A metaphysical lottery

Who killed investigative journalism?


Chris Masters


There is nothing like a murder mystery to pull a good crowd. Thank you for your support. For what it is worth, it has long been clear to me that investigative journalism is a good crowd puller. There are many ways to measure the value of thorough journalism. Even in ratings and circulation - the least important measure in my view, but the only one that seems to matter in the business of journalism - we do well. When I made "The Big League" program for Four Corners in 1983, without any publicity at all the report rated surprisingly well. Somehow the word had got out that this one was worth watching. So there is no doubt in my mind there is a public appetite, even in television, for programs that are important as well as interesting.


Investigative journalists, I am sure Phillip Knightley will agree, are congenital whingers. If at any time in my career I were asked how healthy is the world of investigative reporting, I would likely have given a pessimistic response. We are trained to look out for what is wrong. But even in the better times, I doubt my pessimism would have been out of order. In my career, which spans only journalism's Jurassic period, I have seen a trend away from news as a public service to news as a business.


In my view, the first culprit in this murder story is the dollar itself. In the late 1970s, when I came into television news and current affairs, there was a kind of epiphany in the industry. Executives realised you could actually make a buck - and a big buck at that - out of news on television. A former Four Corners reporter, Mike Willesee, became our first current affairs millionaire, exporting the formula that proved successful on This Day Tonight to Channel Nine's A Current Affair. More ratings bonanzas and millionaires came with new programs with new imported formulae, as with 60 Minutes.


Newspapers, with a longer history of getting the commercial editorial balance largely right, have generally done better, but in television those profits could be deadly. Over time in commercial television, unsurprisingly, the only thing that mattered was profit. So news was commodified, and in time the qualities that brought respect and credibility to the industry were corroded. The mantra repeated in the corner office of the current affairs shows was 'give them information they can use'. What was not said out loud was:

avoid all the information that will be found to be disturbing, complicated and threatening to a perceived median of the audience's beliefs and values. Don't try to sell them anything that will make the job of selling Cornflakes and Toyotas