Profile: Chris Masters
With over 20 years experience, Chris Masters has three Walkley Awards, a Logie Award, a Public Service Medal and a Centenary Medal to his name. He is not only ABC Four Corners’ longest serving journalist, but in 1985 he also won the prestigious Gold Walkley award for French Connections, a report on the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. Masters shares his thoughts on the future of current affairs journalism with Shireen Murphy.
Investigative journalism is under attack on all fronts. According to ABC journalist Chris Masters the share of resources being allocated to investigative programs is declining and there is less demand for serious journalism.
“I don’t think it’s a good period at the moment. The opportunities to do thorough investigative reporting aren’t nearly as good as when I started,” he says.
Masters says the trend is driven both by government and the ABC. “There was a period when governments saw benefit in programs about public corruption,” he recalls.
Such a period might be hard to remember when even the prestigious Four Corners has lost its revered position with our national broadcaster. “The public appetite for bad news has weakened over the years, so people aren’t turning to current affairs as much and generally current affairs isn’t good at dealing with the good news. For example, Australian Story, one of the successes in current affairs, is generally softer and inclined to look at the bright side.”
Masters also says the competitive nature of journalism makes it one of the toughest jobs in the media. “At one level journalists respect and like each other because we know what we all go through,” says Masters, “but they can be terrible to one another.”
Despite these challenges, Masters is optimistic about the future of journalism. “When new dynamic reporters are found, it seems to be in a more organic way that surprises us. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comes along with a completely different approach to stories, who tackles the new agenda better than me,” he says.
Masters blames the changes in journalism on a shift from a public service ethos towards a business one when TV executives realised there was money to be made out of news. “Media culture has changed substantially since the 1970s,” he says. “Information is much more commodified and the current affairs agenda is more entertainment focussed. We’re inclined to the ‘want to know’ rather than the ‘need to know’ stories.”
“Television stations used to subsidise current affairs because it was a charter responsibility and license obligation. It wasn’t just the ABC that took the public service attitude towards news and current affairs. The old Willesee programs are very different to A Current Affair and Today Tonight. They would do the dull and worthy stories,” he says
Masters believes that the greatest danger is the focus on profit and ratings: “The thrill of investigative journalism is in coming upon something unexpected. That only happens if you head down some unpredictable road. But when audience researchers tell you to do stories, when you’re a slave to the public agenda, the likelihood of you finding something that surprises people is that much less.”
However, according to Masters the future of journalism is in educating the audience. “The convention is towards finding interesting stories and making them important,” he says. “We ought to be doing it the other way around, looking for the important subject matter and using our craft and skills to make it interesting.”
Describing the PR industry as the “can’t do industry”, Masters expresses concern about the increasing influence of public relations in information control, frustrating journalist’s access to sources. “It’s grown enormously. In the mid-90s, media officers took the view that you could manage the media if you were clever,” he says, “attitudes in the political and the corporate community have merged and there’s more confidence about controlling media now.”
Of public relations professionals, Masters is unrelenting in his criticism. “They can be deceitful and manipulative, give wrong information and leak information to competitors to take the wind out of your sails, they play a pretty nasty game sometimes,” he says.
The gripe against journalists turning to public relations is a common one, but Masters levels the blame squarely with poor pay and career development opportunities for new journalists. “When you look at new careers you can see that many journalists would rather a job as a minder for a politician or a PR flack because the pay is a hell of a lot better and there’s more career opportunities,” he says.
Even at the height of Masters’ career, investigative journalism was never easy. In 1987, his Four Corners report on Queensland corruption, The Moonlight State precipitated the Fitzgerald Inquiry, the first of a series of national enquiries into policing. The political fallout was such that Joh Bjelke-Petersen was pushed from the helm of National Party the following year.
Masters endured 13 years of litigation following the story, an enormously stressful period and it’s one that he still regrets. “I think it took years off my life and I survived it because I finally stopped being obsessive about it. I was caught in a terrible situation, I wasn’t going to get sympathy from anybody, I just had to deal with it,” he recalls.
“I also felt very lonely. I just felt that I was fighting hard for my industry, for journalism. If I had lost that case, not only would the Courier Mail have lost their cases but also it would have been a terrific loss for journalism, because essentially the bar would have been even higher. The record would show that no matter how right we are, no matter how hard we worked, no matter how important was the story, we were still wrong to do it. It was very important that I fight to prove that journalism was right, not just in what we broadcast, but in broaching the subject in the first place and doing what we did,” he says.