Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporters: Hayden Cooper and Nikki Tugwell
While the Australian Defence Force tries to clean up its image following recent sex scandals, a private social media group of former and current soldiers shows some sections of military culture are still deeply offensive.
CHRIS UHLMANN, PRESENTER: Sexist, racist and abusive: that’s the tone of hundreds of offensive messages posted on an internet chat site used by current and former Australian soldiers. The site and its confronting contents, uncovered by 7.30, suggest a campaign by the top brass to clean up the culture of the Australian military has a long way to go.
Last year it was the Skype sex scandal; before that, sexual misconduct by sailors. Now, a private Facebook group of more than 1,000 former and serving Defence force members provides another disturbing insight into the soldier’s world.
This report from Hayden Cooper.
HAYDEN COOPER, REPORTER: Over six decades of war and peace the Royal Australian Regiment has built a proud history. It’s a professional fighting force, seven battalions of soldiers, the backbone of the nation’s Army. But the culture in the RAR is at times misogynistic, racist and homophobic.
DAVID MORRISON, CHIEF OF ARMY (Last night): At the core of our identity is a strong combat culture. We must preserve this because it’s vital to our success, but we also need to concede that this culture has tended to exclude women and some ethnic groups who are under-represented in our ranks.
HAYDEN COOPER: In the online world, Australian soldiers stick together. This is a closed Facebook group. Gatekeepers ensure only current or former RAR soldiers are let in. The content shows why. This is a world in which Muslims are “rag heads” who should be shot, Australia is no place for immigrants, and, “All women,” as the post says, “are filthy, lying whores”.
LAUREL PAPWORTH, SOCIAL MEDIA STRATEGIST: There’s an element of a gentleman’s club to the closed group, except they’re not acting very gentlemanly.
HAYDEN COOPER: There are more than 1,000 current or former soldiers in this group. The site is extremely busy and acts as an online meeting place. 7.30’s been given access by one concerned member who wants to remain anonymous.
LAUREL PAPWORTH: They seem to be doing a one-upmanship here where one puts in a negative comment and the next person comes in and has to say something even worse.
HAYDEN COOPER: Laurel Papworth has advised defence forces overseas on social media strategy.
LAUREL PAPWORTH: It’s actually pretty gutless of them because they would not be putting up those kind of jokes if their mum could see it and their sister and their wives and boss and their maiden aunt. So they know that they’re not doing the right thing and they’re joining a closed group so they can misbehave.
HAYDEN COOPER: Putting aside the pornography and racist material, the comments by the group’s members are perhaps more telling.
STEPHEN SMITH, DEFENCE MINISTER: Your role in the Defence force will be determined on your ability, not on the basis of your sex.
HAYDEN COOPER: When the minister announced last year that more women would go into combat, the Facebook group went into overdrive as soldiers responded.
(Excerpts from postings on the Facebook group)
(male voiceover): “Well if you had a nice, soft, warm put f*** buddy in the shape of a woman you could have got rid of all that stress. LOL”
(male voiceover): “f*** fodder for the enemy, new break contact drill, leave female soldier behind wearing bikini lol”
(male voiceover): “Don’t worry about what the enemy will do to them. After a few weeks in the bush, most blokes’d f*** a black snake with a festered arse!!”
(male voiceover): “your right about that if she’s half good looking with big tits give’s ya something to keep you awake on piquet duty, just hope she’s not a noisy f*** or the enemy will know where you are.”
(male voiceover): “Let’s face it, the RAAF get the best looking ones, the Navy get second dibs and the Army as usual get what’s left.”
(male voiceover): “Vote 1, ugly chicks in every diggers gunpit!!”
(male voiceover): “If your on Ops and get rubbish, who carries the tampon and sanitary napkins bag?”
(End of excerpts).
HAYDEN COOPER: So is this a surprise to members who have experienced Defence force life?
NAOMI BROOKES, FORMER ADFA CADET: I’ve heard it before. And if I was shocked – no, it’s pretty commonplace.
HAYDEN COOPER: Naomi Brookes spent a year at the Defence Force Academy before deciding it wasn’t the place for her. The trigger for leaving was the way a friend was treated by her peers after being raped.
NAOMI BROOKES: And they would say things – oh, I think one of the ones that really made me angry was about a week after it had happened and someone in my div said, “Oh, she should get over it already,” and calling her words that I don’t like to repeat.
HAYDEN COOPER: And then when the Skype sex scandal was revealed, similar attacks took place on various social media sites.
NAOMI BROOKES: They would say things like, “Oh, she’s such a slut; she deserved it. She was asking for it,” that sort of mentality where the blame is really placed on the woman. Comments like the ones on the Facebook groups aren’t all that unusual and because they’re not all that unusual as time goes on they seem less and less obscene, and so it feeds back into itself. And throughout the year that I was there, those sort of comments became more commonplace because it wasn’t seen as unacceptable.
LAUREL PAPWORTH: There is probably systemic ignoring of this kind of behaviour. It’s, you know, “Guys will be guys. Just ignore it, as long as they get the job done,” and I’m not sure that that’s a – an appropriate response to this kind of bad behaviour online.
HAYDEN COOPER: Lieutenant General David Morrison has been the Army Chief for eight months. He’s pushing ahead with efforts to bring more women and more minorities into the services.
DAVID MORRISON (Last night): Will it cancel out and negate any unfortunate incidents in the future? Unlikely. Human nature is human nature irrespective of whether it’s lived in uniform or without.
HAYDEN COOPER: In this case, the Defence hierarchy was alerted to the Facebook group and its contents eight months ago. A member of the group wrote to the Chief of Defence and the Department Secretary. He also took his concerns to the minister’s office more than once. It raises questions: why has nothing changed and what should be done? Catherine Lumby advised the NRL when it first set out to overcome abusive attitudes.
CATHERINE LUMBY, UNIVERSITY OF NSW: The Australian Defence Force is really I think just started the process of cultural change and they’ve got Elizabeth Broderick, who’s a terrific person, to head that up. And I think that this shows that these attitudes are there, there are problems and they’re going to have to commit to really long-term change. And I think we shouldn’t be caning them for that. I think we should be supporting them in that process.
LAUREL PAPWORTH: We make a lot of demands on our military. On one level we want them to be big, strong, rugged men that can go in and be adversarial with an enemy. And on the other hand, they have to be big, soft gentlemen that don’t ever say the wrong thing. And I think that that’s a very teenage girl approach to bad boys. It’s unrealistic.
HAYDEN COOPER: The online group does serve a decent purpose like fundraising for serving soldiers and the administrators have warned members repeatedly to avoid overtly racist or sexist material. Finding the right balance, though, seems difficult, both for the soldiers involved and for the entire military.
NAOMI BROOKES: Everyone still has a right to their private lives and if that’s how they choose to conduct themselves in their private lives it’s difficult for Defence to intervene in social media. But I think in terms of the attitudes that they have and their own sense of dignity, one should hope that Defence would have the capacity to engage in training and to make it clear that there are standards of behaviour for members in Defence and hopefully that should have run-on effects for mediums like Twitter and Facebook.
HAYDEN COOPER: Naomi Brookes is embarking on a new life after her previous career fell short of expectations, but she hopes that for others the experience can be better, despite these very clear signs that true cultural change is elusive.
NAOMI BROOKES: It’s come to the point where it needs external pressure from greater Australian society in order to make that change, because if Defence is left to deal with it, again, I don’t believe that the necessary cultural shift will happen.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Hayden Cooper with that report, produced by Nikki Tugwell. 7.30 approached the Chief of Army, the Defence Minister and the Opposition Defence spokesman for an interview. They all declined.
Late this afternoon we received a lengthy response to our questions from the Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison. He thanked the ABC for, “highlighting these serious issues in a bid for them to be dealt with”. He said his staff in Army headquarters are already taking steps to determine if any serving members are linked to the offensive comments. Where they have been, he said, “I intend to take action to deal with them to the extent that our policies and the laws allow”.
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