Willie Apiata: the photo the army published

The New Zealand Defence Force is going to talk to the Herald about its use of Willie Apiata's photo. Perhaps it wants to take the photos of him off its own website first?

Freedom of speech is not absolute, and there are rare times when the media should refrain from publishing news and photos, and one of the most important times is when publication could put lives at risk. Having said that, I tend to sympathise with media which have chosen to publish Willie Apiata's photo over the past 24 hours.

I know many New Zealanders are angry with the media using the photo without pixilating the faces of the two SAS soliders involved, one of who was Victoria Cross winner, Willie Apiata. He is a national hero. I've written before about soliders angry at John Key's looseness in announcing very casually that the SAS had arrived in Afghanistan, himself breaking a convention in the process.

But there's a case that a photo of Apiata is in fact the one image of a New Zealand solider that an editor could publish without putting his life in danger.

Sadly for the New Zealand Herald, it looks as if their initial publication of the photo was a cock-up, rather than a considered editorial decision to break with convention. (I confess it's a convention I wasn't aware of, but colleagues tell me they were aware of it). The picture ran on page three, with merely a long caption beneath. Apiata was not identified. If this was a decision to boldly declare that the military should not decide what gets published in our newspapers, it would have been handled somewhat differently, I imagine.

The DominionPost made a more considered decision today, but it would be naive not to image that they felt somewhat compelled to publish given their main rival had beaten them to the punch.

Editor Bernadette Courtney made the point that Apiata was the miliatry's poster boy after he won the VC, and as such is open to public examination, and that's the most compelling argument justifying publication.

The New Zealand Defence Forces and Apiata himself chose to go public and tell the story of his award. He appeared on TV, his autobiography was written. He was marketed as a hero and, however relucntantly, courted celebrity. That was a decision that carried some risk, but it was a decision he and his superiors made themselves.

The NZDF can talk to the Herald all it likes, but is in no position to criticise the media now, not least because of their own policy on Apiata pictures. A quick Google search 'of Willie Apiata' reveals over 2000 images. If the Taliban wanted to indentify and target him it wouldn't be hard.

You might argue that the only photos of Apiata were of him in dress uniform receiving his VC; they didn't reveal what he looked like now and in the field. A man looks very different in regular fatigues and ni the field. What the media have done this week show him as he looks now, putting him at risk.

Only, you'd be wrong. On the first page of Google images is a photo of Apiata, bearded and in fatigues. Surely, given that he's the most famous member of the SAS and we all know that the SAS is back in Afghanistan, it presents as much danger to the man as the Herald photo. So who published it?

The New Zealand Army. Yep, you can see it here. And so can the Taliban.

What's more, another photo of a bearded Apiata in camo gear, presumably printed with official permission, was published when his book was released in 2008. The photo is captioned: "IN ACTION: Willie Apiata in Afghanistan".

Fact is, one, it was known that the SAS was there, presumably with its most decorated member. Two, even the army is publishing photos that shows what he looks like. This week's photo doesn't add any danger; but it does have news value as an image of our troops at war.

The other point I'd make, that is unlikely to be made in other media, is that our presence in Afghanistan has been terribly under-reported. Never has New Zealand committed to a war for so long with so little public coverage. It took David Beatson on Pundit to reveal that New Zealand troops had handed over Afghan detainees to the Americans, possibly contravening the Geneva Conventions in doing so. Part of me is just relieved that the media is taking an interest in what our troops are doing in what remains a controversial war; perhaps it will spark some more public interest.

In this instance, no harm was done by publishing; and maybe a little good was achieved.