Truth, politics, and the limits of investigative journalism

Alan Knight, Central Queensland University

Chris Masters Not for Publication Sydney, ABC Books, 2002 (256 pp.) ISBN 0-73331-071-0 RRP $24.95.

Guts, intelligence, and integrity can be a rare combination in journalism. But even that may not be enough to keep the Australian electorate fully informed.

Investigative journalist Chris Masters has been exposing corruption for two decades. This year he produced Not For Publication; a catalogue of disguised stories that were never broadcast, even though Masters was employed at the time by Australia’s best funded and perhaps most courageous investigative journalism program, Four Corners.

The book seeks to show how truths can be suppressed and considers the limits of investigative reporting. In doing so, it reveals some of the personal cost paid by a journalist who, believing he was acting in the public interest, set himself against the powerful.

Authorities can manipulate difficult reporters by isolating them from the action, and then ration the supply of carefully selected photos, film or text. Press accommodation at Canberra’s new parliament was designed around such an idea. Lessons about the supply and demand for news learned in the Gulf War have been applied with some success in Afghanistan, which has proved a steady source of stories about military ‘successes’. More recently, Israeli troops occupying Palestine sought to control news production by excluding foreign reporters from military zones while taking sledge hammers to Palestinian radio and television stations.

Global communications and computerised production have meanwhile all but eliminated deadlines that might have previously allowed daily journalists a little more time to think before communicating. As a result, it is often only members of journalism’s elite, investigative reporters, who have the time and resources to effectively question what they are told. According to Masters, journalists are ‘caught up in an eternal rush, calculating the odds on what will become objective truth’.

Not for Publication features allegations of unnamed corporations stealing from the public, gangsters who have corrupted police, smug and greedy lawyers, school girl whores, child beaters, and media manipulators. But it does not document them. Masters says that had he named the guilty, the book could not have been published. Since journalism should be seen as non-fiction buttressed by identifiable sources, Not for Publication therefore consists of a collection of wonderful yarns that remain rumours. Its credibility depends on the author, whose reputation hinges on his earlier investigations. Masters writes:

Sometimes the reason for a story not getting run is quite innocent. Some times another story is preferred. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen because it’s too hard. There are lots and lots of reasons. You can put stories on the backburner in the hope crucial evidence will come your way.

But there are other, residual reasons for stories staying unpublished. Investigative reporting demands a series of circumstances to turn pub gossip into journalism.

Firstly one needs skilled, motivated, and wilful reporters to develop the story. Reporters sadly can be lacking in all of these qualities. It is sometimes forgotten that police corruption was well known to the Queensland daily press prior to the broadcasting of Master’s Four Corners report, the Moonlight State, which helped bring down an entrenched Queensland government.

Investigative reporters need committed editors with deep pockets for legal defence.

The Courier Mail and the now defunct Telegraph newspapers both employed specialist police reporters, who frequently chose to ignore allegations of corruption made against their drinking associates. Critical reporters found the conventional journalism technique of asking questions inadequate when confronted by a brazen Bjelke Petersen government. At a news conference called to announce Terry Lewis as Police Commissioner, a young reporter asked about Lewis’ links to corrupt police operating a brothel at a city hotel. The celebrated Premier dismissed such questions as anti-Queensland.

However, the thoroughly researched Moonlight State sparked a chain of events that sent Commissioner Lewis to jail. Masters attributed the impact of the program to the reach and power of television:

I always felt the program [Moonlight State] got the reaction it did because in the National Party heartland, it was impossible to deny the pictures that we pulled out of Fortitude Valley. They had been denying them [in text] for years. We took those people from their lounge rooms into the bordellos and nightclubs. It was probably those images more than anything else that shocked the government into action [ordering the Fitzgerald inquiry into corruption].

The powerful imagery of citizens sneaking into previously denied brothels could have been created for television. TV demands difficult-to-find illustrations for complex and abstract issues. Even sources can be reluctant to go on screen. Moonlight State delivered:

It needed investigative reporting to expose it. It took months to do. It was the hardest program I have ever done. If nothing else it makes a case for reporting which can make a difference. Three months in a motel in Brisbane was what really got it there in the end. You don’t normally have resources like that for these sorts of projects.

Masters was fortunate that Four Corners could allocate a producer and a researcher to the story. Investigative reporters need to be sustained by committed editors with deep pockets for legal defence. But many Australian media outlets find the process too time consuming and, as ownership of mainstream media narrows in Australia, investigative reporters find they have fewer editors to employ them. The big media’s pragmatic shift from serving the public interest to securing the bottom line is having a corrosive impact on journalism.

Expatriate Australian journalist Phillip Knightley will tell you that accountants are murdering investigative work. After Rupert Murdoch wound back the British Sunday Times investigative effort, Knightley helped found the Center for Public Integrity to pursue neglected stories. Knightley said that investigations had become too costly for profit driven media owners. Press Lords who merely sought power, prestige, and influence were being replaced everywhere by executives with eyes only for share prices. As a result, major issues of public interest and importance were being ignored by a press that preferred trivia. ‘Columnists who write about lifestyle are more cost effective,’ he said.

Public indifference can be added to the lengthening list of inhibitors to quality reporting.

Masters says in Not for Publication that people claim they hate sensationalism, but journalists insert reason, balance, and fairness at their peril. The media and the public co-operate in a climate of mutual disappointment.

He found that he spent more time defending Moonlight State in the Australian courts than he did researching it.

I have always had a sour feeling about the Moonlight State because we had no idea of the unpleasantness that was ahead of us. I knew we were going to be sued, but I didn’t think it would take the equivalent of three years work over a thirteen-year period to do it…
Lawyers are always telling me that Moonlight State is precisely the sort of work the media should be doing. But I turn to them and say, ‘Well please stop suing me all the time!’
It’s not just the problems of the defamation laws themselves. It is the cost of the implementation of the laws. The court systems are terribly inefficient. The lawyers are particularly indulged and they are allowed to charge fees that are an abomination. No body in my world can afford civil litigation. And these things go on forever and ever.

It seems that even investigative journalists can only wait so long for a story to mature. And it may be that public indifference could be added to the lengthening list of inhibitors to quality reporting.

If Liberal Party President Shane Stone is to be believed, many stories should remain untold: research conducted by his party after the latest federal election showed that ‘81% of respondents … expressed the view that the Australian media seemed more interested in its own issues rather than the issues of importance to Australians generally’. Critics were un-Australian. ‘Journalists who believe ordinary Australians lie awake at night, debating issues such as the so-called children overboard affair, just don’t get it,’ Stone said.

His criticisms indicate how some politicians still expect to drive daily news agendas, irrespective of issues identified by journalists. Stone, it might be remembered, finessed media relations as Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, where the government’s press secretaries outnumbered and frequently overawed the tiny and parochial Darwin press corps. He became accustomed to having government statements published in an investigation free zone.

The National Press gallery, in a submission to the subsequent Senate inquiry into the affair, accused the government of conducting an unprecedented ‘campaign of censorship and misinformation’ about the asylum seekers. Opinion polls appeared to show that most Australians seemed unconcerned; indeed the government’s popularity appeared to increase during the period in question.

Was this then the Australian public exercising its right to not wanting to know?

Where might this public indifference, if not political hostility, leave an investigative journalist like Chris Masters?

A little demoralised, but still optimistic:

One always presumes that if the public get the correct information, they will care. [We hope] the public won’t be indifferent in the face of the facts. I would like to think that if the public is indifferent, the government has run a very good spoiling operation that keeps the issue from public view. … We have to wait a little bit longer to see what the public really do think.

Masters, journalism’s Boy Scout, plays a longer game than most gallery reporters. Writing Not for Publication was a cathartic experience, he says, helping him out of the self-pity created by spending too much time in court. If we want a purer truth and a better media, we have to fight for it, he says.

I think he’s right.

Alan Knight is Professor of Journalism and Media Studies in the Faculty of Informatics and Communication at Central Queensland University.