The Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont allowed herself a “quiet moment of joy” as a guilty verdict was handed down to Eddie Obeid, a man she’s written about for more than a decade.
“I thought, ‘what a lovely ring the words Edward Moses Obeid, convicted criminal’ have about them,” she told Crikey. She says she’s glad justice has “finally been done”. “Though you get the sense this is just the tip of the iceberg of what Eddie Obeid was really up to … It’s a bit like Al Capone — done for non-payment of tax.”
Obeid, a former Labor NSW minister, was Tuesday found guilty of misconduct in public office by a NSW Supreme Court jury. The case revolved around the Obeid’s lobbying over cafe leases at Sydney’s Circular Quay, without disclosing his family owned several of them.
The SMH has been pivotal to bringing Obeid to justice, having been the first to raise questions about his actions while he was a NSW Labor government minister. The legal case was prompted by an Independent Commission Against Corruption investigation into the cafes’ ownership, which itself was sparked by a Walkley-winning 2012 piece in the Herald by McClymont and Linton Besser. Along with colleagues like Anne Davies and Besser, McClymont has been pursuing the corrupt NSW Labor politician for more than a decade.
It hasn’t been an easy road. In 2006, Obeid sued The Sydney Morning Herald, along with Davies and McClymont, for defamation over a 2002 article, and he won. He was awarded $162,173, and reporting at the time estimated Fairfax’s legal bill at more than $1 million.
“He used that to repeatedly threaten the Herald that he would sue us again,” McClymont said. “He’d send off legal letters saying he’d prosecute us for malice. You had to have a bit of steel to think, ‘right, OK, there is a possibility he’ll sue again, and we’ve already lost once’. But in the end you know what’s right and wrong, unlike Eddie. And you owe it to your readers not to be intimidated. It hasn’t always been easy.”
McClymont says the verdict wouldn’t have come about without NSW’s ICAC, as there is only so much journalists can learn from sources and the public record. Obeid’s ownership of the cafes, for example, was hidden through the use of two separate family trusts. “We’re often hampered by the facts of trusts,” McClymont said. “Sophisticated people establish discretionary trusts to disguise the true ownership of things — that’s something journalists always struggle to penetrate.
“We might have kicked it off. But to carry it to completion, we needed ICAC.”
Fairfax has been slashing costs in recent years, as has much of the rest of the media. Is McClymont confident there’ll always be a place at the Herald for this style of investigation?
“I am,” she said. “It’s one of those things that our readers really desire and appreciate. Quality investigative journalism in media outlets really sets them apart from day-to-day coverage of news, not that that’s not important. But you really need to work for a major media company in order to do this kind of work. You only have to ask Stephen Mayne what happened to him at Crikey.” Mayne, Crikey’s founder, had to sell his house to pay the costs of a successful defamation case against him by broadcaster Steve Price.
It takes a large company to fund ASIC and title searches, McClymont says. And it takes an especially large one to take on the powerful amidst legal threats.
In a way, the financial struggles of the media have put more corruption stories in the path of Fairfax’s metro papers than has been the case in the past.
“I know a lot of the smaller suburban papers — where there is abundant corruption amongst councillors — don’t feel like they have the financial resources to take people on if they are sued,” McClymont said. “So it’s falling more and more on the major news organisations to pick up the slack in covering a whole range of corruption.”
“You couldn’t do this as a freelance journalist,” McClymont said. “You’d lose your house in a jiffy.”