22 Jan 2010

Ex-SAS man calls for media pact on identity

10:00 pm on 22 January 2010

A former member of the Special Air Service (SAS) says there needs to be a formal agreement between the Defence Force and the media to protect the identity of SAS members.

A picture of Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata on duty in Afghanistan has been published by newspapers and websites in New Zealand - an action that the Prime Minister says has put the war hero's life at risk.

Terry Culley, a captain in the SAS during the Vietnam war, says that the media have put Corporal Apiata in harm's way, and that publishing the pictures could also put his family in danger.

On Thursday, the New Zealand Herald, its website and the Stuff website owned by rival Fairfax Media all published the photograph of two SAS soldiers in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Corporal Apiata's face is clearly visible.

Photographer doesn't see a problem

But the photographer who took the picture says he does not think the it compromise the soldiers' safety.

French freelance photographer Philippe Poupin told Summer Report the soldiers were in a public place and people already knew they were serving in Afghanistan. He says he was not the only journalist at the scene.

Mr Poupin says Corporal Apiata is well-known in New Zealand and pictures of him are on the New Zealand Army website, so he doesn't understand the debate about compromising his safety.

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp says the issue is that the photo was published in relation to a particular troop action.

SAS soldiers were at the scene of a deadly attack by suicide bombers and gunmen in Kabul on Monday.

No reason to withhold publication - Herald

The New Zealand Herald says it did nothing wrong by publishing the photo and would do it again if a picture had news value.

Assistant editor John Roughan says the photo was taken while the soldiers were out in a public place and there was no reason to hide their identities.

Prime Minister John Key says that that was a poor editorial decision, but he will not be taking any action against the paper or against Fairfax.

The editor of the Dominion Post, which put an enlarged version of the picture on its front page on Friday, told Summer Report that anyone - including the Taliban - can search for a photograph of Corporal Apiata on the internet.

Bernadette Courtney says he was paraded in front of the media in New Zealand and overseas when awarded the Victoria Cross, which he got in 2007 for bravery under fire during an earlier tour of Afghanistan.