Inflated egos, crusading capers, and the public's right to know

Local journalist and filmmaker, Greg Hall, attempts to explain the motivations of journalists who belong to a profession that has never scored highly in the popularity stakes – generally rating alongside used car and door-to-door sales folk.

Inflated egos, crusading capers, and the public's right to know

In this scribe’s humble observation, as a member of the ‘Fourth Estate’ for a quarter of a century, journalists seem to have a pretty high opinion of themselves - for better or worse.

 

A dear friend and colleague, who chaired our union’s judiciary committee, would often rail at how Mary and Joe Public simply didn’t understand what we in this “great profession” of journalism were trying to do.

 

He would lament that the general public simply didn’t understand that while our colleagues did their best to observe and adhere to our code of ethics, sometimes, getting to the truth required crossing the line now and then.

 

“Do they really think we do this for the bloody money?” he would grunt, to punctuate his final assessment of the previous night’s judiciary proceedings, while looking at his payslip for his previous week’s effort at the newspaper where we worked in the ‘90s.

 

Some poor schmuck had been “hauled” before the AJA’s judiciary for some transgression or other after a complaint from a member of the public or a disgruntled individual who thought they had been wronged, but stood little chance of getting up a defamation case against either the journalist or the media outlet that had published the story.

 

We both worked for The Catholic Weekly, when his Eminence, Ted Clancy ruled the roost with a benevolent but careful and conservative hand, and we all thought that in spite of our relatively small but respectable circulation, not to say anything of our geographical canonical footprint, we worked for Australia’s pre-eminent Catholic publication.

 

(This view may not have been shared by our colleagues at our sister publications, like Melbourne’s The Advocate, Brisbane’s The Catholic Leader or Adelaide’s Southern Cross.)

 

To his credit, my colleague, a man then in his 50s with an exterior and voice marked deeply by his journey in the profession, had fought many a great fight, before crossing the divide to the religious media.

 

He had championed the powerless against the powerful when it came to revealing the truth about the unscrupulous, the corrupt and the downright dangerous who threatened democracy, the rule of law and those rights we all naively assumed protected us.

 

Whenever a controversial subject was suggested that my colleague wanted to pursue but which would surely displease one group or another within the Catholic community, he would announce loudly, “Ace (his nickname for me), Truth bears all Scrutiny.”

 

He stood by this credo and it stood by him while working for London’s The Daily Mirror in Fleet Street in the early 70s, or from the streets and taverns of Addis Ababa in North Africa, or on the ABC as its long-standing medical reporter.

 

Such was his passionate commitment to telling the truth that his final hours in Queensland in the late ‘70s saw him being forced to make a break for the NSW border as he was pursued by rogue elements of Queensland’s constabulary.

 

The continuous noise of growing and deepening corruption within Queensland during the interestingly eccentric rule of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen had been the stuff of great rumour and speculation across bars and newsrooms around the country. My colleague’s sharply honed nose for a good corruption story saw him move across the border.

 

Working for Brisbane’s The Courier Mail (pre-Murdoch/News Ltd buyout) he attempted to report on this dark period in Queensland’s history. But my colleague's poking around and asking uncomfortable questions brought him to the attention of Queensland’s finest.

 

They felt his type of journalism had the potential to shed far too bright a light on their racketeering and protectionist activities in Fortitude Valley or Sin Town and was plainly unhelpful.

 

My colleague was given notice; you better be across the border within the next 24 hours, otherwise living in the Sunshine State won’t be so rosy, sonny Jim, a copper mate said to him one night.

 

This view of Queensland, seriously at odds with the one immortalised in the tagline - “Beautiful one day, perfect the next” - was not the image certain public officials wanted light shed upon.

 

Well , that's how my colleague told his story. It was a great yarn and I had no reason to doubt it, such was my enthusiasm to affirm my own reasons for becoming a journalist.

 

Some years later, ABC reporter Chris Masters, following a series of reports by Brisbane journalist Phil Dickie in The Courier Mail, revealed to Australia the ugly truth of the extent of systemic high-level corruption that had come to exist in Queensland's police force. His report, "The Moonlight State", aired on Four Corners in 1987. 

 

Its airing on the ABC’s eminent current affairs program Four Corners in May that year was the catalyst for the Royal Commission known as the Fitzgerald Inquiry (1987-89), its formation announced the day after the broadcast by the State’s deputy premier, Bill Gunn, while his boss was away.

 

Headed by QC, Tom Fitzgerald, the inquiry was to investigate allegations of corruption within the Queensland police force. Twice the inquiry’s terms of reference were revised and expanded at Fitzgerald’s insistence.

 

The fallout from the inquiry was a game-changer for the once mighty and unassailable National Country Party; it ended its 32-year run on the Treasury benches in Queensland, along with its leader, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

 

The inquiry also saw more than 100 convictions, two by-elections, the gaoling of three former ministers along with the state's most senior policeman, Commissioner Sir Terry Lewis, sans his knighthood.

 

The Four Corners website states that Chris Masters’ work became the subject of twelve subsequent years of litigation.

 

You can still see the original broadcast through the Four Corners web portal. This is an example of how technology allows access to such historically significant events well beyond the number who watched in May 1987.

 

In the canon of great journalism, this goes down as one of the best and most significant pieces of investigative reporting. It would be classed as “quality journalism” – the tag that now is the cry by which the once mighty and powerful newspapers are desperately trying to distinguish their mastheads from the constant chatter of the Twitter/social media-fed/24-7 news cycle.

 

“The Moonlight State” is powerful testimony that the highest ideals of journalism can serve the public and its right to know.

 

Nevertheless, the issues that dominated Queensland’s political, legal and civil life had been brewing away for decades and many were aware of this, as is clearly evident from numerous books that covered this time in the state’s history.

 

Certainly the state’s peculiar political structure, that both the Australian Labor Party and then the National Country Party had successfully manipulated to ensure that their guiding hand never strayed from the state’s tiller and purse strings, was well documented and commented upon.

 

In the years leading to the Fitzgerald Inquiry, many folk had benefited greatly from the systemic corruption that had come to pervade all levels of Queensland society, directly or indirectly.

 

Those who spoke out were forced into submission, at the end of a police baton, to leave the state, or just to keep quiet. It became dangerous to speak out against the corruption, be it on the streets, in the workplace, the classroom or lecture hall, in the media or on the floor of the parliament.

 

The darker side of journalism also came into view: the self-censorship that was practised across the board in order to keep your job or to stay out of harm’s way, or ensure that you didn’t jeopardise the lucrative advertising and distribution arrangements that were the life-blood of many media organisations. 

 

The tension between what constitutes public and private interest is by its nature a constant and dynamic one, as it should be.

 

It puts us all on notice to beware and be vigilant, if we are to protect and ensure that what we leave behind is a just and fair society that strives to do the best by all.

 

It goes without saying that this behoves the Fourth Estate to be just as vigilant and not stop asking those uncomfortable questions, no matter what reality they may reveal.

 

Greg Hall can be found on Twitter (@Truthtypist) or gmhmedia@me.com

 

Read his earlier Aurora article from August 2012.

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