Sorry response of a frat house under the microscope
Setting aside any questions of consent, it is hard to imagine a more bizarre or unpalatable violation of privacy than discovering that a moment of intimacy with your partner has been secretly filmed and broadcast for the titillation of others. This is the key fact at the centre of the Australian Defence Force Academy “skype” scandal, where an 18-year-old girl, a cadet at the military academy, slept with a guy who had a computer video camera rigged up in his room, creating a virtual porno for the amusement of his mates.
No-one is disputing that the incident occurred. Worse, no-one in defence seems to give much a damn about it either.
In Australia this week we have witnessed one of the more pathetic displays by senior members of our military and their allies in politics and the press, where the issue now seems to be not whether the girl deserves some kind of redress for a life-altering breach of privacy, but whether the military boss at the centre of the original investigation deserves his own little apology for being unfairly grilled over his handling of the scandal.
It is faintly hilarious that men who are trained to kill for a living and can live for weeks in the jungle on a single shard of beef jerky are such delicate little petals that a bit of criticism from the relevant government minister has them reeling. Not only reeling, but calling in their chums under the old mate’s act to try to shift the focus away from themselves and onto the minister himself, as a form of payback for a government that dared to ask whether there might be a bit of a problem here.
Defence should realise that there is a significant gap between its own views on what constitutes a problem, and the views of the general community as to what is or isn’t acceptable. I’d say that the seriously besieged Defence Minister Stephen Smith was much closer to the general community in his handling of the Skype scandal than many men in the military.
Given that ADFA was the place which in the 1980s introduced the world to the practice of “woofering” – whereby male cadets were hand-cuffed to chairs and had a vacuum cleaner attached to their balls as a zany initiation prank – we shouldn’t be that surprised that there is such a significant gulf in perceptions.
In political terms the battle in the Skype scandal has been fought between Defence Minister Stephen Smith and the officer in charge of the Academy, Commandant Bruce Kafer. When details of the scandal broke last year, it emerged that Kafer had taken the highly questionable decision to proceed at the same time with a trifling and unrelated disciplinary matter against the girl in question. Whether it was or not, the risk with such an approach was always going to look like the girl was being victimised for being a trouble-maker. Beyond that there was a more human question of compassion which some people would argue Commandant Kafer had failed.
People making that argument included the Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Smith was furious. He described Kafer’s decision variously as “stupid, insensitive, inappropriate, wrong.”
Smith might have gone hard but it was a reflection of his frustration – undoubtedly shared by many people in the community, no-one more so than the parents of kids bastardised in the military – that the ADF remained in serious denial about the need to get serious on behavioural issues.
As if to prove those concerns, the reaction from many within the ADF to Smith’s comments and his subsequent handling of the affair has been both contemptuous and treacherous. His original intervention was seen as audacious and out of line, as if as Defence Minister he had no right to comment on the issue at all, let alone with such force. And now, after the release of the inquiry into the Skype scandal, there is a concerted campaign by some to discredit Smith as being somehow anti-defence, even as indifferent to the personal safety of our troops in the field.
Smith has been the subject of some fatuous analysis by commentators who are close to the military. There was one absurd Machiavellian suggestion that Smith, as a putative leadership aspirant in the ALP (which he isn’t), knew that he had poor standing with female voters (for which there is no evidence) and had seized the issue to get some feminist runs on the board.
The biggest problem with the deeply suspect denouement to this episode is that the actual report into it has not really been released at all. The public has only seen a very vague four-page version, arguably because of legalities surrounding the case, and since then it appears that both Defence figures and the Defence Minister’s office itself have been involved in a campaign of leaks and counter-leaks to take pot shots at each other. Classy. It would make more sense to release the whole report, even if you have to black out a few passages which are before the courts.
As things stand though all that has happened is that Defence seems to have claimed this as some kind of victory, with Bruce Kafer now happily back in his job as the head of ADFA, and the girl at the centre of the scandal probably wishing she had never said anything at all. But even now that he his job back, there are still plenty of men the Kafer camp who think he needs an apology. Surprisingly, they include Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who has long been an admirable critic of the modern culture of preciousness, yet has this week been leading the chorus for Mr Kafer to be handed his very own cut-out-and-keep sorry note.
Get over it boys, you won. It’s just a bit sad that anyone would see this as a victory at all, given the sordid nature of the whole affair.
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