I had decided to record Peter Charley’s phone conversation on two devices: my laptop and my phone. Where precaution ends and paranoia begins is a hard one to parse. But I couldn’t shake from my mind a passage in Charley’s book where, during a high-stakes information-gathering mission involving a yellow python and an NRA executive, all hidden cameras calamitously failed. “Don’t f*ck with me,” I muttered, glaring at my screens. (My phone, christ, it did.)
How to Sell a Massacre is Charley’s account of his Al Jazeera team’s top-secret and elaborate infiltration of the NRA and One Nation over three, hair-raising years. The investigation culminated in an explosive two-part documentary which aired on the ABC in 2019, and revealed the US gun lobby’s tactics to minimise the role of firearms in mass shootings, and the bizarre and alarming campaign of two Pauline Hanson henchmen to acquire party funding in exchange for softening Australia’s gun laws.
This, despite the fact that the vast majority of Australians support the reforms brought in after the Port Arthur massacre.
The audacious sting, code-named Project Freedom, involved a core team of three. There was Rodger Muller, an Aussie pretending to be a gun nut, recording conversations on tiny cameras (one lodged in a cowboy hat) with people like senior NRA lobbyist Brandi Graham and NRA executive VP Wayne LaPierre. There was Claudianna Blanco, masquerading as his advisor, who also took part in covert recording when One Nation entered the scene (one camera, taped on her inner thigh, she named after her husband because “no one but Dave goes anywhere near where the camera is”). And there’s Peter Charley himself – the mastermind and lead of the investigation, headquartered in an underground Washington DC bunker.
For three years, no one but them and a handful of others knew what they were up to.
Whether or not you’ve watched the Walkley Award-winning documentary, you’ll want to read this book. A gripping insider’s view, it brings the motives and characters into heightened focus, while revealing details not disclosed in the film. Not the least of these is One Nation James Ashby’s on-camera confession that he caused a man brain damage and lied to the police about it – which Charley is surprised nobody’s picked up on yet.
“I feel I need to say to journalists, ‘Guys, look on page whatever. There’s a story there’,” he says.
There’s also more on that leaked footage of One Nation’s Steve Dickson in a US strip club (which ended his political career).
Beyond these scandalous nuggets, Charley’s book is foremost an exploration of journalism’s changing role and prerogatives in a post-truth world. When journalists are portrayed as cretinous peddlers of mistruths, presidents can tweet fake news daily and maintain voter support, and algorithms on global platforms favour virality over reality, it seems reporters must furnish irrefutable and overwhelming evidence if their stories are to be believed.
Project Freedom’s methods to uncover truth – “essentially spying” Charley admits – are certainly extreme (if not unprecedented – just think of Nellie Bly infiltrating an insane asylum in 1887). The operation has stirred controversy in camps outside the far-right. Respected journalist Peter Greste, for one, charged the team with orchestrating rather than objectively reporting on events. Charley politely and adamantly disagrees.
“I was always conscious of the possibility that we could overstep the mark,” he says. “But I don’t think we did.”
“When lobby groups are out there throwing everything they have to distort and bend public perception to their view of the world, then it’s justifiable to move in the areas we moved in with hidden cameras and false identities.
“There is a time and a place for that sort of journalism, and certainly the NRA investigation was one of them.”
Besides, he says, it’s not as though he was some rogue agent recklessly sending Rodger and Claudianna in hot. A huge phalanx of lawyers was behind them, guiding them through the delicate question of when espionage is okay in the eyes of the law, and when it’s not. Every step the operation took involved lengthy discussion with Al Jazeera’s investigation division heads, too.
“Going down that path was the only choice I had in getting to the truth of what was going on in the NRA,” says Charley.
Not that the path was clear. When they set out in 2016, none of them imagined the places their investigation would take them. Or that it would take so long.
“The pressure was intense. Every time Rodger and Claudianna went into undercover meetings, I had my heart in my mouth,” says Charley. “I was very anxious they would be discovered – and there were any number of ways they could have been. Someone could’ve spotted a wire or a camera, or brought in a metal detector.”
While Charley could not be involved on the ground, his role of managing the team and maintaining morale – particularly when technology failed, or budgets were cut – was crucial.
“Rodger did require a lot of attention,” says Charley. “Not that he was at risk of falling apart. But when people are living a double life, they need to be around the person who’s asked them to do it and knows what they’re up to, just to keep them sane.
“The whole notion of pretending to be someone you’re not is hard at the best of times. Someone you can be yourself to in total honesty is really important.”
The experience of three years undercover has formed a unique and enduring friendship between the three. “We knew we had to trust in each other. I had to believe in them, and they knew that I was one of only a few people who knew what they were doing,” says Charley. “There was a deep bond.”
Though his assignments take him around the world, Charley is primarily a Washington-based reporter for Al Jazeera, and has one equally dangerous undercover assignment unfolding there right now. He was meant to be heading back in October to cover the US election, but plans changed at the last minute. He’s a little wistful at this: “It’s going to be absolutely insane on the streets there … I’d quite like to be there in the middle of it.”
Whenever he does happen to be in Sydney, he tries to see Rodger and Claudianna as often as he can. In fact, he tells me, he had dinner with the pair last night. The week before that, they stayed over at his house in Church Point.
While he didn’t consult either of them in writing the book – which he did alongside his regular job over six months, getting up at 3am every day to get it done – Charley says both Rodger and Claudianna are “very happy” with it.
They’re pretty excited at the prospect of a film version, too. Two production companies are currently fighting over the rights to the story – one of them has ties to Sam Rockwell and Daniel Craig.
Fraught though it was, including the very real possibility of getting shot, Charley reflects on the mission as “a lot of fun”. So do the other two.
“They were only saying last night: ‘Can we do something like this again?’”
By Kate Prendergast
How to Sell a Massacre was published in August 2020 by ABC Books.
Read an edited extract of the book in The Weekend Australian. Signed copies are available at Roaring Stories Bookshop.