Paul Keating once derided Kate McClymont, The Sydney Morning Herald’s star investigative sleuth, for spending her time “sniffing bicycle seats” and “chasing subterranean odours”. Sydney’s shonks and crooks, however, know better than to question her nose for news — as do her media colleagues and competitors.
“She’s considered to have magical powers because all these stories seem to effortlessly drift towards her,” former senior Herald writer David Marr explains. “She’s revered inside the paper.”
According to The Age‘s Nick McKenzie, McClymont is the “investigative reporter’s investigative reporter”. She doesn’t moralise and doesn’t self-aggrandise. She prises information out of people, unearths facts, joins the dots — all while retaining her famously impish sense of humour.
“Kate McClymont should be employed at Guantanamo Bay,” Marr says. “She has this ruthless charm that makes people talk to her — it’s chemical.”
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
McClymont’s forensic stories on the dodgy inner workings of the Health Services Union’s East branch — detailing alleged cronyism, nepotism and secret commissions — helped spark a NSW police inquiry and forced national president Michael Williamson off the ALP national executive.
Reporting by McClymont and colleague Linton Besser also precipitated Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiries into former NSW Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid’s role in the acquisition of harbour front and mining leases. This followed past scoops exposing salary cap rorting at the Canterbury Bulldogs — which saw the team stripped of premiership points — and systematic overcharging at Keddies, NSW’s largest personal injury form.
Interstate observers note McClymont’s stories tend to be Sydney-based, lacking the national oomph of some of her investigative rivals. Others lament her fixation with former Labor powerbrokers — even though the Libs hold a crushing majority in NSW — and the fact she hasn’t turned her sights on the questionable past of HSU whistleblower Kathy Jackson.
But you won’t hear a harsh word from The Australian‘s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell. When The Power Index asked Mitchell to name the reporters he’d most like to hire, McClymont’s was the first name he fired back.
The vivacious Fairfax veteran — she was on a “protected species” list of reporters considered too valuable to leave the company in the recent redundancy round — was a relative latecomer to journalism. Her skills as a raconteur, however, were on show in her Sydney University days, where she ran a busking booth in Kings Cross in her spare time. In lieu of musical talent, McClymont talked for her supper, charging passers-by 40c to answer a question, 50c for an argument and $1 to be verbally abused.
“Young men would come up and pay me a dollar to abuse their girlfriends,” she recalls during an interview at Fairfax’s Pyrmont HQ. “People would come and pay money for racing tips; they’d ask all manner of bizarre questions.” Her booth became so popular a delegation of local prostitutes approached her to complain she was ruining their business. “I said, ‘well if you want to argue about it you’ve got to pay a dollar’. And they did!”
It was tales of her Kings Cross escapades that convinced then-Herald editor Eric Beecher and editor-in-chief Chris Anderson to offer the 25-year-old a cadetship in 1985. Barring a brief stint at Four Corners, she’s worked there ever since and has become a lightning rod for crime and corruption stories. It’s a fact that still surprises, and amuses, her.
“I rarely go out drinking with police or criminals, I don’t loiter around pubs,” she says. “A chief of staff once told me: ‘you are the least likely person to do the things you do’.”
She even develops, in the words of one former colleague, “bizarrely friendly relationships with the victims of her stories” who later ask her to do a job on their underworld rivals.
“I always try to be polite,” she says, “because I don’t want them to kill me.”
“If my phone didn’t ring between now and Christmas I’d have more than enough. If your name becomes known, people ring you; you become their port of call.”
In 2009, businessman Michael McGurk arranged a lunch meeting with McClymont to tell her he feared for his life. A week later he was gunned down.
Her investigation into Michael Williamson was also sparked by an out-of-the-blue call; this time from a private school parent bemused by the union leader’s lavish lifestyle.
“Investigative journalists can have more impact because we don’t have allegiances to people in various fields,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about burning relationships because you don’t have them. You’re not driven by having your byline in the paper all the time. You have to be incredibly patient and not all your work turns out.”
Eddie Obeid won a $162,173 defamation payout in 2006 over claims, in McClymont’s series on the Bulldog salary cap scandal, that he sought bribes on behalf of the Labor Party. Walkley judge Mark Day later admitted the Herald wouldn’t have won the Gold Walkley for its salary cap coverage had the jury been aware of the inaccuracy. Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson scored a $50,000 payout after McClymont linked him to the 1980 bashing of Labor figure Peter Baldwin.
McClymont and her family also had to move house after she received death threats over her Bulldogs stories; they had to hire a security guard after stories about McGurk.
But in the main, she can’t believe her luck. “A lot of the time I think I can’t believe I get paid to do this. You couldn’t ask for something more interesting,” she says.