars riding bicycles while on performance-enhancing drugs, he didn’t, so far as we know, kill unarmed prisoners just for the hell of it. Or order men under his command to do so.

McKenzie was particularly sickened by Roberts-Smith’s “blooding” of a new member of his squad, Jason Andrews (a pseudonym). “Blooding” was a term for giving a newbie his first kill. Roberts-Smith had blooded Andrews by ordering him to execute an unarmed prisoner.

It was Roberts-Smith’s cockiness and delusional self-confidence that led him into launching his disastrous defamation action, though had McKenzie and his legal team not had all their witnesses and evidence locked in, the war hero might even have got away with it. But he didn’t.

Roberts-Smith’s reputation, his entire world, imploded on June 1, when Justice Anthony Besanko ruled in favour of the publishers, including costs estimated at more than $25 million. A deeply relieved, almost too exhausted to celebrate McKenzie declared: “It wasn’t just one murder he was found to be involved with. Justice Besanko concluded it was four. The substantial truth of the majority of our claims was proven.

“Besanko used dry, technical legal-speak, but the meaning of his ruling was clear. The judge had found Roberts-Smith was a serial war criminal, a compulsive liar and a vicious bully.” On July 11, Roberts-Smith filed an appeal against Besanko’s decision.

The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.

Most Viewed in Culture

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article

Previous post How I went from homeless to multi-millionaire tech boss in eight years
Next post iPhone trick lets you send cash to people by tapping phones together