A metaphysical lottery

Who killed investigative journalism?
Chris Masters

There is nothing like a murder mystery to pull a good crowd. Thank you for your support. For what it is worth, it has long been clear to me that investigative journalism is a good crowd puller. There are many ways to measure the value of thorough journalism. Even in ratings and circulation - the least important measure in my view, but the only one that seems to matter in the business of journalism - we do well. When I made "The Big League" program for Four Corners in 1983, without any publicity at all the report rated surprisingly well. Somehow the word had got out that this one was worth watching. So there is no doubt in my mind there is a public appetite, even in television, for programs that are important as well as interesting.

Investigative journalists, I am sure Phillip Knightley will agree, are congenital whingers. If at any time in my career I were asked how healthy is the world of investigative reporting, I would likely have given a pessimistic response. We are trained to look out for what is wrong. But even in the better times, I doubt my pessimism would have been out of order. In my career, which spans only journalism's Jurassic period, I have seen a trend away from news as a public service to news as a business.

In my view, the first culprit in this murder story is the dollar itself. In the late 1970s, when I came into television news and current affairs, there was a kind of epiphany in the industry. Executives realised you could actually make a buck - and a big buck at that - out of news on television. A former Four Corners reporter, Mike Willesee, became our first current affairs millionaire, exporting the formula that proved successful on This Day Tonight to Channel Nine's A Current Affair. More ratings bonanzas and millionaires came with new programs with new imported formulae, as with 60 Minutes.

Newspapers, with a longer history of getting the commercial editorial balance largely right, have generally done better, but in television those profits could be deadly. Over time in commercial television, unsurprisingly, the only thing that mattered was profit. So news was commodified, and in time the qualities that brought respect and credibility to the industry were corroded. The mantra repeated in the corner office of the current affairs shows was 'give them information they can use'. What was not said out loud was:

avoid all the information that will be found to be disturbing, complicated and threatening to a perceived median of the audience's beliefs and values. Don't try to sell them anything that will make the job of selling Cornflakes and Toyotas more difficult.

You don't see a lot of thorough and opinion challenging investigative journalism on A Current Affair and 60 Minutes because it is hard to get complex information across between ad breaks. What you do see is more and more business and entertainment types taking over those corner offices. The former executive producer of Channel Seven's Witness program now runs a PR business, and before taking over Witness he was executive producer of Gladiator. And he is one of the good ones. The evolution of news and current affairs into a glamour industry has also created excellent opportunities for people who might have otherwise opened hairdressing salons or tried their hand in Hollywood.

The common corporate quest for quick profit and cheap ratings does not suit investigative journalism, which is seen as expensive territory that is, furthermore, infested with troublemakers. In my view it takes about ten years of hard training to make a decent investigative reporter. And from what I can see the now diminishing profits don't go into training someone who won't come good for a good ten years.

Now to the second suspect, who is probably well represented in this auditorium. They may well be taking notes and forming in their minds letters of demand as I speak. I am talking about my friends the lawyers. And the word friend is not necessarily edged in 'Littlemore' like sarcasm.

Beyond the team I work, within my circle of best friends in investigative journalism have been lawyers, quite obviously the ones on our side - the side of the angels(I tend not to think much of the others). There is an institutional competitiveness in journalism that means rivals do not always wish us well. I would like to say investigative journalism produces great comrades in arms, but sadly this isn't always so. Yet, some of the people who have shared some of the worst moments in the trenches have been lawyers, mostly ABC lawyers, who went through my defamation decade, my death by a 1000 courts, when in the 1990s I paid for all those stories I made in the 1980s.

I said at the start that I was a good whinger, and if you have heard me speak before you will have already heard this whinge. Our program The Moonlight State, which we made in 1987, uncovered massive corruption. It led to hundreds of prosecutions and many gaolings,including that of Police Commissioner Sir Terence Lewis, and it contributed to the ousting of the Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

As it turned out Terry Lewis was out of gaol before my sentence was over. There was 13 years of litigation to emerge from The Moonlight State. In dealing with it, I often came to wonder whether my crime had been to be too right. I came to feel within the oppressive legal process a resentment of investigative journalism, a feeling among court officials and lawyers that journalists are not professional enough to be trusted with the power to effect change. Never mind the facts that the courts had been so inept in years facilitating all that corruption.

Today there are many lawyers who tell me Four Corners is doing a great job, doing just the kind of journalism they want. Which provokes a first thought - well please stop suing me - and a second - maybe what they like is the fact that I generate so much business.

Australian defamation laws do impede investigative journalism and free speech. They do need a major overhaul, in that neither the interests of individuals nor the media are efficiently served. Furthermore the costs involved in time and money do drive people mad. From what I see, bad practices within the media don't change as the result of court rulings, while good work is not encouraged even when we win. I say to all my friends the lawyers, please do something about this.

Now to the third major suspect. The PR industry might be more accurately described as the 'Can't Do' industry. These are the people who tell you what you can't report and who you can't interview.

They seem to be breeding. When I do a story on asylum seekers or financial planners or even Patagonian Toothfish, I am met by row upon row of them, all flown in, business class, stacking the odds against us. One journalist up against ten flacks from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs is not an even contest. In my case, there might be the time to step around them, and actually find my way to Woomera or Port Headland and shock/horror, talk to a refugee. But in the news business, time is a constant enemy. It is easier to get the information off the DIMA website or get a steer from the DIMA minder.

More and more I find myself getting angrier with these people. I think it is partly because they often come from our own ranks. If journalism were a parliament they would be the opposition. We are the troublemakers, they are the damage controllers. They often share the same courses in universities and swap between the same worlds, and, again, some of them remain friends.

What I can't understand is how so many spin-doctors (they have even coined for themselves a friendly name) can so willingly abandon loyalty to fact and objectivity. I can't see a lot wrong with trying to get their message across and making sure their people get a fair go, but it is not often about spin. It is Goebbels-like about corrupting fact and meaning.

And they can be so awful at it. CEOs are pre-interviewed to within an inch of their lives, making sure they say nothing at all that makes sense. It is only a matter of time before the current affairs shows present an ongoing parade of processed experts, mixed in with witnesses who won't come on unless they are paid. They will understandably say that if news is commodified they should get their share.

It is only a short step before a former executive producer of Celebrity Big Brother steps in to conduct focus group research into how we fix all those bleak endings that real reality seems to throw up. 'How about we find the children overboard on the same desert island as the cast of Survivor? Think of the cross promotion'.

Now to an example of a local issue where information has already been successfully manipulated, to the public detriment. About twelve months ago you might remember criminals had taken over Sydney streets and the police service was bankrupt. The broadcaster, Alan Jones, was at the spearhead of public concern about a breakdown of law and order. The issue was leverage that Jones could apply in an election year, and it seemed to frighten the hell out of NSW Premier Carr.

I won't go into detail of how much Jones was appeased, and how in doing so a degree of his power was removed from the lever. The media has given some attention to that, but not to its own complicity in this tiny propaganda war, which is already being engulfed by the bigger one hovering over Washington, London, Baghdad and Canberra (which I am sure Phillip Knightly will give some attention to). Turn your mind back to when that war in the streets stopped. It seemed to happen overnight after the departure of former Police Commissioner Ryan. If you think of the headlines in the past twelve months, we went from war to peace in an instant, as if the cast of Reservoir Dogs crossed soundstages to the Sound of Music.

Same people, different script. And script is the operative word. All calculated in a pre-election year. There are corners of the media that regard police hand-outs as bread a butter. We moan and groan about the pre-election law and order auction, and may have come to wearily expect that politicians will do what it takes to get elected. But you should not expect it of the media. Common sense would tell you that this kind of transformation does not occur overnight. It is, it seems, a miracle more real than the apparition at Coogee Baths, but then Alan Jones is good at miracles. What it actually is, is a victory of the public relations machine over journalism. If there was a Walkley Award for Public Relations, Alan the Advocate would win it every year.

While on the subject I might say that one area where the media is weak, where investigative journalism is weak, is in confronting abuse of power within its own ranks.

I have identified my main culprits and am nearly whinged out. Before Phillip Knightley tells us more, I will finish with a few genuinely optimistic observations. No matter what they throw at us, investigative reporters are hard to kill. That is because ordinary people keep us fueled and fed. Ordinary people need us to tell their stories and no matter how many minders Canberra and Washington can put in the way, intelligence does have a way of sneaking through. Good citizens know that stories and news are shared rather than owned.

There is in investigative journalism a kind of metaphysical lottery. When we have seemed weakest at Four Corners, unexpected strengths have emerged. I do not know how the seasons arrange the elements, and I don't know why it is that out of nowhere a newsroom can conjure up a perfect storm. I just say that, when all those accountants and PR types and political minders and television executives and Alan Jones think they have got everything under control, they have set the scene for the appearance of another Phillip Knightly.


Chris Masters is the most experienced reporter on Australia's leading current affairs television program, Four Corners, and the author of Not For Publication, which was published by ABC Books in 2002. This is the text of his address upon introducing Phillip Knightley at the Evatt Foundation seminar on The Death of Investigative Journalism and Who Killed It? held at Sydney's Seymour Centre on 15 February 2003.


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