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Reporting the Great War


Cite as: April 2015 89 (4) LIJ, p.28

Television journalist Ross Coulthart, author of a new book about renowned Australian World War I historian Charles Bean, feels a certain empathy for his subject.

Mr Coulthart has himself reported from conflicts in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, and both began in journalism at The Sydney Morning Herald. Both also began their working lives as a lawyer.

Mr Coulthart, who studied law in New Zealand, does not represent himself as a lawyer. “I found I got much more interested in the stories than I did the cases. I think Bean was going through the same kind of realisation as I did,” Mr Coulthart told the LIJ.

“Bean was briefly a barrister; I think for Bean it was a wrenching time because he was, I think, a little lost when he was a lawyer.”

Mr Coulthart acknowledged his debt to NSW Supreme Court Justice Geoff Lindsay’s research into Bean’s time as a barrister in Sydney. “I think he tried to make the case that Bean was a keen barrister, but in my research I was not convinced that Bean was all that interested in the law,” he said.

While accompanying a NSW circuit judge as associate, Bean talked to journalists, Banjo Paterson included, trying to get into journalism, eventually accepting The Herald’s offer of a junior post.

“He went from a potentially glorious legal career to the penury of beginning in journalism,” Mr Coulthart said.

“But the reason I wanted to do the book is I am fascinated by the journalist as witness. I think that journalists don’t cover wars very well these days because the embedded system compromises what they do. Bean was essentially the first embedded journalist.”

Bean, who reported from the battlefront with Australian troops, later wrote an Australian official history of World War I. But there was a substantial difference between the two – he was censored and self-censored his journalism and was franker in his books.

But his diaries, “a historical masterpiece, an extraordinary resource” are his greatest legacy, said Mr Coulthart, whose book is subtitled “If People Really Knew: one man’s struggle to report the Great War and tell the truth”.

“I don’t think a great deal of his journalism to be honest,” he said. “He learned that it was just not possible to tell the truth about the disastrous command failures that led to so many young men being sent to their deaths.

“In all his works after the war he never really revealed what he showed he knew in his diaries about the failures.”

Charles Bean by Ross Coulthart is published by HarperCollins, $45 (hardback).


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