Curiosity, scepticism and the desire to uncover the truth

At the 2018 Jessie Street Annual Luncheon, guest speaker and five times Walkley Award winner Kate McClymont mused on the character traits that sustained her in her career as an investigative journalist. An attribute which she did not raise but was noted by Library board member Suzanne Marks in her introduction, was courage.

Appearances have never been more deceiving – smaller than expected, with her round glasses and a chic brown bob – she seemed not fearsome at all. Kate described herself as the accidental journalist, her first love being English literature. She spent her days at the University of Sydney looking towards a career in publishing. It must madden the hardened factional leaders and criminals about whom she writes. Perhaps this unobtrusiveness, an ability to (seemingly) withdraw – when what she is doing is observing and silently taking note – is another character trait for getting the inside stories.

It was curiosity and scepticism that led her to ask why were there so many fires in Obeid’s buildings. She recounted the moment when, sitting in court, she was able to join the dots on the testimony. She ran back to the office, saying, ‘I’ve got it!’ She had caught the Obeid family, worth millions, brazenly cheating. Nailing those moments, she told us, makes it all worthwhile.

The very fragility of democracy becomes apparent when the vested interests of big business and corrupt politics mesh. She told us that what drives her is the knowledge that she can make a difference: ‘corrupt businessmen can be held to account. Those politicians that look you right in the eye and tell you a barefaced lie – they can be exposed. And when I go to sleep at night, I sometimes remind myself that some of those people I have written about are now in small confined spaces where sleeping peacefully at night might not be so easy.’

Targeted with threats and intimidation on a regular basis, she told us that the best way to deal with them is to stand firm – not giving in is core to her modus operandi. She recounted a recent incident. When an underworld figure (‘100 kilograms of muscle, a bullet head, leather jacket and dark glasses’) buttonholed a Fairfax photographer and told him he would hunt him down and shoot him if his picture was published, Kate chased after him and gave him a public dressing down: ‘How dare you threaten our photographer!’ And Fairfax published it (without the photographer’s byline) bigger than usual.

Kate told us that she owes it to her readers not to give in. It can be difficult in a world where the vapid relentlessly obscures the complex. Recently, the ABC rang her but, rather than her stories on money laundering, alleged fraud and the millions missing from the Australian Tax Office, stories she had worked on for weeks, they wanted some more information on her tweet about a cat stuck up a tree.

Her address drew laughter, a light-hearted ramble about life with the underworld, and when she got to the part about how hard the job is, the toll it takes, perhaps her words did not resonate with us as deeply as they should have. She makes it easy for us to think that her brand of journalism is like any other. But amidst the humour, we need to remember the personal cost. She said that it does get her down at times.

‘But it is our job to bring to light the things that those in power don’t want the public to see … Whether we like it or not, investigative journalism creates enemies and they are often very powerful enemies. Sometimes this comes at a price. Due to those ne’er do wells I write about I have had to move out of my home; we have had to hire security guards. Only recently I was informed that an underworld figure I had been writing about was trying to find out where I lived. That very same day I was sent a text with a photo of my car and its number plate. I have continued to write about that person.’

Investigative reporting does not come free, in monetary terms, or lives. In a world where journalists are killed on a regular basis – recently, Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, and over 40 journalists worldwide this year (Committee to Protect Journalists), we need to support Kate and her colleagues. Subscribe if you can. Support their publishers. One of Kate’s favourite quotes is from Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate days who said, ‘Our business is not to be loved but to go after the truth.’ Long may she continue to do so.

— Jessica Stewart