The first casualty is well and truly upon us

Propaganda wars a no-man's land for investigative reporters

Richard Ackland

With the dogs of war yowling you can be pretty confident that the first casualty is well and truly upon us. Truth has been going out the window in war coverage ever since these affairs began to be reported, and it's no different this time. So be prepared for plenty of misinformation and poorly sourced speculation.

Australian journalist Phillip Knightley wrote a famous book on the subject, The First Casualty: A history of war correspondents and propaganda (revised edition Prion 2000). Knightley, who went to England in the 1950s, fled the London bureau of Ezra Norton's Mirror and "wriggled" his way on to The Sunday Times, where as an investigative reporter he played a central role in some of the greatest stories of the era - the double-dealing surrounding the drug thalidomide and its British distributor Distillers, the machinations of the Profumo sex scandal and lengthy interviews with Kim Philby in Moscow.

Twice he was named journalist of the year in the British Press Awards. His many books have been courageous and absorbing. If any journalist is worthy of an Australia Day gong, it should be someone of the calibre of Knightley.

He's now into his 70s, sharper than ever, and spends a couple of months a year in Sydney. He is to deliver a lecture next month under the auspices of the Evatt Foundation and the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance with the morbid title, "The death of investigative journalism and who killed it?" The murderer will be unmasked by Knightley in his address on February 15.

There could be fewer more pressing questions at a time when the important function of journalism is being corralled, manipulated and bullied by powerful interests like never before. And that is apart from the craft's tendency to undermine itself by concentrating on the vapid.