CHASING THE DISHONOURABLE OBEID: How Kate McClymont defeated the Goliath of political corruption

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Words || Jack Cameron Stanton

Fairfax media journalist Kate McClymont has reported the mischief of Australian Labour Party politician Eddie Obeid for over fifteen years. As a result of her investigative journalism, Obeid and his family have been under the authoritative microscope of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) since 2012.

In July 2014, Kate and fellow Sydney Morning Herald journalist Linton Besser published a book titled He Who Must Be Obeid, which traces the life and dealings of Australia’s most corrupt politician. I sat down with Kate to uncover the reasons that motivated her to pursue the Obeid family despite death threats to her home, defamation lawsuits, and the mayhem of political greed.

ICAC is investigating the possibility of corruption in the Obeid’s involvement in Circular Quay cafes and a coal-mining license that guaranteed his family an immense wealth over $30 million. Not only has Kate uncovered crucial information leading toward official corruption inquiries, but also proved the reality that independent press does monitor White Collared crime and can quell the rifeness of dishonesty in politics.

For Obeid, professional and personal aspects were always connected. Friendships were a means to furthering his career; bribes, or ‘gifts’, were tightly veiled deals; and everything – even family, reputation, and dignity – were sacrificed for the pursuit of avarice.

When I asked Kate how she separated the aspects of her personal and professional life, she claimed that ‘things do become personal. Especially when you’re sued and held up as a bad journalist – it’s absolutely devastating. After that, I thought I couldn’t write about Obeid, because if I did it would look like a vendetta.’

Too often are journalists blamed for wrongdoings entirely not their own. In a world where professional responsibility is easily misinterpreted for personal revenge, Kate was always in the firing line of Obeid’s wrath. Obeid successfully sued Fairfax Media for defamation in October 2006, where he was awarded $150,000 for an article written by Kate advising that Obeid had been encouraging bribery for the Labour party.

Kate reminisced on encounters with Mrs Obeid, who always felt victimised by Fairfax Media.

‘I remember, after I wrote a story [about the Obeids], that Mrs Obeid came out of her Hunters Hill house and said “what have we ever done to her [Kate]? Why is she pursuing us?” And I thought, it’s not anything they’ve done to me, it’s just what they are doing.’

This anecdote is merely a microcosm for the victimisation Kate has endured in the course of her profession.

In 2002, after writing an article that forced the Bulldogs to confess they had exceeded their player’s salary cap by over $1 million, Kate received death threats from enraged footy zealots and other bloodthirsty enigmas. Similarly, when reporting on the suspicious murder of Sydney businessman Michael McGurk in 2009, Kate and her family were forced to move out of their home by an anonymous letter referencing a .303 rifle. The Kiwi jockey Jim Cassidy once spat on Kate’s back and called her a ‘fucking bitch’ because one of her stories banned him from racing.

Unfortunately, a multitude of rabbit-holes exist that high-income earners use to hide their illegal networking. Often, the smoke of semantics renders political corruption untraceable. With financial density being the status quo – and the sums of money flowing from person to person remaining consistently high – journalists count on breadcrumb trails left behind by the culprits. However, these trails are usually pecked and eaten to the verge of imperceptibility by a flock of sycophantic ravens. Most political crooks, the successful ones, at least, are diligently clandestine.

‘There is always a way to get around it [the law], Kate said. ‘Here’s one of my favourites: I’m a politician and you want to bribe me. You say “Kate, I’m going to buy your house.” Let’s say the price is three million. So you pay me the ten percent deposit. Then guess what? You don’t complete the deal, and I keep the money. Everything is completely legitimate. And who’s gonna dispute that?’

‘This is one of the most dispiriting things you experience as a journalist,’ Kate said. ‘It’s the fact that many of these bodies do nothing . . . Police can’t act off one formal complaint. And sometimes they don’t have the resources. You write a story and think now something will be done.’

The point here is that a process of negotiation, even if it appears suspiciously corrupt, requires creditable proof of criminality for any legal process to take effect, which is hard to accomplish.

I asked Kate whether the persecution of Obeid has established precedent, a lasting impact on the dishonesty of Australian politics. She believes these things have a momentary impact. This time span could be months, even a decade. But inevitably, the tension is relieved and people slip into their old vices.

‘I covered the Police Royal Commission . . . and that had a profound effect on police corruption . . . and I do think shining a light onto these practices makes people feel like they might be caught. But it also makes the general public keep an eye out for things.’

Eddie Obeid has become a publicly vilified and demonised figure in contemporary Australia. Not only does he manifest the presence of White Collared Crime in Australian politics that we all fear, but his exhausting history of manipulation and corruption depicts the extent of blindness we, as the public, really experience. As Kate suggested, cases like Obeid express the value of independent press and exemplify that many evils are hidden in plain sight.

I am watching the progress of Obeid’s ICAC trials with a keen eye, fully knowing that even though the man may never find himself behind prison bars, he will live out his days trapped inside invisible ones. His legacy will be forever haunted by a stretch of ineffable slime. We must recognise the fine endeavours of people like Kate McClymont for these kinds of social triumphs.