By Sally Neighbour
I’ve been working as a journalist for 42 years and ever since I walked into the newsroom at radio station 3UZ in Bourke Street Melbourne as a D-grade reporter, I have never had a moment where I would have chosen any other career.
Journalism has given me the most profoundly satisfying working life that I could ever have hoped for.
I have had the great good fortune to have worked with scores of brilliant journalists, editors, camera crews and production staff, who have inspired and encouraged and supported me.
The ABC has provided me with more opportunities than I could have dreamed of.
I have been especially blessed to have spent a large part of my career working for that mighty institution Four Corners, which has been for 61 years a beacon of journalistic excellence in this country.
I left my role as executive producer at Four Corners in May, after several years, and then took a long holiday in Europe.
After coming home, a couple of weeks ago I did an interview with Helen McCabe for her podcast series on women in leadership.
Helen chose the theme of fearlessness, which she thought characterised my career and my approach to journalism.
So I’ve spent some time thinking about the concept of fearlessness.
Earning enemies for life
Is there such a thing?
What role does it play in journalism?
You certainly need to be tough and resilient, because the obstacles to hard-hitting investigative journalism are sometimes formidable.
The hardest stories will earn you enemies for life.
They will prompt injunctions and defamation writs that may bog you down in the courts for years.
The hard stories might get you raided by the federal police or charged with breaching the security laws and your sources persecuted with the full force of the law.
You might find yourself being publicly attacked.
You might have the Prime Minister’s press secretary ringing your editor to try to kill the story.
You might find yourself pilloried in the national broadsheet, day after day.
And so the business of serious investigative journalism does require something akin to fearlessness.
Getting into ‘good trouble’
The former US Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis once famously said: “Never ever be afraid to make some noise, and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
That’s good advice for journalists.
I have got myself into trouble now and then over the years.
But it was all good trouble.
I have fears and doubts like everyone, of course.
But what I also have is an unshakeable belief that what we do as journalists is profoundly important, and that’s what drives me.
You do have to be unafraid to offend people.
You also have to be unafraid to take risks.
I think what looks like fearlessness is often calculated risk taking.
The key is figuring out precisely what the risk is and ensuring sure you’ve done everything possible to mitigate it.
Hold your nerve
Get your facts right.
Nail the research.
I used to tell people at Four Corners you need to ring 50 to 100 people to nail a story.
Check and double-check and then check again.
And hold your nerve.
That’s one of the best tips I’ve ever had in journalism, courtesy of Bruce Belsham, former EP of Four Corners.
Hold your nerve. Thank you. Bruce. That’s stayed with me ever since.
If you’ve done the work and believe in the story, and you know it’s right, and you are sure it’s in the public interest – hold your nerve. Resist the pressure. Stay the course.
Another journalist who has inspired and supported me over the years is my husband Michael Doyle, who some of you know.
Michael is retired now.
Power often taken for granted
Like all good ABC lefties, Michael is a greenie and a twitcher.
He’s been doing some voluntary work for Bird Life Australia to save the bar-tailed godwit and other obscure species.
By the way, I asked Michael if I could use this anecdote and he said I could.
Then he said “but don’t demean the bar-tailed godwit. It’s one of the most amazing creatures on earth. It holds the world record for non-stop flight”.
In case you’re wondering that’s 13,000 kilometres.
Anyway, Michael and I were talking about the frustrations of his volunteer work, and he made the point “you don’t realise the power you have as a journalist until you stop working”.
Unlike regular folk, we journalists can get people to return our calls.
We can get politicians to pay attention, get the public to care, and cause governments to act.
Average members of the public have no such power.
It’s a power we often take for granted.
Honour the public’s trust
Sometimes we forget we have it or pretend we don’t.
Like when we’re having to defend our journalism, we’ll say “I’m just doing my job” or “my editor made me do it”.
Let’s always remember that journalism is an incredibly powerful tool.
How we use that tool is implicitly part of a social contract.
And that social contract is rooted in public trust.
We all know that traditionally trust in journalism is painfully low.
It’s incumbent on all of us to practice our profession in a way that preserves and honours the public’s trust.
And to practise it with responsibility and restraint and fairness and honesty and humanity, with every story.
To quote the old Google motto – Don’t be Evil.
And hold your nerve.
This is an edited version of the speech delivered by former Four Corners executive producer Sally Neighbour when she received the 2022 Outstanding Contribution to Journalism Award at the Walkley Awards.