Paul Bongiorno: Roberts-Smith case shines intense spotlight on investigative journalism

Media mogul and Ben Roberts-Smith benefactor Kerry Stokes now denies he called the authors of the revelations about the fallen war hero “scumbag journalists”.

The slur is jarring on many fronts, but what makes it reprehensible is that it was reported to have come from a person who employs hundreds of journalists though his Seven West Media, including TV stations throughout regional and metropolitan Australia, Perth’s only daily newspaper and 19 regional newspapers.

Shooting the messenger is normally the prerogative of people who have been exposed in the media for their embarrassing failures or worse, not someone who has been for 30 years a custodian of journalism and free speech in Australia, as commentator Stephen Mayne eloquently puts it.

Kerry Stokes now has a very big decision to make – whether he will further bankroll Roberts-Smith’s appeal against Justice Anthony Besanko’s finding that Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie substantially told the truth; the soldier was a war criminal, murderer, bully and a liar.

Legal costs so far are estimated to be in the vicinity of $25 million, and Roberts-Smith’s lawyers have 42 days to pore over the judges’ finely argued decisions spelled out in more than 800 pages to find grounds for an appeal.

Huge commitment

The scale of this piece of investigative journalism is enormous, and what may not be so obvious is the commitment not only from the journalists involved but the willingness of their employers at Fairfax/Nine to see it through.

In the 1980s while working in the newsroom of Network Ten’s Brisbane channel I had something of a first-hand experience of the toll working as an investigative journalist can take.

I won four Walkley Awards for investigations we undertook then, but none since retreating to the less-threatening field of political reporting.

In 1987, after six months of clandestine meetings with scared sources and having on one occasion an ambulance sent to my home address in the middle of the night and on another occasion a hearse – that woke every house in the cul-de-sac as the undertaker knocked on every door looking for the corpse – we finally broadcast my report.

It detailed the way in which Jack Rooklyn – a man named in a royal commission for his mafia links – was illegally operating bingo machines as de facto pokies in Queensland with the protection of corrupt police and politicians.

Rooklyn, who has since died, sued myself, the news director and the channel for $1 million each.

The litigation lasted four years and saw Rooklyn, like Ben Roberts-Smith, lose, and he was made liable for costs of more than half a million dollars.

A couple of months later Chris Masters’ ABC report on Four Corners detailing police corruption under the title ‘The Moonlight State’ – covering some of the same ground – led to the Fitzgerald corruption royal commission.

Masters, on the 30th anniversary of that broadcast, spoke of the “excoriating experience” which meant he hadn’t always looked back “warmly” on the sleepless nights, threats and anxiety.

Masters and his colleague Nick McKenzie have expressed similar sentiments about their war crimes investigation, but are mightily relieved truth and justice prevailed.

This is not always the outcome.

Media companies can often cut their losses and pay ‘go away’ money to plaintiffs, especially when they are being represented by ‘no win, no fee’ so-called ambulance chaser lawyers.

ben roberts smith

Ben Roberts-Smith with his portrait in the National War Memorial in Canberra. Photo: AAP

This has been my experience on more than one occasion; it is galling but understandable for commercial media to risk-manage their liabilities for their shareholders’ sakes, if not their journalists.

A story like the Rooklyn one was too big to run away from as it was an investment in the channel’s news credibility – although the chief executive complained to me that after spending thousands on pre-broadcast legal fees we didn’t gain a rating point.

But paraphrasing the American founding father Thomas Jefferson, the nation will be better served if the media is encouraged by the Roberts-Smith outcome.

Guardian of liberty

Jefferson saw a free press dedicated to getting to the truth as a guardian of “our liberty” that cannot be limited “without being lost”.

Australia still has a way to go reforming its restrictive defamation laws.

There has been progress, as the Nine papers pleading the “substantial truth” defence demonstrated.

But legal commentator Richard Ackland says successive reforms to the uniform defamation acts have been hamstrung by judges showing a distinct bias against media defendants.

Writing in The Saturday Paper, Ackland said the Roberts-Smith case sets a precedent for good “revelatory journalism” to continue.

He says “editors no longer have to surrender the entire newspaper to lifestyle and scrambled egg recipes”.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with more than 45 years’ experience covering Australian politics

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