Investigative journalism in Australia has its antecedents in Britain and the United States. In the second half of the 20th century, it was influenced by a social responsibility model of journalism that gained momentum following the Watergate scandal. While there are earlier examples in the Australian press, it was more likely to be labelled as ‘muck-raking’.
One reason was that Australia’s colonial newspapers were under government control until 1824. Generally, Australia’s formative editors deferred to the authorities, with noteworthy exceptions such as the editor of Hobart’s Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser, Henry Melville, who was imprisoned after challenging the harsh treatment of prisoners in the 1830s and exposing widespread bribery in Hobart’s public houses.
The definition of investigative journalism is contested, yet there is broad agreement that it has a watchdog role, and takes time and effort to reveal public-interest information that might otherwise remain hidden.
The US-based Investigative Reporters and Editors advanced the notion that investigative journalism is distinct from daily news gathering because of the time, research and verification involved. Julianne Schultz identifies investigative journalism as independently sourced and verified information that reveals a new truth, while Rodney Tiffen considers that ‘exposure of corruption is the cutting edge of democratic accountability’.
David McKnight identifies two 20th century peaks for Australian investigative journalism: immediately after World War II, ‘when the hopes of a post war “new order” were high’; and in the 1970s and early 1980s, responding to the ‘cultural and political’ revolution of the 1960s.
Investigative journalism’s first wave—popularly termed ‘muck-raking’ or exposure journalism—was typically directed at single targets like charlatan doctors. During the 1960s, muck-raking tabloids such as Sydney’s Sun and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and Truth led the charge with watchdog reporting.
Muck-raking evolved from the American Gilded Age of the late 19th century. Tawdry mass-circulation American mastheads were the target of President Theodore Roosevelt, who coined ‘muckrake’ as a pejorative term. But journalists embraced the expression and in time ‘muck-raking’ came to be associated with seeking out and exposing corruption.
By the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, the Australian weekly press was muck-raking about shysters and con artists, and standing up for the powerless with exposés that were progressive and socially reformist, such as the Age’s reporting of factory working conditions in the 1890s that led to industrial law reforms. Examples could also be found in the Bulletin (1880–2008), Sydney’s Truth (1890–1958) and Smith’s Weekly (1919–50).
The transition to the second wave of investigative reporting was interrupted by a period of complacency during the Cold War. As in Europe and the United States, the mass media became largely complicit with anti-communism as the organising principle of a broader cultural coldwar. There were exceptions, including labour movement publications such as the Worker. The collaborating relationship between the press and the political establishment started to unravel as social and political movements, including feminism and Vietnam War protests, gained strength.
By the 1970s, the daily press was more at ease challenging authority as equals. Melbourne Herald journalist Peter Game exposed the unconventional loans scheme of the Whitlam Labor government. Publications such as the Age, the Melbourne Herald, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian and the National Times produced much of Australia’s investigative journalism at this time. Their investigations tended towards systemic wrongdoing rather than individual grievance. Australian newsrooms were inspired by the persistence and suspicion of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who unearthed the Watergate cover-up.
But London’s Sunday Times also influenced Australian investigative journalism. During Graham Perkin’s editorship of the Age (1966–75), the London paper’s investigations were published locally. Stories included expatriate Phillip Knightley’s exposure of British spy Kim Philby defecting to Russia, and Knightley’s investigations into the birth defect drug Thalidomide. At its height, there were five Australian investigative journalists on the Sunday Times’ Insight team: Knightley, Murray Sayle, Alex Mitchell, Tony Clifton and Bruce Page.
Perkin, who had a close relationship with Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, established Australia’s own Insight unit at the Age. Led by Ben Hills, the unit uncovered corruption in Victoria’s housing commission land deals.
Investigative journalism identifies wrong, even illegal, practices that breach society’s moral code, but it differs from advocacy journalism, which directs the inquiry towards social change. For example, since the 1960s, the in-depth reporting of Sydney-born journalist John Pilger (1939– ) has prosecuted the West’s imperialist agenda, including the plight of Indigenous Australians following white settlement.
In terms of broadcast investigative journalism, the ABC led the way with investigative stories on Four Corners (1961– ) and This Day Tonight (TDT) (1967–79). TDT’s hard-hitting reports developed many extraordinary journalism careers, including those of Gerald Stone, Richard Carleton, Caroline Jones, Mike Willesee, Mike Carlton, Allan Hogan, George Negus, Peter Luck, Andrew Olle, Clive Hale, Peter Manning and Stuart Littlemore. Its 1973 investigation into illegal gambling in New South Wales proved the broadcaster’s financial and editorial commitment to watchdog reporting. In 1985, the ABC made this explicit in its policy statements. Walkley Award-winning investigative print stories in the late 1960s and early 1970s included Evan Whitton’s exposure of police corruption and illegal abortion in Melbourne’s Truth (1902–95) and Catherine Martin’s investigations in the West Australian, including the Tronado microwave machine’s bogus cancer treatments and the deadly consequences for miners of exposure to blue asbestos.
The National Times (1971–88) supported women in hard news and investigative roles, including Marian Wilkinson, Anne Summers, Wendy Bacon, Deborah Snow and Adele Horin.
By the 1980s, John Fairfax & Sons mastheads produced much of Australia’s quality print investigative journalism. The controversial ‘Age Tapes’ was a series that triggered corruption charges against a High Court judge (later acquitted) and the 1986 Stewart Royal Commission of Inquiry into Drug Trafficking. Based on earlier reports by the National Times, Age investigators Bob Bottom, Lindsay Murdoch and David Wilson used the leaked tape transcripts to document links between organised crime in New South Wales, police and government.
Influential television investigative reporting in this decade included investigations into police corruption in Queensland, such as Quentin Dempster’s 1986 ABC documentary The Sunshine System and, the following year, Chris Masters’ Four Corners story ‘The Moonlight State’. The Courier-Mail also covered this significant story, which led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry (1987–89), and reporter Phil Dickie won the Gold Walkley for it. Paul Barry’s 1989 Four Corners investigation into Alan Bond’s financial dealings was also significant.
Commercial television programs have also contributed important public interest investigative stories, including the Nine Network’s Sunday (1981–2008) and 60 Minutes (1979– ). But many folded due to falling audience numbers and cost-cutting, such as Ten’s Page One (1988–89) and its successor, Public Eye (1989). Even in its last days, Sunday was winning awards, including three 2008 Walkleys for Ross Coulthart and Nick Farrow’s ‘Butcher of Bega’. The Seven Network’s investigative programs have included Witness (1996–98), hosted by Jana Wendt and then Paul Barry, and Real Life (1992); it still produces Sunday Night with Coulthart reporting.
Radio is not as often recognised for its investigative journalism. Exceptions include Dr Norman Swan’s 1988 Gold Walkley-winning story on Dr William McBride’s fraudulent medical research for The Health Report (ABC). The ABC’s Background Briefing is unique as a dedicated investigative radio program. Its award-winning investigations have included Mark Aarons’ 1980s series on Australia’s policy of accepting ex-Nazis as refugees, and Sarah Dingle’s 2013 reports on child sexual abuse.
While the 1970s and 1980s produced consequential investigative journalism across broadcast and print media platforms, research has found that, notwithstanding falling print circulations and revenues, and masthead closures, the volume of quality print investigative journalism increased during the 1990s and 2000s.
The Courier-Mail and the weekly Sunday Age were among the newspapers contributing Walkley-winning investigative stories in the 1990s— the Mail unveiled author Helen Darville for falsifying her background, and the Sunday Age’s three-month investigation into Australian sex tourism in Asia led to changes in Australian law. One of Australia’s most successful investigative duos was the Age’s Gary Hughes and Gerard Ryle, who won successive Walkley Awards in the late 1990s for their investigative work. Ryle left Australia to become the first non-American director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Similarly, the 2000s proved to be a productive decade for Australian print investigative journalism with the Australian Financial Review renewing print’s lapsed attention during the 1980s on corporate wrongdoing, and investigating the financial collapses of Opes Prime and Storm Financial. General news mastheads tended to favour crime investigations, such as Hedley Thomas’s exposé of the bungled police investigation into terror suspect Dr Muhamed Haneef in the Australian and Nick McKenzie’s investigation into underworld figure Tony Mokbel’s money laundering at the races in the Age. It was also the beginning of book-length inquiries, such as David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s Dark Victory (2003), which investigated the Howard Coalition government’s political framing of the Norwegian cargo carrier Tampa after it rescued asylum seekers.
With a 24-hour media cycle, investigative journalism is now less likely to be part of an ongoing story series; an exception was Kate McClymont and Linton Besser’s 2012 reports in the Sydney Morning Herald exposing the corrupt dealings of NSW politicians Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald that triggered an Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry.
The nascent online sphere provides new opportunities for news gathering and data analysis, but its contributions to Australian investigative reporting are more often in collaboration with others. Examples include WikiLeaks’ partnership with Fairfax Media using ‘big data’ such as leaked diplomatic cables to produce investigative stories. Online news outlets such as Crikey and New Matilda have also combined with academia to undertake investigative journalism.
Traditional media are increasing audience reach and limiting costs by syndicating investigative stories across their networks and collaborating with other media. The ABC and Fairfax Media have teamed up on several investigative reports, including Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker’s 2011 Walkley Award-winning revelations about Australia’s biggest bribery scandal involving Reserve Bank subsidiary currency firms.
In 2012, Fairfax Media and News Limited announced thousands of job losses amid falling revenues and print circulations. A much smaller number of journalism roles have been created by online start-ups and established international media targeting Australian online audiences, such as the Daily Mail and the Guardian. Together with significant reporting redundancies and a fast-paced digital news cycle that competes with journalists’ research time, Australian investigative journalism’s future is unclear. What is certain is that the internet as a research tool for investigative reporters is revolutionary.
REFs: A. Carson, ‘Investigative Journalism, the Public Sphere and Australian Democracy: The Watchdog Role of Newspapers in the Digital Age’ (PhD thesis, 2013); D. McKnight, ‘The Investigative Tradition in Australian Journalism 1945–1965’, in A. Curthoys and J. Schultz (eds), Journalism (1999); J. Schultz, Reviving the Fourth Estate (1998); R. Tiffen, Scandals, Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia (1999).