1948 - | NSW | Investigative journalist
Chris Masters was one of Australia’s best-known, most successful and most influential investigative journalists in the second half of the 20th century. His work changed Australia for the better. His 1987 exposure of corruption in Queensland led to a public inquiry and reform. His 1983 report on corruption in Rugby league and in the NSW judiciary led to a Royal Commission and judicial reform. In 1985, he exposed the French Government’s involvement in the sinking of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior. Over 25 years, he won five Walkleys and filed 100 investigative reports, mostly for Four Corners.
Shortly after I was asked to write about Chris Masters’ contribution to Australian journalism, he called me with details of his latest project: the first full account of the exploits of Australia’s secretive special forces in Afghanistan. After 40 years of producing landmark journalism, Masters is still doing it. And he’s still obsessive about the truth, relentless and fearless.
There are two particular qualities Chris Masters holds in abundance that have made him one of Australia’s foremost investigative journalists, as well as one of its finest story tellers.
The first is his moral clarity. When ‘doing badness,’ a phrase used by one of his police sources, became accepted - in state police forces, in the Queensland government - it was normalised. In the 1980s, this state of moral turpitude had so deeply infected sections of Australian society that many people, including honest politicians, policemen and journalists, came to believe that the only way to survive was to keep mum.
Masters refused to be silenced or scared off. His sense of what was right and wrong, combined with his radar for finding and exposing inequity and injustice, compelled him to identify and expose the symptoms of the rotten culture that had infested the state of Queensland.
Another of Masters’ qualities helped him do this: his ability to connect with ordinary people with genuine humanity and decency.
Masters always understood and could speak the language of the country cop, the publican, the crook, the mid-level public servant, the infantryman, the poor and dispossessed and, in his overseas work, ordinary people who were starved, war-torn and damned. People trusted him to tell their stories. And he did, faithfully, simply and evocatively.
So when Masters told Australians what was happening under the regime of Joh Bielke-Petersen, they listened and believed him. His story, ‘The Moonlight State,’ exposed the web of corruption that fed streams of money from the illegal gambling palaces and brothels of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley all the way up to the state Police Commissioner – and maybe even higher.
A nation-changing royal commission led by Tony Fitzgerald, the jailing of Commissioner Terry Lewis, the humiliation of Bjelke-Petersen and the collapse of the National Party’s 30-year reign in Queensland were the result. Queensland’s was the last of the paternalistic, nepotistic and sometimes corrupt state governments that had flourished right around the nation in the 1970s.
Five years earlier, in his first program for Four Corners, “The Big League,” Masters had exposed similar cronyism in the New South Wales judiciary. The Street Royal Commission exonerated Premier Neville Wran of any involvement but Chief Magistrate Murray Farquhar, who – as Masters accurately reported - had used the premier’s name to secure the dismissal of a bribery charge against the then president of the NSW Rugby League, went to prison.
In 1983, Masters was recruited to Four Corners - the program that defined much of his work and career - by executive producer Jonathan Holmes, who had recently arrived in from England. Holmes hired Masters on the strength of his work for the rural department’s Country Wide program. Masters conveyed on screen an “Australian honesty” that Holmes felt Four Corners lacked.
“I didn’t know he was going to turn out to be a brilliant investigative journalist,” Holmes recalls. But soon, Holmes was marveling at Masters’ “extraordinary capacity for hard work, extraordinary memory and extraordinary eye for detail. He would just go back and back and back to potential sources until they agreed to be interviewed.”
Masters was born in 1948 in Grafton, NSW, with story-telling in his genes. His mother Olga was a successful journalist and author, his siblings similarly gifted: Roy, a celebrated NRL coach and sports journalist; Ian, a successful Los Angeles radio host; Quentin, a film-maker; and sisters Deb and Sue, leading television producers.
Chris Masters’ compassion, authenticity and knack for finding the truth infused his work overseas as well, including his investigation into the French government’s involvement in the bombing of the Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, in 1985. The story caused an international scandal and secured a Gold Walkley, one of five Walkleys Masters has won.
His coverage of the impact of the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian war on civilians, seared the conscience of those who saw the programs
This devotion to story and truth telling, and to people, took its toll. Getting sued by the rich and powerful is a rite of passage for any investigative journalist in Australia, but Masters got sued more than most - perhaps more than any - and it wore him down.
Among the litigants was Geoffrey Edelsten, the multi-millionaire doctor and one-time Sydney Swans owner. Edelsten tried to stop the broadcast of the program “Branded.” His allegation that Masters had committed breach of promise could not survive the journalist’s relentlessly detailed evidence in court. “Branded” went to air and the negligence of Edelsten’s tattoo removal business - the permanent scarring of many of his patients and their subsequent mistreatment - was exposed.
After “The Moonlight State” went to air and the plaudits died away, Masters was pursued through the courts for 10 exhausting years by a brothel owner alleging defamation. In the end, the ABC won. But the cost, for Masters, was enormous and he became cautious of the kind of program that might put him through the legal wringer again.
As he worked, Masters raised a family with his wife Tanya. They have two daughters, Clare and Laura, and son, Tim. A third daughter, Alice, died of cancer, a tragedy that wore him down more than anything else.
And yet, as he entered his third decade at Four Corners, Masters kept producing powerful programs. There were brief reporting stints for Channel Ten and, much later, the Daily Telegraph, but Four Corners was home, one that Masters never really left. He reported more than 100 programs between 1983 and 2010, picking up many awards, including a Public Service Medal and Logies, along the way.
When police corruption allegations erupted in Victoria in the early 2000s (and I had my first assignment with Chris), he examined the scandal with clarity, finding facts and informers few others could. And in an exhaustively researched book that publishers initially feared printing over defamation risks, Masters exposed broadcaster Alan Jones’ extraordinary use of power in NSW and Canberra. It became a best seller.
Masters has also become Australia’s unofficial Afghanistan war historian. It is an extension of his passion and interest - or perhaps obsession - with the experience of the Australian soldier, one which developed with his early documentaries about the triumphs and defeats of the Aussie Digger, from Gallipoli to Kokoda.
During the 2000s, Chris travelled to Afghanistan many times, gaining the trust of infantrymen and officers alike and, slowly, the special forces members themselves. He has told Australians about the unwinnable war in more depth, and with more feeling, than any other writer.
When I first worked with Chris, he told me that every journalist should aim high and tell people something they didn’t know. In his late 60s, Masters still adheres to his own advice. Four decades on, he is still giving Australians rare and powerful insights into events that matter - relentlessly, fearlessly and with a dogged obsession to get to and expose the truth.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative journalist who works across Fairfax Media and does special reports for Four Corners, where he first worked with Chris Masters in 2004. McKenzie, who has won seven Walkley awards, regards Masters as a mentor and still calls on him for advice.
Courtesy of ABC.
Early ABC Four Corners team, courtesy of ABC.
Chris Masters on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton
Fifty Years of Four Corners, ABC website