Malcolm Brown – Shirley Shackleton knew the risks. Married to journalist Greg Shackleton for just over nine years, and a mother of one, she was worried like any wife whose husband is about to embark on a dangerous assignment. But she resolved not to stand in his way.
The assignment was to report on the civil war in East Timor between the left-leaning Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) and factions covertly supported by Indonesia. Greg Shackleton, from Channel Seven, with normal journalistic ambition, was keen. To turn down an assignment on the grounds of danger was hardly a career move.
Then the worst happened. On October 16, 1975, at the town of Balibo near the border with West Timor, Shackleton, his cameraman Gary Cunningham and sound recordist Tony Stewart, together with Channel Nine's Malcolm Rennie and cameraman Brian Peters, were apparently cornered by Indonesian soldiers and killed.
The exact detail of what happened will forever be uncertain. Though the partial remains of the five were apparently identified and interred in Jakarta some years later, the truth was covered up for decades by official obfuscation.
Shirley Shackleton was not going to take that. In terrier-like fashion, she never gave up the chase. There followed years and years of bitter protests, provoking some often-niggling official responses and causing The Age to say that in killing Greg Shackleton, the Indonesians had made "a huge mistake".
Shirley Doreen Venn was born in Plympton, South Australia, on December 26, 1931, the elder of two children of a plasterer, James Venn and Doreen (nee Link). She was to have a brother, Bruce. She left school at 14 to become an apprentice couturier, trained as a nurse, travelled to England where she spent three years working for the Australian Trade Publicity Department, returned to work in public relations, then joined Melbourne radio station 3AW.
In her early 30s, she was working as a television segment presenter and publicity manager, and described as "a lovely lady, very forthright". She met a 19-year-old copy boy, Gregory John Shackleton, at Melbourne radio station 3AW. Fourteen years his senior, she fell in love with him and they married at St Peter's Church of England, Adelaide, on May 7, 1966.
Greg Shackleton was pursuing a career which included a public relations position at the Australian Tourist Commission in San Francisco. He had landed a job as a general reporter with television station HSV 7 and looked forward to returning to the United States.
In 1975, when Portugal withdrew from East Timor, Fretilin took over, provoking resistance within the country supported by Indonesia. It was of concern to Australia and especially to Greg, who according to Shirley became worried, perplexed and angry and was keen to get an assignment to "get over there and find out what is going on".
He left on October 10. Shirley had in her mind that "something might happen". When she heard that her husband and four other newsmen had gone "missing" on October 16, she feared the worst. Aged 43, with an eight-year-old son, Evan, she was alone. It soon became clear that her husband was dead. The Indonesians annexed East Timor, brutally, on December 7 that year. Another journalist, Roger East, who had gone to East Timor to find out what had happened to the Balibo journalists – soon to be known as "The Balibo Five" – was executed by the Indonesian soldiers on the Dili waterfront.
Selling her home to raise funds, Shirley Shackleton committed herself to finding out what had happened to the Balibo Five and bringing to the world's attention what was happening in East Timor. She flew in the face of federal government policy, which took into account political and diplomatic considerations. The Indonesian government said the journalists were caught in cross-fire, and the Australian government appeared willing to accept that.
Shackleton occupied herself with the arts, in acting and in textiles, sculpture, painting, drawing and writing, even travelling to Iran to study textiles. She ran an antique gallery and tea rooms. But always there was East Timor. She received intelligence on what was happening there, and in her letters to newspapers described the Indonesian brutality.
She visited East Timor in 1989 and heard a horrendous account of the fate of the Balibo Five. She personally confronted General Benny Moerdani, who had led the invasion of East Timor, but he was unresponsive. In November 1991, she wrote: "According to witnesses I have spoken to, what they found were mostly women and children who had taken refuge in the bush. The witnesses describe incidents where women were raped then killed, children's heads were smashed upon the ground."
Shackleton called out then prime minister Bob Hawke, accusing him to be too accepting of "excuses". She had a wide following, including prominent journalists John Pilger and Rohan Rivett. In 1992, she joined students on a peace mission to East Timor, rejecting a warning by the then foreign minister, Senator Gareth Evans, that people should "think carefully before participating". "It's not to do with my husband any more, although I know that's what he would have wanted," she said. "It'll be 17 years this year since he died, and I have dedicated my life to helping free East Timor."
In 1995, Shackleton addressed audiences in Perth, Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney, and was expecting invitations from Japan and Portugal. "It's not over," she said. "If I drop dead tomorrow, it's still going to go on. The quickest way to make something endlessly intriguing is to try and cover it up."
She said an inquiry would be conducted, whether the government liked it or not. "It won't be the full judicial one done by the Australian government as it should be, but it's going to be a pretty embarrassing inquiry," she said. "I have been speaking with the International Court of Jurists, the Australian Section, who are quite horrified at the news that Mr Downer [Alexander Downer, foreign minister] thinks it's the end."
An investigation by the former head of the National Crime Authority, Tom Sherman, found no evidence that the five had been murdered, but that the Indonesians had burned their bodies as a cover-up. He said East had "more likely than not" been murdered by Indonesian soldiers. Shackleton was hardly satisfied.
In 1999, East Timor regained its independence, amid a great deal of turmoil and bloodshed. In 2000 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade published Commonwealth government documents relating to the Indonesian invasion and subsequent annexation of East Timor, but excluded intelligence material.
Shackleton helped establish and then directed the Balibo House Trust, responsible for the recovery of the "Australian Flag House", the building the Balibo Five had used and which they had adorned with the Australian flag in a futile attempt to claim diplomatic immunity. Shackleton attended the opening in October 2003, along with her son. The trust supported several social projects in Balibo.
In 2007, a NSW Coroner's Inquest was held into the death of one of the Balibo Five, Brian Peters. Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam told the inquest he warned Greg Shackleton about going to East Timor because the government could not protect him or his colleagues. "I assumed Greg Shackleton would have taken notice of my warnings; I assumed he would have warned his colleagues," he said. "It would have been very irresponsible if he didn't – then he would be culpable."
Shirley Shackleton would have none of it. "I'm defending my husband's reputation," she said. "My husband has been virtually slandered by the [former] prime minister. The prime minister has said my husband is culpable. This was bloody murder. They had their lives ripped away."
Deputy State Coroner Dorelle Pinch found that the Balibo Five were deliberately killed by Indonesian special force soldiers after surrendering. She said she was referring the matter to federal lawyers and police for consideration of prosecution. Two Indonesian soldiers named adversely in the inquest were Captain Yunus Yosfiah and Christoforus Da Silva. In 2009, the Australian Federal Police launched a war crimes inquiry into the case but were to conclude five years later that there was insufficient evidence to prove an offence.
Shackleton had a book, Circle of Silence: A personal testimony before, during and after Balibo, published in 2010, which won a Walkley Award for journalism. In 2013, the East Timorese Government awarded Shackleton the Medal of the Order of Timor Leste.
She tried to present a petition to the then prime minister Scott Morrison, who with former foreign minister Marise Payne and others had travelled to help celebrate 20 years of the nation's independence. In 2020, she gave evidence at an inquiry in Jakarta into the Balibo Five film ban by the Indonesian Film Censor Agency. Getting at the truth was "my job", she told journalists. She enlisted further political support, including that of then Senators Nick Xenophon and Scott Ludlam, and had an interview with the then foreign minister Bob Carr. A film on her story, The Circle of Silence, was screened at the Mumbai film Festival in 2022.
Shirley Shackleton, who had a legion of friends and admirers, died in Melbourne on Sunday, January 15, after a long illness. East Timor Prime Minister, Taur Matan Ruak, expressed "deep condolences to the relatives of the late Shirley Shackleton" and stated that "her loss is also a loss for Timor-Leste".
East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta immediately called on the Australian government to finally release secret documents relating to the Indonesian invasion. "Australia should release fully all information, [all] documents related to the period 1974 to 1999."
He said of Shirley Shackleton that her "soul rests with us in Mt Ramelau", the highest mountain in East Timor, upon which a statue of the Virgin Mary sits and where the deeply Catholic Timorese believe the spirits of their deceased lie. Shirley Shackleton's funeral will be held on January 23. She is survived by her son Evan, who graduated in law and has been appointed to the Western Australian Magistrate's Bench.