Matthew Condon on reporting corruption
For renowned journalist and multi-award winning author Matthew Condon, protecting his sources, and listening, make the crucial cornerstone to his successful 35 year reporting career.
In this latest episode of The Journo Project podcast, Matthew talks about his undying love for journalism.
“The older I get, too, the more privileged I feel to be a journalist,” Matthew says.
To many people, Matthew Condon is now more well known as a true crime author, having written a series of books that now make up the definitive history of Queensland’s corruption years before the famous Fitzgerald Inquiry.
He’s also the author of ten fiction books.
And yet Matthew still proudly introduces himself as a reporter.
“I like to call myself a reporter,” Matthew says.
“The older I get, the more I value how well you have to listen. The older I get, the more I recede into the background.
“We all know, everyone knows; anyone that consumes any form of media, there’s so much noise out there and no one’s listening.
“I could walk a hundred metres and talk to somebody and listen, and get an incredible story. They’re all just out there, but they’re there for people who are prepared to listen.”
In this episode of The Journo Project, Matthew tells how he landed the pivotal interview with notorious former Police Commissioner Terry Lewis, and how that started him on his diversion into the crooked underbelly of Queensland, exposing the truth behind generations of endemic corruption.
He says that interview shows how one story can change the course of your life.
“One day I was ready to write a new novel about the journalist Wilfred Burchett going into Hiroshima in 1945, and the next minute I get a phone call from an old friend to say, ‘Look, former Police Commissioner Terry Lewis would like to meet you and talk to you about a project’,” he says.
“And I just thought, I’ll go because I’m curious. I’d like to just go and have a coffee with him for an hour and that’ll be fun, and down the track it will be a great dinner party story.
“And exactly 10 years come February the first, I’ve been working on this project. From that moment. Thousands of people have come to me because they now know I’m the corruption guy in Queensland.
“Once the ball starts rolling, you become the lightning rod for those types of stories. And 50% of them are rubbish. But you have to be patient and listen and sort through that. And sometimes it’s magical. That’s why this is just a great job.”
He says his journalistic skills continually feed into his work as an author.
“I’ve been publishing books now for 30 years. And it never goes stale. It’s always fresh and every day there’s always something new,” he says.
“If you think you’ve nailed it, don’t be a journalist.
“It might be similar, but all human beings are unique. So you’re coming at something new every time, which is what keeps me attracted to it.”
He says the longer he is a journalist, the more he realises how critical reliable sources are.
“Obviously I can’t name him, but there’s one in particular, and everything he rings to tell me has been 100% correct. His strike rate is perfect,” he says.
“Now, he trusts me because I’ve vowed vehemently he will never be named, ever, and nothing will point towards him.
“So, I’ve got to be very careful about how I treat him.
“I’ve done many, many stories with him and kept him at a very comfortable distance, and he trusts me. Now, there’s no way I would do the dirty on him for the sake of a story and lose a source I’ve had for six years who has been phenomenal.
“If you’re lucky enough to find some great sources, then you just have to be incredibly grateful because you’re lucky. You’re lucky to get two great sources in a career, and treat them with the utmost respect and sensitivity.”
Matthew started his career as a cadet at The Gold Coast Bulletin, going on to write for some of the most respected broadsheets in Australia.
He says in the three and a half decades since, he’s learnt the power of research, and the importance of people at the heart of every story.
“It’s been incredible for me in terms of learning the power of clear and simple language. The power of observation. The power of listening. And of course research,” he says.
“I mean, even 10 years back, I look at myself as a journalist and can’t believe that I thought I knew everything about research.
“I was just a novice, and maybe projects come along to fill in some gaps for you.
“These corruption books forced me to start digging a bit deeper in terms of my understanding of what research actually meant.
“But the interesting thing is, all documents are wonderful. Primary documents are the greatest, but everything rests with people. That’s what journalism is.
“It’s about other people and their stories and how it all fits in.
“We’ve got Google, today we’ve got Google journalists, and they just think that everything is there. It’s not.
“I’ve got an interview that I’m doing tomorrow that I’m so excited about, that I can’t wait to meet this person and sit down for three or four hours and get the information I’m looking for.
“I’m as excited about that, as when I first started at The Gold Coast Bulletin. It’s never diminished.
“In fact, it’s probably intensified for me. So, I can just say, and I say it to my students, it can be an incredibly noble profession, and they should fly the flag.”
Behind the Scenes
This week I was back at the Brisbane ABC on the lovely Kelly Higgins-Devine’s Reckoner’s panel. Here’s Kelly and I trying not to look quite so short next to below panellist Richard Murray, Research Fellow at University of Queensland.
Kelly was kind enough to let me explain a bit about my new job where I work two days a week as an advocate for the Disability Royal Commission. You can have a listen to that here:
Matthew Condon and I met at the very groovy Avid Reader bookshop at West End in Brisbane for our Journo Project podcast interview, and sat on the back patio where many of their great author events take place. He told me about how 18 months ago he was part of fellow Journo Project interviewee Trent Dalton’s launch of his award-winning book “Boy Swallows Universe”, and how moving that was.
“The world knows, Trent has shared this in public, that there are some real life characters that he’s based some genuine Brisbane gangsters, that he’s based his characters on. And by chance, because of my nonfiction work, I’ve been in touch with the same people that he’s fictionalized in that book. And one man in particular, who I won’t name, but who was one of the heaviest gangsters in Queensland for decades, who was Trent’s stepdad for a number of years, and that’s Lyle in Boy Swallows Universe. So as a surprise, shock, it turned out to be for Trent, for his launch, I contacted Lyle and said, “Is there anything you’d like to say to Trent at his launch?“ And took down the quotes and read it at the launch. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. People were weeping, hugging. It was like a message from a ghost 35 years ago.”
Also on Tuesday night this week I was back at Avid Reader bookshop for the launch of esteemed quarterly Griffith Review’s latest edition 67: Matters of Trust. It was a fantastic turnout as you can see from my tweet below. So who would dare say long form journalism is dead! My specially commissioned Griffith Review podcast on the Journo Project is coming soon and I’ll make sure you get the link my Wandering Journo Tribe!
Nance Haxton @NanceHaxtonSo chuffed to see @avidreader4101 bringing out the extra chairs for the the launch of @GriffithReview 67: Matters Of Trust. Even inclement weather couldn’t keep the hordes from celebrating great Aussie writing! Cannot wait to share my specially commissioned podcast for GR soon! https://t.co/fTzKye0BTy
What I’m reading
It’s been a momentous end to 2019 and beginning of a new decade. These are just a few of my reading highlights from the past month.
First, I love a uncovering a great mystery. And this story tells the story of a great journo whose achievements should be more widely known and celebrated. The great Catherine Hay Thomson.
In 1886, a year before American journalist Nellie Bly feigned insanity to enter an asylum in New York and became a household name, Catherine Hay Thomson arrived at the entrance of Kew Asylum in Melbourne on “a hot grey morning with a lowering sky”.
While we all await the release of Trent Dalton’s second book “All Our Shimmering Skies” in June, he’s mesmerised us with his writing about Sunny Avenue, proving what Matthew Condon says that there are stories wherever we want to look, if only we are willing to listen.
Stories from Sunny Avenue —The Weekend Australian Magazine
And for the coffee snobs amongst us, this is a great little bit of history as to how Australia has made its way up the world coffee ranks.
Stop an American on the streets of Manhattan and ask them what the best thing to come out of Australia is.
There's a good chance that, alongside old tropes like Crocodile Dundee and AC/DC, the answer will be coffee.
Exciting times for Streets of Your Town—The Journo Project! I will be in Sydney in March and hope to interview incredible journos Kate McClymont and Nas Campanella then for the next stage of The Journo Project podcast.
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