Chris Masters – investigative journalist, Four Corners, ABC, author of Jonestown (about Alan Jones), Gold Walkley winner.
One of his most “perfect” stories, where everything worked pretty smoothly, was about the Rainbow Warrior bombing (which killed a man), and turned into a worldwide scoop on the French Government’s “state-sponsored terrorism”.
He had to fly to various countries and at one stage the French spies were so desperate to evade him that they sank their getaway yacht and got picked up by a submarine.
“For that story, one in 100, I was always in the right place at the right time.”
But for the other 99 stories, it’s “usually painful, every step of the way”.
“You’re extracting secrets – information that people are extremely resistant to give.
“[When you ring] they never say, ‘You beaut, I’ll put the kettle on.’ ”
“A lot of the battle is winning their trust. And you do that by being trustworthy. Eventually you’ll find some people who are eager to cooperate.”
THE IDEA, NOT THE ANGLE
“I hate editors asking, ‘What’s your angle?’ I don’t want to give an oblique account of a story. Balance is seen as a dirty word.
“The idea is what’s important. I like the ‘idea’ because it doesn’t exclude anything. And that leads to good narrative and will make you a good reporter. I love narrative, it’s more honest.
“If you have a command of narrative, you will love balance. Every story has lots of dead ends and twists and turns. Life is full of the challenges of integrating opposites – you love your kids, despite the fact they tell you lies. The world is full of that.”
An example of an idea that embraces contradictions, was “A Careful War” http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/special_eds/20100705/afghanistan/ for his two-part Four Corners programs on Afghanistan. “It’s an intellectually engaging and confronting idea because all wars are chaotic. Our soldiers were having to learn how to pat kids on the head while scoping out the bloke in the field with a hoe, which could be a machinegun.”
“I get my high out of that moment – ‘Here, I have a great story to tell you.’ When you’ve done the hard work and can’t wait to tell it. It keeps me going.”
“I hate the type of journalism that’s: “I know who Mr Big is.” That’s only good for gossip at the pub.
Journalism is about judgment. You have a bullshit detector. Constantly cultivate a talent for the truth. It’s not a mystical or magical. There are a number of top reporters who got it right. Edward Murrow (US reporter, 1908-1965) – he applied good judgment and good narrative.”
“You need a methodology so you have control over the evidence. You assemble the evidence and form the narrative.
“My system looks like a mess but there’s method in the madness.
“I make my notes, then type them up, which focuses my mind on what is useful.
“Ninety per cent of the material gathered is wasted, so working in a team is best. Everyone attends meetings, types up the notes, shares them with the team and then pick out the best quotes.
PLANNING AN AFGHANISTAN STORY
“Turning up in Afghanistan is very ropey. It’s a complex story to tell for various reasons. There’s the prospect of being executed or taken as a hostage and the [Australian] government being held to ransom. You can’t turn up in a village and ask what they think, you won’t get the truth.”
To get a couple of viewpoints, Masters embedded a team with the ADF and had a second team roaming around outside.
“We’re in a democracy, so we’re all responsible in a way for being in the war. We should do our best to understand what our government’s doing.”
DON’T GO FOR THE GLAMOROUS TOPICS
“Good journalists put their hands up for everything. You have to challenge yourself, test yourself, back yourself. To make something interesting important is easy, it’s done all the time.
The craft is to make what is important interesting. What’s important is often not interesting. It’s about public education. ‘Command of the narrative’ is what you use to make it interesting.”
He gave an example of his story, Gambling the Farm, transcript here.
“I had to find a microcosm, a community on a climate fault line, easily affected by drought.”
When he finally found a suitable area,he turned up with a crew and it rained for the first time in a decade! “What did we do? We didn’t pack up and go. You can’t just leave because the facts don’t fit in with your preconceptions of who is the villain and who is the hero. I adjusted the story to ‘survival in this critical area’.
WHAT COMES FIRST – WORDS OR PICTURES?
“I’m often asked, particularly in this era of multimedia, what comes first? The words? Or the pictures? Do you grab people with the power of an image of sheep with a beautiful sunset?
“Neither. It’s the idea that comes first.
“Look for something within the maze of information that shows the bigger picture.’’
“There’s no job that doesn’t have moral pain. Don’t think you’ll escape it by going into PR — think of James Hardie. Every job has moral pain.”
He said that while it’s easy to “feel like a vulture” doing death knocks, “as often as not, people are welcoming”. “Some don’t want a death to be ignored and mean nothing.”
DECENCY – TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
When Masters was doing the Afghanistan story, two of the soldiers in the team he was with were killed. “We put our cameras down. We didn’t want to exploit it. We didn’t overplay it. We weren’t being clever or cunning or smart. It was just the right thing to do. The story isn’t always the most important thing.”
“I don’t think of myself as a brave person. I accept there are risks, but it’s a vocation for me, not just a job.
“I don’t want to overstate the danger. The truth is a battleground, but I take calculated risks. I don’t do demonstrations of courage.
“There have been lots of times I’ve been in fear for my personal safety and lots of nasty things have happened to me, but nothing compared to mates in Indonesia and Columbia.
“Most threats are bluffs. The only Australian journalist to be murdered was Juanita Nielsen (a publisher, opposed a development in Kings Cross, went missing 1975).
“The worst thing is legal action. “The courts are demoralising and draining – years of expensive litigation are a pain. It’s death by a thousand courts.”