“Because I haven’t lived in Sydney before, I didn’t quite understand some of the references”, my friend Sue told a couple sitting at our table at last night’s Andrew Olle Media Lecture. Last night’s lecture was given by Kate McClymont, the Sydney Morning Herald investigative journalist who famously writes about crime and corruption in New South Wales. The woman in the couple then related a story about how she had purchased a house from one of the crime world figures mentioned in Kate’s speech. Between purchase and settlement, hers and a bunch of other houses were burned down in suspicious circumstances, I recall her saying. “These are very Sydney stories”, I told Sue.
“I remember Abe Saffron”, is a phrase I’ve commonly heard in social occasions with older journalists. “I reported on the disappearance of Juanita Neilson”, someone once told me. “She’s in a ditch somewhere in the Blue Mountains”, is a phrase you’ll also commonly hear. Everyone in Sydney seems to have a dodgy crime story. Indeed, I know quite well one of the “flamboyant figures” Kate often writes about.
Because of that sense of familiarity, her speech last night got a lot of laughs. I loved this anecdote in particular…
Not that I am saying journalists are infallible. We are human. We make mistakes. Look at me, I identified the wrong person in He Who Must Be Obeid, the book I co-wrote earlier this year with Linton Besser. When I was told that the book would have to be recalled, it was one of the worst days in my entire life. But a setback for one person is an opportunity for someone else. In the middle of my misery I received the following text message. Thursday 21 Aug 2014 10.36am Hi Kate, It’s John Ibrahim her (sic) could u pls send me a copy of ur book that be nice…thank u. Me: Very funny! Who is this really? Kate “It really is John,” he replied. I had last spoken to the nightclub boss several years earlier when we had run into each other outside Goulburn jail. “I don’t like what you write,” he said. “That’s funny, because I don’t like what you do,” I shot back, mentioning his penchant for threatening witnesses. He pointed out that the charges against him had been dropped. We ended up talking about our mutual love of the TV series The Sopranos.
As much of her speech dealt with the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Sue and I both loved the fact the couple sitting next to us at dinner included Nick Greiner, the former NSW Premier who set up ICAC, and in fact became the first “victim” of investigation. Really interesting guy to chat to by the way, as was his partner.
The thrust of her speech was that, in many ways, investigative journalism, and investigative journalists are under threat. As well as for economic reasons, there’s the the issue of free speech and she mentioned the case of the Australian journalist, Peter Greste, currently in prison in Egypt.
But she also made the point that all journalism, to an extent, should be investigative.
People often ask me about the secret of investigative journalism. There is no secret. All journalism should use the same tools – curiosity, scepticism and the willingness to take the road less travelled.
The speech will be on ABC TV tomorrow night, and is well worth watching. You might even see me, as they often cross to images of the audience during the televised speech. “The one thing you need to remember is don’t drink during the speech as they’re bound to cross to you just as you’re having a glass”, I told Sue. I knew this from experience. There was one year when they crossed to an image of me twice during the speech: on both occasions I was sipping on a glass of wine. But there again, that’s “Very Sydney”, isn’t it?