Ben Roberts-Smith books – “excellent reads”

Ben Roberts-Smith books – “excellent reads”

It is not surprising that the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation case has already spawned two books – one by former ABC journalist, Chris Masters, and the other by his legal co-respondent, Nick McKenzie. ABC Alumni Chair, Jonathan Holmes, says both are “excellent reads” with lessons about investigative journalism, truth-telling, and the cost of a crucial victory.

Jonathan Holmes flanked by both book covers

Ben Roberts-Smith has appealed against Justice Anthony Besanko’s ruling in the defamation trial against Masters, McKenzie and Nine Entertainment.

According to Jonathan Holmes, while the two resulting books are about the same subject matter, there are key differences which may make the difference in choosing one over the other.

For example, Holmes says that McKenzie’s book is more about the experiences of being a journalist at the centre of such a trial, knowing that your entire career is on the line and having the trial take a massive personal toll. By contrast, Master’s book provides a deeper discussion of an investigation years in the making. Masters also provides a detailed account of the trial.

Holmes says that what both books clearly illustrate is that the defamation case was won because both journalists “invested years of their lives, and tens of thousands of dollars of Fairfax’s money – and in Chris’s case, his own too – researching the story”; and because Nine Entertainment then spent tens of millions defending it in court.

The books outline the belief by both journalists that the case probably would not have been won without the long delays caused by the COVID pandemic. 

Crucially those delays allowed the publication in November 2020 of the Brereton Report before the trial began. That report by Major-General Paul Brereton found that 39 Afghans may have been unlawfully killed by 25 current or former Australian soldiers in circumstances that, if proven, would amount to war crimes. Chris Masters writes that the report “changed the mood of the country”. 

Nine’s lawyers were also able to convince a federal judge that they should be given access to the ‘potentially affected person’ (PAP) notices sent by the Brereton inquiry to alleged perpetrators, including the notice sent to Ben Roberts-Smith.

This provided McKenzie and Masters with hundreds of pages of evidence, some from soldiers who would become crucial witnesses.

Masters writes near the end of Flawed Hero: "Let's say we had been denied those temporal advantages – the additional witnesses, the PAPs, the finessing – and we had lost. The journalism would have been declared not good enough. Yet we were not wrong”.

Read Jonathan Holmes' fascinating account

Jonathan Holmes is a former host of ‘Media Watch’ and chair of ABC Alumni.

Sophie Arnold
E-news Editor