2 June 2023

War Memorial 'carefully considering' amending Ben Roberts-Smith exhibits after calls to remove display

| Lizzie Waymouth
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Ben Roberts-Smith

Ben Roberts-Smith after receiving his Victoria Cross in 2011. This and several other medals are currently on display at the AWM. Photo: ADF.

There have been calls for the Australian War Museum to remove Ben Roberts-Smith’s uniform from public display following the federal court judgment that imputations of murder, violence, bullying and domestic violence by the former Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment veteran have largely been proved.

After 110 days of hearings spanning almost 14 months, the defamation case brought by Mr Roberts-Smith was dismissed, with the judgment handed down yesterday afternoon (1 June) by Judge Anthony Besanko. The final written judgment is expected to be delivered next week.

That afternoon, senator and Greens spokesperson for justice, defence and veterans’ affairs David Shoebridge called the judgment an “important win for fearless journalism” and said “the official silence must now end.”

“If this judgment stands, the first step in correcting the official record is for the Australian War Memorial to immediately remove Ben Roberts-Smith’s uniform from public display and to begin telling the entire truth of Australia’s involvement in that brutal war,” he said.

READ MORE Federal Court dismisses Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation claims

Senator Shoebridge added: “This is not justice for the families who lost loved ones or for the communities that have been brutalised by war crimes, but it takes us a step closer.

“The Albanese Labor government should urgently progress compensation for families of victims of alleged Afghanistan war crimes, one of the key outstanding recommendations of the Brereton report [into war crimes committed by the ADF during the war in Afghanistan].”

Professor Ben Saul, Challis Chair of International Law at the University of Sydney, also tweeted after the judgment: “Subject to any appeal, it would now be appropriate for Ben Roberts-Smith to be (1) stripped of his Victoria Cross and (2) removed from his dedicated display at the Australian War Memorial.”

Along with his uniform, Mr Roberts-Smith’s medals, including the Victoria Cross he was awarded in 2011, are currently on display at the AWM. The AWM commissioned an artist to produce two portraits of Mr Roberts-Smith in 2014, which are also on display.

Painting of Ben Roberts-Smith

The AWM commissioned award-winning artist Michael Zavros to paint two portraits of Mr Roberts-Smith in 2014. Image: AWM.

AWM chair Kim Beazley told Region on behalf of the Australian War Memorial Council: “The Memorial assists in remembering, interpreting and understanding Australia’s experience of war and its enduring impact. This includes the causes, conduct and consequences of war.

“The Memorial acknowledges the gravity of the decision in the Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG defamation case and its broader impact on all involved in the Australian community.

“This is the outcome of a civil legal case and one step in a longer process.

“Collection items relating to Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG, including his uniform, equipment, medals and associated artworks, are on display in the Memorial’s galleries. We are considering carefully the additional content and context to be included in these displays.

“The Memorial acknowledges Afghanistan veterans and their families who may be affected at this time.”

READ ALSO History in the making with ADF’s first female three-star officer as Chief of Personnel

Mr Roberts-Smith sued Nine Entertainment publications, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra Times, and three journalists, Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters and David Wroe in the NSW Federal Court over a series of articles.

Judge Anthony Besanko said the respondents had effectively proved 10 of the 14 specific implications made by the media reports and that, while four other imputations could not be proved, there was sufficient contextual truth to them.

The government has declined to comment on the matter at time of posting.

“This is a civil defamation matter to which the commonwealth is not a party and it would be inappropriate to provide comment,” a spokesperson for Defence Minister Richard Marles said.

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Just pull it down and say it’s all part of the ongoing renovations.
When it all blows over put it up again.

Stephen Saunders10:13 am 06 Jun 23

And also, his elite WA school Hale, backed him to the hilt, right up until a couple years ago, had the lads fawning all over his “humble heroism”. Quite disturbing.

They’re not saying a word. But, because of their immense clout among the WA elite, they are effectively off-limits to local journalists.

People clearly do not understand the difference of proof required for civil defamation and criminal trials. Roberts-Smith merely lost his claim of defamation against the defendants which was always going to be a tough one. This result is not a finding of guilt.

The idea that we send the same small group of men to unconventional combat zones from 1999 until 2013 and think these men and their values will remain unchanged is naïve at best from the safety of our local coffee shop. If I put myself in their shoes. I would hope I would not lose sight, but I can not say I would not have changed under such challenging circumstances and such an extended period. To claim so would be ignorant. This does not excuse that behaviour but at the very least is a mitigating circumstance and I suggest should have been foreseeable and should have been managed better by the military leadership, successive governments and our society. The Brereton reports paints a disturbing picture of what has occurred and from the 4 corners reports aired a few years ago some quite shocking footage that appears to be blatant war crimes. What made these people display these values?

Australians, the government and the armed forces are worse for this but merely blaming those at the coal face is not the answer.

They may have failed us and we may have failed them.

I sincerely hope the display remains. The Memorial’s displays must acknowledge the full extent and impact of Australia’s involvement and experiences in all wars and the conduct of our soldiers. This includes our involvement in the illegal invasion of Iraq and our most recent engagement in Afghanistan, Australia’s longest overseas military commitment.
The Memorial must display and acknowledge the crimes committed by Ben Roberts-Smith which were described by the judge as “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”!

I think the memorial just tells the truth – leave it on display (see what happens with his medals). This is the true face of war, it is not all about heroes, it is about real people who are flawed or damaged by their experience. The “sainthood” of soldiers is often not deserved – sure this is not the first time Australian killed prisoners.

People are getting way ahead of themselves. This was a defamation case in a civil court. No one was charged or convicted of a crime. The burden of proof in a civil case is “on the balance of probability”: in a criminal case the burden of proof is much higher: “beyond all reasonable doubt”. There has been no criminal charges laid (just published accusations), there has been no criminal trial and, thus, no conviction. Most of the media commentary has been way over the top and I can see another risk to any potential trial being stopped because of too much publicity. One would have thought we had learned our lesson with the Lerhmann case – sadly it appears not. On another issue: commanding officers should NOT be exempt from responsibility EVER! What man/woman would ever want to serve under commanding officers who hide behind an exemption when something goes wrong or where a situation has gone “unnoticed”. This current crop of so called “leaders” should be sacked and replaced. They are a disgrace.

Agree to extent, but unless he is found to be fully exonerated, then the balance of probability seems enough to me to remove some or all of his medals. And yes, there are plenty of others to be held to account – John Howard for one, getting us into this mess.

Macquariephil1:46 pm 03 Jun 23

I agree with Mr Beazely. The heroism and downfall should be acknowledged.

I avoid the hagiographic displays at the memorial. It’s about time we acknowledged the good and the bad. The Memorial is far too celebratory. It does not acknowledge the breadth of the Australian character.

The AWM has been caught flat-footed on an issue they have had years to prepare for. Personally, the Bretton Report – I believe – should have spurred removal of certain exhibits until the conclusion of the special prosecutors work and pending the final report/case resolutions. Generally, the defamation case findings – that the AWM knew were coming – should have spurred them to do so, since they chose to ignore Brereton. They are now floundering and it reflects poorly on them and the legacy they are guardians of.

As I said in my stand alone comment, they should remain on display telling the full story and help break the ideal that ALL soldiers are “heroes”.

Stephen Saunders6:40 pm 02 Jun 23

AWM isn’t selling Ben’s merch any more. This unreasonable witch hunt just has to stop. Granted, a few minor persons accidentally got in the way of his superbly muscled person. But by golly, he does look the part, wearing all that fruit salad.

Take this as sarcasm.

I hope it is proth57!

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