Subject: SMH: 'They got a lesson' (Balibo journos)

The Sydney Morning Herald

'They got a lesson'

November 10, 2007

The report from a coronial inquest into the Balibo Five deaths is handed down next week. Mal Walden recounts the gut-wrenching day he heard the news.

October 15, 1975, late in the day, and the shrill ringing of a telephone shattered the silence of Channel Seven's almost-empty newsroom.

Everyone else had left for the evening's post-news ritual at a nearby hotel, where the topic this night would undoubtedly have centred on a recent outburst by the volatile news editor, John Maher, who was incensed at seeing his reporter Greg Shackleton wearing an army fatigue shirt while reporting from East Timor.

"What the hell does he think he's doing?" came the rant. "He'll get himself killed. Send a cable immediately to Dili and get him out of that bloody shirt."

With that, Maher lit another cigarette and disappeared into his office, trailing a cloud of smoke.

The phone continued its incessant ringing until I finally answered it, taking a call from Olwyn Shackleton that was to haunt me for the next 32 years. Between inconsolable sobs, I listened to a grief-stricken woman reacting to an intuitive notion that her son was dead.

"I'm Greg's mother and I know what has happened," she said. "A mother's intuition, call it what you want, but I know he's been killed. I know it. I feel it. I just know. Oh my God!"

Olwyn Shackleton was wrong. Her son Greg was alive when she made that call, but he was to die in tragic circumstances the following morning.

Greg Shackleton joined Channel Seven's Melbourne newsroom in 1973. A clean-cut, image-conscious, 23-year-old father-of-one, Shackleton was competent, friendly and, most of all, ambitious. It could be that his competitive edge led him to his fate.

Two years into his transition from radio to television, Shackleton learnt that the channel's senior news reporter had failed in his attempt to reach East Timor to cover the lead-up to a threatened Indonesian invasion.

He saw this as an opportunity to prove his ability and send a message to those who snickered at the mirror he kept in his top drawer to maintain his immaculately groomed appearance. There was just one hurdle to overcome. He had to convince his boss, Maher, to give him the chance.

"When you have a good reporter bursting to go and cover something, what do you do?" Maher asked in hindsight. "I pleaded with them to be careful and not to be foolish. But this was a very big story and it was on our own doorstep."

On Thursday, October 9, 1975, Shackleton boarded a 7am flight from Melbourne to Darwin with the veteran cameraman Gary Cunningham and his young assistant, Tony Stewart. Exactly one week later they - along with the British cameraman Brian Peters and Nine Network reporter Malcolm Rennie - would be dead.

Stationed in the dusty town of Balibo, 10 kilometres from the Indonesian border, the five were woken by the sounds of artillery, mortars and tank fire just before dawn on Thursday, October 16. There have been differing reports on how, and in what order, they died, but the indisputable fact is that by early evening they were burnt beyond recognition.

Back in Melbourne I had walked into the newsroom to be told: "We've lost the Timor crew." I was trying to interpret what was meant by the term "lost" when I remembered the previous night's call from Shackleton's mother, Olwyn, and raced to my desk to find her number. I was intending to give it to Maher but I saw through the glass partition of his office that he was already on the phone. I saw him suddenly slump into his chair and bury his head in his hands. At that moment, I knew that the term "lost" meant far more than just missing.

Moments later the station manager, Ron Casey, walked into Maher's office and they stood facing each other and then moved to the window and stared outside. Had they turned to their left and looked up at the adjoining building, they would have been looking directly into the window of the Army Intelligence Network. Unbeknown to both men, that office of the Defence Signals Directorate had already received a cable confirming our worst fears on the fate of the five newsmen.

Across the Timor Sea, less than one hour's flying time from Dili, the Royal Australian Navy Station at Shoal Bay had listened in horror to an Indonesian radio message, transmitted on a secret wavelength. The essence of that message was that the incursion had succeeded and "all traces of the white men had been obliterated".

A short time later, Casey and Maher, both red-eyed and grim-faced, left the newsroom. I was later to learn that Maher had gone to St Patrick's Cathedral in the city to light three candles and pray to Saint Jude, his patron saint of lost causes. In the newsroom, phones were ringing furiously. Friends and colleagues were calling for more information, which we didn't have. In fact, our hopes were being raised by some reports suggesting the five men may have been captured.

That afternoon the report from the DSD went to the Defence Department's Joint Intelligence Organisation in Canberra. According to coronial evidence, the report was circulated to the defence minister, Bill Morrison, the foreign minister, Don Willesee, and the prime minister, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam denies this.

The mood of the Labor ministers that day was sombre. The Opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, had announced that in the wake of the Khemlani "loans affair" the Liberals would block supply in the Senate.

On Friday, October 17, Casey and Maher flew to Canberra to meet officials from the Foreign Affairs Department. As they were leaving Melbourne, a communication teleprinter just behind my desk rang with three short bells. I ripped off its message:

"Editor Channel Seven News Melbourne VIC

Most concern fate three Channel Seven newsmen ... Reports reaching Dili indicate they were killed by invading forces ... Radio Kupang reported yesterday that UDT forces captured 'quote' five communist journalists who supported Fretilin and they got a lesson 'unquote' ... Please convey to families concerned our profoundest concern for their fate ... Fretilin soldiers on the border will observe one minute's silence tomorrow midday ... My personal warmest regards ... Francisco Xavier Do Amaral President Fretilin."

The ominous words confirmed our worst fears. "Captured, got a lesson" and "killed". It was no accidental killing.

I read it several times before walking quietly out of the newsroom and into a nearby toilet. There were sobs already coming from one of the cubicles, so I left for one downstairs where no one would hear mine.

That afternoon representatives from channels Seven and Nine met the Foreign Affairs Department and, against their advice, Casey and Maher later visited the Indonesian embassy. According to Maher, they were met by a very young official who was sympathetic but very secretive.

"He indicated to us that our boys had been killed," Maher recalled. "He put his own life on the line by telling us this, but he convinced us of the worst and we flew home."

On Monday, October 20, the Indonesian press carried a report on the bodies of four Europeans found in a house at Balibo, and said that while their nationalities had not been determined, there was a sign nearby of Australia.

In Sydney at the eight-week inquest into the death of Brian Peters, the Channel Nine cameraman, Whitlam testified that he was briefed by Defence and Foreign Affairs officials on Tuesday, October 21, that five Australian journalists had been killed.

On November 12, Australia's ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, received a box containing bone fragments, some camera gear, notebooks and papers belonging to Shackleton, Rennie, Peters and Stewart.

On December 5, a funeral service was held in Jakarta. The wreath from the Australian Embassy read: "They stayed because they saw the search for truth and the need to report at first hand as a necessary task."

For Maher, the events of Timor took a personal toll and he was haunted by the tragedy until his death in 2004. He regarded the close-knit newsroom team as his extended family. "I was not keen on the operation from the start," he said. "But it was my responsibility." To compound his loss and guilt, Maher was targeted by the publishers of the suburban tabloid Toorak Times, who printed a personal attack accusing him of being a murderer. For weeks, they ran scathing headlines referring to Maher as the "Killer News Boss".

Maher said: "I thought, if this is all I've got to put up with, it's nothing compared with the hell the boys' families are going through. I decided to cop it sweet."

A week after the Jakarta funeral services, the Foreign Affairs Department informed us that the personal belongings of the dead newsmen were waiting to be picked up at their office in the city. I volunteered to collect them and send them on to their families. As I drove back to the newsroom with the damaged gear and water-stained notebooks, I read Shackleton's final entry: "Balibo, October 15th. We have just received our first food supply in days. Fretilin members brought us some potato chips and coke. It reminds us of our final night in Melbourne ..."

As I read that entry, I looked at the date - October 15. It had been written the night Shackleton's mother rang Seven's newsroom believing her son had been killed. It was not a mother's intuition, as she had said. It was a terrible premonition. Tragically, several years after Greg Shackleton's death, his mother took her own life.

As we await the outcome of this coronial inquest, we're left wondering whether they will all now be able to rest in peace.

Mal Walden was a journalist in Channel Seven's Melbourne newsroom at the time. He now works for the Ten Network.

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