Lest we forget October: The month for sad anniversaries

This is a tale of two anniversaries – the Bali bombing ten years ago, and the Battle of El Alamein 70 years ago (Left: Photo of Diggers in 1942. Australian War Memorial).

Both of them brought back memories of the Channel Nine Sunday Program, where I was working as a supervising producer on the morning of the Bali terrorism attack, and as a field producer in Egypt on the 50th anniversary of the battle of El Alamein, one of the turning points of World War Two, in 1992.

The late (and great) Paul Lockyer was the reporter on the 1992 story, and he had done nearly all of the interviews with Australian Diggers here before they went back to El Alamein to visit the battlefields and remember their fallen mates.

Only a day or two before we were due to fly out of Sydney, Paul decided to stay behind, since the story only needed an update , and just as important, the Sunday Budget was running over, as usual.

Fortunately, as producer, I had sat in on all the interviews Paul had conducted with members of the 9th Australian Division, survivors of the battle which killed more than a thousand of their comrades in the deserts of North Africa. Those survivors included men like Joe Maddeley, also one of the Rats of Tobruk who endured the long siege of 1941 against the Germans, and Bill McMillan, another “Rat,” known as the “Woolly Pup,” small of stature, but big in courage, like all of his mates. Bill told me Channel Seven asked him for an interview, but “I told them I was tied to Nine.” A loyal bloke as well!

Joining them as they walked to the Commonwealth cemetery in El Alamein, most returning to the battlefields for the first time in 50 years, I was as moved as they were. Given the Arab Spring in North Africa, the commemorations for the upcoming 70th anniversary of El Alamein are likely to be a bit subdued, and the ranks much thinner, but we will remember them. Twenty-one Australian veterans, including Jack Bullen, a 91-year-old veteran from Victoria, are scheduled to attend the celebrations this Friday. SBS reporter Freya Cole spoke to Mr Bullen before the ceremony: http://bit.ly/Oxtfqh

The legendary General Bernard Law Montgomery, commander of the British Eighth Army, wrote to his counterpart at the 9th Australian Division, General Leslie Morshead, after the decisive battle against German Field Marshall, Erwin Rommel, and his Afrika Korps: “I want to congratulate you on the magnificent work your Division has done on the right part of the line. Your men are absolutely splendid and the part they have played is beyond all praise.” http://bit.ly/PpxSUJ

Addressing his troops on their final parade at Gaza Airport in December, 1942, Morshead said: “The battle of Alamein has made history, and you are in the proud position of having taken a major part in that great victory. Your reputation as fighters has always been famous but I do not believe you have ever fought with greater bravery or distinction than you did during that battle when you broke the German and Italian armies in the Western Desert. “

Standing in the desert on a warm October morning surrounded by dignitaries like the British Prime Minister, John Major, his French counterpart, Pierre Beregovoy and hundreds of veterans, most in their 70s, I could understand why there are growing numbers of Australians, young and old, flocking to Gallipoli and the Western Front to pay tribute to those brave Diggers. Inspiration was in the air.


Ten years ago, it wasn’t inspiration that kept me going on the morning of October 13. Just as I was about to grab some shuteye around 1.30am or so in the Nine newsroom, I had a call from one of the receptionists downstairs. “Have you heard about anything happening in Bali?” she asked. “No,” I said, “I’ve been listening to the ABC, but not much so far, except for reports of a bomb.”

Five or so minutes later, I got a call from Mark Readings, a Nine sports reporter in Perth on holiday in Bali.  “Tom, I just wanted to check to make sure you’re covered. I am just outside Paddy’s Bar in Kuta and a bomb has gone off. Another bomb just went off in the Sari Club across the street (where he’d just been). There are going to be a lot of dead. Are you covered?”

“Mark, you are the first to confirm two bombs and many casualties. No, we’re not covered. Are you okay?” He said he was, but sounded shaken, which was understandable. “You don’t sound very well. Have a scotch, get an hour or two of sleep, and I’ll call you back. We’ll need you and so will the rest of the network. You are going to be very busy.”

That’s the gist of what we said to each other, and that’s what happened to Mark for the rest of the day – and week. Since I was the only one in the newsroom, I woke up the network, starting with the News Director, Paul Fenn; then the chief of staff, Mike Dalton; the foreign editor, David McCombe; Nine correspondent Adrian Brown in Hong Kong (it took a while to get on to him as his daughter took the phone off the hook fearing it was a friend calling late!); the executive producer of the Sunday Program, Steve Rice; Sunday staff, including Nick Farrow, who had good Indonesian contacts; Jim Waley and Laurie Oakes, who would be coming in later; News editors, producers, network control (there was somebody down there!), in short, just about everybody who needed to know. I’m just sorry I can’t name them all here! Paul Fenn managed to get on to Andy Bruyn, the general manager of the Channel 9 station in Darwin (then Channel 8), who chartered a plane to get a Nine crew to Bali later that morning.

By this time, it was 3am or so – only six hours until Sunday went to air, and Business Sunday at 8am would also have to cover the disaster. No matter how much time there is to the broadcast, it’s never enough.

David McCombe booked the satellites with the help of NC, and Tim Wilson, John Vaccarella, Ross Chilvers, our regular editors, plus Steve McQueen and other news editors helped cut stories and playoffs and montages and closers. You name it, they did it. If you’ve been watching the fictional The Newsroom on Foxtel, and wondered if a big story energises a real newsroom, just imagine a much smaller staff, studio and resources, and a lot of running around. That was Channel Nine in Sydney on Sunday, October 13. Most of the time it’s calm because screaming helps no one in a newsroom or a control room or a studio – especially when a big story breaks. Nine News won Walkley and Logie awards for their coverage of the bombing, and Mark Readings accepted the Logie on behalf of the network.

The Bali Bombing was the biggest story of the century in Australia – our 9/11 – when 88 Australians  died, along with the nation’s complacency. We lined up lots of interviews for Jim Waley – most were audio only as the cameras hadn’t yet arrived in Bali to do two ways. We had the latest vision and overlaid the interviews as much as possible. Mark Readings talked to us, as did a number of survivors. It’s all a bit of a haze now. Sky News presenter and columnist for The Australian, Chris Kenny, then the media adviser to the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, writes about his memories of the day in The Weekend Australian when he got a call from the Foreign Affairs consular division and a report from one of their staff in Bali, who said where the Sari Club used to be, there is just a big hole: “On a Saturday night it would have been full of people. Many of them would be Australians.” Chris Kenny continues: “I ring Downer and head to his house in the Adelaide Hills in a pre-dawn daze of dread.” (http://bit.ly/Qkufwn)

Those of us working on the Sunday Program did not have time to feel a sense of dread. We knew the death toll would rise … and it did. Only after the program finished did we allow the tears to flow, as we came to grips with the enormity of the disaster. Two hundred and two people died, including 88 Australians, plus many injured, severely burned in the bomb’s aftermath.

Twenty years ago, Australians were killed in the Western Desert in a war where we respected the enemy as soldiers. Ten years ago, Australians were killed in Kuta in a war where the enemy are cowards and target innocent civilians.

Let’s hope we never have to mourn Australians again in a war of any description and that we continue to remember these two anniversaries in October.

I’ll never forget them.

4 thoughts on “Lest we forget October: The month for sad anniversaries

  1. A wonderful read Tom.
    To have the newsroom come to life in rapid time is amazing to see.
    Such sad times, yet exhilerating knowing how huge the story was..

    Sometimes the back story is just as important to remember and you
    have chronicaled it beautifully.

    • Moshe, Thank you. And I appreciate your comments even more since they come from a great editor with so much experience. You’ve been there and done that. Newsrooms of the future should have a Moshe on hand!

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