Chris Masters on the perils and import of investigative journalism

Chris Masters on the perils and import of investigative journalism

Chris Masters has practiced the dark art of investigative journalism for decades. He spent extended periods with Australian forces in Afghanistan, and in 2023 published Flawed Hero, his account of reporting on Ben Roberts-Smith and subsequent defamation trial.

He is the author of Flawed Hero (2023), No Front Line (2017), Uncommon Soldier (2013) and Jonestown (2006). His reports 'The Big League' and 'The Moonlight State' both led to Royal Commissions.

Chris Masters on the perils and import of investigative journalism


ASTRID: Chris, you have been an investigative journalist for many, many years. As I was researching to interview you today, I realised that you won the Walkley Award in 1985 for your coverage of the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. I confess, I'm at the exact age for that to be the only story of my early childhood that I remember. It was everywhere.

CHRIS: Yes, it was. It was a rare story. You know, Australians don't really make the international news. This was a course in New Zealand story, but covered by us. And remarkable for me too, because when that Four Corners program went to air it was shown all around the world, I think in every country except France.

ASTRID: You know how to write, you know how to investigate, you know how to find stuff out. And today, I'd really like to talk to you about Flawed Hero, your 2023 book that looks at Ben Robert-Smith, his career, the trials around him and the process of investigating war and investigating war crimes. Chris, my first question. Maybe you get asked this all the time. But what is the personal cost to you?

CHRIS: Well, I think the tough thing about investigative journalism is the baggage you have to carry for such a long time. If you're working in 24-hour news, which is where most people work, you get very busy and then it's forgotten and you start again. There's a constant cycle, you're not picking up a lot of baggage, but I think your work isn't so much going into history either. It's more likely to be ephemeral. It can be addictive. It can be a lot of fun being a journalist, because you have access to gossip and people, you can be insulting to Prime Ministers.

But investigative journalism is different. I mean, a lot of a lot of daily journalists think that they would like to do it, because wouldn't it be wonderful to just do two or three or four or five, six stories a year. But believe me, having done most of it, that the opposite is the case. You work really hard. In fact, the stories that don't work out tend to be the hardest, and you might get five or six of them in a row. It's often said in all our work, and for writers included, that you're only as good as your last story. You invest so much in such a long period of time, and frankly, it don't always come off.

ASTRID: I'd like to ask how you really became an investigative journalist focusing on the theatre of war, you know, soldiers, war zones, what goes on on and off the battlefield. It's a specialty in and of itself. You are a civilian. Can you talk us through the actual challenge of representing citizens, I guess, and representing the free press, poking your nose into an area that is so stratified so rarefied, so governed by rules and hierarchy, that you're not a part of?

CHRIS: Yes, that's right. Now, there'll be criticism directed at me, that I'm not a soldier. So how can I write about soldiering? Also, plenty of people who participate in war say the experience is incommunicable. They're offended by the idea that an outsider would even try.

There's a lot of answers to that question. The first is, I think I was interested right from the start. I was born in 1948, just after the Second World War. So, I had grandparents who had been through the First World War, my own family had obviously been through the Second World War, and then there was this great silence. You know, I saw the yearbooks and I picked them up around the house and I was so curious about this grand experience – not grand but you know, overwhelming experience – that but they just wouldn't talk about. I think that might mostly explain why I was always interested. I think that that subject of it being incommunicable might have represented a little bit of a challenge to me.

And then when I worked at Four Corners, and my beat was an international one, obviously I covered a lot of conflict zones. I think particularly out of the East Timor experience I became interested, intellectually curious, about this proposition of warfighting versus peacekeeping, and whether indeed, there was something in the Australian character that suited itself to the volatile nature, that extremely dangerous and challenging world of peacekeeping, which is, you know, the modern world in a way. And that led me to Afghanistan. I think when I first started reporting in a a serial way, where I think I'd done a lot of police corruption work, and then my next big beat tended to be in the sphere of the military.

I went to Afghanistan, three times covering that conflict. To be frank, you know, I've always felt that you've really got to do your research, you only feel comfortable about writing it down when you feel like you've got something original to say. I did have a lot of trouble getting into the weeds of the military, just understanding the nomenclatures, you know, not making a fool of myself. I reckon it took me about 10 years to be able to talk to soldiers in a way that made them sit up and think that it was clear that I did know stuff. There'll be a lot of people who claim that I still know nothing. But I felt that I owed the story, that investment in getting into the detail and all those experiences in Afghanistan, that really, it was profound for a lot of men. Men were killed when I was there that I knew. You're not going to forget that stuff.

People often say to me, what about PTSD and you? And I think that that one of the reasons that psychologically I survive is because of the baggage, because I acknowledge the baggage, because I don't hide it away. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, they don't want to think about these things. I think about them all the time, and that is maybe my survival mechanism. Now, this is journalism, the job of the journalist. And I think the best thing we do is challenge the Australian public. The worst thing we do is the tabloid flattery trick of just telling them that they're right to hold all these prejudices. So respectful argument is what I seek to do.

The other thing is, I think I understand that my obligation to the truth is that you follow that path, wherever it takes you. So that's pretty much how the Ben Robert Smith stuff happened. Here's someone like me, with the, I admit, somewhat romantic view of the Australian soldier. I mean, I think I was pragmatic about understanding that war is evil, and that soldiers that world over are probably pretty much the same, and all of the challenges that they face. Of course, Australia is not exempt from that. I knew that men and women were capable of committing war crimes, but I didn't really see evidence of it happening. You know, whereas other nations, the Americans, the Canadians had suffered mightily because of revelations of war crimes. It didn't seem to be happening with the Australians.

Sometimes people were suggesting to me that this was because of the value system within Australia that, you know, we defend the innocent, we're tough, we're fair, and we've got a proud military history. I admit, I bought a lot of that. But then when I was in Afghanistan, and I saw how challenging it was and the experience of war is, and I also saw the look of hatred in the eyes of some of the Afghans over there. That did make me wonder.

But it was really… the Ben Roberts-Smith saga happened ironically because I was inside the tent. I mean, pure journalism wisas often seen to be outside the tent. You know, free of the influences of public relations minders, and the like. I don't accept that. Because I think just about all journalism is embedded to a degree, and that the responsibility is to apply judgment, skepticism. You know, I'm experienced, I'm trained in that. I was never frightened by the idea that I was being led around by the nose. I was a little bit frightened by the idea that I was within a bubble, you know, that it was unlikely that ordinary Afghans were going to tell me the truth about what they thought about Australian soldiers. But there are ways to get around that, there are ways to get to the truth. What surprised me was that profound, scary argument that this number one war hero was a war criminal came from the soldiers themselves. I think that happened to me because they trusted me, they knew that I wasn't out to dig up a scandal.

ASTRID: Chris, you just said that people might criticize you because you aren't a military man, you are a civilian. I understand why people will do that. But I would offer my perspective as a citizen, and as a reader. I don't want only the military telling me how the military is going, I would like other eyes out there. I think I guess that is the role of journalists, and particularly journalists who aren't also soldiers. You mentioned that you are embedded three times. My partner, went to Afghanistan, once he is not a soldier, but he went to produce the comedy tour for the troops to entertain the troops. I was beside myself for the entire week. I feel a personal need to ask, what was it like for you to leave Australia go to Afghanistan, basically, try to make relationships with soldiers in an active war zone, whilst remaining independent, but also, whilst not pissing any of the higher brass off?

CHRIS: I absolutely agree with you is that about the greater qualification of being objective and outside the system. The military have a way of only trusting their own. And what I say to them is, look, that'll just get you into trouble. If you're going to work with someone, work with somebody who's inclined to get it right rather than somebody who you think is on your side.

I remember, obviously, I've been doing this for a long time, and you know, my family have paid a big price for that. I think the last time I went to Afghanistan, I walked down the steps past the kitchen and I saw my wife in the kitchen crying, and I thought, I better stop doing this. You see, like the soldiers I didn't mind. I liked it. It's exciting. I think a lot of us have got a bit of a risk taker in us.

And by the way, you know, I think it's important. If you define your vocation as professional, then you're obliged to take risks that lead to the truth. It is risky. I've always accepted that. And I have to admit, I don't – like probably a lot of 22-year-old soldiers – I don't think much about the real likelihood of me being blown to bits on a on a footpad somewhere. But I wasn't out to appease the people who gave me permission to go, I think they knew that truth telling ought to be objective, and that if they put a reporter over there… I think they thought that a lot of the reporters who covered these war zones saw it as a platform for their own vanity, you know, that it was going to be their story rather than the soldier's story. I've always thought of myself as a storyteller rather than the story. I was more than happy to tell their story. And as a result, I think…

Because I understood the rules, I don't complain about them. I mean, people think that you're going to be censored into the ground, but that wasn't the case. I always said to them, Look, if I come across something that's not necessarily in your interest but is in the public interest, you know, I'll report it. I think that there were circumstances, for example, where, as I mentioned, a couple of soldiers were killed. When I was there in theater, you know, I'd gone bunked down with them the night before. So I knew them, I knew them quite well. And then when something a critical incident like this occurs, they're very worried about the news getting out before they can warn the families, etc. I perfectly understood that that was a sensible rule, and I'd abide by it. Human life trump's a good story every time. I didn't have a problem staying within the provisions of the security circumstances at that time, but I wasn't ever going to tolerate a circumstance where they took editorial control of what I was doing, and that never happened.

ASTRID: Can you talk me through the practicalities of how you evidence what you found in order to write it? That's writing for newspaper articles, and now also writing in a long form way in a book. You talk to some of this in Flawed Hero, you refer to your own note taking, but also, what it means to get it on the page and then have it turned up in court? You have to provide the evidence. And of course, we now have had several trials, and you know, everything has been found to be true by and large. But the writing process and the evidence in process I'm very interested in?

CHRIS: I've always said that it's more important to be organised than talented. Talent matters, but unless you're on top of the story and on top of the detail… I think all that those years of working in long form for Four Corners helped me a lot, because your mind is the library, and you're absorbing all this material all the time. I operated to the one book system of note taking. It was scary, you don't want to lose that notebook. And Astrid, I also had to learn a personal shorthand that meant that I could understand my own notes, but I didn't want an enemy lawyer pawing through them.

When I was writing a book – of course, unlike Four Corners, where you get used to the fact that you often do get sued – I wasn't out to be sued. I didn't I didn't know the Ben Robert-Smith's story was ever going to happen. So I was less constrained in my note taking. And what I would do with every interview is, I would, you know, if it was okay to be recorded, it would be recorded, mostly it wasn't, as I wrote in the book, often with sensitive subjects, you know, if you stand in front of them with a notebook they will be think seriously careful about what they say. So, I was inclined to just sit and listen, and maybe jot a dot point down here and there to remind me, and then I would go back and type up those notes. It can be time consuming. It's another reason why you're less inclined to use a tape recorder.

That second process of writing stuff down is very good for you absorbing the detail and collecting ideas about what matters and how you will ultimately write it down. I was often surprised myself, you know, maybe a month in theater, I'd be absorbing a huge amount of stuff. I'd be starting to ask myself will I ever be able to memorize this? How am I ever going to turn it into a story, it's so complicated? There is something wonderful and magical that writers know, you sit down and it starts to work. I think all that research investment is important, but forming the narrative is at least as important as well. And I like a lot of writers, I'm not sure how that happens. I think it's got a lot to do with you thinking about it all the time.

There's a certain amount of organization improve it happening as well. You know, like in that notebook. Make a note of a good idea. Marshal your thoughts. Particular sections of the notebook would be set aside for things like reference points, good ideas, chapter headings. And that was a process developed over a lot of years. Then you sit down and discipline kicks in, you know, you've got work. I would work pretty much to the 1000 words a day schedule. I know other writers do this as well, you know, when sometimes I'd get on a roll, and I'd write 3,000, 4,000 or 5000 words. And then the next day, you might redo 2,000 or 3,000 of those words. I like to work in the morning when my mind was fresh. I like to give myself time off, you know, that's the other important thing, occasionally, the very best thing you can do is go for a walk or sit under a tree. That's where you get your best ideas in investigative journalism.

This is also important: people think that it's classic Deep Throat, you know, Washington Post, where you meet CIA agent in a car park and he tells you everything, and you write it down, and it's in the paper the next day. It is not like that at all. It's a long, slow distillation process. The breakthroughs happen internally, when you suddenly say to yourself, I know who I need to call. And that's not going to happen unless you give yourself the time to let it happen. But then, you know, in the morning 1,000 words might get done really quickly, just get to a good point where I feel like moving forward, but I stop, because I know that I'll be straight into it the next morning. And it is much, much better to write when you're fresh.

It is harder to deal with the editing. You know, I had to write that book quickly, because I only had a narrow window between the time that we were finished the court matter and when the judgment would come in, because we didn't know whether that would take a year or two months. So always over my shoulder, it was this fear that the judgment would come tomorrow and I was still 20 chapters short. It just worked out, I was just at the end, when we got the judgment. But because it was written quickly and because it is such a sensitive subject, of course, the lawyers were all over it. I was I was pretty heavily edited. I have to say that's the process I respect but don't particularly enjoy.

ASTRID: I have no doubt you didn't enjoy the legal process, or the legalling of the of the book. What is that like in terms of a book going to print? Because obviously, it's not just you, it's not traditional journalism in the sense that there's a masthead behind you. It's a publishing house. How does that work?

CHRIS: Yeah, well, it is very different. The masthead behind me meant that they could defend illegal action that ended up costing around about $25 million. You know, even the big international publishing houses are unlikely to get into a fight like that. I've got a very good publisher, Allen & Unwin, an Australian based publisher, and as I know from other experiences – I mean, I did the Jonestown book as well, and another book I wrote, No Frontline, there were also threats of litigation around that.

cAnd the reality is, our defamation budget certainly doesn't run into the millions. So it's very easy for this to turn into a game of deep pockets. The publishers struggle in this regard. You know, you have to give them a lot of credit that they're willing to do this. They’re commercial enterprises, they're not going to survive if they're in the red all the time. But they have been willing to take this on and, you know, my last 10 or 15 years as an investigative journalist has been as a kind of an investigative writer. I found when I was at Four Corners… and by the way, the I don't think ABC would have taken on the Ben Robert Smith story either, you know, it's a very proud publisher with a long creditable history of respecting the editorial principles and standing up for them, but the costs are horrendous.

ASTRID: I'd also like to ask you about taking a step back, Chris, I'd like to ask you about your newspaper reporting, but also the competing journalism from other outlets. There was this amazing line that you have in Flawed Hero, where you get excited about other media outlets doing their job, like you call it, healthy competition, like the idea that other journalists are out there uncovering different parts of the broad story. And that really struck me as quite a beautiful insight into the media and how it can be such a strong force within a democracy. My question coming from that is also, when other journalists or other media outlets started focusing on you and your journalism, and how you became a bit of the story, you know, how dare you report on the idea that Australian soldiers aren't perfect. That like media-on-media violence, I don't even know what to call it. I find disturbing, as you know, a reader and a member of the public, can you comment on that?

CHRIS: Look, it was the worst thing about it, really. We, the media industry, is very competitive. And as you mentioned, competition is generally thought to be healthy, but it's not in the media. It feels to me like, because we're in the digital age and the old forms of funding traditional media are falling away, it's like we're in a lifeboat, and there's rations only for three or four of us, and there's ten of us there. You know, some of them are going to go overboard, and they just turn on one another.

The stuff we got from the Murdoch press was terrible. The stuff we got from the Stokes press – not so much Channel Seven as The West Australian – was also terrible. I’m angry about that, because I think that the other journalists, you know, we work for the public. We should have that in common. But the viciousness of the competition was cruel on occasions. And I said in the book, our job is to hold truth to power, but they were doing the opposite. As far as I was concerned, you know, they weren't doing that ground up reporting. It is hard to do, and they couldn't catch up. They were doing bottom down reporting, where they were finding out what powerful figures thought about what we were doing, and how our work ought to be spiked. They were going after us. It was it is dispiriting.

ASTRID: Following on from that experience that you that rolled out over many years, when it came to write the book, Flawed Hero, you made a stylistic choice, you wrote it in the first person. I wanted to ask why.

CHRIS: Look, I mean, my colleague Nick McKenzie also wrote a book. We collaborated, and we tried to write a book together. But it's an interesting comment on the difference between doing the investigation and writing it down. We just had such different ideas about how it would be written down, we realised it couldn't have two voices, you could only have one. So that's pretty much why it was in the first person. As I said before, I'm a storyteller, I'm not the story. I was trying to provide some objectivity, as well as I clearly involving myself. I wouldn't call it a vanity project, but I did think that there was terrific opportunity here for it to be something of a manual of investigative journalism, because I think it's a black art. I think it's important. I've been doing it for such a long time that I actually think one of the problems we have in modern media is not so much what platform we drive out information through, but rather whether we are retaining the skills base to continue to be able to report in an original and thrilling way. You know, it's all about making what is important interesting rather than the other way around. I thought here was an opportunity, step by step to reveal the investigative process.

ASTRID: I found reading Flawed Hero very difficult, not because of how you wrote it to be clear, because of the subject matter and the content. It is difficult subject matter. And it is not a funny book, clearly, but I laughed once, where you recount some very powerful people in the media accusing you wanting to write a book for profit. And we both know that books aren't necessarily profitable, and you don't write a book to make squillions of dollars. But I did want to interrogate the idea of capturing this in book form, which of course, can be electronic, but that idea of capturing history on the page, because this episode in Australia's military history is not going to be forgotten for a very long time.

CHRIS: When I worked in journalism, and investigative journalism, I didn't think it was just about revelation. It was not just about the headline tomorrow. It was about the sociology, you know, not just what happened, but why it happened. Now, I'm a journalist, a proud journalist, a first draft historian, if you like, and which is frequently disparaged by true historians, real historians. I don't think they quite understand what a rough and tumble world we operate in, and how easy it is to get things wrong. When journalists play with history, we often offend more our scholarly or scholarly colleagues. But look at this one, you know, the facts were, I think, as far as a story of demythologizing Anzac goes, you couldn't have been a better one than this. And it came from journalists. I think that there's a real role for us. And it's a tough one too, because somebody probably looked at my book in 10 years’ time and say, ‘Well, he got that horrendously wrong’. But that'd be doing that with the comfort of hindsight. I hope that I hope my works stands the test of time.

ASTRID: I don't think it's going to be forgotten. Chris, I have one final question for you. We are recording in late August 2023. The book has not been out for very long, but I did want to ask, what kind of reception have you got yet? And I guess there are very specific audiences. I mean, the people who were deidentified, but were sources, what are their thoughts? And also, thoughts from the military establishment?

CHRIS: Yeah, it is an interesting question. The reaction has been diverse. Of course, you know, you look at social media. They hate me, how dare you, the Sacred Digger can do no wrong. It never changes either. No matter how many times you say, Look, we haven't reported on fog of war, heat of battle incidents, we've reported on outright executions, this is against the Geneva Convention, and no soldier can possibly – including Robert Smith – say that it's justifiable to kill prisoners. But that that argument never changes.

Interestingly, though, when I go to sessions, for example, at the Canberra Writers Festival, I haven't been to one yet that hasn't been sold out. That surprises me, because in the beginning, it didn't seem like it was a popular story. You know, I've always said that there's a no man's land between the Sacred Digger can do no wrong theory, and the all soldiers are baby killers theory. There's this vast no man's land between them that people are so wary of that they just don't want to go there. And this is right in that no man's land.

This story is a complicated one. Why? Why the interest? I don't think it's about war crimes. I think it's about truth. I think there is a recognition that this was a tough story. It wouldn't have been easy for Nick McKenzie and myself, it wasn't easy for, you know, Nine and Fairfax publications. People aren't seeing enough of this this difficult journalism, we believe we want to see more of it.

I think there's been a bit of a public education process as well in the life that I think, you know, journalism ought to be about public education. And through that court case, that 110 day court case, a lot of reporting. I think Australians learned a lot and they're tuning in. It goes to show that you can't really do it in 160 characters or 600 words, it can only happen, maybe in a book, but certainly over a long period of consistent and accurate reporting.

ASTRID: Chris, it has really been a pleasure to talk to you. Congratulations for your tenacity and your reporting over the years. I think we all benefit from it.

ASTRID: Good on you. Thank you, Astrid.