Chris Masters is an award-winning reporter on ABC's Four Corners television programme. He is best known for "The moonlight state," a documentary that exposed police corruption in Queensland and helped trigger the Fitzgerald royal commission. But he has many reasons to regret making that programme. It took three months of work to produce. Surviving the subsequent defamation actions took the equivalent of two years of full time work, spread over 13 years. Masters says the process nearly drove him mad.
Even though the ABC won the case, there were no real winners. Masters concludes, "The experience was awful for all of us. This is a common outcome of defamation trials." Masters has nothing good to say about Australian defamation laws. He says "From where I sit our defamation laws work for no one except perhaps some lawyers, some other opportunists and those who wish to stifle information."
These comments are included in Masters' new book Not for Publication (Sydney: ABC Books, 2002). In it, he tells about some of the stories that never reached the screen. His encounters and interviews include a gangster, a veteran who doesn't march on Anzac Day, corrupt lawyers, an unscrupulous war photographer, bikies and refugees, corrupt police and a fix-it man who subverts the democratic process, among others. Every story is fascinating. Why didn't Masters pursue them further? Various reasons: lack of evidence, complexities, pressure of other stories, or not enough entertainment value to gain an audience.
Masters doesn't tell the full story here, either. Far from it. In fact, not a single name is mentioned in the book. Furthermore, the details of the stories have been modified. This is all to avoid defamation suits. In telling about a corrupt corporation, Masters can't even reveal what industry it is in. He also has to worry about anything that would reveal his sources.
Despite the inevitable fuzziness that results from the attentions of the ABC lawyers, Masters' stories offer many insights about society - especially its shady sides, from gun-running to contemptible radio talk-back hosts - and about the role of the media in it. Readers will gain a feel for what is missing from television, including many things most people are unlikely to encounter in daily life.
Masters is not easy on journalists. He expects much more from them in tackling serious issues rather than just pursuing entertainment. He also has critical comments about audiences who lap up the drivel provided and who do not demand cutting-edge investigative reporting.
Whistleblowers who have sought but not obtained media coverage can find a few hints in the book. Masters is supportive of whistleblowers; indeed, he often desperately needs them to be able to run with a story. But the key is to find a credible whistleblower, and not everyone is credible. Some people lack credibility because they have an axe to grind or seek to use the media to pay back an enemy. Criminals often know about police corruption but have low credibility when speaking out about it. Masters also says that journalists avoid "bad talent," namely people who have great stories but lack the ability to communicate it.
Then there are pests: "Whistleblowers are obviously valuable allies to journalism, but they can also be bloody nuisances. They can sometimes have a way of seeing only what supports their view of themselves as innocent victims. They can be blind to the contribution they make to their own misfortune. Some of them refuse to leave you alone until they manage to engage you in their own suffering."
Most importantly, whistleblowers need to know that journalists cannot do a story on every case. In the case of television, many stories are investigated for every one that is broadcast. So by all means seek media coverage but don't rely on it. Chris Masters will do his best but some stories will always be Not for Publication.
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