Episode 12: Chris Masters

Chris Masters is an investigative journalist and author.

Penmanship podcast episode 12: Chris Masters, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2015His name is practically synonymous with the craft of investigative journalism, as his face was regularly beamed into living rooms across Australia when he worked on the ABC television program Four Corners between 1983 and 2010. One of his programs had a huge effect on my home state of Queensland: in 1987, Chris’s report, The Moonlight State, led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption, which resulted in the deposition of the premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, as well as the jailing of three former ministers and the state’s police commissioner, Terry Lewis.

Chris has produced many remarkable stories across his career, but I make special mention of The Moonlight State as this interview was recorded in late September while he was visiting Brisbane to launch All Fall Down, the third book in a trilogy about Queensland police corruption by Matthew Condon, a previous Penmanship guest. Condon said at the launch that his three books would not exist without the work of Chris Masters, which goes to show just how deeply his investigative journalism has affected so many people.

I first met Chris at a Brisbane launch for his 2012 book, Uncommon Soldier: Brave, Compassionate and Tough, the Making of Australia’s Modern Diggers. When I got a chance to speak to Chris afterwards, I told him that he’d been highly influential in my decision to pursue journalism, as when I graduated from the University of Queensland in 2009, Chris received a Doctor of Letters and gave a short speech which I found immensely inspiring. When I later contacted Chris after that first meeting in 2012, he kindly sent me the text of his speech, which was even more affecting for me to read after having invested a few years in the business myself.

Our conversation at Chris’s hotel room overlooking the Brisbane River touches on the work ethic of his journalist mother, Olga Masters, and how that influenced his own work; how an experience with death as a young man led to him becoming involved with a charity named Redkite; how he goes about winning the trust of sources who are initially unwilling to speak to him; the thirteen years of litigation which followed the broadcast of The Moonlight State; why he believes that domestic investigative journalism is tougher than warzone reporting, and what sustains him after over 40 years in this business.

Chris Masters worked at Australia’s longest running public affairs television program, Four Corners between 1983 and 2010. He made over 100 reports for the national broadcaster’s flagship program, many of them well remembered and some of them nation shaping. Chris has written four books, the most recent Uncommon Soldier (2012). The first was Inside Story (1991) followed by Not For Publication (2002) and Jonestown (2006), the latter winning three awards, including ‘Biography of the Year’. Chris is from a well-known media family, his mother Olga (1919-1986), a lifelong journalist and successful author. In 1999 Chris was awarded a Public Service Medal for his anti-corruption work. In 2005 he received an honorary doctorate in Communication from RMIT University. A further honorary doctorate was awarded in 2009 by The University of Queensland, where Chris is an Adjunct Professor.

Chris Masters’s website: chrismasters.com.au

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3.00 Chris is working on a book about Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan, “a difficult project”, which is a follow-up to his 2012 book Uncommon Soldier

4.30 “This is one thing about our business: stories burgeon like yeast. You get onto one story, and you discover three or four others”

7.00 “It’s easy to cherry-pick, and to just go looking for stories that will advance your own reputation. The low-hanging fruit; the easy stories to get”

9.00 Chris grew up in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales. His father was a schoolteacher, and his mother, Olga, was a country journalist. “I think I learned a hell of a lot from my mum”

11.00 “Probably the best training I ever had as an investigative journalist was waking up in a place where nothing happened, because it really made you get out there and find stories”

14.00 Most of the Masters family work in the Australian media: Roy (rugby league coach and journalist), Ian (radio broadcaster), Quentin (filmmaker), Sue (media producer) and Deborah (media producer)

16.00 “Most of us write, in a way, for a living”

18.00 “I think it’s fair to say Deb is probably the ABC’s best TV producer”

18.30 His youngest brother, Michael, died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 28. “It’s a sad story. It’s scarred the family”

20.30 “I think it’d be a much better journalist if I was better educated”

21.30 When Chris first joined Four Corners in 1983, his salary was about $30,000

23.00 As a teenager, Chris worked at Woolworths, and for a vet at a chicken farm. “That was dreadful”

25.30 There were no journalism courses offered at university when Chris finished high school; instead, “you learned it on the job”

29.30 Chris’s first job at the ABC was a regional cadetship, but he had aspirations on eventually moving to a show such as Four Corners

32.30 Chris’s second daughter, Alice, became very ill with cancer at age three, so he had to move to Sydney for her treatment

37.00 Chris believes people talk to journalists because “they want their story told, even if they don’t”

39.00 “Journalists are all about primary evidence. I like to think that I’m much more than a collator; I’m a discoverer of information”

40.00 “You can only do longform journalism if you’ve got a lot of time to do it, and a lot of time to build that trust”

40.30 Chris’s daughter, Alice, died of a rare form of retinoblastoma cancer. They lived in Rockhampton at the time, and the local doctor misdiagnosed it, “because why would you expect him to see something that happens to one in 37 million children?”

41.30 Alice’s death led him to become a director of the Redkite charity, which he helped to set up in Queensland. Redkite provides services to people who are caught in that particular circumstance of parents caring for sick children and young people

42.00 “I sometimes think to myself how awful it is for me, for the first dead person I saw to be my own daughter. After that, I saw lots of dead people, and the ones that I remember are the children”

44.30 Chris’s first daughter is now a speechwriter for New South Wales Premier Mike Baird

45.00 “If there’s any comfort at all, it’s in hanging onto those memories. There’s lots that you don’t want to forget”

46.00 How to win the trust of sources so that they are willing to provide information

47.30 “When you’re aiming for the truth, whatever that happens to be, telling a lot of lies along the way isn’t going to help you”

49.30 “People often see whistleblowers as saintly. Some of them really are, but there are also a lot of them who simply want you to join them in their obsessions”

51.00 What it was like for Chris to be at Matthew Condon’s All Fall Down book launch at the State Library of Queensland, 28 years after his report The Moonlight State; Condon himself admits that his trilogy of books wouldn’t exist without Chris’s report

53.30 The long process of getting The Moonlight State approved by the ABC’s legal department before going to air in May 1987

56.00 What happened after The Moonlight State went to air: “the skies shook, the phone rang off its hook; I was already exhausted, and I was not at all optimistic, as I’d made a program that had triggered a Royal Commission back in 1983 [Big League], and it can be a brutal time”

58.30 Chris’s previous experience with tough reports had taught him to withhold some evidence from the program that went to air

61.00 “Journalists are still well-regarded by their peers and by their management if they do a lot of work; if they fill a lot of column space, if they’re more prolific”

61.30 Chris did three programs in the whole of 1987, compared to the expected number of five or six programs per Four Corners reporter

62.00 What the absence of Queensland Police Commissioner Terry Lewis meant for The Moonlight State; “I’m glad he didn’t do the interview. I don’t expect him to tell the truth, so why do I want to have somebody come on who’s just going to dissemble and lie?”

64.00 The Moonlight State triggered thirteen years of litigation for Chris and the ABC. “I felt like I was defending investigative journalism and the news industry”

66.00 “I call it my death by a thousand courts; it nearly killed me, and it dissolved my faith in the worth of journalism”

68.00 What sustained Chris throughout those thirteen years of litigation. “I was trapped; there really wasn’t another option for me, but to keep going”

69.00 “Psychologically, I had to find something to sustain me, because it was driving me crazy. And it was making me an awful, awful person to be around; I was perpetually miserable, I was obsessive, it was on my mind all the time, and I felt such a victim”

69.30 Chris came to see the burden of litigation as being similar to a disability: “People who have a disability, the psychological crutch for them is to stop feeling sorry for themselves, and get on with their life, and that’s pretty much what I had to do”

70.30 The litigation eventually went out with a fizzle, rather than a bang, after thirteen years

71.30 Chris was sued while working for Channel Ten in the late 1980s, for a short-lived television program, which meant that when the writ appeared, his protection was gone

72.30 This was happening in tandem with The Moonlight State litigation. He was facing the possibility of losing $500,000 in damages, plus legal costs, which would have been a similar amount

73.30 “I was also wrong. I had made a mistake. This happens in journalism; you can’t do pain-free journalism, and I don’t think you can’t do mistake-free journalism, either”

74.30 “I remember coming out of a warzone in Kosovo […] The phone rang, and it was my cameraman telling me that his lawyer had advised him to counter-sue me. That was a low point!”

75.30 Chris thinks he might have had depression during this process, and he does have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

77.00 “I hated the litigation. I said plenty of times that I’d rather be sheltering from sniper fire than be subjected to three days of cross-examination by a cold-blooded QC”

78.30 “Believe me, domestic investigative journalism is a hell of a lot tougher than warzone reporting. It requires a lot more moral courage, it requires a lot more fortitude, and that’s why I hated this domestic litigation so much, because it was just a constant worry”

79.30 What prompted Chris to write Jonestown, an unauthorised biography of the Sydney-based radio broadcaster and former national rugby union coach Alan Jones, published by Allen & Unwin in 2006

82.00 “I thought I’d seen evidence of abuse of power. I’d been conditioned to confront abuse of power wherever I saw it. The very fact that I was seeing it in my own industry, to me, made it an even bigger and more important story”

82.30 The book was commissioned by ABC Books, who later decided to abandon the project “at the eleventh hour”

85.00 “I’m very dirty at the way that was done. I think they were rotten to me, and I’d been a very loyal employee of the ABC for a long time”

86.30 “There wasn’t a commercial publisher in Australia that didn’t want the book […] The fact is, they did me a favour”

88.30 After ABC Books finally abandoned the project, after 12 months of protracted negotiations, Chris went to Allen & Unwin; it wasn’t the biggest offer, but they had an office near where Chris worked

89.30 Jonestown was subject to litigation, “and it did have some mistakes in it, too”

91.00 Chris wrote a feature article about Alan Jones for The Saturday Paper, Jonestown’s Mass Succour, which was published in August 2015. “I didn’t want to write it. It’s something of a pain to be an expert on some of the world’s greatest shitheads”

92.00 What sustains Chris’s interest in journalism at age 66, after 40-plus years in the business: “I don’t know that I’m that good at anything else”

93.00 “I was always enthusiastic about whatever story I did […] Whatever story I’m doing is the best story I’ve ever done. It’s a great attitude to have in journalism”

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