Linton Besser: the man, the writer, the investigator

“Journalism that matters is the journalism that exposes wrongdoing.” – Linton Besser

Linton Besser has spent years mastering the craft of investigative journalism. His exposure of corruption in public service has prompted inquiries, statewide reforms and the removal of state officials.

On Wednesday morning, the multi-award winning Fairfax veteran, co-author of the bestselling book He Who Must Be Obeid and reporter for ABC’s Four Corners spoke to Macleay students about the threat of defamation, managing sources and the importance of investigative journalism.

Besser joined Four Corners in 2013, after a long run at The Sydney Morning Herald – during which time he covered organised crime on Sydney’s waterfront, program spending by the Defence Department and failures in our public transport system.

On the shift from print to broadcast, Besser insists the difficulties lie in identifying sources.

“At the Herald, usually the aim was to get the leaked document, and once you had the leaked document and the context around it and you knew plenty – you didn’t need to get a single person on record,” he said.

“Making television is the opposite; you do want the leaked document and it’s important, and that’s something that Four Corners does – what you need is the author of the document to agree to appear on an on-camera interview.”

According to Besser, the risk of defaming people is a greater inhibition to investigative journalism than the bluster and threats of powerful public figures and institutions: “That is the really chilling effect on investigative work in Australia… You have to be bulletproof.”

Besser said the most effective way to report in the public’s interest while battling the threat of defamation is to “research, research, research”.

Maintaining a robust fact-checking process is the difference between a successful public inquiry and a lawsuit. “You have to absolutely forensic – and the more you do it, the better you get at it,” Besser said.

His insight for budding investigative journalists is to be hungry be for it, yet to remain within the boundaries.

“Don’t overreach – stay within what you know, and what you can prove. Get people on the record; you must have every document for absolutely everything,” he said.

Besser encouraged the audience to pursue investigative journalism, saying, “You should be awed by it.”

“You really can have a positive impact on the world,” he said. – Interview and story by Eleanor Campbell, video by Genevieve Smith