The post war roots of the investigative tradition in Australian journalism
This article was first published in Curthoys and Schultz, Journalism: Print, Politics and Popular Culture, University of Queensland Press, 1999.
The decade of the 1980s was a 'golden age' of investigative journalism in Australia, of which the best known outlets were the National Times newspaper and ABC TV's Four Corners program. The period spawned a number of Royal Commissions, several minister of the crown resigned or were sacked and the issue of corruption in politics and the police force were established in the public mind as never before.
The investigative journalism of the 1980s burst on the scene in a way which seemed unprecedented yet this style of reporting had roots in the period since the Second World War and even earlier. Smith's Weekly, published from 1919 to 1950, had 'a special Investigation department staffed by journalists with a bent for sleuthing.' One of its many exposures is credited with dealing a fatal blow to the New Guard, an incipient fascist movement of the 1930s.
The most detailed historical work on investigative journalism has been done in the United States. The writer Robert Miraldi argues that there are two traditions in journalism: objectivity and muckraking. These are peculiarly American terms but capture an essential truth. By objectivity he means the tradition in journalism that sees itself as detached, disinterested and impartial; by muckraking he refers to a tradition in journalism which sees itself as a public watchdog whose job is to expose and therefore reform some large or small aspect of society.
I accept this as a useful conceptual framework both because it both reflects actual schools of thought within journalism and because it focusses on the intention of the journalist. Using this framework we can begin to link the upsurge of investigative reporting in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s to what might appear to be a quite different phenomenon: the populist exposures by newspapers such as the Truth in an earlier period. These targets of these exposures were quite different. In the popular press the target, for example, was likely to be an individual quack doctor whereas in the 1970s and 1980s, the target was more likely to be a Health minister or an entire health system. The American scholar, W. Sprague Holden, writing in 1961 after visiting Australia referred to the tradition of muckraking when he argued that 'no great cause was ever led by newspapers dedicated to keeping boats on even keels. No worthy crusade was ever accomplished by a policy of not rousing the animals.'
The muckraking or investigative tradition in Australian journalism shows other similarities to that in the United States. Because of its moral stance and urge to reform, it often occurs in periods when social reform is on the agenda in the wider society. In the United States the classic period of the muckrakers' was between 1900 to 1915 which was also the age of progressivism in the USA. This was the period of the 'robber barons' in which Ida Tarbell wrote her indictment of the Standard Oil company, when Upton Sinclair exposed the Chicago meatworks in The Jungle and when Lincoln Steffens exposed corruption by police and city officials. In Australia we see an upsurge in muckraking in the immediate post war period in Australia when the hopes of a post war 'new order' were high. The housing shortage and the conditions of the mentally ill were two targets here. Similarly, the cultural and political revolution beginning in the 1960s gave rise to a revival of investigative reporting but this time, unusually, in the quality press and television.
In their study of the investigative tradition and of its ability to initiate reform Protess et al have pointed to the weaknesses of what they call the 'mobilisation model'. In this schema, the journalist writes or broadcasts an exposure of an injustice, for example, thereby informing and mobilising public opinion. The public then demands reforms from legislators and thus muckraking (or investigative) journalism leads to social reform.
Protess demonstrates convincingly that the 'mobilisation model' is too simplistic and linear. A great deal of investigative reporting is only possible (and is at its most effective) when it is consciously allied from the beginning with reformist sources in the wider society. Typically, certain sources give inside information to the reporter and in return the investigative reporters highlight an issue and implicitly call for reform. The piece of investigative journalism adds to existing forces for change (such as political lobbying often by the journalist's sources). The journalist does not stand outside society or political process but is an active participant and even dealmaker. We find this in Australia. Tom Farrell's work on the case of convicted murderer McDermott meant that he closely worked with the forces calling for an inquiry into a miscarriage of justice. Denis Warner's exposure of mental hospitals relied on doctors' co-operation. In a different way, Truth's close contact with its readers who came to it with instances of injustice was also an example of the close alliance of sympathetic sources with investigative journalists.
In post war Australia, investigative journalism by newspapers occurred in two different forums. The most pervasive was that of the popular journalism which thrived on scandal and muckraking. Less frequent was that of the broadsheet or quality press.
Two newspapers exemplified each of these styles. The first was the Sydney Truth, part of the Norton empire with weekly sister papers in Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne. Muckraking was most clearly expressed in its popular form as a 'journalism of exposure'. The second was the Melbourne Herald, which, while a popular newspaper in the sense that it had a high circulation, was highminded, conservative and more subdued in its brand of campaigning journalism.
The exposure journalism of Truth newspaper
In the period following the Second World War Truth had a style of journalism was high pitched, sensational and melodramatic. These features are hardly remarkable in the popular press but Truth differed from later tabloid journalism because of its attitude to its readers. Truth not only claimed to stand up for its readers but actually had a close relationship with them. Readers would write, call or visit its offices with stories of injustice to tell -- and Truth's journalists would listen. The result was a populist expression of the role of the press fourth estate with journalists as proto-ombudsmen. Truth's stock in trade was exposure of injustice or of fraud on the public.
For example, complaints by readers during the post war housing crisis led to regular Truth exposures. One builder, Alfred Wingrove 'has been fleecing people for a period of five years' by accepting deposits for houses which were never built. His carefully worded contracts and criminal record dating back to the early 1930s were exposed in 1947. Another reader had had his flourishing plant nursery closed down and forcibly resumed by the Housing Commission which then ignored the land for three years. The housing shortage also produced mini-exposes of poverty ('Truth finds couple living in wardrobe'). Truth's reporters, like those of today, made use of public registers of company records and modern investigations of corporate malpractice have their roots in exposures of shady conmen. Truth's role as a consumer ombudsman was by no means limited to housing: 'A drive yourself hire car company which sold out on Friday will be no loss to the community.... Atta Pty Ltd. sold out a couple of weeks after Truth started investigating its activities.' In this case, too, customers were led to believe something quite opposite to the contracts they signed.
Truth's exposures were quite limited and often confined to small personal injustices. In some cases they related to larger social issues (e.g. the housing crisis) but in many cases no connection was hinted at with political and social issues. In the era in which Truth published, journalism, including crusading journalism, was narrowly confined to particular events and people and in this sense there are close parallels with modern TV current affairs. Broader issues (government policy on hospital funding; doctors' criteria for admission to hospital) were rarely taken up. For instance, a number of stories in Truth and elsewhere implicitly cried out for a probing investigation into police bashings, 'verbals' and protection rackets -- yet almost nothing systematic was done until the late 1970s. For reasons probably to do with what was acceptable as journalism, the individual stories of Truth, the Daily Telegraph and all other newspapers remained largely as stories of individuals.
Undercover methods of news gathering have been a staple of in-depth and investigative reporting for many decades. They were used in Truth's frequent exposures of unqualified or quack doctors. These often relied on reporters presenting themselves as patients with a bogus complaint: 'The next patient to visit Rupert was the same man who had his gallstones tickled by 'Gallstones' Hoffman, the quack who says he can remove gallstones by massage.... On a second visit the patient disclosed he was from Truth .....and Rupert came clean with his story of his quackery.' The exposure of sharp practices by the hire car company mentioned above was also achieved by a Truth reporter anonymously hiring a car. They were also used by Daily Telegraph reporter Tom Farrell to witness council trucks delivering council building materials to the private home of a municipal mayor. In this case, Farrell acted as a gardener in the house of a neighbour. The roots of hidden cameras modern TV current affairs lie in precisely this tradition -- though whether they are always used in matters of public interest is another question.
Truth's stance was aggressive. After revealing that a child with a broken pelvis had twice been turned away by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Truth listed the eminent names of the hospital board, including Sir Marcus Clark, Professor Harold Dew, Sir Charles Bickerton-Blackburn, and Mr W.J.V. Windeyer. A story about a mason was 'one of the most despicable rackets Truth ever exposed .... It is the story of a ghoulish, utterly unprincipled, self-styled monumental mason who robbed many citizens of money they had advanced him for the erection of grave headstones which have never materialised. This loathsome individual is Barry John Wood...'
A tradition of crusading and exposure journalism was by no means always politically radical or consistent. When a newspaper campaigns or exposes injustice, its own political and social stance is revealed in a way not immediately apparent in straight reporting. Both the old style exposure journalism and its modern descendant, investigative journalism, usually spring, in part, from a moral stance which is often linked to a social or political purpose. Truth ran regular exposures which centred on the real and imagined crimes of Asians ('Immigration scandal: Pakistani's flight from sex charge') and ('Asians flout awards: Some Asian diplomatic missions are treating their Australian employees like coolies.'). This clearly reflected the prejudices of many Truth readers as well as reflecting the support by its proprietor, Ezra Norton, for the White Australia policy. A blind spot for Truth was corruption associated gambling and boxing -- at least when it was connected to Melbourne criminal John Wren who was a friend of Norton's.
In 1960 Rupert Murdoch purchased the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror (the new name of the Truth) and appointed Cyril Pearl as editor of the Sunday Mirror. The Sunday Mirror's attitude to racism underwent a revolution. Stories about Aborigines have often required some degree of investigative commitment because of the remoteness of many communities from city journalists. In addition, to campaign against racism in a popular newspaper required a degree of courage. By 1961 the Sunday Mirror was doing both. A three part series in March 1961 by Keith Newman on the atrocious living conditions of Aborigines with drawings by artist Russell Drysdale won an award for Newman but later Cyril Pearl was sacked by Rupert Murdoch. Thenceforward the Sunday Mirror resumed its trajectory toward sensation emptied of investigative content.
The Daily Telegraph and the freeing of Frederick McDermott
One major piece of investigative journalism which clearly exposed injustice within the law was in the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1951. For many years what was known as the Lavers-McDermott case was regarded as an unsolved mystery and apparent murder by the press and public. A number of reporters investigated the events both before and after the 1947 conviction of Frederick McDermott for the murder of William Lavers. While at least one, Tony White of the Sun, played a role, the impetus for the Royal Commission which freed McDermott came from Tom Farrell on the Daily Telegraph.
Lavers, a shopkeeper in central NSW, had disappeared early one morning in 1936 after serving petrol to unknown customers. His body was never found however in 1946, the police charged an itinerant shearer, Frederick McDermott with his murder. McDermott was convicted the following year and sentenced to death. The case however, disturbed the R. W. Hawkins, the Public Solicitor, who helped defend the semi-literate shearer. Hawkins approached a number of journalists who looked into the case. One those was Tom Farrell, who convinced the Telegraph's owner, Frank Packer (who was 'more an editor in chief than a proprietor') that it was worth digging into the Lavers case. Farrell on one occasion examined the key exhibits, still held in the Bathurst police station. One was a giant plaster cast of the wheel tracks found outside Lavers' shop, another was part of the dashboard of an Essex car allegedly owned by John Parker, a friend of McDermott's. The police case rested on placing McDermott in the vicinity of the murder as a passenger in an Essex car owned by his friend Parker.
Hawkins' low key campaign was assisted by some young legal talent one of whom, Chester Porter, later an eminent QC felt the key to the puzzle lay in the Essex car. Farrell knew about Essex cars because his father's garage had once sold them, and his investigations led him to the attic of a garage in Forbes where 20 years of old ledgers and records lay under rubbish and dust. He eventually found a record of the sale of a 1926 Essex to Parker, complete with engine number and chassis number. Farrell knew that the dashboard put in as a police exhibit at McDermott's trial could have only come from a 1927 or later Essex and car technical manuals showed no Essex cars had track-width measurements fitting the plaster casts made at the store.
Farrell that day filed a story to the Daily Telegraph saying this proved McDermott, who had by then served more than four years in jail, had been wrongly convicted. The Government immediately announced a Royal Commission. At the commission, evidence from experts incliding the Detroit makers of Essex cars, swore no Essex ever made could have made the wheeltracks. McDermott was released.
Farrell's story was a high point. Normally the newspaper's investigations were on consumer issues of direct concern to readers. In the same period of Farrell's piece, the Telegraph investigated on rackets in the fruit and vegetable trade, butter and meat. As well as this, Telegraph owner Frank Packer waged a campaign against tax rises which, a year later, became hysterical when the Federal Treasurer proposed a tax which hit Packer personally.
Facts behind the Liquor Commission
One of the rare times when police corruption was revealed was at the 1951-52 Royal Commission into the liquor industry. Unlike later Royal Commissions in the 1970s and 1980s which were initiated or at least followed by an upsurge of independent press inquiries, little was done after its sudden closure in 1952. One unusual piece of exposure journalism was the pamphlet, Facts Behind the Liquor Commission, printed by the Communist Party of Australia at its underground printery which set out to expose capitalism in the shape of the 'brewery barons'. Written by a journalist (probably Rex Chiplin) who had a racy turn of phrase ('Bottled beer was as rare as a bankrupt Vice Squad sergeant') the pamphlet incidentally exposed corruption in the labour movement. It accused the then Governor General, Sir William McKell, of corruption:
Incidentally, throughout his political career, McKell was paid a large retainer by the breweries. As their legal adviser, of course. (Of course).
The source of such corruption, it argued, was the Liquor Trades Defence Council, run by the breweries, which provided bribes to politicians, police, lawyers and union officials. The pamphlet also related that CIB chief Detective Wylie had taken part in a meeting of police discussing the Commission at which, as a joke, someone recorded on a wire recorder. When the joke was revealed and the discussion was played back, there was pandemonium. Wylie pulled out his service revolver and shot the machine to pieces, according to the pamphlet.
The Melbourne Herald
The tradition of newspaper campaigning in the quality press of the 1940s and 50s was exemplified by the Melbourne Herald. The crusades of the Herald were far less strident than the Truth group. They could range from a crusade to influence voters in a national election but were more commonly on issues which affected the readers in a more immediate way. For many years the Melbourne Herald built a healthy circulation and carved a distinctive reputation as a newspaper which campaigned on issues of civic virtue based on the city of Melbourne. Vandalism by both individuals and by civic authorities (in the name of progress and 'development') were particular targets of its disapproval. The Herald's campaigns were run against the backdrop of its own role as a key civic institution, sponsoring art exhibitions, garden competitions and charity fund raising drives. The Herald and other quality newspapers occasionally revealed a tougher side of campaigning as they did when they campaigned against the death penalty. Most famous among these was the crusade of Adelaide News against the hanging of Rupert Max Stuart.
In the late 1946 the Melbourne Herald published one of the first serious investigations of the conditions in Victorian psychiatric hospitals. Denis Warner, later a well known foreign correspondent, wrote a series of four leader page articles on the subject, of which the first, 'Kew Conditions Horrifying', set the tone. The previous year Warner had written a number of articles looking at rackets in sly grog and housing and at the conditions in abbatoirs and this seemed a natural follow up. The suggestion to look at the hospitals arose from a conversation between Sir Keith Murdoch and a doctor. With the doctors' help, Warner visited Kew Mental Hospital dressed in a white coat and stethoscope to see for himself. One doctor also suggested that he be admitted as a patient which Warner rejected. 'I thought I might never get out,' he recalled. The conditions appalled Warner and his subsequent articles called for a Royal Commission which was supported by leading psychiatrists.
The expose of Kew, Royal and Mont Park Hospitals had another unusual consequence. In March 1952 the Melbourne Herald learnt of a case where a mentally ill boy had been tethered to a clothes-line post in his parents' backyard. It turned out that the parents had done this in desperation partly because they knew from the Warner's expose that the conditions in state hospital were so bad. The Herald decided to look again at the plight of mentally ill children and their parents and in particular at one state institution, Kew Cottages. Two articles by Bill Tipping (himself the father of a spastic child) lead to spontaneous donations by the public which ultimately raised $24,000 which the state government matched and greatly improved the cottages. Herald Editor Cecil Edwards said 'If [a headline] was all we wanted, we had it: a shriek in the night, and then on to the next sensation. Instead, approaching the same basic material from a different direction and with a different purpose, we marshalled public support that forced a reform in a system'.
The Kew cottages stories were part of a philosophy of the press as fourth estate in which straight reportage and campaigning for causes sat side by side and were not seen as contradictory. Edwards again: [A good newspaper] must identify itself with the community's life. It must be prepared to tap the springs of charity for those who cannot help themselves, to flash the light of publicity on problems and needs that have been neglected or abandoned.' The majority of the Herald's causes and campaigns were quite different from later notions of investigative reporting. Many concerned the civic beauty and reputation of Melbourne and this became part of a highly successful formula of localism. One campaign was to save the graceful trees which lined St Kilda Rd, another was to save parklands. Others were campaigns against the size of the federal government and the growing number of public servants. The Herald ran such a campaign throughout January 1955 and this was echoed by the Sydney Truth two years later. Another underlying Herald campaign was, of course, anti-communism, which became relentless after 1948 when it published revelation by former CPA leader Cecil Sharpley which led to the Lowe Royal Commission on communism.
The campaign against the death penalty
Standing for causes and campaigning for them sometimes meant going against public opinion and changing it. Such was the case in 1962 when the Herald conducted a 'no holds barred' campaign against the death penalty allotted to Robert Tait for the murder of a vicar's mother. Ultimately the Bolte cabinet reprieved Tait. The Tait case was one of a series of newspaper campaigns against death penalty which the former editor of The Australian, Adrian Deamer, argued led to the abolition of the capital punishment. Journalists and editors, he argued, played a much underestimated key role along with church people, academics and trade unionists.
Perhaps the most outspoken campaign against the death penalty was that waged in 1959 by the Adelaide News under editor-in-chief Rohan Rivett against the execution of Rupert Max Stuart. Stuart was due to be hanged after he was convicted of having raped and murdered a small girl at Ceduna in South Australia. The News made the case a crusade. It widely publicised statements by a Catholic priest, Father Dixon, which seemed to provide an alibi for Stuart. When later on trial for seditious libel, Rivett said: 'When the News had obtained Father Dixon's story of evidence of an alibi for Stuart I formed no definite opinion except that it should be investigated.' [emphasis added].
The News campaigned on the Stuart case, as it had earlier against the White Australia policy, the biassed electoral system and on the stuffiness of the Adelaide establishment generally. But it was Tom Farrell, by 1959 on the staff of the Sydney Morning Herald, who sparked nationwide interest in the case. Farrell persuaded a priest who had had talked to Stuart in his native language, to speak out against the verdict, first for the Herald then on television. Along with journalists from the News, he tracked down some of Stuart's companions who belonged to a travelling funfair. Ultimately they provided evidence which threw doubt on on whether Stuart committed the murder. A later Royal Commission found that Stuart had been rightly convicted but criticised police methods which by modern standards had all the hallmarks of a frame-up.
As the Sydney Observer noted: 'In the big cities crusading newspapers are a part of everyday life. they may be a misguided, annoying or inconvenient element; they may have to be fought and countered; but they do not call forth wrath and indignation. The fury that descended upon Rohan Rivett in South Australia was remarkable. The parliament was full of extreme epithets about 'mob rule' and 'trial by newspaper'.... [i]t was all an orgy of naked anger, and Adelaide's Establishment made no secret of the fact that it intends to 'sweat off' Rohan Rivett.' The revenge of Playford state government followed the Royal Commission. Rivett was charged on nine counts including 'seditious libel', defined as 'an intention to bring into hatred or contempt ... the administration of justice'. Rivett was found not guilty on all charges but on one which the jury could not agree. After months of waiting the Crown withdrew the charge. Shortly afterward, amid widespread surprise, Rivett left his position as editor-in-chief and an editor from another Murdoch paper replaced him.
The decline of exposure journalism
The muckraking journalism of the popular press changed between the post war period and the late 1960s. While the popular press retained the sensation and shouts of scandal, its content began to change.
Muckraking exposures had always meant taking a moral approach and this had underlain the exposures of many injustices. But the reflex of exposure could also be allied to moral conservatism. This was expressed in a series of stories about the release of prisoners on parole and about 'crime waves'. By the late 1960s the popular press-inspired moral panics about crime waves remained and grew while the moral outrage and their investigation of rip-offs and poor public services had declined.
In addition, the sheer size of exposure stories shrunk. For example, the Sydney Truth's exposure in 1953 of favouritism in awarding school building contracts ran over three pages and 3,000 words. Such length (and depth) in a tabloid 15 to 20 years later would be unheard of. Less obviously, the 'running story' declined and became largely confined to politics. The running story was a series of stories over days of weeks continuously covering, for example, a major crime and its investigation by police. In such cases reporters followed up every aspect of the event and kept public interest high in the performance of public officials. In this way running stories were sometimes expressions of the watchdog role of the press.
The change in the nature of exposures and investigations was most apparent in crime reporting. Crime and court stories have always provided a staple of tabloid newspapers and indeed Truth even hired ex-policemen such as Reg Foster as reporters. The Truth and the Daily Mirror, with the encouragement of owner Ezra Norton, were often highly critical of police in the post war period. Later they praised them uncritically as heroes, embodying all that was good and just. Yet it was during this later period from the 1960s onward, that police corruption associated with organised crime increased markedly. This process not only went largely uninvestigated by the traditional police roundsmen, and it is also arguable that journalists' abrogation of their watchdog role contributed to it.
The embodiment of this style of crime reporting was the Daily Mirror's police roundsman, Bill Jenkings. In his memoirs, As Crime Goes By, Jenkings referred admiringly to a number of police such as Fred Krahe and Ray Kelly whom a later generation of investigative journalists showed were linked to corruption. Gerald Stone (later executive producer of the Nine network's Sixty Minutes) was a younger reporter at the Mirror, noted:
One of the things that struck me was that Bill [Jenkings] was a hard man, but loyal to his contacts. He knew the cops and protected them, and sometimes that brought conflict. Some of the all-round reporters like myself might sometimes write a story stitching up one of the cops. You could always count on Bill to give you a lecture about it, saying how he had to work with them and he'd been placed in a bad position because of the story.
Another illustration of what happened when the journalists were captured by their sources, that is, senior police, can be seen in the treatment of a story in 1960. In March that year both the Sun and the Mirror reported that a number of schoolboys had discovered a cache of about $40,000 in the storage yard of Bullen's circus. No-one came forward to claim the money and from the beginning of this intriguing story, the Sun's police roundsman, Noel Bailey, reported prominently that the father of one of the boys had already reported the find to the local police. Bailey was the first to report (followed by the Mirror) that detectives were being questioned about their lack of diligence in following up the father's statement.
A week later the Sun front paged the outcome: 'Sack for 2 police' which reported that the detectives had been dismisssed though no criminal charges were laid. While the Sun's story was straight forward, the Mirror story (presumably written by Jenkings) prominently featured the meritorious records of both sacked police. One had 'recently figured in a dramatic gunpoint arrest' while the other 'is a former Rugby Union footballer' and 'received special commendation for the part he played in the arrest of a violent gunman in Burwood'.
What lay behind the Mirror's special pleading for the police and the Sun's more straightforward approach was a different attitude by reporters to their sources. A colleague of Jenkings, on the Mirror, Dave Dixon, recalled feeling a certain admiration for his rival Noel Bailey who, he said, by his harder reporting of the inquiry and sackings must have realised the risks in showing the police in a bad light. Another Mirror reporter, C. J. Mackenzie, recalled an incident at the CIB yard where reporters had gathered. Bailey, standing in a group of reporters was pushed to the ground by a detective who made it clear that stories highlighting police corruption constituted a betrayal. The detective, Frederick Krahe, was later exposed as notoriously corrupt. But Bailey's preparedness to exercise a modicum of independence in relation to his police sources was more the exception than the rule. It was not until the 1970s when a new attitude toward crime reporting emerged that strong investigative reporting of crime could begin to expose what had been ignored in the 1950s and 1960s.
While the 1960s saw the crusading tradition of the popular press degenerate into mere sensationalism and voyeurism, there were sporadic exceptions. The Melbourne Truth under Sol Chandler from the London Daily Express underwent something of a revival from 1965. Chandler's reign was phenomenally successful in boosting Truth's circulation and as Hurst points out this 'was due almost as much to its exposes of deceit and dishonesty by people in public life as to the 'tits and bums' formula which was later relied on by cruder imitators'. A key Melbourne Truth expose which signalled a new era in investigative reporting was Evan Whitton's report on police protection of abortionists which led to an inquiry and the jailing of several officers. Interestingly, the initial prompting for the stories came from the pro-abortion movement including the feminist Beatrice Faust.
Evan Whitton (one of the few whose career spanned the last of the tabloid muckraking years on the Melbourne Truth and the new wave on the National Times) believes that corrupt police made a conscious decision to get the press on side.
The corrupt police make it their business to supply the people at the sharp end of crime reporting with a very good service. If you have got those guys [on side] they become a prisoner of the source and never drop [the corrupt police] in it. So you've virtually wiped out any investigation if you have got to the guy who is the crime- roundsman. [Investigative reporting into police] has got to be done from outside traditional police reporting. The roundsmen cannot do it.
Whitton attributes part of his success in breaking the mould to the fact that he had not been trained as a reporter and had not adopted the bad habits of police roundspeople.
I always thought that the best training I ever had was doing a couple of university subject in history.... you've got to footnote everything in history essays, so it teaches you a bit of rigour and interest in facts and patterns of events. I applied that at the Melbourne Truth.
While the exposure style of investigative reporting declined in the tabloid press through the 1950s and 1960s, the desire by reporters to write in-depth exploratory journalism did not. From the late 1960s the quality press and quality television, at first falteringly, began to show more interest in probing stories and especially about stories of social, rather than individual, injustices.
On ABC television a new program was created whose name in years to come would symbolise probing journalism. Four Corners was not initially an investigative program though it had moments when it probed beyond the normal range. One such instance was a 1961 story on the appalling living conditions of Aborigines at Box Ridge in northern NSW. Few, if any TV cameras had been to such a place and the story caused 'shock waves'. The new Murdoch national daily, The Australian, under editor Adrian Deamer, was also a place where the revival of investigative journalism began. Deamer gave his staff on The Australian the one absolute essential for investigative reporting -- the time in which to do it. Deamer was deeply opposed to racism and showed a keen interest in stories exposing injustice to Aborigines, breaking the story on the strike of Aboriginal stockmen at Wave Hill which is credited with founding the modern land rights movement. Such stories did not please Murdoch. According to Deamer, he regularly complained about the 'long haired' and 'bleeding heart' content of The Australian. 'Aboriginals don't read our papers,' Deamer recalls being told. In 1971 the Fairfax group launched a new newspaper, the National Times. It soon became a focus for a series of probing articles and by the 1980s, especially under editor Brian Toohey, its name, like Four Corners, became synonymous with the revival of muckraking.
This study of muckraking and investigative journalism over 30 years leads to a question. Does the exposure of surprising new information on matter of public interest actually ever actually change anything? This is forcefully raised by Denis Warner's exposure of Victorian mental hospitals. What Warner wrote in 1946 has been repeated many times over the years. At the time of writing yet another inquiry has been published into 'inhumane, unsafe and illegal practices' in institutions for the intellectually diabled. In between there have been dozens of both journalistic and official inquiries into such state institutions. Many have revealed abuses, yet the abuses seem to continue. What price the power of the media in face of entrenched social attitudes which simply disregard the mentally ill?
The evidence is not all one way. A counter-example from the same era, that of the miscarriage of justice in the McDermott case, makes the opposite point. Immediately after Farrell's story appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the NSW state government announced a royal commission and McDermott was later released.
The social power of journalism therefore depends on many factors in the wider society. But it also depends on the complexity of the subject matter. As a form of public information journalism is strongest when reporting concrete and specific facts about a particular situation. This is the 'who, what, when, where,' beloved of traditional journalism. When these facts disclose an injustice or the like and, most crucially, when the injustice can be remedied without a challenge to deep seated social attitudes or social power, then journalism alone can indeed be powerful. This was the case with the McDermott jailing. But when journalism discloses facts which are inextricably tied deep seated social attitudes (or entrenched power) then mere disclosure, as a vehicle for reform, is at its weakest.
The great strength of muckraking in the post-war popular press was that it tackled simple subjects capable of being exposed and remedied -- quack doctors, not systemic problems in health care. Its great weakness was that systemic problems, like police corruption were never tackled.
This was the distinction of the 'golden age' of investigative reporting in the 1970s and 80s. Both the site and the subject of the muckraking changed. The source became the quality press and ABC television; the subject became the systemic problems. For example, corruption by police or government officials, racism, abuse of power by intelligence agencies. And while government ministers were sacked and royal commissions initiated, these did not necessarily bring deeper change, with the sole exception of the Fitzgerald Royal Commission in Queensland. In contrast to the post war period, disclosures about deeper social problems were the great strength of investigative journalism in the 1970s and 80s; but in terms of significant reform, such complex subjects also revealed one of the weaknesses of journalism and the media.