On the sunny final day of the Sydney Writers Festival, an all-star lineup of investigative journalists – Fairfax Media’s Kate McClymont and Linton Besser, as well as Steve Pennells, of The West Australian – joined MEAA Federal Secretary Christopher Warren to discuss press freedom in the wake of recent threats from falling print revenues, vulnerable shield laws and Gina Rinehart.
All three journalists have been involved in court battles due to their investigations into high-profile Australians: Steve Pennells for his reporting on mining magnate Gina Rinehart; Kate McClymont and Linton Besser for their investigations into former NSW Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.
The panel talked about their experiences of $100,000 lawsuits, subpoenas and phone tapping.
Kate McClymont spoke of her earlier stumbles in reporting, one being a court ruling that cost her employer over $160,000 and all but destroyed her confidence.
“It was traumatic, it was awful. For a while after that, I just thought I couldn’t write about Eddie Obeid.”
For Linton Besser, the dangers of reporting extended outside the courtroom.
“I always thought legal threats were the worst things possible. Recently, I had some threats made to me and my family and it really did hit home that there are things worse than a legal threat and a court case.”
He said he had suggested the “normal channels” of seeking redress to his adversaries. Instead, they chose to confront his family when he wasn’t home.
“It’s completely unpleasant and made me realise actually how lucky we are in Australia that it’s such a rare event, and that really we do have great trust in our institutions and our democratic organisations that protect freedom of speech.”
Steve Pennells also spoke of the psychological impact of challenges faced while reporting.
“You start doubting yourself about the news value of this story, or for your court case. It does hang over your head quite a bit. Then you step back and say to yourself, ‘this is possibly exactly the desired effect. If I’m thinking I shouldn’t write this story because it might affect my court case, then the lawyers have won’. You have to slap yourself in the face and snap out of it and hopefully the justice system will prevail.”
The panel collectively praised supportive employers.
Steve Pennells spoke about his company handling legal fees, and about his editor sticking by his side in court over 14 months.
“It’s incredible to know you’ve got that support because if you felt you were being hung out to dry, it would really affect you.”
Kate McClymont said, “It is so important that the major media companies stand by their reporters and don’t let themselves be bullied by these legal actions.”
This discussion brought home the recent financial troubles facing the print media industry, and the implications that this has for investigative reporting.
Kate McClymont said that editors were now forced to be more careful in choosing they stories they allow reporters to pursue.
“Now papers do keep these things in mind; it’s what they call ‘high risk, high reward’,” she said, adding that if a junior reporter had come up with such a high risk, high reward story, the editors may have said, “no go”.