Spotlight on Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie — Walkley Honour for Media Freedom

Walkley Foundation
7 min readDec 6, 2023
Chris Masters (left) and Nick McKenzie at the 68th Walkley Awards. Photo: Adam Hollingworth.

The Walkley Judging Board unanimously decided to present Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie with the Walkley Honour for Media Freedom at the 68th Walkley Awards to recognise their Ben Roberts-Smith stories published in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and on Nine/60 Minutes from 2018 to 2023.

This recognition, the first of its kind, salutes a body of work, across six years, that has not strictly or neatly fitted into the parameters of the annual Walkley Awards. The journalists’ pursuit of this story has grown from the first revelations in 2018 to become one of the most powerful and contested journalistic efforts this country has ever seen.

The pair reflected on their six-year-long investigation and how the truth finally triumphed during an interview with the Walkley Foundation’s James Gorman.

Chris, when did you first start investigating reports about Ben Roberts-Smith, and at the time, how confident were you there was truth behind them?

Chris: I was not at first confident. Big characters like Ben attract gossip. It was not until some of the stories began to align that I began to ask more questions. And when I learned to ask the right questions confidence in the likely truth of war crimes allegations grew.

How did you end up working together on this investigation?

Chris: I wrote to Nick when I was in Afghanistan with Special Forces in 2011 and we subsequently maintained communication. But it was not until 2017 when I first heard the allegation of the Ali Jan cliff-kick execution that we began to purposefully collaborate.

Nick: I got involved in mid-2017, when I caught up with Chris and wdme first canvassed the information being whispered about that Roberts-Smith may not be all that he seemed. We joined forces and began investigating deeply after this.

How essential was your collaboration in unearthing this story, and what did each of you bring to the table as you progressed your investigation?

Chris: We have both said we could not have done this without the other. Such a heavy load was sensibly shared. I know no one in our industry as indefatigable and determined as Nick. Along with Fairfax and Nine he drove it forward and kept me on my feet.

Nick: It was critical that we not only combined our energy and different approaches to journalism — because the story would become absolutely exhausting and it was a load that one journalist alone couldn’t have carried — but to act as a check and balance for each other.

We unearthed different facts and perspectives and could combine them with greater force. Chris brought a very analytical approach steeped in a deep knowledge of military history. I had fresher eyes and was learning about the Special Forces’ world as I went. He saw things that I missed and vice versa. We also formed different relationships with sources, which was very beneficial because we could bring together different parts of a jigsaw.

What was the critical point in your early investigation when you realised this story was going to eventuate?

Chris: When Nick secured corroboration of the alleged Ali Jan execution from different points of the globe, we believed the story was true and publishable.

Nick: The corroboration of the Ali Jan cliff-kicking incident in the first half of 2018 was absolutely critical. It was probably at that point we knew that the allegation Roberts-Smith had kicked a detainee off a cliff was more likely true than not.

What challenges, roadblocks and resistance did you face while conducting your investigation? Was there ever a point when you reconsidered chasing this story?

Chris: This one was as hard as it gets. It took years to gain the trust of the ultra-secretive Special Forces community. And along with the investigative challenges came opposition from competitive media and powerful forces arguing we were desecrating Anzac. But once underway, there was no turning back.

Nick: There were endless challenges which increased when Roberts-Smith sued us in August 2018. Prior to that, we had to break the SAS code of silence to get confirmation of the allegations. Then we had to convince sceptical editors of the truth of the claims.

After we first reported the key allegations, the blowback began: death threats and the PR campaign launched by Roberts-Smith. Witnesses were also threatened. The litigation then required us to deal with the immense challenge of getting witnesses to court. There were many times I wondered whether it was worth all the stress, but of course, it was. The Australian public deserved to know the truth.

How difficult was it for you to garner the evidence needed to advance your investigation?

Chris: The big difference between journalism and investigative journalism is time. We needed a lot of it to build knowledge and evidence. So, time, persistence, and patience — hardly abundant within a 24-hour news cycle — were crucial.

Nick: It helped that Chris had built up plenty of trust with military insiders by 2017, but we still had to convince people to talk to us and then find additional witnesses — sometimes in Afghanistan or elsewhere — to talk about traumatic issues they may have wished buried.

How does your investigation into Ben Roberts-Smith rate on your extensive lists of investigative works?

Chris: Yes, we both rate this as our hardest. The court process for the 1980s Queensland Moonlight State defamation actions was more difficult, given I was on my own. By contrast, the Roberts-Smith investigation required far more evidence in circumstances far more resistant to discovery.

Nick: It’s the hardest story I have and will likely ever do. But it’s also the story I’m proudest of because I think its public interest and impact was so tremendous.

Nick, how important was your time on the ground in Afghanistan for this investigation?

Nick: Hearing from victims first-hand was really important. Ali Jan, the detainee kicked off a cliff and executed, was a father. I wanted Australians to see the human face of war crimes and I couldn’t have shown that without meeting Ali Jan’s family in Afghanistan. So travelling there was vital.

What message does your investigative work into Ben Roberts-Smith send to the Australian public?

Chris: It is a timely example of the importance of journalism. Our lawyers also made an important contribution, the case telling of the unrealistic expectations defamation laws impose on everyday journalism.

Nick: I think ultimately it is about what we value and who we are as a nation, especially given how deeply our national identity is entwined with our military history. Our investigation highlighted how important it is for our military, and the country itself, to embrace truth, justice, accountability and rule of law, not just martial prowess and national pride.

I also hope it means that the next time a young Australian soldier is pressured to execute a civilian — as was the case with some who Roberts-Smith bullied — they will pause. And they will not pull the trigger.

How did it feel to receive the Walkley Honour for Media Freedom at the 68th Walkley Awards?

Chris: I saw the win in the Ben Roberts-Smith case as one for us all. However, before awards night, I could not be sure that in the main, my colleagues felt the same. Now I look back on that moment when they rose to their feet and applauded as a career highlight.

Nick: I feel prouder of it than perhaps at any moment in my career. When we got a standing ovation, I felt so grateful to be a journalist in Australia and so appreciative to have the support of my industry. The media often eats itself alive. But I think everyone in the media wanted the truth to triumph in the Roberts-Smith case. Our Walkley honour captured that shared sense of purpose and commitment to the truth.

Do you think you will team up again in the future for another investigation?

Chris: I have been trying to retire for a while. As a freelancer, I endeavour to stay in charge of the work, rather than have the work control me. This hardly succeeded during the BRS saga, which still has a way to go. I expect it will bond Nick and I for some time to come.

Nick: We are doing our own investigations now, but I think we are both grateful to have been on the Roberts-Smith journey together. Chris is a living legend in journalism. I’m so proud to have worked with him in the toughest story in our careers.

Watch the 2023 Walkley Honour for Media Freedom acceptance speech:



Walkley Foundation

The Walkley Foundation champions the highest standards of journalism in Australia through our awards, events and magazine – join the conversation!