The following is a speech Chris Master delivered at the official opening of JNI’s new headquarters in Sydney.
A few weeks back I received a phone call from a Queensland police officer telling me they had reopened a case I reported on over thirty years ago. An indigenous Australian, Kelvin Condren, was then serving a life sentence for the murder of his girlfriend, Patricia Carlton. Problem was, another man had confessed to the murder, but as I learned the confession had been covered up. I can only presume the police and the judiciary at that time figured it was better to leave an innocent man in gaol than admit their own grievous error.
In time the evidence was ushered from hiding. Condren was released and all these years later the untangling of that matted web of deceit goes on. I identify the case for two reasons. First, in journalism evidence of the worth of what we do is rarely this obvious. Second, for those as angered as I was about an innocent man left to decay in prison, where else was there to go to but the fourth estate?
When I reflect on a half century career as one of the reptiles, probably like the rest of you, I am pained by the demagogues and the dissemblers of self-interest as public interest, who proliferate the media landscape. I am more than wearied by the defamation decades; my death by a thousand courts, which as it happens, at an age when I qualify for the Astra Zeneca jab, are ongoing. For all that, never once have I lost faith in the worth of journalism and its contribution to good citizenship and humanity.
My best teacher, my mother Olga, an alert observer working with humble purpose on publications such as The Land and the Manly Daily counselled that if I chose to believe in anything, it would be to maintain faith in human decency. According to the code of Olga, if we report with fairness, courage, honesty and insight it should all work out. We apply all the skill and industry we can muster within an ever-narrow timeframe. We make mistakes – there is no such thing as mistake free journalism. But we learn – we are in partnership with the public. We don’t own the narrative, nor do we control the outcome.
To this day I am still stopped by people in the street, who recall with enthusiasm Mum’s big, little stories my mother written in the last century. This goes to another abstract accounting of our worth. The quantitative measures of circulation, ratings and news cycle water cooler gossip is ephemera beside the qualitative outcome of stories and thoughts and ideas that stick through the years.
A decade ago when I left Four Corners a bleak future was encroaching. It was already clear we were losing the public square – that information sources were dispersing. Narrowcasting was a new normal with an unwitting public obliged to become its own information gatekeeper.
What bothered more than diminished revenue and ratings was an eroding skills base. I feared a future where people might say the ABC and for that matter journalism, was no longer worth it.
Odd that skilled communicators have done such a poor job of explaining ourselves. It might be because so much of our methodology drifts into the realm of black art. The nuances of gathering evidence, prioritising news value, garnering trust, being there – in the right place at the right time and going on to form a narrative that captures attention can be hard to explain.
I think of the great American CBS correspondent Ed Murrow who could work his stories both bottom up and top down, who seemed like other great journalists to have a talent for truth. Imagine, being there is the White House with President Roosevelt, sharing sandwiches and beer at the end of that momentous day in December 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbour.
I have thought a lot about this and, for what it is worth, consider this so-called talent for truth as less mysterious and more a product of being so often engaged in this process of sifting fact and calling out bullshit, that you do develop skills. As such, high praise goes to Judith Neilson for this institute, which to quote, supports ‘evidence-based journalism and the pursuit of truth’.
I have argued for some time that the difficulty of identifying absolutes in truth is no excuse not to try.
And it is a pleasure to be here talking journalism in the digital age with something good to say. I can think in recent years of plenty of encounters with young journalists seeking career advice, and doing my best, but wishing there was something more to say than that the need for good journalism won’t go away. We just need patience.
But here is something more, a resource centre that nourishes and preserves skills. There is competition in all industries, which hopefully is mostly healthy. But less so perhaps in ours, where at the moment we seem to be scratching each-others’ eyes out chasing the last of the survival rations. We need unity now more than ever. And we should be united in that our first responsibility is not to a demagogue, a lobbyist or political interest, but to the public.
We are united in one profound feature of our work, storytelling. Whether you are working on a 600-word filler for the Wentworth Courier, a minute and a half report for Nine News or a long form feature for a broadsheet or Four Corners we are all telling a story. And here I think much can be done to enhance skills in narrative journalism. Looking back, when I think of the stories that made a difference, I am sure they worked not only because news was broken but also because they were well written, well told. Another exquisite benefit of enhancing narrative skills is becoming less fearful of injecting fairness and balance. Indeed, in all probability the story will be enriched.
So, I am further impressed by the intended reach across the spectrum of competition and contrariness. Journalism is for everyone. All stories matter. The objective is to apply meaning, and try to make what is important interesting, rather than the other way around.
Thanks to all for coming. Your presence and Judith’s vision exemplifies mum’s time-honoured faith in public decency.
Chris Masters is a Gold Walkley award-winning investigative journalist and the author of several books.