A chat with Mark Willacy, the 2020 Gold Walkley-winner and Investigative Journalism-winner with the ABC Investigations-Four Corners teams, for “Killing Field”.
ABC Investigations journalist and multiple-Walkley-winner Mark Willacy took home his first Gold Walkley, as well as the Investigative Journalism Walkley, at the 2020 Walkley Awards for “Killing Field”, the result of an unflinching investigation to expose alleged war crimes, suspected cover-ups and deep cultural problems within Australia’s special forces.
Willacy worked tirelessly to find sources within the secretive ranks of the Special Air Service Regiment, the SAS, and spent weeks verifying allegations with family members of alleged murder victims on the ground in war zones, producing gut-wrenching reports too powerful for the public and the defence hierarchy to ignore. The revelations triggered the Brereton Report, an investigation by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force.
We spoke with Mark about the legwork that went into getting this story together, his many stand-out Walkley-winning stories, and his near disastrous career start as an engineer.
Congratulations on taking home the Gold Walkley and also the Investigative Journalism Walkley. How does it feel, for you personally and for the team, to be recognised by your peers for this particular piece as the best work of the year?
In a year of global pandemic, it’s a hell of a story in itself. When we were doing this story and we were doing the Four Corners version of it, we were very conscious [that] if this was in March, we’re running into the big COVID period where people were realising this is a serious thing, and we’re going to have to work from home, and it was swamping the news. So we got the story out thinking, “It’s a good story. It’s an important story that people hear and watch.” But we were worried it was going to be swamped – but it wasn’t. I think the power of the story, what we revealed, was recognised by the public, by the politicians, by the military, as being significant.
“We got the story out thinking, “It’s a good story. It’s an important story that people hear and watch.” But we were worried it’s going to be swamped [by COVID] – but it wasn’t.”
For us, it was a very important story because it was the culmination of a lot of reporting that we’d done. It was a situation where we thought, you know, this story needs to be recognised for what it is: probably the first time an Australian war crime has been caught on camera. And also a very, very brave SAS patrolman that [was] prepared to go fully identified on camera and talk about three killings that he saw. So it was an important story for us, and it’s a bonus and an honour to have it recognised by your peers and the Walkley Foundation.
The story also impacted the Brereton Inquiry, which had some quite shocking revelations. What are some of the other impacts that the story has had that have been significant for you?
Well, the Brereton Inquiry was running for nearly four years by the time the story came out. That was obviously a secret inquiry, so we didn’t really know what was going on. We had to make our own investigations, our own inquiries. And this is a story that other journalists have also done some fantastic work on. Dan Oakes, Sam Clark and Andrew Greene from the ABC, Chris Masters, and Nick Mackenzie from Nine. But [what] “Killing Field” did in terms of impact, we had an immediate impact from the Defence Minister, who was horrified by what she saw on the Four Corners report. Defence said it was shocked and alarmed, as did the Prime Minister.
“The more tangible impact was that we had an Australian Federal Police (AFP) investigation called after what had happened and what they’d seen in the video – that cowering Afghan man with prayer beads in his hand on the ground, frightened, with the SAS soldier looming above him saying, “Do you want me to drop this guy?” three times before he puts three bullets into him and kills him”
But I think the more tangible impact was that we had an Australian Federal Police (AFP) investigation called after what had happened and what they’d seen in the video – that cowering Afghan man with prayer beads in his hand on the ground, frightened, with the SAS soldier looming above him saying, “Do you want me to drop this guy?” three times before he puts three bullets into him and kills him. For the Defence Minister to refer that to the AFP, and the Defence Department to stand down that soldier, who was still serving in the Special Forces.
We’ve seen other impacts internationally – the world media followed this up [and] the vision has been run around the world. We’re still being contacted about the vision. For example, PBS in America at the moment has asked us to run the vision, the BBC and networks in Europe and Asia. The war in Afghanistan was a global issue – a global conflict – in a lot of ways, and our conduct there was important. And I think this showed the world that not all of our soldiers, a small minority it has to be said, conducted themselves quite poorly.
“I get an anonymous email pop into my encrypted ProtonMail account giving me a blow-by-blow account of what happened that day, saying, ‘I was there. And these are the soldiers involved’.”
You mentioned that a lot of journalists have been tugging at the threads of this for a while. But where did the initial tip for you come from, and how did that develop?
I’ve been chipping away at this story for a little while. I’ve done a couple of stories – I did one about a raid on a village called Sarkhume in Afghanistan in which the SAS is alleged to have unlawfully killed civilians. And it was after that I get an anonymous email pop into my encrypted ProtonMail account giving me a blow-by-blow account of what happened that day, saying, “I was there. And these are the soldiers involved.”
It was one of those eureka moments where you go, “Oh, my God, I’m talking to someone who was there. And if they were there for that raid, what other raids were they there for as well?” So, I began very delicately corresponding with this anonymous correspondent, and there was a lot of back and forth.
There was one period where he went quiet, and weeks and weeks went past and I couldn’t get hold of him. I thought, “I’ve pushed him too hard, or he’s got cold feet.” And then I got an email from him saying, “Oh, sorry, I forgot my login…”
So that settled my nerves, and it was at that stage, I said, “Look, we need to meet,” so I flew interstate and I met this guy, and it turned out to be Braden Chapman, who appeared in the Four Corners report. You’re talking about former SAS patrol members, they don’t speak out. There’s a code of silence there. You know, you do not talk about what happened out in the fields, the valleys, the mud compounds of Afghanistan.
But it disturbed him so much, the behaviour of some of his comrades, that he took the brave decision to go on Four Corners fully identified, which is pretty well unheard of, and explain what he saw.
You know, it wasn’t just three alleged killings. There was the bashing of prisoners. There was the bad, mixed up drinking culture of the SAS in Afghanistan. He described how some of them were out of control. So, to have the footage of the Afghan being killed in the field was powerful and compelling.
But to have Braden talk about that was very important. We were very lucky with this story in a lot of ways – we ticked all the boxes. I remember getting a phone call after it went to air from a very senior defence official, who said, “This is a game changer, this has given us a focal point for war crimes.” You know, we’ve heard about them before – rumours, allegations. Here we see an alleged war crime, and he said, “That’s a very powerful thing.”
“I remember getting a phone call after [“Killing Field”] went to air from a very senior defence official, who said, “This is a game changer, this has given us a focal point for war crimes.”
Where did the body camera footage come from? How did you access that?
That’s a good story because the SAS were told not to wear body camera footage in the field while they were there on that rotation in 2012. But a lot of the guys did because they wanted to keep a personal record of what they got up to in Afghanistan, so in breaking that order, they actually created this story. I’d heard about the fact that there was body camera [footage], there were photographs, so I basically hit the phones. It took me a while and in the end I got this trove of footage over 10 hours long. I resolved that I had to go through it frame by frame, and it showed some interesting things, you know, a battle against the Taliban after an ambush, a legitimate battle in which the SAS behaved heroically after one of their Afghan soldiers was killed.
Then it showed some things that are a bit more disturbing. The burning of homes, throwing a motorcycle – an Afghan’s motorcycle – off a cliff and laughing about it. Conversations were heard of SAS operators talking about comrades bashing kids, shooting people, people being out of control. One operator turns to the other and just says, “Look, I don’t think we’re trying to win the war anymore.” It doesn’t get any more poignant than that.
“[The footage] showed some things that are a bit more disturbing. The burning of homes, throwing an Afghan’s motorcycle off a cliff and laughing about it… One operator turns to the other and just says, “Look, I don’t think we’re trying to win the war anymore.” It doesn’t get any more poignant than that.”
But it wasn’t until towards the end of the 10 hours footage – when I was in the office late one Friday evening going through it – it was yet another helicopter landing, another raid. SAS gets off, they go through a wheat field. They go along an irrigation channel. They spot a man in the distance. They let the dog off. The dog mauls the guy. They call the dog off. The SAS operator looms above him. And I’m thinking, right, they’re just going to plastic cuff him now and take him back.
It doesn’t appear like he’s a combatant. He doesn’t have a radio or a weapon. And then it’s that moment where the operator with the gun turns to his comrade and says, “Do you want me to drop this guy?” And he says it three times. I’m thinking, “Surely not. This is not gonna happen. This is not going… And then it happens. And I’m thinking, this is surreal. It’s one of those moments you think, “Oh, my God. The truth of war crimes is there”. I remember just ringing my editor saying, “I think we need to talk about this story. Um, it’s just gotten very big”.
How did you actually get your hands on that body camera footage?
That was a lot of work, to get access to the body camera footage. I had to make a lot of contacts who steered me in certain directions, and I had to fly. I flew to Perth. I flew to Darwin. I flew to Melbourne. I flew to Sydney. I went all up and down the Queensland coast. I spoke to a lot of guys, and it was clear the footage existed. It was like a database this rotation of SAS soldiers had collected themselves and put together. They’d even edited a video up with a bit of heavy metal music and, you know, all of their exploits – things blowing up and them shooting at targets. So getting it took a lot of work, it was collected over a period of time.
Once I had it all, in fact, my wife made me take Christmas off. She said, “If I see you on a laptop or a device, I’ll divorce you.” So I had a lot of it just sitting there and I’m itching to get at it, and as soon as I got back from Christmas holidays, I started looking at it. Then there was that eureka moment. You’re very lucky sometimes in journalism, but you’ve gotta make your own luck. And I’ll tell you what, I got a lot of frequent flyer points up getting that footage.
How long did it take you from when you first started chasing the story down to when it went to air?
I think it was probably September 2019 that we really started in earnest looking at the Four Corners report. It took me probably a month or two to get the footage. It took me another month to convince Braden Chapman to go on camera, after consulting his family. Then we started filming in earnest in January/February, and of course we got the story up in March. So, it was about, for that particular story, it was six months.
But having said that, we’d been working prior to that on other stories. I think in the series, so far, we’ve had 15 separate stories up on alleged Afghan war crimes or misconduct or misdemeanours. The Four Corners story was obviously the most powerful one – it was the one that has produced more stories since broadcast. Every time we do one of these stories we get more information. That’s the great thing about modern journalism is that there are encrypted apps and email services you can use, so people do actually feel a little bit more comfortable about approaching you. You know, we’ve had hundreds of tips – and I would say that the vast majority are well meaning, but not very useful.
But then there’s those emails like Braden Chapman, where you go, “Oh, my God, he was there.” And we’ve had a few of those. I have to say, all the guys in the SAS who’ve helped us are honourable, wonderful men who want the honour and the valour of their regiment restored. And they want these individuals who carried out these crimes to be taken out of the regiment and prosecuted if necessary. So I’ve been helped along the way by some very decent people within the SAS.
“All the guys in the SAS who’ve helped us are honourable, wonderful men who want the honour and the valour of their regiment restored. And they want these individuals who carried out these crimes to be taken out of the regiment and prosecuted if necessary”
Shifting focus slightly towards your own career – what was it, looking back, that made you want to get into journalism and reporting from overseas in the first place. Was it a childhood dream?
Journalism wasn’t a childhood dream. In fact, I wasted three years at university doing an engineering degree before I realised I was worried that anyone driving over a bridge that I had designed could plunge to their death. So I decided that I wanted to do something different. I wanted something with travel and meeting people.
I remember my late mother saying to me, “You know, you’ve been interested in politics and history, do journalism.” So I did that and I was lucky enough to score a job at the ABC in Toowoomba, my hometown, as a part-time sports journalist. I didn’t want to be a sports journalist, but it was a stepping-stone, and then I was lucky enough to get a full-time job.
I’ve worked in Brisbane, Gladstone, Townsville, Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra – and then I was lucky enough to get posted to the Middle East for four years, which was just amazing. It was the time of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suicide bombings, Israeli raids, then came the Iraq War, the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister in a huge bomb. So that was a whirlwind.
Photo: Mark Willacy, ABC
I came back to Australia for a while, then I went to Japan. I thought, “Wow, Japan could be a nice quiet place for posting where I can do some long form, interesting stories.” And then we had the 11th of March 2011, with the biggest earthquake in over 1,000 years, and the tsunami, and the nuclear meltdown. So, (laughs) it wasn’t quite the serene posting I thought it would be.
The ABC in the last seven/eight years has really invested in investigative journalism and created an investigative unit. So when I came back I thought, “Well, this is something I really wanna try.” It’s a very difficult strand of journalism – probably the most difficult, the most taxing, but in a way the most rewarding. I’ve been lucky that the ABC’s invested so much money, time and effort into investigative reporting in recent years, over and above what it’s done for generations at Four Corners.
If you look back over the many, many stories that you’ve covered, and indeed won Walkleys for, in the past, which ones stick out to you as the work that you’re most proud of?
I’m most proud of, um, a few. The Iraq War in 2003 was a very seminal moment in recent history and I was lucky enough to be there. I was a very young man at that stage, I was about 31, and to see conflict like that up close was both shocking but rewarding. And to win a Walkley back then, that was, you know, icing on the cake.
Obviously, to win a Walkley for the coverage of the Fukushima disaster and the tsunami in Japan also was rewarding because that was a slog. As opposed to Iraq, which was a human conflict, this was a natural disaster of the scale I’ve never seen and probably never will see again. But to win this one [for “Killing Field”] really means something to me because it was a great team effort. It was also something that had relevance to Australia. I’d won Walkleys before here and also with overseas stories, but this, to me, was trying to – to use that old cliché – shine a light into a dark corner.
We were dealing with Special Forces soldiers, who are extremely secretive and sensitive. We were dealing with a foreign battleground that we know very little about, and it’s hard to get to. And we’re dealing with a war that Australia no longer has any part in, and events that happened seven, eight, ten years ago. It took a lot of work and a lot of time and effort, and money from the ABC to support that.
I’m very lucky as a journalist at the ABC Investigations unit to have a great team around me and a great boss in Jo Puccini. And then to be able to rely on Four Corners to get the story out … there’s no better platform or outlet than Four Corners. So this one’s very special as a story and it’s very nice to be recognised by the Walkley Awards and the Walkley Foundation for it.
Do you have a message for the Australian public about the importance of this kind of public interest journalism and why it needs support?
Yeah, look. This story polarised the public a bit. We got a lot of hate mail over it, accusing us of being traitors and undermining very brave troops. On the other hand, we got a lot of support for shining that light into the dark corners, and also support from ex-SAS guys who wanted this behaviour called out. But it’s very important in this age of the cacophony of social media and talk back shows and opinion programs that are cheap [to make], that are easy. In the case of social media, it’s free just to pump out rubbish that just muddies the waters.
“Investigative journalism and quality journalism costs a lot of money. It takes a lot of time, and it stresses people out… I think what we’ve seen with the Brereton Report into war crimes in Afghanistan… [is] that the journalism was right. That we were on the right course, and that we weren’t just trying to get a cheap headline or to sully the name of our troops. We were doing honest, fearless, objective journalism.”
Investigative journalism and quality journalism costs a lot of money. It takes a lot of time, and it stresses people out. Both the journalists and the people they’re dealing with, so we need that support, and I think the Australian public and our democracy is better for it.
What we’ve seen with the Brereton Report into war crimes in Afghanistan that came out recently, a day before the Walkleys were announced in fact, [is] that the journalism was right. That we were on the right course, and that we weren’t just trying to get a cheap headline or to sully the name of our troops. We were doing honest, fearless, objective journalism. And that takes money. I think there is support in the Australian public for that.
I think there are sections of the Australian community that don’t appreciate it, and probably never will, because of certain political beliefs or ideological beliefs. But I think the majority of Australians do, and I think the challenge for us as journalists, and the media generally, is to keep convincing the Australian people that this journalism is needed – and the best way to do that is to keep doing that quality journalism. We’ve got some fine exponents of this journalism. From our unit, Jo Puccini, Dan Oakes and Steve Cannane. Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters of Nine. Adele Ferguson and Kate McClymont. I’d like to see more young journalists come up and give this a crack.
And there are outlets that support it, particularly Nine newspapers and the ABC, for example. I will say one thing, that during this whole process I got attacked by a particular media outlet about my reporting, and it was a cheap headline, an attack on a story that took me two months to verify. That disappointed me greatly, that the media go after other media even though they know we spend months trying to verify stories.
I think when the media do that to other media, then that just creates more cynicism in the public, and the public goes, “Well, yeah, that story is a load of crap.” Everyone in the media needs to support quality investigative journalism, no matter whether you’re from the ABC, or News Corp, or Channel Nine, we should recognise quality journalism for what it is.
You gave thanks to a lot of different people involved the story in your acceptance speech, but is there anyone else that you’d like to shout out for their help in getting this story up?
I’ll make special mention of my investigative unit head Jo Puccini. She supported everything with this story from day one. She was the one who told me, “Get on this story. Get it done. Go where you have to go. Do what you have to do. Meet who you have to meet.” So Jo, a great boss and a great mentor for me. Sally Neighbour and Morag Ramsay from Four Corners just backed the story from the hilt and said, “Look, you just go and get the story done. We’ll get it to air.”
And for a lot of investigative journalists – and journalists who’ve been correspondents or just journalists who work hard, which is all of us – there’s a group that you really need to pay tribute to all the time, and that’s your family. For me, it’s my wife who’s followed me around the world for 25 years, my three kids Nina, Kate and Eva who put up with their dad being away in strange places that he can’t talk about for weeks sometimes. And also my colleagues in ABC Investigations: Alex Blucher, Rory Callinan, they’re just a great team to have around you, and I couldn’t do without them.
Mark Willacy is a reporter for ABC Investigations. He was an ABC correspondent in Jerusalem, Baghdad and Tokyo for a decade and has reported from more than 30 countries. He covered the 2003 Iraq War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 2011 Japan tsunami and nuclear meltdowns, and the 2018 Thai cave rescue. Brisbane-based Willacy has won five Walkley Awards and a Logie, and has twice been named Queensland Journalist of the Year.