“I really wasn’t out to dig up a scandal”: Chris Masters on his time at the centre of the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial

Chris Masters ben roberts-smith

“Right from the start, Nick McKenzie and I believed our story”

In June, the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial against the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Canberra Times came to an end, with Justice Anthony Besanko handing a win to the papers. Roberts-Smith has announced he will appeal the decision, but a date for the appeal to be heard has not been announced. 

The year-long trial was the first time that any court has been asked to assess allegations of war crimes by Australian forces. It involved more than 100 days of evidence, 42 witnesses called in from around the globe, and hundreds of exhibits shown to the court.

At the centre of it all were journalists Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie, and former journalist David Wroe, who had written the articles that detailed murder and other war crimes committed during Rberts-Smith’s deployment in Afghanistan.

With the dust settling on the trial, and as he prepares to face an appeal, Mediaweek sat down and spoke with Chris Masters ahead of his appearance at the Sydney Opera House’s Reporting for Duty event on July 30.

To begin with, what have the last 12 months been like for you?

“Frantic, a lot of sleepless nights. 

“We got the judgement early in June, and so that was a big day. Leading up to that day, we had a lot of things going on. Nick and I are both writing books, we’re needing to get them ready for the deadline – we’re not sure what impact the judgement will have on what we’ve written, or what we can actually publish. 

“Beyond that, of course, we’re absolutely sweating on the judgement. We knew we had run a good case, we really felt our lawyers had done a fabulous job. 

Right from the start, Nick McKenzie and I believed our story – we had to of course, you have to believe your own story before you can expect others to believe it. But we had compelling reasons to believe that what we reported was accurate. That’s not to say that we had a lot of confidence that it would work in a courtroom setting, because what the publisher of a newspaper could accept and what the courts will rule ultimately to be reasonable may well be very different things. 

“We always feel in Australia that the defamation laws are punishing, that courts are generally against the media. We knew we’d run a good case, but if we got a judgement that basically said, ‘Yes, you have run a good case, but it’s not good enough’, that wouldn’t have shocked us. It would have hurt us, but not shocked us.”

Take us back to the original investigation, how did you approach it?

“I’ve been reporting on Afghanistan since 2007, I’ve been there three times, I’ve covered the reconstruction phase of the mission and the mentoring phase of the mission. I went back in 2011 to look at the sharp end of the Special Forces Operations – that took a lot of work, getting access to Special Forces. Normally media is absolutely off-limits, and I have to say that they’re not big fans of media. 

For what it’s worth, I really wasn’t out to dig up a scandal. Not that I would avoid it – clearly I didn’t – but that I just really didn’t think that war crimes were on the horizon. In fact, my view was that the history of Australians in peacekeeping operations was actually quite meritorious. Whereas other nations had come back with tarnished reputations, like the Canadians in Somalia or the Americans in Iraq, I thought the Australians were pretty good. 

“It’s often said that pure journalism operates outside the tent – if you’re embedded as I was, there’s a presumption that you are fed information and you’re led around by the nose. Of course, I’d never accept that, and I would always say that journalism is about good judgement. 

“Something happened that I hadn’t anticipated: because I was inside the tent, because I was trusted, because they knew that I wasn’t out to do a job on them, they began to confide in me. This was a long process, I was there in 2011 and it wasn’t until 2017 that my book No Front Line came out. It wasn’t until the latter stages of work on that book that I began to hear direct evidence of Ben Robert-Smith’s complicity in war crimes. 

“Before that, I had heard a lot about him, but I only took so much notice because so much of it was more of a gossipy nature. Ben’s a divisive figure, he had a lot of enemies in Special Forces. But it wasn’t newsworthy, nor was it all that uncommon – they’re a bunch of alpha males, they’re supremely competitive. As much as mateship is clearly an adhesive in the Australian Defence Force, it’s not often said that there are also plenty of anti-mates.”

The defamation trial has been very high-profile. What are your thoughts on the impact that the trial has had on the Australian media landscape?

“I was surprised when Nick and I departed the court on that day, and we ran into the biggest media scrum we’d ever seen – and obviously we’ve seen a few. At the beginning of the matter, it wasn’t as if I thought this was a first-order issue for the Australian public. I don’t know that they wanted to hear that their war heroes might also be engaged in criminal activity. I think that perhaps the most important feature of this outcome was that it reinforced the importance of tough journalism, and it said to us also that the public do need it.

“Who could say that Nick and I wanted to do this story? If they do say that, it’s complete nonsense. It was extremely hard to do, it was extremely harrowing, it was extremely fretful. Think of the consequences if we lost, not just to ourselves, but to the many witnesses that we persuaded to cooperate with us. 

“I think it was a watershed event, it reinforced the value of good journalism. I don’t know that it necessarily encourages investigative journalism, because you have to say that it still did cost $25 million and five years of hard work, and not many big media organisations are going to stump up for that again – but it might also act as a deterrent to the next person who thinks that they’re going to get a big win in a defamation court.”

What do you think comes next? What do you think happens from here?

“There is an appeal, so it’s not as if it’s done and dusted. We weren’t surprised that the applicant appealed, there’s obviously been a ton of resources poured into this already so to be spending more money isn’t going to surprise us. 

“You have to accept the fact that we haven’t won, we may well not win. But I don’t think that should discount the importance of the judgement that we got back there in June – this is a 110 day trial, 10 months of adjudication, and a 700-page report profoundly in our favour. That doesn’t happen by accident. There were some very strong witnesses in that in that case, and I think Besanko got it right – but a full bench at the federal appeals court may think otherwise.”

Top Image: Chris Masters

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