NZ War Correspondent in Vietnam
No censorship in Vietnam
For a journalist, this was a war with a difference. I was brought up on Second World War stories about war correspondents and the restrictions they faced on where they could go, what they could do, and what they could report.Over-riding all they did was censorship. The stories they wrote were put through trained censors who would edit out any references which they believed could compromise the security of an operation or alert the enemy.
Vietnam was totally different.
I was born and raised in the heavily-bombed steel city of Sheffield in Yorkshire and trained as a journalist on a small county weekly newspaper before ‘graduating’ to my home town provincial daily morning newspaper, the “Sheffield Telegraph”.
In 1963 I arrived in New Zealand to join my family and found my first journalist job with the New Zealand Broadcasting Service before accepting a sub-editor’s job a year later with the New Zealand Press Association.
By late 1964 I had been promoted to the small NZPA political team in the Press Gallery at Parliament and had begun to take an interest in the comings and goings of American politicians and US Defence officials who were encouraging our government to take a more active role in Vietnam.
By May 1965 I had broken the story that New Zealand was to send its first combatant unit to Vietnam, a small 105mm howitzer battery from the Royal New Zealand Artillery Regiment.
A month later the NZPA had invited me to become its first war correspondent with 161 Battery and I was put through a series of briefings from New Zealand Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
At no stage was censorship raised.
The reality was that there were no front lines in Vietnam and few restrictions on movements so attempting to control hundreds of war correspondents from around the world trying to cover their own countries interests would have been impractical.
Couple this with the speed of communication - including the growth of television coverage and the increasingly competitive nature of news gathering - and the military and political machinery was in a poor position to require compliance with censorship rules.
Another compelling reason for the lack of restrictions on news coverage in Vietnam was that it was an increasingly unpopular war, with nightly television coverage graphically illustrating the harsh face of death and destruction.
Questions were increasingly being asked about the legitimacy of the war and the way that military operations were being handled – and this obliged the military to use daily communication to openly explain events in ways never before seen from an active war zone.
In my three months attached to 161 Battery I was never once asked to hold off reporting on an issue or to repress details.
The converse, however, was that I was fully aware that I had to comply with military discipline when I was out on operations with New Zealand or allied units, and that my recall back to New Zealand could have been requested if I had acted irresponsibly.
From Vietnam I was assigned to Borneo to cover the tail-end of “confrontation” with Indonesia and attached to the 1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, part of a combined British Commonwealth force.
The British way of doing things was very different to Vietnam.
Briefings made it very clear that while there was no censorship there was a very high expectation that I would comply with the wishes of field commanders in reporting, or not reporting, on events.
In fairness the only real issue came when it was made clear that a long-range infantry patrol I was to accompany would cross the mountainous border into Indonesian Borneo to search for Indonesian troops and discourage them from crossing into Malaysian Borneo.
I had to decide whether to refuse to accept this requirement or accept that, to do the story, I would not mention the border incursion. I accepted that any mention of a New Zealand incursion could lead to international diplomatic repercussions and chose to accept the coverage limitation so that people back home would have some idea of what our troops were doing.