Is Air Chief Marshal Houston doing a Hitler? · 12 February 2010

The Sydney Morning Herald reported this week that a senior Australian army media adviser who served in Afghanistan and Iraq has revealed that a culture of excessive spin and unnecessary secrecy stopped important information reaching the public. Andrew Bird, who left the army in December after eight years as an information operations and media adviser, said the defence force deliberately obscured or painted an overly rosy picture of the war in places like Afghanistan.

“The way that we communicated is all government-centric. It just relayed the ministers’ and prime minister’s message, reinforcing the government’s message. Every image we took, every interview we did and every bit of vision was to support the government’s view,’’ he said.

Mr Bird, who held the rank of major, said the army often stage-managed events for the media, blurred the truth in interviews or used the excuse that information was operationally sensitive.

“It was making sure that whenever we photographed solders they had the best kit in the photo, they were well equipped, all that sort of stuff. Even to the point of setting up photos with the Dutch so it looked like we were taking a collegiate approach [in Afghanistan],’’ he said.

Mr Bird said that during an interview on ABC radio in 2006, a senior officer responded to a question about whether Afghans backed the reconstruction efforts by falsely claiming he had spoken to the local community and received their support. “He said he had been out visiting the community, but in fact he had never done that at all. He may have had plans to do that. After the interview I basically said to him ‘that was a lie’. And he said ‘Well, we will see what happens’. It was misrepresenting or misleading,’’ said Mr Bird.

Some years ago when I was working for an Australian business organisation one of my responsibilities was tax policy ie lobbying government for taxation changes that benefited business. One of the big concerns was compliance costs which is the cost to business over and above the actual amount of tax paid, and consists of such things as accounting time, computer software etc. Government officials had agreed to meet with various business groups to discuss payroll tax. I organised a survey of a large section of our member businesses and determined that the compliance cost of this tax was not high (it was basically a simple percentage of total payroll, with a few adjustments).

However, another (competitor) business group reported in a media release that its own survey indicated compliance costs that were several times higher. Indeed, to my amazement, they were reported as exceeding those of the Australian GST (the equivalent of VAT).

While I knew that this later claim could not possibly be true, my own survey had produced some individual responses that supported it. I telephoned several of these companies, and they admitted that they had deliberately exaggerated the compliance costs of payroll tax in the hope that it would help get the tax abolished.

At the subsequent meeting with government officials the representative of the rival business organisation repeated the media claim. I regarded this as an outright lie of such magnitude that it damaged the credibility of the business community as a whole because these officials could see through the game being played. I set the record straight with the results of my own survey. The representative of the rival business group did not blink he seemed to have no qualms about what could not possible be regarded as only a misleading statement.

This incident reminded me of one some years earlier when I was chief economist of an Australian bank. I saw a media report on statements by an industry body concerning the state of the housing market, and saying that it was much stronger than I thought possible. This was an important issue for me because it would have affected my interest rate forecasts. I rang the CEO of this organisation and he admitted that his statement was aimed at boosting home buyer confidence rather than providing a true indication of market conditions.

Now, I certainly appreciate that spokespersons for organisations often put their own spin on events and issues, and I have sometimes done it myself. But I have also over the years observed that this spin can all too easily become so excessive that it is nothing but an outright lie. Individuals seem to find it much easier to publicly lie on behalf of an organisation than on behalf of themselves. Indeed, inside the organisation you may even get a pat on the back for it. If confronted with the lie by someone from outside the organization, it seems acceptable to say: “You know that I had to say that!”

Several days before Andrew Bird made his comments, the Head of the Australia’s Defence Forces, Air Chief Marshal Houston, was reported as saying: “I’m of the opinion the tide is turning in Afghanistan. … There is now a comprehensive civil-military strategy being put in place that will enable the people of Afghanistan to build a better future for themselves.”

Should we believe Houston? Or is Houston playing the sort of game that Hitler did when he met with a number of senior Nazi Party officials in early February 1943?

Hitler made a speech covering the events of the winter, including Stalingrad. Nicholas Below, his adjutant, later wrote:

“Hitler had designed it in such a way that none of his listeners would have the slightest hint of the catastrophic situation. It contained neither uncertainties nor expressions of disappointment. Without beating round the bush, he admitted the Russian successes and set out his programme for clearing up the mess. I was astonished at how this approach convinced them. His audience left visibly happier and returned home full of enthusiasm for the fray.”