Seventeen years on and journalist Chris Masters can still recall, in vivid detail, the looks etched on the faces of individual corpses piled up on either side of a road in Rwanda.
During his 45 years as a journalist and reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous warzones, Masters has witnessed first-hand “human atrocity, corruption and savagery” of the worst order.
He has seen bloodshed in Bosnia, avoided a human stampede in Yugoslavia, embarrassed the French Government, exposed corruption in the Queensland Police Force and endured numerous death threats.
But it was the genocide he witnessed in Rwanda – which he recounts in Inside a Holocaust – that had the biggest impact on him.
“I had never been witness to human genocide until I visited Rwanda. It was like purgatory,” he says.
“I was driving out to these camps along a narrow dirt track and there were bodies piled up on either side of the track that went above the roof of the car. You’d look out the window of the car and you would look into the faces of dead people. I still see those faces in fine detail. It was like being in a holocaust and you can’t fail to be affected by that. I think you can’t fail to see the responsibility that your public should be affected too.”
AN ORGANIC CAREER
The sense of responsibility that comes with being an observer of the best and worst of the human condition has loomed large throughout Masters’ long career.
Widely considered Australia’s finest investigative journalist, Masters is Four Corners’ longest-serving reporter and has collected five Walkley Awards and a Logie Award – a testament to a highly successful career.
But despite his ‘big city’ success, Masters still sees himself as a country boy.
One of seven children, Masters grew up in the NSW town of Grafton.
His father was a teacher; his mother was the ‘local journo’ and responsible for leading Masters into his future vocation.
He describes journalism as an “organic career choice”, adding that the typewriter played a large part in his upbringing.
“I grew up in a story-telling family [so] I guess you could say that, growing up, I had an apprenticeship as a storyteller,” he says.
After spending the first part of his career learning his craft in various regional centres including Rockhampton and Albury, Masters was forced to relocate to the big smoke for family reasons.
“My daughter was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1970s, so I moved the whole family to Sydney in order to be closer to her treatment centre,” he says.
Masters landed a job with the ABC almost immediately, which marked the beginning of a very fruitful television career.
It was during his time working for the ABC’s Rural program that Masters work was noticed and he was offered a job working for Four Corners, which was in the throes of a major program overhaul.
“When I started on Four Corners, they were actively trying to rebuild the show and the brand. They were looking for local Australian reporters and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Masters says.
TRUTH-TELLING AND STORY-BREAKING
Far from being a happy accident however, Masters was seen to breathe new life into the show.
In fact his first story ‘The Big League’ which aired in 1983, triggered the Street Royal Commission, reforms to judicial accountability and resulted in the chief magistrate of NSW being sent to prison.
It was also the start of Masters’ own move into the big league. In 1985, he won the gold Walkley for his story ‘French Connections’, about the sinking of the Greenpeace vessel ‘Rainbow Warrior’.
The story made headlines around the world and Masters describes it as one of his greatest achievements to date. “[It was] like being caught up in a real-life adventure spy thriller,” he says.
In 1987, he had well and truly arrived as a journalistic force to be reckoned with, with ‘Moonlight State’. The Four Corners story exposed corruption in the Queensland police force that led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry and a raft of reforms that reached well beyond Queensland.
Uncovering – and reporting – corruption of the order that Moonlight State exposed certainly cemented Masters’ place as an investigative journalist, but was also fraught with personal risks.
But Masters believes success is bred from taking risks.
He says he wouldn’t be where he is today had he not decided to take calculated risks.
“Risks expose you, but your work or business are generally the better off for them,” he says, adding that risks also expose truth and there is value in uncovering the truth.
“If you do your job properly and you tell the public what is going on in an honest and accurate way, some worth will come from it.”
And it’s clear that Masters’ passion for investigative reporting hasn’t waned.
“Discovering things, it’s like finding diamonds sometimes; it’s absolutely thrilling,” he says. “The highs are those terrific moments when you’re on a good story and it’s unfolding in front of you and you are living with that daily battle for the truth.”
Of course, the truth is not something everyone agrees with – as Masters discovered during one of his more memorable forays into investigative journalism involving radio broadcaster Alan Jones.
Masters’ unauthorised biography of Alan Jones, Jonestown, was controversial from the beginning. After agreeing to publish the book, a nervous ABC Enterprises demurred and it was published by Allen & Unwin.
“The book became a product of censorship, which worried and upset me. I knew it was something of interest to the Australian public and I knew the story needed to be told,” says Masters.
But Masters says while many people were critical of the book and the way it was written, it dealt with an important public issue. “Alan Jones is not a broadcaster, he is a politician who broadcasts,” Masters says.
“It was never about trying to demolish Jones as he has demolished so many before him, it was about examining his power base and confronting it. It was a story that needed to be told, and as a journalist, I see that as my public responsibility.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Reflecting on his career, Masters says he has never had a problem finding the story. Rather, the challenge lies in telling it in a compelling way.
More challenging however is dealing with the after-effects of reporting from a warzone or civil conflict.
“There is a shock that comes with returning to the ordinary,” says Masters of his time as an international reporter.
“But while you struggle to come to terms with the fact that the most important thing you now face is whether or not your football team wins the next game.
“I always appreciated the fact that I was returning to a civilised environment, where I could get a new perspective from my civilised surroundings.”
According to Masters, the harder journalism and the journalism that requires more courage is that conducted in “civilised countries”. He says the true mark of a journalist is the ability to “tell a compelling story about a local issue”.
“[That means] a story where you attack an unforgiving subject where you are forced to hold your nerve in the hope that ultimately you’ll get there,” he says.
For those who are interested in the truth, it’s fortunate that Masters has been there many times.