A masterclass in investigative journalism: Bron Sibree interviews Chris Masters
Thorough research, steadfastness and perseverance are just a few of the traits shown by journalist Chris Masters to tell the truth about Australia's most decorated soldier, writes Bron Sibree
Flawed Hero: Truth, Lies and War Crimes *****
Allen & Unwin
It was dubbed “the defamation trial of the century”. Now, esteemed Australian investigative journalist Chris Masters’s new book Flawed Hero: Truth, Lies and War Crimes takes you deep inside this civil trial that has dominated global headlines for the past five years.
When Australia’s most decorated soldier, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, sued Masters, his fellow award-winning investigative journalist Nick McKenzie and three newspapers over claims he had committed war crimes in Afghanistan, the stakes could not have been higher. Not just for Roberts-Smith, who had the backing of the billionaire media magnate he worked for at that time, or the military, but for investigative journalism itself.
In June last year, after a 110-day trial, said to have cost more than A$25m (about R309m), Justice Antony Besanko of the Federal Court dismissed the case. In a heavily redacted 465-page report he explained his ruling that it was “substantially true” that the Special Air Services Corporal had murdered four unarmed Afghans, bullied fellow soldiers, threatened witnesses and “was not an honest and reliable witness ... in many areas”.
Roberts-Smith, who left the Australian Defence Force in 2013, has not been charged with any claims in a criminal court, which has a higher burden of proof than a civil court, and is appealing the case. But for Masters, that judgment was crucial, irrespective of the appeal. Not that such a costly win of an uncompleted case, he notes, “was an encouragement to investigative journalism. But If we’d have lost this one, it would have felt like we were flat on our faces. Investigative journalism is hard to defend because it is so expensive, and most of the investigative programs that I grew up with are not there any more, so we knew this was almost like a last gasp.”
Riveting, confronting, even horrific in parts, Flawed Hero is a 555-page masterclass in investigative journalism. Notions of trust, truth and perseverance loom large as it steps readers through, in meticulous detail, all the research and thought processes in the investigative reporting that led to that 2018 defamation charge. It is also a tense courtroom drama, detailing the evidence of more than 40, mainly military witnesses and their interrogation by highly-paid barristers.
Disturbingly too, it exposes the dark side of Australian media. From the outset, Masters and McKenzie endured a barrage of unfounded accusations by two rival media groups who failed to do any research, relying instead on disinformation. For Masters, whose distinguished career spans five decades, a swag of awards and multiple ground-breaking stories triggering judicial, police and political reform, “It was the experience that depressed me most of all, and I’ve been quite clear in the book about my anger about that. I did think of it as a contest between truth and power.”
Contrary to his media rivals’ accusations, in writing two acclaimed books about Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, Masters had never set out to “get” Roberts-Smith or expose war crimes, he says, “because I had no knowledge of them.” Rather, having been embedded with the Australian military three times in Afghanistan, including with the Special Air Services Regiment in 2011 — the only journalist to do so — Masters had earned a reservoir of trust inside the forces.
His 2012 book, Uncommon Soldier, even contains a flattering reference to Roberts-Smith. Yet by 2016, when the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) launched an investigation into possible breaches of the laws of armed conflict, insiders had already relayed to Masters that all was not well inside the regiment, along with whispers about Robert-Smith’s conduct. The inquiry’s final report, the Brereton Report, would go on to find, four years later, “credible evidence” that elite Australian solders unlawfully killed 39 people in Afghanistan, and to recommend that 19 current or former soldiers be investigated.
“But at that point,” recounts Masters, “I knew of allegations that weren’t specifically about war crimes, they were about misconduct.”
April 2017 was a key turning point for Masters. First came an interview with Roberts-Smith to clarify passages in his second book No Front Line, which told of the Special Services 13-year Afghanistan engagement. “Ironically, it wasn’t about a war crime, but about a disparity in accounts of what had occurred in an action in Koran Ghar, Afghanistan, in which Roberts-Smith had been awarded his first major medal. If Ben had said 'oh these guys have a different account, but we all see things differently, no disrespect', it might not have come to this. But instead he got very angry,” recounts Masters, who left the interview with the overwhelming impression that Roberts-Smith
“was not behaving like man with nothing to hide”.
A few days later, Masters received a late-night phone call from an anonymous caller on an encrypted line, who said: “He kicked this bloke off a cliff. As his face spun down, it smashed against the wall and his teeth sprayed out. The bloke who saw it can’t get the image out of his mind. He said he had to get away from Roberts-Smith. It was not the first time he said this stuff happened. RS is a bloody psychopath.” The call left Masters shaken, and after making inquiries of his sources, he writes, “the outline of a story emerged, cruel to the point of abomination.”
Masters then emailed Roberts-Smith, as he’d promised, with all references to the former soldier in No Front Line, in case he wished to make amendments. He also mentioned the cliff-kick allegation, emphasising it would not be in the book, but that should he wish to discuss it, Masters was open to doing so. “I knew I couldn’t put in No Front Line, because I didn’t have enough evidence. But the first thing to do, the fair thing to do, is put it to the person concerned.”
The response was a flurry of letters from Roberts-Smith’s lawyer, not just to Masters but to his publisher, and two former comrades with differing accounts of the Koran Ghar battle, threatening legal action if they didn’t surrender to Roberts-Smith’s account. Sensing the legal battle to come, Masters, a freelancer, enlisted McKenzie, an industrious award-winning journalist 30-years his junior, as an ally.
“Connecting with Nick was not just connecting with another investigative reporter but with a major media organisation that could provide research and legal support. I could never have done it on my own.”
Nor did he wish to get into “a fight with Australia’s most decorated soldier and a billionaire”, but as he explains in Flawed Hero, “Truth has a gravitational pull all its own.” By the time Roberts-Smith sued them in 2018, the pair had published a series of shockingly revelatory articles, including indicating he was under investigation by the IGADF inquiry, and were confident enough in their investigative reporting to mount a truth defence — considered almost impossible to win. They were helped too, by the trial delay caused by the pandemic, which, “enabled us to build our witness list considerably”.
All in all, this is, as he writes in the closing pages of Flawed Hero, “an awful story. But like many an awful story, it is useful, and it allows a reset on all things Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps)”. As he now reaffirms to me: “Soldiers the world over must have a true appreciation of their capability as a nation and as an individual soldier. Myth will get you killed.” He urges too, that credit be given to those soldiers, “who actually had the guts to speak up because they’ve actually saved others their jobs. I think if this hadn’t been self-reported, that regiment may well have been closed down. One of Roberts-Smith’s mates actually said to me,” adds Masters, “this whole story rescued the soul of the Anzac.”
Chris Masters on books that have influenced him
The Home Girls, by Olga Masters, who is my mother. She’s been a big influence on my life. A journalist of course, a mostly provincial suburban journalist, but who has such great capability and taught me a huge amount.
This is the only book on my list that is fiction, but it’s got to be there, because there’s no other person in my life that has more influence, personal and professional.
There are some lovely stories in The Home Girls. Mum had seven kids and she waited until the final one got off her hands, settled onto a typewriter and wrote a bunch of books that ended up being sold around the world, translated in French , Italian and Russian and so on, so I’m very proud of Mum.
Goodbye To All That, by Robert Graves. Obviously war and war history is of particular interest to me, and I think Goodbye To All That is an amazing book.
It’s not all about the war, but he was a veteran of the Great War, and it’s noteworthy for its stunning candour. He says in the beginning of it, in an updated version, that he wrote when he ceased to care what anyone thought of him.
That resonated with me. I’m not at the stage where I’m about to burn all bridges and give the public an absolutely unexpurgated account of what I really think, but I admire people who have got the courage to do that. It is not just a revelatory book, it’s quite poetic, and as far as reporting on war is concerned, I really do think that the raw account is what you’re looking for.
Edward R Murrow: American Original, by Joseph E Persico. I’m choosing this not because of the author but rather because of the subject. Ed Murrow is probably the best journalist I can think of in the last 100 years.
He’s interesting because he was a pioneer reporter in television. I was mostly a TV reporter, and I look back on the work he did in the '50s and '60s and I think we’ve never done better since. There was a great sense of public service and responsibility in media in those days, and he worked in commercial media too. But they were doing these powerful stories about the civil rights movement in the US and immigrant farm workers being exploited etc. He famously, of course, took on Joseph McCarthy, so I’m a great admirer of Murrow.
The Struggle for Europe, by Chester Wilmot. Wilmot was from the same generation as Murrow and about the same age, and he’d covered the World War 2.
He was an ABC reporter, an Australian, and ending up becoming quite noteworthy in the European theatre, essentially because he got kicked out of Australia by the Australian Commander-in-chief, General Thomas Blamey. Wilmot had been the accredited correspondent covering the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) in the Middle East, and he’d lost his accreditation because he’d clashed with Blamey.
I admire that. I admire the kind of courage where you stand up for truth against power. So he went off to Europe, and wrote this well-recognised tome about the WWII after the war, but he was sadly killed in a plane accident over the Mediterranean on the way home to Australia.
Jeffrey Archer: Stranger Than Fiction, by Michael Crick. This was influential because I did an unauthorised biography called Jonestown about radio personality Alan Jones. I won’t say I was inspired by Crick, but I was certainly encouraged when I read Crick’s unauthorised biography of the author.
I thought this is tough, this is strong, and if he can do it, maybe I can have a go. Archer and Jones and are similar characters, they actually are friends.
They both went to Oxford together, they’re both kind of populists, Jones on radio, and Archer as an author and, in my view, they’re both bloody phoneys.
I loved Crick ‘s book, and on the cover he’s got this little quote by Archer, “I hate this book,” so that was great promotion for it.