Chris Masters: One of Australia’s best known investigative journalists

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Chris MastersChris Masters is one of Australia’s best known investigative journalists. In 1983 he began his career as the longest-serving journalist on the ABC’s Four Corners program. For 25 years (he left his permanent position there in 2008) he reported on everything from the genocide in Rwanda, the Bosnian conflict and the war in Afghanistan. His 1987 report, ‘The Moonlight Stage’, on corruption in Queensland resulted in the establishment of the Fitzgerald Inquiry and a series of far-reaching reforms in that state. He won his first Gold Walkley Award for his 1985 report on the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, ‘French Connections’.

Chris has also published four books. His latest is Uncommon Soldier, an exploration of the modern Australian soldier. The result of six years of exhaustive research, Uncommon Soldier takes rare and close look at the life of Australian soldiers, both at home and abroad. In 2006 he published Jonestown, a biography of the broadcaster Allan Jones. The book controversially discussed Jones’s sexuality and before the book could even be published, the original publisher, ABC Books, decided not to go ahead with it. The book was eventually published by Allen & Unwin and went on to win the Australian Book Industry Awards, Australian Biography of the Year.

Chris is now a contributing editor at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and also teaches investigative journalism and film writing. He’s also a regular contributor to a number of major Australian publications.

Click play to listen. Running time: 24.42

Uncommon Soldier

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle
Hi, I’m Danielle Williams from the Sydney Writers’ Centre in Milsons Point. Today I’m really excited to be talking to journalist and author Chris Masters. Chris will be well-known to audiences of Four Corners, he’s their longest serving journalist. He’s also the author of four books, and his latest isUncommon Solider.

Chris, tell us a bit more about the book.

Chris
Well, I started to think about the book about six years ago. It always takes me too long to do this work, because I dig in and then all do for first little while is find out what I don’t know. And, this one was more difficult than usual. The defense force is particularly resistant to having its sorry told. It doesn’t really trust journalists. They think Afghanistan is too complicated, and too dangerous. And of course at the other end of it, our own industry is dying around our ears, so I don’t think Afghanistan was too well covered by the media.

I had another book in mind when I finished the Jonestown book, which also took me too long. Interesting that was a book where I had a negative view of the subject right from the start. But, and naturally enough I expected it to be difficult, and best kept journalist is difficult.

The new book, Uncommon Solider, is a book where I pretty much had a positive view from the start. I think the Australian army is something this country tends to get right, and the young soldiers that I met were a lot more impressive than people realize. But, still in all it was every bit as difficult to do as Jonestown, for a range a reasons.

The motive to do the book in the first place was born of a trip to Kapooka, the Army Training Centre, in 2006. I was just doing a Four Corners program about recruitment and training, and I became interested in that – in fact fascinated by that notion that you could be a civilian on the street corner being a nuisance at 17 years old, and then 18 months later you’re a completely different person, you’re in uniform, you’re a trained up solider, and you’re operating in this very complicated environment, Afghanistan. So, I thought there was a book in that very process, and that became my narrative arc.

It’s always good in journalism to have some angry questions, you know? And one was obviously, “What the hell is going on in Afghanistan?” “How come we know so little about it?” “How come there is such a massive gap between public regard for the conflict and bipartisan political support for the conflict?” So, there were a lot of good spaces to occupy.

And I came back from Afghanistan in 2007, having done another Four Corners program over there, still with a different book in mind, and I spoke to Allen & Unwin, my publisher, and I was talking about the other book that I had planned, but at the same time I was also talking about my fresh experiences of Afghanistan. And, they said, “Why don’t you write about Afghanistan?” And I blinked and thought about it, and I didn’t have a good answer. I thought, “No, why don’t I write about Afghanistan?” So, that was when I wrote the first chapter, soon after that meeting.

And, then I walked through quicksand for quite some time, because I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it was going to be for me to get in the world of the solider.

Danielle
You’re calling this a book about Afghanistan, but ultimately it’s about the soldiers as well, and notions we have about diggers and that sort of thing. What do you hope that readers will get out of this? What new information about the army and the war do you think they’ll learn from it?

Chris
I think they have a vision of soldiering that’s born of another time. You know, they know what their granddads and their fathers did, I don’t think they so much know about what their brothers and sisters are now doing. So, I don’t think many of us – I felt when I was at Four Corners, I couldn’t see anybody else on the floor whose lives in anyway interconnected with the lives of anybody ADF. So, it seemed to me that we had a proud culture on the one hand, and a newly detached subculture on the other hand, so I wanted to somewhat bridge that divide. But, you’ve hit on an interesting subject for a writer, because I believe in telling a story. You know, I don’t particularly like the polemic, I don’t want to tell people how to think about something. I don’t think I’m so good at the analysis, what I’m better at is what I’ve learned to do, and that’s collect the evidence and go to the primary evidence.

So, as usual, I wanted to write a book that way, but what I was looking at all the time was an issue, you know? What is special and different about the Australian solider? Is the Afghanistan conflict worth it? How do you reconcile their behavior abroad with the stories we hear at home of them being misogynist boofheads  – you know, harassment, bullying, all that sort of stuff.

And, that was a bit of a challenge for me to put the story ahead of the issue, and I felt that it wasn’t as if I had one story, I had a couple. I had to interweave two essential threads, one was the story of Afghanistan and one was the world of the modern solider, and indeed the book interweaves those chapters. I go abroad, spend some time in the battlefield, and then I come home to another battlefield, and that interweaving happens somewhat organically. I struggled at first, as I struggled to gain access to that world, it wasn’t really until I went to Afghanistan a second time and started to live among the soldiers, that I felt the book was beginning to work.

When it was coming together as theory, that is me sitting down, interviewing soldiers back from the field, talking about what they did, it was good, but it really wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t really good enough until I got to Afghanistan and bunked down beside them and nodded off to sleeping listening to them talking to one another, that’s was really a rich opportunity.

Danielle
Is that where you felt that some of that mistrust with the media maybe dropped away, when you had a chance to spend more time with them on the ground?

Chris
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. And, look, I had known this for a long time, it was true of all the work I did at Four Corners. The media is fast and furious, it’s not thorough and accurate, it’s always been that way. It’s unusual to work in journalism where you have more time to build trust, and that was my lot at Four Corners. So, I never had the excuse that it’s all too hard, you know, they put too many obstacles in your way, so you simply can’t do it, so go in and bed with the Americans or the British, which is what a lot of my colleagues were doing.

I didn’t really have that excuse, and I had the opportunity at the time, and by the way I’m now a freelancer, so I didn’t have a daily deadline, or even a weekly deadline, or a monthly deadline to meet, so I could keep knocking on the doors. I’m still a bit cross that they made it so enormously difficult, and they’re wrong, they’re wrong in the way they deal with media, they should recognize that we are a bit shambolic and they should just take a deep breath and trust a little bit more, in the way the Americans do. I mean you think of the scandals that associated with the behavior of American troops, and yet the public regard for the American servicemen is much higher than it is here in Australia. You know they stand up for them when they get on a bus.

Danielle
Why do you think that’s so different here in Australia? Has the media been particularly unkind with forces in the past?

Chris
I think there’s been a drift, you know, there was a proud relationship between journalists and the military in the first and second world war. Journalists were esteemed chroniclers of the world of the solider, and you know you think of Charles Bean of course.

You know, the author of ANZAC. But, then some great correspondence from the second world war, Kenneth Lesser, and Allen Moorehead, George Johnson, many more. But, somehow in the Vietnam era the journalists took over the chronicling, and the soldiers didn’t like it quite so much, you don’t have so many books written by soldiers about Vietnam. And, of course, Vietnam was a catalyst in many respects, it made the military very mistrustful of the media and giving media access to these conflicts, because you know they will still argue that it was the journalists who lost the war – a silly argument, of course. But, you know, you hear it from time to time. And, I think the relationships changed very much after Vietnam. They became suspicious of us, and they were particularly controlling during the Gulf War. So, I think they developed some pretty bad habits, changed at East Timor, because of course there is a time when they really need the public on their side.

And they felt that they were on the right side in East Timor. Some journalists complained about problems of access, but I actually was surprised when I went there, quite a few times, and they were extremely cooperative, but Afghanistan very different.

I think, at one level, they were genuinely frightened that a journalist would be killed, because it is so dangerous. And, in that new world the journalist, in some respects, is a bigger and more attractive target than the solider, because the Taliban know they will get more ink, and you know, they’ve been kidnapping journalists from other nations for that very reason, it puts pressure on government. So, I think there was that concern, but there were many, many more concerns, and there was even a sort of base cultural difficulty, and that is that when that group forms, when the mates all get together, and the team becomes more important than the individual they don’t really let the individual speak. So, one of the reasons I think my colleagues preferred to embed with the Americans or the British is that it’s just a lot easier, you know? You just pull your camera out of the box and they appear and they perform, the Americans in particular. Pull your camera out of the box amongst the Australians and they’d scatter.

Danielle
Reluctant.

Chris
Yeah.

Danielle
So on that, when you’re interviewing the individuals, often you’re speaking to them about quite terrifying events, some ultimately tragic, how do you approach an interview like that?

Chris
I tell you what you really need, the permission of the group. It’s a rare circumstance where a solider tells you about what they did. I mean this happened to me, there was one interview that I did that people remarked and still thought, “Gee…” He was a young solider, 22 year old private, but very candid, very honest, and very brave, but when I first spoke with him, met him on a patrol out in the Wodonga in Miribad Valley. And somebody said, “You ought to talk to him.” So, I did and I said, “How’s it going? What have you been doing?” “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing,” you know? “Fine.” He didn’t say a word. And then later on when I was back at the base somebody said to me, “How did the interview go with Smithy?” And I said, “Oh, it was OK, but he didn’t really say much.” “What?” The next thing you know they arranged for Smithy to do another interview with me, and they told him, “Go on, tell him what you did,” you know? You know, this was a bloke who had been blown up by an IUD, and you know was in all sorts of drama.

And then came back to the battlefield, because he wanted to be with his mates. I mean that story happened to me many times. With special forces… the first chapter of the book is called Corporal Dan, and it’s about the experience of one special forces solider. I have to say I thought he was pretty special in that somehow, somehow he thought it was important that he tell me his story.

Danielle
And I absolutely got the impression from that chapter.

Chris
Yeah.

Danielle
He certainly seemed a lot more open than others.

Chris
Yes, and look, that doesn’t happen very often. I think it was part of his greater maturity that he thought, “Look, we ought to be sharing this story you know? We’re proud of our story, and it is not well known.” But, poor old Corporal Dan, he will cop it. No doubt about it, you know? And he’s now a sergeant. But, I think he’s a strong enough, and good enough, mature solider to be able to cope with the trashing that he will get from his mates, but he will get it.

Danielle
So earlier you mentioned that you spent six years on this book. Six years – is that right?

Chris
Yeah, I started in ’06.

Danielle
That’s a lot of research.

Chris
Yes.

Danielle
When you get to the writing process how do you go about, I guess, culling that, ordering it, planning it – did you have to make really tough decisions about what stayed in and what came out?

Chris
Every new book you do, you know, you learn something new. I thought I would be more organized and ordered than when I wrote the last book, and in some respects I’m getting better at marshalling research, for the sake of in-notes, et cetera. But, I had that challenge of how the story would unfold. I like a story to unfold organically, I want the reader to want to turn the page. I didn’t really have a natural course, I had this interweaving of these two threads, but as they will often tell you, you just have to sit down and start writing, and that’s what my mother, who’s a great writer, would say. She said, “I never know how I’m going to finish my book. And, if I don’t know how I’m going to finish it, then the reader won’t know either.” So, there was a little bit of that. But, when I started that interweaving, it just started to work. And, honestly half way through the book there are a couple of chapters that appear that I never planned to be there, but when I got to that point it was as if they had a natural place. There was one chapter that got lost, that I threw away, because when I came back from Afghanistan in – I wanted an early chapter that encapsulated the broader story, that acted as a kind of headline, and the Corporal Dan chapter does that for me, because his experience span the length of the mission, roughly, and also there’s a lot more else to say, because he’s an interesting person, he’s a good character study.

So, I could do a lot with that simple chapter and I wanted, as they say in television, to put the reader in the armchair. But, I’d written a different chapter to do the same thing earlier, after I came back from Afghanistan in 2010. And I had some dramatic experiences there, and I think I had a good story to tell. So, I had written a chapter about patrol base Wali, and it was essentially about communication. I think that one of the difficulties that we have with soldiers is that they just speak a completely different language, so you just don’t understand what they’re talking about.

But on the other hand, if you’re amongst them you come to realize that amongst themselves at least they are very good communicators, they have to be able to communicate swift and sharp, lives might depend on it. And the other thing that they’re really good at, that the rest of us tend not to be so good at, is listening. They’re great listeners, because you learn that form your first weeks at Kapooka, that you have to understand what the order is.

So, that first chapter was much more about the art of communication, the mysterious the officer commanding and the company sergeant major and how they kind of came to understand the battlefield. But, it wasn’t the kind of chapter that was the chapter that worked more in a polemic than in a story.

Danielle
Right.

Chris
And it wasn’t as good as Corporal Dan.

Danielle
Was it difficult for you, personally, to cut that?

Chris
I never like to waste time. I never like to waste words, but then again, you know we all do it. And we know our work is better for it. And that book got culled pretty extensively, but not by me, by the editor. But, you know, I like a creative editor.

Most of the time.

Danielle
Was there anything in your experiences in the time that you were spending with the soldiers that really surprised you? Anything unexpected?

Chris
The first thing is that I was surprised at how intelligent and mature they generally are, and how difficult and complicate their work is. And, I had to get my head around this new notion of the soldier as the humanitarian, which is something that we’re all going to have to get our head around, because you can’t send eight workers into the field in places like that, so the soldiers end up doing it themselves, and the creed of counter insurgency warfare is courageous restraint. Now, this is not easy for a solider to be in a situation where they’re protecting a population that continues to shoot at them, but that’s the deal. And, it even got worse, that deal, because some of their own allies began to shoot at them as well. But, they believe in seeing it through, often to a fault, and you had to admire their resolve and their maturity, dealing with the Afghanistan National Security forces was often an absolute nightmare, but the soldiers that had to do it were the ones that tended to defend them, you know? It’s a mixed story, and they wouldn’t always defend them, but they’d say to me, “No, look, this is their country, if we don’t get it right for them there’s not point in being here.” And they would say, “We can’t expect them to have the level of training that we have.” Now, I don’t think that’s well understood back in Australia.

Danielle
I don’t think so.

Chris
But, the people who had to understand it were the people who paid the biggest price for it, I thought that was quite admirable.

You know there’s – I don’t think there’s such a thing as a monochrome solider, they share common traits, but the commanders tend to be more muscular, more like the classic warrior. The Special Air Services regiment people were very interesting. They must have very good psych testing, because, you know, if it was a battle of wits, they’d almost always win. I could tell – I could see what outthinking me time and time again. They are very clever soldiers. I saw that aid worker in a helmet, and that was something new for me, the notion of the armed social worker. I think it’s hard for us to get our head around that soldiers have this humanitarian responsibility, but they accepted quite well. And my heart went out to them, actually. I thought, “Here’s a guy that puts down his weapon, he picks up a shovel, and he’s trying to help these people so that they can build a causeway so that they can cross the river in winter,” and that’s enormously important to them. And, I was asking him why he’d do it. A lot of my friends back in Australia couldn’t imagine why anybody would do that sort of thing. But, he’d say, “No, I actually find it humbling at the end of the day that I can help people who desperately need it.” And I think that if that guy worked for the Red Cross or Care Australia, you’d say, “What a great guy.”

You know, so why don’t we think the same because he happens to have a weapon?

Danielle
I’ve just got two more really quick questions to ask. Have you had any feedback from soldiers who have read this?

Chris
I’ve had a little bit of feedback. I tell you what, you hate making a mistake when you write a book about soldiers, they’re really anal about that stuff, and of course I’m going to make mistakes, because it’s actually really hard to understand all of the terminology and all the abbreviations of whatever. Actually, I had it vetted by a solider, so hopefully there aren’t too many mistakes, a few have been pointed out. I think the special forces guys are pretty happy with. I don’t absolutely know for sure, but I think they’ve been waiting for their story to be told, and they can’t tell it themselves, and that’s true of all of them. They’ll sometimes say to me, “I’m really pleased that you’ve told this story because now my wife knows what I do.” I say, “Well, why didn’t you tell your wife?” You know, they won’t do that.

Danielle
Yeah. Just finally do you have any advice for budding journalists? Or anybody embarking on this kind of journey?

Chris
About soldiering?

Danielle
About writing non-fiction research, the whole thing?

Chris
I think organisation is really important. I put organisation ahead of talent. That’s the thing I’ve mainly learned in investigative journalism, how to marshal information, how to get it into a semblance where I can manage it, and then when I’m managing it I then have time to think. You really have to give yourself time to think. We never have enough time. I ended up putting too much time into the research, and not enough time into the writing. So, I’d like to do it differently next time, but I doubt I will.

Danielle
Is there going to be a next time?

Chris
Oh yeah. I’ll write another book. Yeah.

Danielle
OK, excellent. I can’t wait. Thank you so much, Chris. It really is an enlightening book. I’ve enjoyed reading it. Good luck with it.

Chris
Thank you.


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