Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of The Moonlight State and Fitzgerald Inquiry, one of Australia’s best investigative journalists says it’s an apt time to celebrate what journalism can achieve.
Chris Masters’ expose The Moonlight State ultimately led to a change of government in Queensland after it showed the extent of corruption in the state went right to the very top, to the Police Commissioner Terry Lewis himself.
The next day after it screened on Four Corners, acting Premier Bill Gunn declared a Commission of Inquiry would investigate corruption.
The cabinet minutes from this period have been released at the State Archives in a special exhibition Sunshine Rebooted, produced in partnership with Griffith University.
Chris Masters says seeing Four Corners mentioned in those cabinet discussions vindicated his experience.
“I hear people sometimes saying that nothing changes, nothing has changed and I think no that is wrong,” Mr Masters said.
“We don’t automatically have a Police Commissioner who’s a crook any more, which of course means that anyone subordinate to him has to play by his rules. I think the credibility, the quality of policing through the ranks now is substantially changed – the culture is different.
“They were spending half their life in the pub in those days and then claiming they were the real cops and the only ones which was nonsense of course they were in bed with the crooks, and I don’t see that nearly as much these days.
“This hasn’t been a wonderful experience for me – excoriating to some degree all those years of litigation meant I haven’t always looked back on that experience warmly. But to see the name Four Corners on those cabinet documents all these years later after all those court cases have pretty much faded into the background, I did feel pride.”
He says the ramifications of the Fitzgerald Inquiry were still being felt not only in Queensland, but throughout the country.
“I’ve done lots of programs as a reporter, for Four Corners I did probably over 100, and most of them are forgotten,” Mr Masters said.
“This one is not forgotten, and that kind of surprises me a little bit. I often stop and wonder why.
“But I guess it’s because the Fitzgerald era was pivotal. It was a landmark inquiry and it did bring about the opportunity for significant reform that occurred not only in Queensland but around Australia.”
He says he is grateful to those contacts who gave him their trust, and who without their information The Moonlight State could not have been made.
“I think journalism is about good citizenship, and when you look at the various people who stood up, some of them working at the very fringe of society in ugly trades like prostitution, they proved to demonstrate good citizenship too,” he said.
“And it’s not as if that we can offer much more and sometimes we know that for them to speak up may cause a lot of harm.
“So it’s a difficult awkward business and they become essential valued and respected allies.
“There’s serendipity and luck that you can’t guarantee is going to come your way.
“I think that worked for me because it meant I wasn’t necessarily chasing what everybody else was chasing. And investigative journalism not only needs a little luck sometimes but it’s also temporal, it needs time.
“Because we’re the storytellers not the stories.”
Recent revelations that the police were ready to plant pedophilia allegations on Chris Masters to put him off the story, show how far those inside the system were willing to go to protect “the joke” as it was known.
“There was so much that I didn’t understand at the time if I had I might’ve felt a little better about it,” he said.
“I was cynical, I presumed that the government would go into cover up mode instantly but I was wrong about that.
“Maybe there was some good fortune at play in that Bjelke-Petersen was overseas at the time so he couldn’t take command and I think what I didn’t know about was that so many of his colleagues who had seen the writing on the wall were sick of the corruption .
“ I think that it’s good to know that journalism can achieve something that has such significant public importance and I think that journalists can often be depressed and demoralised, thinking that there’s not much opportunity to make a difference.
“But I think that we can run our own race to some degree yes we have to feed the beast and work within the news cycle but you can put something on a back burner and work on things yourself.
“ It’s another reason why I’m proud of the Moonlight State because it is remembered, a lot of our work is ephemeral.
“There was no award for the Moonlight State and yet it is remembered, I think that is a better kind of award.”
The original Four Corners episode from 1987 will be shown at a special screening of ‘The Moonlight State’ at the QCA Lecture Theatre at South Bank on August 3.
Chris Masters will be the special guest and part of a Q & A for the audience after the screening