Last night (November 10 2017) I had the honor of being a guest at the glittering inaugural dinner of the Australian Media Hall of Fame, which pays homage to the contribution great journalism has made to enriching the nation’s history… and safeguarding its democracy. Of all the tens of thousands of journalists who have worked for newspapers, radio, TV (and, now, of course, online media) fewer than 200 have been accorded this honor, and fewer still have been more deserving of it than my friend and former colleague Kate McClymont, Fairfax’s fearless and peerless investigative reporter. My tribute to her will be in the new edition of Media Legends—Journalists Who Helped Shape Australia >>>>
Kate McClymont delivering the keynote speech at the inaugural Australian Media Hall of Fame dinner, Sydney November 10 2017.
Revellers strolling through Kings Cross on a Saturday evening in the mid-1980s might have come across a surprising sight among the net-stockinged street-walkers, the hulking Tongan bouncers lounging outside the bars and strip joints, the heroin-dealers and the hoodlums. There, sitting on a milk-crate at a card table on that gritty stretch of Darlinghurst Road between the Bourbon and Beefsteak and the Love Machine, was a respectably-dressed, dark-haired young women with a sign behind her reading : Questions Answered 40c, Arguments 50c, Verbal Abuse $1.
Between jobs, short of money and lacking a gift for busking, Kate McClymont was touting her talent — for talking — to Sydney’s roughest, toughest audience. A crowd would gather round as, inevitably, a drunken guy with a girl on his arm would hand over a golden coin and urge her to vilify his companion – McClymont would usually oblige by criticising the woman’s terrible taste in menfriends. Occasionally a hooker would bitch that Kate was cruelling her pitch, and offer her a dollar to go away.
This was McClymont’s introduction to Sydney’s underbelly and the talent she honed on that sleazy sidewalk would not only serve her in good stead for the next 30 years, it would land her the ideal job. Not a thespian, a barrister nor a vice squad detective – though she would have done brilliantly at any of these – but a calling which combines all those skills and then some.
In the autumn of 1985 she found herself sitting in an office in the rambling old concrete office-block on Broadway that housed Australia’s most distinguished broadsheet, The Sydney Morning Herald, being auditioned for a job as a trainee journalist by the paper’s newly-appointed brilliant young editor, Eric Beecher and Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief. Neither seemed especially impressed by her hard-won BA (Hons) from Sydney University – but when she told them of her street performances in Kings Cross, that got their attention. 1200 hopeful youngsters applied for 30 jobs across the Fairfax mastheads that year. Kate McClymont was one of the successful ones.
No-one who lived in the Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne triangle in the three decades that followed — and who wasn’t hiding in a cupboard – can have failed to be flabbergasted at the succession of rorts, scandals and high crimes and misdemeanors by politicians, businessmen, sportsmen, criminals and celebrities that McClymont would expose. If any proof was needed that she became the unchallenged doyenne of investigative journalism look no further than her chock-a-block trophy cabinet. Between 1992 and 2012 she won no fewer than five Walkley awards (including Australian journalism’s greatest honour, a gold Walkley for her coverage of the salary cap scam that saw the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs thrown out of the National Rugby League competition); she was named NSW Journalist of the Year for exposing the industrial-scale frauds that led to the jailing of both the pillaging union boss Michael Williamson and the NSW Cabinet Minister Eddie Obeid, guilty of ‘corruption not witnessed since the days of the Rum Corps’; she was awarded six Kennedys, NSW journalism’s highest distinction, as well as half a dozen other glittering prizes.
Ben with Kate McClymont at the Australian Media Hall of Fame dinner, Sydney November 10 2017. Photo: Lorrie Graham (who was also inducted into the Media Hall of Fame)
Growing up on an orchard near the NSW Central-West town of Orange, McClymont was blessed with ambitious parents – both university graduates – who took it for granted that their daughter would get a good education and make a mark in the professions, rather than settling down to raise a family with a neighboring farmer’s son. She was a stellar student – dux of the local primary school, matriculating in the top two per cent of the State’s HSC students, in spite of cultivating a reputation as a cheeky, outspoken kid with a wickedly mischievous sense of humour – something that she never lost. “No matter how stressful it was she was always enormous fun to work with ,” says her former colleague and Walkley collaborator Anne Davies.
At a loss what to do after graduating she tried her hand variously at captioning TV series such as Minder for the hard of hearing, and working for a publishing house where she was bored out of her brain composing entries for an Australasian encyclopaedia and resigned – although not before entering her own name, alongside Patrick White’s, as an Australian winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. She was bitterly disappointed when the editors discovered her prank prior to publication and stripped her of the honour.
Arriving late in journalism – she was 26 – McClymont soon made up for lost time. Banished to the Eastern Herald supplement in the wilds of Bondi Junction for failing to take an assignment on soft furnishings sufficiently seriously, she found herself covering the wedding of a relative of the notorious crime figure George Freeman. In her report she noted in passing that the bride and her attendants were festooned with sequins which she described as “the closest fashion accessory to armour-plating.”
That did it, in more ways than one. Her story caught the eye of Valerie Lawson, the editor of Fairfax’s hard-hitting investigative weekly The National Times, and she was summonsed back to Broadway to work alongside such major-league mentors as Wendy Bacon, Marian Wilkinson, Brian Toohey, Robert Haupt and Colleen Ryan. And it caught the ire of the Freeman family – McClymont received the first of the death threats which were to regularly disrupt her life, occasionally forcing her, along with her family, to go to the mattresses in seedy budget motels.
If a journalist’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, you can judge her success by the virulence of her victims:
Ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating (after McClymont revealed his involvement in a dodgy deal over a Darling Downs piggery) : “Is this woman a stalker, or is she just underemployed? Will we find her next sniffing bicycle seats in … Darling Harbour?”
Eddie Obeid (after, outrageously, he won a $162,000 defamation award over McClymont’s first expose of his corrupt activities) : “She has become the journalistic equivalent of a gun moll with glittering associations with the not so well-to-do.”
Champion jockey Jim Cassidy, after Kate linked him to a massive race-fixing scandal known as the Jockey Tapes, spat on her legs and said: “You fucking bitch, you’ve ruined my life.”
Apart from two years as a researcher with the ABC’s Four Corners programme, McClymont spent her entire professional life at the Herald, somehow finding time between investigations, death threats and fending off the all-too-frequent libel writs, to marry and raise three children. She remembers sitting up in her hospital bed the day after giving birth to her first, Phoebe, subbing a great ream of teleprinter copy – her expose of the crime lord Bruce ‘Snapper’ Cornwall, later jailed for 24 years for his part in organising Australia’s biggest drug importation, $20 million-worth of Colombian cocaine.
Still with her nose to the grindstone a fortnight before the birth of her third child, Sophie, she took the Jockey Tapes story to Richard Coleman, Fairfax’s veteran in-house lawyer, for vetting. Coleman hemmed and hawed for a while – there was a real risk of criminal prosecution because the tapes were based on illegal phone intercepts. Finally he looked up from his desk and said : “Look how pregnant you are. They’ll put (editor-in-chief) John Alexander in jail before you. So let’s do it.”
Although children do have their uses. Once, having been tipped off about a meeting of Mafia figures in the restaurant of a certain western suburbs club, Kate took the children there for cover, pretending it was a family celebration whilst snapping covert photographs of the gangsters over the kids’ shoulders as they tucked into a pizza supper. The children were outraged, but not particularly surprised, when they found out about it later.
And there is always that forensic attention to detail that brings McClymont’s stories to life. When I talked with her for this profile in early 2017 she was heading for court to cover yet another crooked NSW Cabinet Minister she had exposed, Ian “Sir Lunchalot” Macdonald, as he was convicted of corruption and headed for prison. He didn’t just enjoy a lavish meal, she wrote, it was suckling pig, it was at Sydney’s fancy harbourside Catalina restaurant, it was washed down with a magnum of pinot noir, the bill was $1800, dessert was a call-girl called Tiffanie. A gift to the headline writer : FROM PINOT TO PORRIDGE, was splashed across Macdonald’s picture on the front page the following day.
Says Peter Fray, her editor for four golden years until 2012 : “As well as her incredible persistence and her dogged curiosity she has a phenomenal memory – she squirrels everything away in her files; she is a walking almanac of Sydney crime and corruption.
“She is also an editor’s dream. You can trust her with 100 per cent of your soul and 100 per cent of the company’s money. When she comes to you with that little bit of a smile on her face you know it’s going to be a doozy, a ballbuster.”
*Kate McClymont and Linton Besser wrote He Who Must be Obeid (Random House)
**Ben Hills is a Walkley and Kennedy Award-winning investigative journalist, the author of six books and a three-time foreign correspondent. He was inducted into the Media Hall of Fame in 2014
***A full list of the inductees is at mediahalloffame.com.au