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Tony Nicholls (TN): Michael Bachelard has been a journalist for 25 years, and is the recently returned Indonesia correspondent for Fairfax media. Before his stint in Indonesia, Michael worked in the press gallery in Canberra then in Melbourne for The Australian, before returning to The Age in 2006. Since returning, he has taken up the role of Editor of the Investigations Unit. He has written two books and has a number of journalistic awards, including a Quill Award and a Walkley Award. Welcome to the show, Michael! Tell us more about that.
Michael Bachelard (MB): It’s amazing, and it came completely out of the blue for me. I don’t chase awards but they’re lovely to get and very flattering. I’ve worked with the photographer Kate Geraghty who is an absolute genius and an amazing photographer for Fairfax over the years. And we went to Iraq twice in 2017, and people might recall that that was when the battle for Mosul and the battle against ISIS was full-on and I went there with her, and we did a bunch of stories and we focused on surviving life under ISIS.
They’ve been kicked out of one side of Mosul; there are a lot of people and refugee camps, and we had great access to them – to men and women, children just to talk about what it had been like living under ISIS which had not really been reported much before. We got a lot of crash-bang about the war and all the terrible stuff ISIS had done, but we hadn’t really got into the minds of the civilians.
We interviewed a lot of people, who have absolutely heart-wrenching stories, and wrote up a feature about it and went back a bit later and did some more news reporting on the people surviving the liberation of the other side, the old side of the city. And out of all that, we got nominated for a Walkley and we go up there and hope we might win. And we won the Walkley and it was great; sitting there having a drink and starting to relax. You don’t have to make a speech at the Walkley, so I didn’t have to think too hard about it. But then they read out my name for the Gold, so I had to make a speech, but I had no idea what to say – nothing prepared, Kate was in a refugee camp in Rohingya, Bangladesh on the night. So I got her on Facetime, it was quite an honour. But really, I am quite proud of that story and really it is about telling stories of people to the world in really extreme circumstances. And that’s what made me proud, not the awards, which are lovely.
TN: You mentioned your photographer a number of times there. Tell me about that relationship. You’re the wordsmith, you’re a great interviewer, but to get the visuals right it is essential isn’t it?
MB: That’s right, and it’s actually something that I think a lot of print, or former print and ‘text’ journalists, take for granted a little bit. And as we got busier the relationship in the normal news room between photographers and journalists has broken down a bit because we tend to write our stories in the office and research our stories in the office and send them out to take the pictures separately. So, it’s just fantastic working in the field with somebody like Kate who is a much more experienced photographer and international photographer than I am, a journalist.
She’s been covering Iraq for example since the war in 2003. She has been in and out eight or nine times. And she in fact was crucial in getting the trips approved – it’s not easy to get trips like that approved anymore if it ever was, certainly not with occupational health and safety laws and constrained budgets. She was just crucial in getting that over the line. She knows some of the players over there. Between us we found a brilliant fixer and all of these things you need to make something really fly and Kate and I have done several trips together. She’s much more than somebody that puts the images (together). She is deeply involved in the research and in the making of context, the dealing fixers and that kind of thing.
TN: What sort of shape is investigative journalism in? It is probably the first thing that anyone ever says to me is where is the investigative journalism? People really mean the state of things, I mean you’re living proof that it’s alive and well, and really helpful. What sort of shape do you think it’s in?
MB: I have a bit of a counter-view on that. I think it is healthier than it’s ever been, in Australia at least. The investigative team at The Age has seven people in it. Out of a relatively shrunken news room from where it was a few years ago, that is an enormous commitment by this one newspaper to an investigative team.
And the kinds of work my team does (Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker, Royce Miller, Farah Tomanzin) – these guys are multi-award winners and they are full-time investigative reporters. They can say no to a new story that comes along because they’re working on something that you might not see evidence of for another two or three months.
We’re running out this weekend a series of stories that Nick McKenzie has been working two years on. Now he has had other stories along the way and he’s usually working on three or four things at a time. But the state of it at The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald particularly is very, very healthy and there is an economic reason for that.
We have moved beyond the idea now that we can cut staff and chase clicks and make that pay – we tried that, but it didn’t work. What we’re now trying to do, and it’s a virtuous cycle if you like, is produce as high quality, as well-researched and well-written journalism as we can produce across many different mediums from podcasts, to video, to text, to collaborations with TV stations like ‘60 Minutes’ and ‘4Corners’ and give people a value proposition – ‘I want to subscribe because I get a great value from this product.’
And really it is a virtuous cycle now. It is not proven to work but it is working so far. Our revenue is up, our bosses are very happy, despite the amount we spent on investigative journalism – and international journalism too I would say. We’ve got correspondents in the field and around the world and it just really says to people who continue subscribing, ‘This is worth paying for,’ and I think it’s journalism, in particular investigative journalism in Melbourne, is in the best state it’s been for years.
TN: How do you approach a complex yarn? You’ve got people that want to stay anonymous, to stay off-record. Often the best potential stories are sitting with people that just don’t want to put themselves out there at all. So they are happy to tell you everything off record, but they don’t want to put their name on it. There’re heaps of that isn’t it? There’s much more that goes to air or ends up in print. How do you deal with that?
MB: It’s really one of the more complex questions about journalism: ‘how you deal with sources?’ You need to treat them with respect, but you have to verify everything they say. You can’t necessarily take it on face value or believe it at the first start.
And that’s particularly the case where an anonymous source. Now we use anonymous sources all the time, the law says you can’t identify whistle-blowers if they have ticked certain boxes. And very many of them feel, quite rightly, that they will be damaged in their job, or in their life even if they talk about a criminal enterprise and if their names are identified. So we have to respect that.
The number one rule of journalism is don’t expose your sources if you’ve agreed to anonymity. But there has a credibility problem with our audience – they don’t like to see sources like that. So really the only way round is to triangulate everything you’re told with as much documentary evidence as you can: document searches, financial searches, or company searches and all that stuff to backup what they say, but also to get one or more sources.
Actually that’s relatively rare these days that we will print or publish anything that has only got one source even if that source seems very credible. We need several. The story that I refer to that Nick McKenzie is producing this weekend and he offers dozens of sources and I know that he has got dozens of sources – all of them anonymous but all of them are credible. And you could take what he has written to the bank.
And of course, we have to, these days, because if you say something about somebody, it is likely if it is not (verified), they will sue you for defamation and anonymous sources don’t play very well with courts. So you really just need to know that it is nailed to the ground before you can publish.
TN: How uncomfortable is the gig?
MB: It can be quite uncomfortable. I am not pretending that it is all that way, and some stories are much easy to tell than others. But in investigative journalism you’re not really earning your keep unless you’re digging out something that people don’t want you to know. Otherwise it would be just lying around for other people to pick up. So it’s corruption, we have a series this week which I think is a magnificent piece of journalism, on clusters of priests acting in concert to abuse children. Paedophile rings if you like.
We have a lot of reporting about abuse in the Catholic church, but that has never come out before because the deep research that was required to make those links and to prove up those links – and we had what we thought were 8 or 9 potential clusters of pedophiles – by the time we put it through our fact-ticking process and really quizzed our source material, we got it down to about three.
And we think there’s many more, but we just can’t necessarily say that there’s many more. So that’s hard work and there were tens and thousands of documents from the Royal Commission that we’re trying to triangulate to get that story up. And I’m very proud that we did tell people something that they didn’t previously know.
Obviously dealing with victims of abuse, you have to be very careful about their mental health. People are dealing with trauma, returned service people, and then of course there’s the crime and criminal side of things where you might be exposing corruption and potentially putting your sources in danger. Or both physical or mental harm, and even physical danger if you’re dealing with nasty characters.
So, all of those things are real things, and occasionally we get threatened as well, of course. But there’s a sense of mission about investigative journalism and we feel like it’s worth it for telling the people about something that they need to know.
TN: Where do people start – people listening might be sitting in a massive story, organisations could be sitting on a massive story and they just don’t know where to start to get it out there. Where should they start?
MB: There’s a few ways. You can contact a journo – with metadata retention laws and so on people are a little bit shy now about doing that. But there are ways that you can do it securely and most of us now have our numbers on signal, or WhatsApp, ProtonMail which is an encrypted e-mail app. They are all free, and easy to download off the App Store, and you can just get straight in contact with us. We are trying a number of encrypted platforms.
You can send an anonymous letter – that still works. You can walk in the front door and ask to see me. There’s ways of talking to people and honestly, and we find very often that the personal meetup is still the best way to make contact but that’s very difficult for the first contact. So, I would advocate to journalists obviously, as well as, or instead of going through official channels as a whistle-blower. As official channels can be dangerous. People have often found themselves sacked as a result of going through official channels, even though they are not supposed to be. Journalists if they’re told something anonymously have ethical obligations to go to prison before they will expose their source. And as long as you can keep that first contact off the radar, it can be quite a good way of getting your story out.
TN: How would you describe the Fairfax audience – the people you are writing for?
MB: The Fairfax audience – actually we don’t call it Fairfax anymore – we have been bought by Channel Nine. It’s The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald audience and they’re similar but they are not quite identical I think.
The Age audience is an intelligent, well-read, critical audience. I think they probably stand slightly to the left of centre. We don’t. We try to be ‘centrist’ in what we do politically, which I think’s good for all sorts of reasons. We don’t try to pander to a left wing audience, but I think that’s where all our audience generally come from. They are deeply committed to the civic life of Melbourne and Victoria. We get incredibly good feedback – positive and negative from our audience but it is always intelligent, well thought through – and you get this feeling that the audience is engaged by the life of the city they live in, and the community they live in.
TN: We’re all publishers now, so we can get on our YouTube or get on our social media to tell our own stories if we are prepared to put our names out there. So why come to the press now? Where do you think the incentive is when we can stay in our own tribes and get our own views affirmed and just publish to our own audiences?
MB: I think you have kind of answered your own question. If people who are interested in a proper debate and not just an affirmation of your own views, I think the mass media – of which we are part – provides a really valuable service. We get paid to ask nasty and cheeky questions of politicians. We get time to work on stuff that’s important that people don’t want you to see, and we are trained, hopefully, to present it in a way that will engage an audience and reach a wide audience.
So, the Catholic story that I have been talking about today, we had a 3000-word feature published on a weekday that had more than 50 thousand people read that feature, and read it for a long time. The engagement rates were through the roof. So, in terms of getting your story out, that is a really good way to do it.
TN: People are quite scared of journalists. People would love to get their stories out there but firstly they don’t know how to do it, but there’s a lot of distrust when you see some of the stories where people are being misquoted and some of the journalists are letting us down. I guess we all get painted with the same brush and hence, they’re not rushing to tell us their stories anymore.
MB: That’s true and not true. People do still want to tell their stories through us and we still do get tips, and we get a lot of people coming to us. But you’re right, we don’t have a great reputation, they do the scores often of how people are regarded, and print journals are particularly down with real estate agents and used car salesmen? We’re down there with politicians which causes us disstress. But you can understand it, you know, you see the tabloid style journalism, you see the foot in the door stuff off some of the programs and some of the press, and you see people complaining about having their grieving through upon, in an aggressive way after they have had a relative die or something. You can understand and why people distrust us and dislike us. All I can say is that I can’t change people’s mind, but all I can say is we operate on a code of ethics. We, and I, and my newspaper, respect my team respects people, and we won’t always get it right of course. But when we get it wrong we try to acknowledge it and get it corrected.
And finally, I would say without sources and whistle-blowers, people who are prepared to tell us stories, there would be no accountability. You can’t simply just trust the agency of government to regulate themselves. We’ve got pathetically weak anti-corruption commission at the state level, and none at all at the federal level. So, what are you going to do? The media can provide some accountability.
TN: Just wrapping up, we’re all about helping organizations perform in the media, tell their stories, and be good talent, and it is always wonderful to interview someone who is great talent – they know how to tell their story. So, what is some of the best talent that you can recall over your long career?
MB: To me the best talent is always ordinary people who are just telling their own stories in their own words. It sounds cynical to call people like that talent because they’re just talking. But I was the Indonesia correspondent as you said, and I’ve done some international journalism, people who are in extraordinary circumstances just opening up and sometimes…
I’ll tell you one story – we met a 12 years old kid in a camp in Iraq, just outside Mosul and he’d lived through ISIS and he had been to the ISIS school. And one day he went, they took his friend outside, and they got the cast to gather around, and they beheaded this kid in front of them all. And then left the body there for the kids to deal with.
And I asked them what they had done this, and he said because he was Shia, and not Sunni. This was to teach them a lesson. And I had to pause that interview because it just hit me right in the guts. And we came back again and asked his parents’ permission to talk to him and we shot him on video and we interviewed him again. But those kinds of moments are the moments you just know that this story is something that people need to hear, and you could have not done it any other way other than being there and hunting around that camp and looking for those people. So, these are the moments that stick in for me.
TN: Well congratulations on an amazing career which I know has many years left and Michael Bachelard, thanks for joining Press of the Press.
MB: Thanks Tony, good on you.
Founder and Director of Good Talent Media