March 2009


Hidden treasure

By Chris Masters
Hidden treasure

Chris Masters in Tigre, Ethiopia, 1984. © Chris Doig.

Forty-three years at the ABC

I started at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation when it was still a Commission, on 10 March 1966. When I sorted out my resignation from Four Corners, late last year, I discovered my departure date – assigned by the chance expiry of accumulated leave – would be 9 March 2009. That amounts to almost 43 years with the national broadcaster. (The ‘almost’ I will explain later.)

Over those years I noticed a tendency in colleagues to condemn their workplace when they left after decades of service. It made me wonder why they stayed so long. While I might have more cause than many to attack my employer – for the slimy way that, in 2006, my book Jonestown was axed – I am inclined to another course.


Despite that dismal episode, I still see the ABC as a national treasure. It can be snobbishly self-important and oafishly bureaucratic. There are a lot of cardigans in those corridors. Managers come and go with the barest understanding of broadcasting, the central purpose of the place. A recent board became its organisation’s own biggest enemy.

The flaws are regularly pointed out by a press gang of bare-knuckle columnists. Public servants and institutions are an easy target – the punching bag hangs stubbornly, rarely swinging back. Part of the problem is the same one for journalism: explaining the essence of the work and its worth. The best of the ABC is – like the next big story – hard to see, and concealed in its capacity to surprise, enlighten and engage the nation. The moment I came to value far more than a Logie was when a stranger would stop me to talk about an old program recalled vividly. There is no ratings agency to measure the sort of work that gets through – along with all the good ideas, facts remembered and prejudices erased.

My apprenticeship might seem as bumbling as the ABC itself can sometimes appear. I joined in an age when someone barely out of school could become a foreign correspondent. Ray Martin and I both became what were called talks officers. Ray went to New York; I went to Albury.

The arrangement suited me. I came from a country town and remain strongly influenced by my mother, a local reporter who believed the best stories come from the heart. My first broadcasting job was at 2CO, where the mayor worked as a stringer. I well recall one of the first bulletins I heard: “Here is the news from the Riverina and north-eastern Victoria, prepared by Cleaver Bunton and read by Cleaver Bunton. Today the mayor of Albury, Alderman Cleaver Bunton, said ...” Multi-tasking is nothing new to people in the bush.

Among cherished colleagues in the ABC regional service were refugees from Maugham-esque scandals, failed priests and dipsomaniacs. One story had it that a newly arrived regional manager, when climbing up to the cistern to hide his bottle, found the tank already crowded. But I realised that within the ample cloak of the national broadcaster there would be numerous and sometimes hidden pockets of excellence. For all the form-filling and program-prevention officers, a respect for talent endures.

Alec Nichol, a rural broadcaster at home in his paddock, sometimes shared a studio with me. One day he stood and watched, and suggested I try sitting next to interviewees rather than across from them. It was the beginning of an understanding of the metaphysics of interviews. I learnt that the more productive work went into relaxing people, to help them speak thoughtfully and with generosity. It helped me move beyond the selfish convention of the question being more important than the answer. While others painstakingly wrote down question after question and stuck to the script, Alec told me to research as best I could and then listen, listen, listen.

And you listened to more than words. In country Australia you do not stir to the din of the ever-churning news cycle. As a young talks officer (Grade 1 – acting), I would rise in a panic when I realised that, yet again, nothing had happened. What was I to report? It would take me years to realise what good training this was for a prospective investigative reporter.

The writer Kenneth Cook was one of many notable journalists and authors to have done time in the ABC regionals. His Wake in Fright, the story of a young schoolteacher conscripted to Bundanyabba, had some familiarity. I feared the dingo trap of sweltering conformity. The bush can be dull and cruel, and unromantic too. Reporting could be an endurance test: only after you’ve walked every inch of the ground does the harvest begin. A strong sense of community responsibility evolves when journalists understand and face up to the people they write about. It is a fine balance, reporting what people need to know as much as what they want to know.

Because stories did not arrive in the way of city newsrooms, you had to go to them. This was a useful habit, and one I never lost. Once, when patrolling the Riverina, I ran into an Italian on a pilgrimage. Edgardo Simoni was a prisoner of war in Australia in the ‘40s. He had escaped three times, and had fallen in love with the land and its people. He told me of how a search party came upon him while he was rowing down the Murrumbidgee. A soldier raised his rifle and ordered him to stop. “You will not shoot me – you are an Australian,” Edgardo called, and rowed on.

In the bush the ABC is viewed through a very different political prism. John Howard’s government would later describe the national broadcaster as “our enemy talking to our friends”. In rural Australia, where stocks prices and river heights are part of the daily conversation, the ABC has conservative cachet. ABC reporters are frequently opening field days and yarning on wide verandahs. The charge that the national broadcaster speaks for an inner-city elite has never rung true out in those areas where the acronym could just as readily describe a broad church. When I worked at the ABC office in Tamworth, local staff would regularly refuse union directives to strike.

In 1977 I took a job in Rockhampton. Trollope, when he visited in the nineteenth century, is said to have described it as a city of “sin, sweat and sorrow”, so hot that when people died and went to hell they took their blankets with them. I would walk out the door of the Quay Street office in summer and feel like I had stuck my head in an oven.

The ABC Rockhampton office was where I had my first experience of television. I did not expect to like the medium but, as it turned out, it suited me. I came to see my work settling, sometimes awkwardly, into two fields: television and journalism. Journalism’s responsibility to inform sometimes threatens to collide with television’s requirement to entertain.

The best feature of journalism is the open horizon of the new story, the promise of discovery. What gets you up every day is the challenge to know more. Television also has its challenges: when the job is to make what is important interesting, not vice versa, reporters are forced to be creative. I came to enjoy telling stories with pictures and appreciate the narrative strengths of a medium that, good or bad, was overtaking print as people’s principal news source.

When I joined Four Corners, in 1983, the program had recently celebrated its twenty-first birthday and I had qualified almost twice for long-service leave. I did not know it at the time but there were riches in those folds of experience, working everywhere, making religious programs, doing sports broadcasts, crafting education documentaries, organising concerts in community halls. Every day I would meet people with different approaches to story-telling.

The breadth of the ABC meant I could experience diversity, but breadth also breeds complacency. Every now and then you have to jab a cattle prod up the arse of the place, which is pretty much what happened at Four Corners. Before I arrived, the reporter Charles Woolley had taken to walking the Four Corners floor hanging a trunk-like forearm from his face and making elephant sounds. Now the elephant’s graveyard was being cleaned out; a new, British executive producer, Jonathan Holmes (the current Media Watch host), was imported and a new reporting cast recruited. With a fair amount of film-making but very little front-line reporting under my belt, I was probably his biggest risk.

At this stage television current affairs was in the ascendancy. The ABC’s This Day Tonight had energised the form. Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes led the ratings, and the same network had launched Sunday where, unusually, reporters were released into the public and allowed to roam where the story took them. Sunday and Four Corners, in fact, had a lot in common.

My imagination back in the office never matched the things I encountered on the streets. My first Four Corners report, ‘The Big League’, began life as a kind of essay on the sporting ethic. We were to look at secret ‘boot money’ paid to rugby players. One of the leads we followed involved a court case that was alleged to have been fixed to get the chairman of the Rugby League, Kevin Humphreys, off an embezzlement charge. I was teamed with Peter Manning, another risk-taker. We worked for months; Jonathan Holmes agreed to constant extensions of our deadline. The story had veered away from sport into the judiciary and parliament. There was much to be uncovered.

Australia’s underbelly, despite the inclination to glamorise it, is banal. I have known Australians to risk all for a cold beer and a root in a brothel. As the Mr Asia Royal Commissioner, Justice Donald Stewart, used to tell me, we are a nation of prisoners and prison guards, still not sure which side we are on. In those days you did not have to be a crook to know the value of a crooked cop. I was aware of reporters dropping speeding tickets off at Parliament House, for someone in the know to get them cancelled.

I can’t imagine anyone contemplating such action now. And while speeding tickets might seem no big deal, back then corruption was far from innocent. Police armed-hold-up squads were known to organise armed hold-ups, just as drug squads franchised drug distribution. Criminals and others were summarily executed. A police officer who became a friend of mine, Michael Drury, was shot twice in the chest while carrying his toddler in his kitchen – and this was in Chatswood, on Sydney’s comfortable North Shore.

While the legal community and politicians were not in on the details of all this, enough of them knew enough to have done more. But the sophistry endured: that it was better this way; that corruption couldn’t be eliminated; that judicial short cuts were beneficial; that loose control of the underworld was more practical than rigid and ethical enforcement; and anyhow, what was the matter with a quid on the side? ‘The Big League’ was an early tilt at this spin, interpreting corruption Australian-style as a mild lubricant greasing the wheels of industry, and benign too – think of those generous donations to the Catholic Church from the local SP bookie. In preceding decades there was almost a routine to the appointment of crooked police commissioners. When he was the Chief Stipendiary Magistrate for New South Wales, Murray Farquhar cavorted openly with criminals. Our program exposed his role in influencing the outcome of the Kevin Humphreys case. Fellow magistrates told us how Farquhar had used the name of the Labor premier, Neville Wran, to get his way. A royal commission investigated, Wran was exonerated, and Humphreys and Farquhar were later jailed.

I remember turning up at a party after ‘The Big League’ was broadcast and being attacked by a Sydney film-maker, who declared me a class traitor for daring to offend the Labor Party. He was drunk as well as stupid. To this day, convincing people that the project began and ended without a trace of political motivation has proved difficult. The same is true of a later Four Corners program, ‘The Moonlight State’, which triggered another royal commission. Again, the outcome – the jailing of Queensland Police Commissioner Sir Terence Lewis and the fall of the tainted Bjelke-Petersen government – could not have been foreseen.

At Four Corners a kind of radar had been developed – one that not so much peered into the distance as detected warning signals. There was a concentration of resources on big stories. The program aimed high, but not at predetermined targets: Paul Barry was not to know that his 1989 report on Alan Bond’s empire would lead to the jailing of the entrepreneur. There were many more such powerful programs during what became known as a golden era of the program. The success of this period was largely unexpected, and I still wonder how such an unusual cluster of talent formed: Kerry O’Brien, Andrew Olle, David Marr, Tony Jones, Mark Colvin and Marian Wilkinson were some of the others to work at Four Corners in the '80s.

Towards the end of the decade, I took a job in commercial television (which explains the break in my 43-year run with the public broadcaster). I went because I liked the idea of taking good journalism to a bigger audience and I liked the ten-fold increase in salary. While the two tribes are fond of throwing spears at one another, in reality many of us cross and recross tribal lines during our careers.

The best thing about the move, apart from getting it out of my system, was a fresh sense of urgency about chasing stories. At the ABC we were inclined to sit and think for as long as possible before getting out of the chair. When I started at Network Ten’s Page One, in 1988, I found plenty of action and not as much thinking. But it seemed the network liked the idea of me rather than the actual me. It took 18 months for the program to collapse, after which I was able to slink back to the ABC and Four Corners.

It is easy to see that the nation would be worse off without the competition between public and commercial media. The tension keeps both sides relatively honest. The ABC does a lot of research, development and training for the commercial media; the commercial media is better at getting on with the job. But I found that did not always equate to greater efficiency.

The commercial networks also have their bureaucracies and program-prevention officers. They habitually buy rather than generate their own ideas. Managers get used to spending rather than thinking their way out of trouble. In the Packer period of Channel Nine, men were hired because they were the boy next door and women were chosen for their “fuckability”. Unabashed anti-intellectualism was rife. The network would stick to its Footy Show mentality even after the Footy Show audience tired of it.

The commercial networks would purchase concepts from the ABC and then watch them founder, because they were uninterested in the brainpower that had made them work in the first place. The ABC respects intelligence as well as talent. I noticed many times when we all got together that ABC people talked about their work, while commercial colleagues seemed to avoid the subject. That is what happens when you do it first for the money. At the ABC there is a direct connection to the public; in commercial television the first loyalty is to the marketplace.

As news programs began to generate decent profits, the culture of news as a public service began to degenerate. In the ‘70s, Michael Willesee’s A Current Affair had featured the story of the day out of Canberra, even if it didn’t rate. By the ‘90s, tabloid current affairs saw no problem with leading with a story on the psychic of the year. Willesee would later tell me that he got out when he saw the promo becoming more important than the program – when what people watched mattered less than getting them to watch.

A newsman such as Willesee running his own program became a rarity. The art of processing news was outsourced, in a sense, to the public through focus groups. Minute-by-minute ratings charts told producers what people liked, so people were given more of the same. It took about a decade for the currency to be incrementally devalued to a point where the prospect of surprising the audience vanished, as did the opportunity to improve the reporting skills of staff. It was as if the new managers were inoculating news-sense, so that few experienced reporters were left to train newer ones to find the stories that don’t want to be found. This process was not unique to television.

By now I had a better sense of the rhythms and patterns of investigative journalism. I could see how a newsroom benefited from having a range of skills on the floor. We needed people who could dig in; we needed those who could turn out a story quickly; we needed the film-makers, the lyrical yarn spinners, the politics and economics specialists. It does not work so well if everyone is good at the same thing. I had a greater appreciation of the skills core at Four Corners that had been (and still is) building quietly since 1961. Behind the reporters are researchers, producers, camera operators and editors who retain and develop a corporate memory. It is passed on to every newcomer. And I loved the immeasurable spirit of the place. The news business is cluttered with excuses that explain, often reasonably, why important stories don’t get covered. Such excuses are much rarer at Four Corners.

I knew now that breakthroughs came only after the first nervous weeks of constructing a story, when you need to hold to the course. Good breaks come in time – after the daily news cycle has passed. I knew that extensions to deadlines had to be earned through new discoveries. Give a reporter a luxurious deadline and it will soon be wasted.

I came to see why investigative journalism had not worked so well in commercial television. When you are told that everything has to be explained in the 15 or so minutes between commercial breaks, complex stories soon get discarded. When you tune your mood and language to the tone of the advertiser, the bleak and abstract and confronting slip away. The investigator’s eye soon adjusts to the stories that work within the confines of the show. In no time at all the vast potential beyond becomes imperceptible.

At the Four Corners office the light was still on. I would frequently return from assignments late at night to see somebody still at work. Public servants are not lazy and unaccountable when there is purpose to and pride in their work. The ABC’s management was supportive, for the most part leaving us alone. The legal department helped us through some tough fights: the ‘Moonlight State’ litigation alone went on for 13 years.

Yet the golden era had passed. It had come without warning and it went in much the same way. It was not as if we had suddenly taken to making bad programs: indeed, I thought the general standard had actually risen. But the defences against disruptive journalism were being built ever higher by an advancing public-relations industry, at the same time as we were becoming more averse to risk. Four Corners could no longer get away with the many stinkers we used to put to air, so the team was not making as many special programs. Resources had to be spread thinly through the unit, and there was less flexibility over deadlines. One of the hardest moments for an investigative reporter is to be on the brink of a major breakthrough and then have to stop and put what you’ve got to air. You know that if you don’t nail it properly, it will probably never be nailed.

In the ‘90s, the ABC entered a permanent cost-cutting drive. The first to go were the researchers. The cuts were not fatal, but they hurt. There were moments when I had to let opportunities slip for the lack of someone else to make telephone calls. I hated the idea that I would never know what might have been found.

By now I was accustomed to the idea that governments brawl with the ABC. During the first Gulf War I had interviewed a Middle East specialist from Macquarie University, Dr Robert Springborg, whose position on the war, and more particularly his use by the ABC, enraged Prime Minister Bob Hawke. I did not expect governments to like us. It always seemed like they were trying to do a deal with some branch of the media, and I presumed a lot of the animosity sprang from the difficulty they had in getting the ABC to play along.

The particular enmity of the Howard government did come as a small surprise. In the ‘80s the member for Bennelong lived within walking distance of the ABC’s Gore Hill studios. I remember him appearing on the Four Corners floor on a Saturday morning to talk to Andrew Olle, a friend and neighbour. I was impressed to see John and Janette Howard taking no special place in the audience at Andrew’s memorial service, in 1995. Back then I thought Howard one of the few who didn’t take personally the rough and tumble of political coverage.

I can’t say I saw no anti-conservative bias at the ABC. I can say I was a bit too close to be regarded a dispassionate observer. Recognising partiality is at least as hard for the insider as it is for the accuser. I did notice the loaded language and doubtful choice of subject matter and interviewee when I returned from a foreign assignment with a clearer eye. Younger reporters in particular can be sloppy, and it was often hard to drive the militants out. Across the political spectrum – from Alan Jones to John Pilger – activists are attracted to the media. But, unlike the ABC-bashing culture warriors, I did not see institutional bias as a first-order issue. By the Howard era, the lefties of the ‘70s were already as extinct as communism. At Four Corners, the executive producers would roll their eyes when an agenda was pushed.

The turn of the century saw Jonathan Shier applying a chainsaw to a job more suited to pruning shears. I had been wrong about John Howard. The worst was not so much the jihad against an elitist, out-of-touch media that had failed to follow the electorate when the Coalition won and won again; it was the overvaluing of presumed cultural allies such as Shier and the Australian Broadcasting Authority chairman, David Flint.

Looking back on the mission to break the culture of the ABC, you have to marvel at how poorly it was executed. Cultural change occurs when people are educated and persuaded. There was no such attempt: idiots were appointed and punishment was the goal. A management type I had already seen in commercial television began to stride the corridors. This sort is aggressive, outspoken and unproductive, and you wonder whether the noise is meant to mask the absence of achievement. My sister Sue, a pre-Shier head of ABC Drama who had presided over the successful SeaChange series and more, saw it coming and took a better-paid job in the private sector.

At the time, when I turned up to interview government ministers they would sneer at our crew of four, bemoaning ABC corpulence. When I explained that 60 Minutes also worked with a crew of four, they seemed not to hear. Allied culture warriors in the media were even tougher. It is hard to take seriously the claim that the ABC is agenda-driven and self-indulgent when the agenda-pushing and self-indulgence of the critics is so clearly worse than that which they seek to purge from the national broadcaster. Culture wars are clumsy. The Four Corners reporter Ticky Fullerton was excoriated after a report on the Tasmanian forest industry was shown to contain errors. The proposition that this was evidence of a sloppy left-wing agenda at work was plainly ridiculous – Ticky, Oxford-educated and business-trained, was no captive of the Left. And when Gerard Henderson criticises the ABC broadcaster Fran Kelly, the charge of leftist bias is again levelled. Fran cops it sweet, for there is little alternative. It is easier for Henderson to believe that he was shown the door for political reasons rather than because he was thought at times to be repetitive and boring.

Newspaper columnists in particular seek broader exposure. They get it from the electronic media and especially the ABC. On television, the way you say something can be at least as important as what you say, and it often seemed to me that the main reason the ABC bashers missed the casting cut was because they were inferior performers. And if the ABC is so irrelevant anyway, why does it matter? Why don’t the commentators try the commercial networks instead?

Some of the culture warriors later lamented the failure of the Howard era to reform the ABC. If the model suggested by the Shier years is any guide, the nation should be grateful. The scheme that worried me most was that which aimed at cleansing the ABC’s legal department. Over the years it was easy to sense a resentment that the ABC could rely on taxpayers’ dollars to defend the broadcasting of contentious programs. When it came to litigation, even the likes of Kerry Packer could not so easily trump the government in a game of deep pockets. We often heard whispers suggesting that some in management and on the board believed ABC Legal had been captured by ABC News. Pressure mounted. The senior lawyer who had been my most valued ally in the ‘Moonlight State’ litigation, Judith Walker, left, worn out. Network Ten later hired her. Jane Summerhayes, another ABC lawyer who defended ‘The Moonlight State’ also left, to be hired by News Limited.

The new era that accompanied these departures saw the demise of my book Jonestown, commissioned by ABC Enterprises and cancelled following contradictory advice by new forces within ABC Legal. At the same time, pressure was being applied to encourage the referral of contentious program content to the ABC board.

The notion that the old legal department was a problem that needed to be fixed is an example of the reform process at its most sinister. It is likely that without the old legal department, a range of programs which were clearly in the public interest would never have been made. Another reason the ABC is important is its longstanding preparedness to defend significant journalism. Elsewhere, the high cost of litigation too often sees editorial principles defeated by commercial rather than public interest.

I was never given a comprehensive account of why Jonestown was suddenly axed – on the same day the board sat, just prior to the appointment of a new managing director, Mark Scott. I did notice that people closely associated with the drama soon moved on. I came to suspect that the decision was seen as a bad one. ABC authors had begun to take their work elsewhere, and ABC Books soon folded, to be taken over by Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins. The best that can be said is all that ideologically driven clumsiness paved the way for at least the promise of an independently appointed ABC board, and highlighted the difficulty of a commercial enterprise co-existing with a public service.

At the moment the organisation seems in good shape. Polling consistently indicates that the public does not share the recurring political obsession to tame the ABC, and the broadcaster is improving its audience share in a difficult media market. In times of crisis, such as February’s catastrophic bushfires in Victoria, the importance of the national broadcaster is most evident. For much of Australia, ABC Radio is the only source of reliable local news, and has strong links to local communities and emergency services. While the commercial networks are better at breaking into schedules and raising funds, they don’t seem to be able to help themselves when it comes to wringing out that last tear and turning misery into entertainment. ABC reporters in the Victorian bushfires were a steady and measured presence, drawing praise from the governor-general, Victoria’s premier and numerous government ministers and agencies, while anchors back in the studios provided essential information around the clock.

The reporter Rachel Brown returned from covering the fires with a common story. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘Thank God for the ABC’ over my past week in Beechworth. So many people approached me to praise the ABC’s depth of coverage, its sensitivity, but most importantly its crucial role,” she said. “The ABC remains, quite literally, a lifeline for these people. Most lost power Saturday night, so no TV, no internet. Without the ABC they wouldn’t have known what to do, and couldn’t have made an informed decision about staying or going. Every interviewee I called or visited said the ABC [on the radio] hadn’t been turned off.”

When I looked around last year on my way out the door, though, long-form journalism had lost more of its reach. Sunday and the Bulletin were gone. During the year I had made a call to a print journalist, passing on a tip that I thought was a certain front-page story. A harried voice at the other end of the line asked, “Can you prove it?” Reporters in well-resourced newspapers would normally be eager for a good lead and appreciate the need to do the proving themselves. But this reporter was trapped by two-hour turnarounds: there was no time to hunt and chase.

Newspapers, their management perplexed by shrinking circulation and unable to find a way to get online viewers to pay for content, are starving the goose. A contracting skills base means a steady dissolution of quality. A fine narrative is harder to find. We endure the misery of lazy commentary at the expense of hard news. Reporters talk of a ‘good get’ as if breaks are exclusively a matter of luck. They are embedded within offices devoid of corporate memory – the memory that tells them the internet and telephone can also disengage. In private, experienced reporters tell me they have taken to hiding their best yarns from their own editors, conscious that if they open their mouths an ill-formed story will be splashed. They speak without shame of suppressing facts for the sake of maintaining access to inside stories.

Television news routinely covers publicity events staged by those who are conscious of newsrooms’ need for pictures that can be packaged easily before 6 pm. Reporters and producers complain that their work is more like that of event managers. I see no evidence that good stories are no longer there, that good reporters don’t want to tell them, or that the public has surrendered its right to know. If the public is suffering news fatigue, it is surely a reaction to the diet.

To survive, media organisations must recognise that news is unpredictable, that it does not conform to a script generated by focus groups. Those surging currents of press releases and the opinions of noisy columnists are predictable, and they are not helping. The skills that matter emerge when reporters value uncertainty and editors encourage curiosity. Sadly, in the Australian media the opposite is more likely to occur.

The ABC is not immune from such trends: a shrinking skills core is bad for every organisation. But at least there is an ABC. Like most twenty-first-century workplaces it is no longer likely to offer recruits a lifelong career, but it will put reporters out there. It will teach them to follow the story, and to be brave. And it will maintain its first loyalty to the Australian public.

I am heartened, perhaps illogically, by the knowledge that we can’t see what is coming. I have often noticed how the best journalism occurs in much the same way.

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