Home' Aurora : Aurora March 2013 Contents 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.
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"The Moonlight State" is powerful
testimony that the highest ideals of
journalism can serve the public and its right
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
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.
be found at
his earlier Aurora
article at www.
BY GREG HALL
www.mn.catholic.org.au Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
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