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Ben Roberts-Smith Truth on Trial, Stan review: the story continues

The defamation trial between Australia's most decorated soldier and the media is at the heart of this new Stan documentary.

Wikipedia describes Ben Roberts-Smith as ‘Australia’s most decorated living soldier’, and rightly so. They don’t hand out the Victoria Cross – which he has – to just anyone; the kind of bravery that earns you Australia’s highest military honour isn’t usually the kind you walk away from.

Not so long ago, some might have argued him suing one of Australia’s largest media organisations for defamation, in a case that ran from 2018 to earlier this year, was another brave act. In the end, it was a case Roberts-Smith lost (although an appeal against the verdict is currently underway).

Revealed: Ben Roberts-Smith Truth on Trial is a look back at the defamation trial (which ended in June with Justice Anthony Bensanko ruling that The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times had established ‘substantial truth‘ that Roberts-Smith had been involved in murders while serving in the SAS) and the events leading up to it, from the point of view of journalists Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie.

Visually, it’s pretty standard news-based storytelling, with plenty of talking heads, archival footage, news reports and the occasional re-enactment (they did well finding someone with Roberts-Smith’s distinctive silhouette). But this isn’t the kind of story that needs to be flashy to pull you in.

Crimes

Embedded with the Australian SAS in Afghanistan, Masters wrote the official Australian history of the conflict. He also heard a number of stories about possible war crimes, many of which – he wrote –involved Roberts-Smith. Around the same time over at the Fairfax newspapers, journalist McKenzie was running a parallel investigation. They teamed up, tracked down sources, and eventually had enough to publish – first leaving Roberts-Smith’s name out of it, then confirming his identity when they believed the evidence was strong enough.

The picture painted here of Roberts-Smith is not a pretty one. Bullying and intimidation are presented as tools he was extremely familiar with.

Eventually this turns into something of a legal thriller, as the nature of Australia’s defamation laws – if a journalist or media organisation is accused of defamation, it’s up to them to prove what they said was true – put the requirement to find credible witnesses on the Fairfax side.

There’s not a lot of new information here, but as a summary it keeps its eye on the ball and covers events plainly and efficiently. If you haven’t been following the story, this is an excellent way to get caught up – and even if you have, some of the information revealed here remains powerful and unsettling.

Wider questions

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, it also leaves a lot of wider questions unaddressed. Considering the nature of the allegations against Ben Roberts-Smith, what does it say about the military hierarchy – and the Australian community as a whole – that everyone was quick to laud him as a hero?

Was it simply that he looked the part? Or did the fact he was born into power – his father was a major general and former justice of the WA supreme court – mean he was given cover right from the start?

Another aspect only briefly touched upon is the way the Australian media took up sides regarding the case, and Roberts-Smith in general. If you’re a regular consumer of the Murdoch press, chances are you have a very different view of Roberts-Smith to the one presented here.

Kerry Stokes, owner of the Seven network, bankrolled Roberts-Smith’s legal defence via a loan; more than one commentator has claimed the whole thing was a battle between television networks Seven and Nine (which is the owner of Fairfax).

Understandably, there’s an emphasis here on the damage Roberts-Smith did to other Australian soldiers, given the court judgment that he had ordered soldiers under his command to kill civilians in Afghanistan. The judgment, it should be noted, was not a criminal finding of guilt but based on the civil standard of the ‘balance of probabilities’.

Currently, no criminal charges have been laid against Roberts-Smith. Which, according to this documentary, may very well have been the point: at one stage it’s suggested that Roberts-Smith mostly likely brought the case not just to damage Fairfax and crush Masters and McKenzie, but to try to intimidate the concurrent Australian Federal Police investigation into the war crimes accusations.

That investigation collapsed in 2021, but a new federal investigation is ongoing. And Roberts-Smith’s appeal against this defamation verdict is due to be heard early next year. This story may not be over yet.

Revealed: Ben Roberts-Smith Truth on Trial is available on Stan now

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.