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Six years ago, I met an elderly Englishman named Bill Porter who was wandering the world trying to resurrect public values in journalism. A farm boy from Lancashire, Porter returned from World War Two and became a journalist with the aim of trying to create a better world. Fourteen years later, when he left newspapers to enter the publishing industry, he had, in his own words, become “hardened” and his two principal aims were making money and becoming important.

He said to me: “During the whole of my working life as a journalist no one embarrassed me by asking if I was concerned with morality. I wasn’t against morality, but I was indifferent to it. I didn’t think it mattered. I’d been led to believe that what the public wanted from news and entertainment was the sordid, the sensational, the sexy, the criminal, the violent and the superficial. The state of society was no concern of mine.” He said it was as though journalists were not part of the society they were working in, as if they had come from another planet to report on the dying days of human civilisation and that, when that event occurred, they would return to the distant place from which they had come.

In 1990, shortly before the death of his wife, Bill Porter read an article in an English newspaper, the Financial Times, reporting that the mass media was one of the biggest industries in the Western world. This disturbed him. Where was its anchor, its sense of social responsibility? He had a nagging sense of having betrayed his generation, the one that stood up to Hitler and defeated fascism with its direct threat to democracy. He also saw polls that regularly showed that less than 10 per cent of people believed that politicians and journalists had credibility. If these professions represented democracy’s third and fourth estates, he asked himself, what was the future of democracy?

Like many before him, he realised that if he wanted to change the world he had first to change himself. He also started reading contemporary thinkers like former Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel and learned their belief that human history had reached a hiatus and that civil society was now being sorely tested by two groups of forces. One was the conflict between religious and ethnic groups and national and regional cultures. The other is greed manifested as “political ideologies, selfish capitalism and organised crime”. What had to be worked for, Porter believed, was an idea of civilisation; one that he said “represented the human search for stability and purpose through structures and systems, and which enables our creative aspirations, both personal and social, to be achieved.”

To this end, he inaugurated the International Communications Forum, which in 2000 met in Sarajevo, that tragic symbol of late-20th-century conflict and, in the course of the conference, repeated references were made to the part played by state-owned television networks throughout the Balkans in fuelling the Bosnian tragedy. I was particularly taken by a paper by Faustina Starrett, a media analyst from Northern Ireland, analysing the failures of journalism in relation to the armed conflict in that province, explaining what is lost when journalists revert to cliches of religious and ethnic identity. She said journalists had a duty to get “the view from the ground, and be a much-needed witness to hope”.

You could say Bill and I hit it off. At the time we met, I was on the edge of a complex and dangerous story which was worrying me a lot. He gave me some advice which cannot be easily put into words that gave me faith and courage as a journalist.

Then, two or three years later, Bill invited me to a conference he had organized in South Africa. That trip remains a landmark experience in my life. I have been involved, as a journalist, in the reconciliation movement here in Australia for 20-odd years. In South Africa, an Afrikaans woman whose daughter was shot one night when a black paramilitary stepped into a fashionable Cape Town bar and randomly opened fire. This woman, Ginn Fourie, now appeared on stages with the black man who ordered the attack, arguing for reconciliation.

Earlier that day I had gone to Robbins Island where Nelson Mandela was held as a common prisoner for more than 20 years. Our guide, a former inmate who had been tortured, was less than wholly sane. He took us into the dormitory where he was held at night and slammed the door behind us, making people jump. That’s how they slammed it on me, he cried. Once he had everyone inside, he gave a long and detailed account of his torture, of having his body bound in chains and being dropped from a height, of having his genitals savaged by an Alsatian.

At the end of the tour, he walked away from us crying, a wild jumble of emotion. By then we had passed the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela sat, conceiving the path whereby South Africa could avoid civil war. As I understand it, the principle Mandela worked on is just about the exact opposite to torture: Mandela said that if you treat people as if they possess integrity, and that includes your prison guards, eventually they have to treat you in the same manner. I’m not sure it would work for all of us, but it worked for Nelson Mandela.

The conference itself was a bit of an anti-climax in that a lot of the talk was what I would call technical. Nonetheless, I met a lot of journalists, black and white, who’d been to prison for their belief in journalism. I met a radio journalist from Zimbabwe whose radio station had been blown up once by the Mugabe government. What keeps you going? I asked him. The people, he said. The people support us.

Then I met an onlooker at the conference I’ll call Stephen which is not his name but he has family in Zimbabwe and he was tortured there, a black man tortured by black men. Stephen reminded me of Archie Roach, the first Aboriginal man to call me brother. There was a connection between us from the start. I ended up going home with him and meeting his family. I played cricket with Stephen and his kids in the backyard. It was Africa at evening, lush and magnificent. Here I was playing backyard cricket – backyard cricket being to me an image of Australian innocence – with a man who has been tortured, hurt horribly in a sustained and deliberate manner by a vicious and paranoid regime. There was no politics of race here, none of the 20th century’s moral relativities applied. I was confronted by plain old-fashioned evil.

My friend Stephen, a small man, is a moral mountain who turned his back on the armed struggle to work for social change in non-violent ways. I will tell you one small story about Stephen. He ran me to the airport when I left. I’d lost my ticket. All I had was a piece of paper with the name and number of a Qantas official in another city. I handed over the piece of paper, the man I handed it to disappeared and suddenly I had no way of getting home. Then, on the other side of the airport, the man from behind the counter re-appeared, my piece of paper in hand, hurrying about his duties. I said I was going over to tell him to make sure he didn’t lose the piece of paper but Stephen said, “Trust him. Sometimes it is better”. And it was.

I got home and a certain good spirit had been preserved. But at the airport, Stephen also said to me of his torturers, “They did terrible things to me”, and I saw the fire of a pain that would never be extinguished and knew that torture is an insult to whatever it means to be human.

The next part of the story happens back here in Australia about two years later when I happen to turn to the back cover of my favourite literary periodical, The New York Review of Books. This is where the most eminent of the new books are advertised. There alongside one on Louisiana dance music and another on the history of Latin as a language was a book titled Torture in which “social experts discuss the advisability of maintaining an absolute ban on torture”. Suddenly, it seemed to me, torture was a subject for polite discussion like Louisiana dance music or the history of Latin as a language. Why? One answer was because it was a discussion being conducted among “social experts”. You show me a social attitude or practice, I’ll find you a “social expert” who’ll justify it.

Not long afterwards two Australian academics from Deakin University published a paper in an American magazine arguing for the ethical validity of torture. Faced with a backlash here in Australia, one of them I seem to recall said the discussion of torture in America was “more rational”. Various polls in that country over the last three years have found majority support for the use of torture in certain circumstances. I hereby assert what I believe to be a general rule of human nature: people who approve of torture in opinion polls do so in the confidence that they are not the ones to be tortured.

There are many arguments to be had around here. Another word routinely used in arguments for torture was, and is, terrorist. It is terrorists, we are told, who will be the ones tortured. But, globally, there is no consensus about what the word terrorist means – in fact, it is violently disputed – and that matters if we have a belief that universal principles are involved here. If universal principles are not involved, then all we are dealing with is a discussion about how far various groups are prepared to go to defend themselves or impose themselves, not as a matter of right or wrong, but because they have a view of human nature that is pretty much the same as that held during the Dark Ages.

My worry as a journalist during the Howard years was that it seemed to me that Australians were becoming increasingly unreal in their view of the world and Australia’s place in it – a less extreme version of what happened in South Africa during the Apartheid years. It may be that Australians are still being unreal in the post-Howard era, but if they are it doesn’t hit me in the face like it did when, for example, John Howard declared he was a conservationist after doing a deal over’s Tasmania old-growth forests with the Lennon Labor government and no-one in the federal Opposition said anything, because the Labor Party was implicated in the deal, and no-one in the media said anything because the media, by and large, had bought the line you don’t tell people what they don’t want to hear and they didn’t want to hear from journalists with greenie agendas. Meanwhile, our great rivers were dying, our land was drying out.

John Howard told Australians they were more respected in the world as a result of his government. Try that one on an Australian who was living in Asia during the Hanson outbreak. In my increasingly erratic sports column I asked the question – because it seemed to me that no-one else would -what treatment did the Australian government expect Australian soldiers would receive when next taken prisoner in an Asian war now we have Guantanamo Bay as a precedent? I asked as the son of a man who was lucky to survive being used as slave labor on the Burma Railway.

And so, in response to the book advertisement on the back page of the New York Review of Books, I wrote an essay on torture which I was fortunate to get published, initially in The Age, and later in an international collection. My friend Stephen helped me, singing me home when I read it to him. Oh Martin Martin Martin. The essay started: “Torture, to me the most repugnant of human practices, is back in intellectual fashion”. It ended: “The arguments for torture haven’t really changed since the Inquisition. What has changed is what’s terrifying us and who we suspect its agents among us to be.” And so I made my statement. But tt was what happened next that scared me. What happened? Nothing. Nothing happened.

Well, that’s not exactly right. Four Supreme Court judges from Victoria and South Australia, a couple of them retired, contacted me and said it was an important article. Then I went to see former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser about another matter. When I entered his office, I saw my essay open on his desk. “Your essay’s good,” he said in his clipped, curt way, “but I think it’s too late”.

My past exchanges with Fraser have taught me to respect the voluminous cavern of his mind and the amount of knowledge he can store in it. He knew about torture alright, about the chain of command from Abu Grabh, about the rendition program, about the definition proffered by Alberto Gonzalez, President Bush’s legal counsel, that to qualify as torture the pain had to cause serious physical injury, organ failure or death. Fraser said, “If we embrace the methods and techniques of tyrants, we take a significant step to becoming like them. This is the central dilemma our leaders have not resolved.”

It was a dark time. It seemed to me that most Australians were either not aware or didn’t care that torture was becoming an idea of our time like four-wheel drives and problems with the weather. It further seemed to me that if people were not aware torture was insinuating its way back into our public life, there would be no resistance to the idea.

In my essay against torture published in the Age, I noted that in America, in the period before the civil war, to be passionately against slavery was to risk being described in the press as “morbidly anti-slavery”. Mark Twain said his mother was a church-going Christian all her life and never heard a sermon against slavery from the pulpit. Abraham Lincoln said slavery never got discussed in state legislatures in the north because it wasn’t their business and it was considered impolite for northerners to raise it on their visits to southern legislatures. So, again, it never got discussed. I have long been a believer in the poet T.S. Eliot’s dictum that humankind cannot bear too much reality.

What gave me strength was stumbling across a history of the British anti-slavery movement, Bury the Chains, by Adam Hochschild. The anti-slavery movement is the great social struggle of the past 200 years in Britain – and therefore for us in this country – since so much flowed from it, not least, a new idea of politics. In the words of one of slavery’s defenders, Lord Abingdon: “Humanity is a private feeling and not a public principle to act upon”.

It is from the defeat of the slave trade that the great reform movement of the 19th century springs and with it the belief that politics is a mechanism whereby we can progress morally as a society. I’m not suggesting everyone necessarily agrees with that idea, but, equally, it is important to remember that a mere 200 years ago Britain was the biggest international trafficker in slaves, that the wealth of its great ports and colonies, and the prestige of its navy, was insidiously tied to the trade so that slavery’s champions would include the great military hero of the day, Lord Nelson, and a son of the monarch George III.

Nor was it merely the case that the slave owners and traffickers were the most powerful political lobby in the land – they owned whole blocks of seats in the parliament! The odds against those who decided the slave trade must be actively opposed could not have been greater. They faced a blanket of national apathy. Wealth, power and connections were against them. But men and women stood up, a few at first and then in numbers. The story of one of those people, Thomas Clarkson, was profoundly moving to me.

The background to the story of Thomas Clarkson was that, in 1782, the captain of a Liverpool ship called the Zong threw 132 sick slaves overboard and then entered an insurance claim on the basis that they qualified as perished cargo. The Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, said there was no issue of murder – it was “just as if horses were killed”. However, the case disturbed a prominent Anglican clergyman who was subsequently elected to a professorship at Cambridge where he was required to set the essay topic for the university’s Latin prize.

The subject he set was – “Is it lawful to make others slaves against their will?” The prize was won by a young man named Thomas Clarkson. Having completed the academic exercise, however, Clarkson found himself haunted by what he had written. Eventually, in the course of riding to London to begin a career in the church, he was so overwhelmed that he dismounted at Wades Mill in Hertfordshire and “sat down disconsolate”. There the thought came to him that “if the contents of the essay were true, it were time some person should see these calamities to their end”. He then knew no one in the world who thought as he did. Thomas Clarkson was the Bob Brown of the British anti-slavery movement.

If I speak with optimism tonight, it’s because I think a certain period of history is behind us. Who, now, defends the invasion of Iraq? Who, now, sees it as other than an entirely avoidable disaster? The question is how did we get to where we are now? If that question appears only infrequently in the media, it is because so mant in the media, either implicitly or explicitly, supported the invasion. I believe there is a new intelligence at work in the world generally. Who can look at the Murray River without asking themselves how it is that we have permitted a great river which ran through this land for thousands, if not millions, of years, to become the sick, empty creature it is today? Who can drive through the western Wimmera and see dried-up lake after dried-up lake and not feel the need for some new way of thinking about the world.

At the same time, however, we are entering a period when the world is wobbling on an uncertain axis in just about every regard. We have a food crisis, a fuel crisis, an environmental crisis and a record global population. Great change could come upon us in a rush and if it does there will be fear and panic in governments as well as in the populace.

But to say as much is to deal in possibility. What we know as fact is that at the last federal election, the Prime Minister John Howard accepted losing his seat. I say “accepted” because a lot of leaders around the world would not have accepted it. We know without asking that these are places that practice torture.

I am no expert on the subject of torture. What I know is that there is an ugliness in it that surpasses all other human ugliness – even, in my opinion, the death penalty – a conscious act that is so dark it would literally take a Christ to forgive it. And while I have long known that torture existed in the world I never thought it would touch me in any way and when it did, even though it was only as an observer and then from a distance, I saw what torture sufferers everywhere must know – how little their plight and suffering is understood or even acknowledged by the world and how that in turn must exacerbate their agony. And what I also know now is that as a human possibility torture is never far away. There is a battle to be fought. For me as a journalist, for everyone, there is always a battle to be fought.

Martin Flanagan is the author of many books, among them the extraordinary The Game in Time of War. His most recent book is The Line, about the infamous Burma Railway and his father’s imprisonment by the Japanese in the Second World War. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, where his essays grace The Age newspaper.