Deep impact: Adele Ferguson’s meditation on investigative reporting

Before I start talking about my job as a journalist I’d like to give you a bit of a background about myself. After studying an economics degree at university I was fortunate enough to pick up a cadetship at the Advertiser in Adelaide – it’s a one-newspaper town, so cadetships were highly valued.

Getting into the Advertiser was a big deal. No-one in the family had anything to do with journalism or the media. In fact, no-one from my family had ever been to university before.

My parents were delighted at the prospect of me going into journalism and saw it as a great opportunity. I was determined to work hard, give it my best shot and show everyone that I could do it.

But it wasn’t plain sailing, especially after I was placed in the business section, where everything revolves around the share prices, indexes, graphs, mergers and acquisitions. It was a daunting and at times difficult job. But once I found my feet I soon realised business journalism was one of the most exciting and important areas to work in. It is where real power and the big deals lie.

It’s always worth remembering that the business world is about making as much money as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some companies cut corners to get there.

It’s axiomatic, I know, but it’s always worth remembering that the business world is about making as much money as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that, but some companies cut corners to get there. That’s where we expect a social conscience, the law, the regulators and the government to step in. But as we know that doesn’t always happen. That’s where I most enjoy playing a role. To expose wrongdoing, call out misconduct, and defend the people who can’t defend themselves. That is my key motivation; that’s what gets me up in the morning.

I think there are many other journalists who operate in this space. Journalists such as Kate McClymont, who is fearless and takes on some of the most frightening crooks. Joanne McCarthy, who exposed the Catholic Church sex scandal. Sarah Ferguson, who lifted the lid on the brutality of the live cattle trade. Caro Meldrum-Hanna, who shone a light on the greyhound industry, and Steve Pennells, Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie, who have exposed bribery and corruption at the highest levels of society.

There are countless other journalists who put their necks on the line every day, facing personal threats and legal action.

In business journalism there can be a tendency to focus on the bottom line and ignore the collateral damage to victims. For example, at National Australia Bank there was a huge scandal that involved dodgy tailored business loans and mis-selling insurance in the UK.

The focus of much of the reporting was NAB’s exposure to the claims and the impact that might have on profits and the share price.

I tracked down some of those victims and listened to their stories, which were harrowing. Behind that cold billion-dollar-plus provisioning figure the bank was forced to make, lives had been shattered. The culture of the bank needed to be called out.

But it is the short-term thinking of investors, demanding companies produce bigger and bigger profits with executive remuneration tied to performance, that has caused some of the bad behaviour we see in some of our biggest companies.

Sometimes this translates into a “profit at all costs” culture – and people get hurt.

In the case of NAB, one woman in Australia had been the victim of a dodgy financial adviser. She told her story, nervously, to me and colleague Ruth Williams, and afterwards said that going public was the best thing she had done in years. Instead of feeling like a victim, telling her story made her feel empowered. Her story and the name of the planner on page 1 of The Sydney Morning Herald also helped a lot of other victims who saw the story and rang up complaining they, too, had lost their life savings at the hands of this financial planner.

NAB recently opened up a compensation scheme to victims. It feels good that stories can bring about change – particularly when you see first-hand how positive that can be in someone’s life.

But many of these stories only come with the help of whistleblowers and some politicians – too few, though – who are willing to hold Senate inquiries to make companies account for their actions. Without these people, exposés would be so much harder. We all owe whistleblowers an immense sense of gratitude. They are the unsung heroes, who don’t get the praise they deserve.

My joint Fairfax and Four Corners investigations into the Commonwealth Bank and 7-Eleven highlighted in the clearest possible terms how some of our biggest corporations can systematically exploit and rip off the weak and vulnerable.

Sadly, even when incontrovertible evidence is placed before them, they continue to dissemble and prevaricate, and only admit liability when public opinion – or political blowback – becomes so strong they are forced to back down and make financial restitution.

When I heard the story of Teagan Couper, whose father, Noel Stevens, dying of cancer, spent the last six months of his life fighting for an insurance payout that the Commonwealth Bank tried to avoid paying, I knew it had to be exposed. Like David and Goliath, a dying man took on the bank and won. Days after he died, the bank appealed a payout fee of $320,000. The legal costs would have been far more. The bank lost the appeal but it showed how far some of these institutions will go to avoid paying, even if they are clearly in the wrong. The bank has deep pockets and is never stingy when it comes to hiring the best lawyers to fight in its corner.

My motivation for exposing the financial planning scandal at CBA, which included forgery and fraud, a cover-up by management and a regulator who quite frankly was missing in action, was to help people like Noel Stevens, who had been a scaffolder and worked hard all his life. It was to give them a voice, expose the disgraceful behaviour of the bank, and try and get compensation. That was the least they deserved after all they had been through.

I first became aware of the problems within the Commonwealth Bank in 2013 when Jeff Morris, a former employee of the bank, turned whistleblower and approached me with evidence of what was going on. Jeff had approached the regulator ASIC and provided it with everything it needed to take action against the bank. Nothing happened for 16 months. He quit his job, disillusioned with ASIC’s response, and contacted me. I was gobsmacked when I read some of the documents, then spoke to some of the victims.

I was gobsmacked when I read some of the documents.

The stories triggered a Senate inquiry, led by John Williams, a Nationals senator, who has earned a reputation for standing up for the battler. The Four Corners story, which won a Gold Walkley, brought these victims and their stories to life more powerfully than the written word ever could. Again, it’s a good feeling when an obvious wrong has been righted and victims become empowered.

Along with the findings of the Senate inquiry, which received national attention, the chief executive of the Commonwealth Bank, Ian Narev, promised to open up a compensation review scheme to thousands of customers. Again it was a good day when Narev issued a media release apologising to the bank’s customers for its failings: “We know this is unacceptable and I unreservedly apologise to all customers affected. Poor advice provided by some of our advisers between 2003 to 2012 caused financial loss and distress and I am truly sorry for that.”

The investigation also put the spotlight on ASIC and highlighted its failings. Hopefully, the adverse publicity will make the regulator more accountable and less captive of big business.

Likewise, the uncovering of a widespread wage scandal at 7-Eleven was motivated by the desire to hold the company – and its two billionaire shareholders – to account. Hearing the stories of vulnerable international students who were paid less than $10 an hour, and some who were not paid for months so they were forced to eat old sandwiches thrown in the bin, made me feel something had to be done.

These students felt they had nowhere to turn. They were afraid if they spoke up they would be deported for breaching their visa conditions. They were in a terrible predicament.

A consumer advocate, Michael Fraser, who had moved next to a 7-Eleven on the Gold Coast, played a big role in helping expose what was happening. Michael contacted me when he failed to get a reply from 7-Eleven about the underpayment of wages to student employees by convenience store operators.

A whistleblower at 7-Eleven also helped bring the story to life during the making of Four Corners. Working at head office, he heard that Fairfax and Four Corners were doing a big story on the company with allegations of wage fraud, so he reached out. If we hadn’t covered the story, it’s unlikely this person would ever have spoken out and wage fraud would have continued.

A few days after the story broke, when the public outrage was at fever pitch, 7-Eleven agreed to set up an independent panel headed by one of its fiercest critics, Allan Fels, former chairman of the ACCC, to review compensation claims.

It also hired an army of external PRs to try and minimise the damage, but it was too late. The genie was out of the bottle.

The power of seeing victims on TV was too great. Follow-up print stories and radio interviews kept up the pressure.

Since then, the independent panel has written to 15,000 workers to invite them to apply for compensation. The company has also agreed to change its business model so that franchisees won’t be forced to rip off students just to make ends meet.

We received many emails from workers and former workers at 7-Eleven thanking Fairfax and Four Corners for caring. It was a great feeling to read the notes.

My job can be very rewarding but it can also be high-pressure. The information has to be right. This means making sure the whistleblowers are legitimate and the documents aren’t doctored or just showing part of the story.

The whole period was surreal. Here I was fighting to keep my sources sacred, and the person who wanted them was a major shareholder in Fairfax, the very company that was employing me as one of its senior writers.

There is also the constant threat of litigation. In 2013, less than a year after I had published the unauthorised biography Gina Rinehart: The Untold Story of the Richest Woman in the World, I was served with a subpoena by Gina’s lawyers demanding that I hand over all communication between her son, John Hancock, and myself. I refused point-blank.

As a journalist I would never do this, even though there was the threat that I could land in jail for contempt of court. I had given John Hancock an undertaking to keep certain things confidential, including other sources.

The subpoena was eventually dismissed but it hung over my head like the sword of Damocles and put a great strain on me and my family. There was many a sleepless night, I can tell you.

The whole period was surreal. Here I was fighting to keep my sources sacred, and the person who wanted them was a major shareholder in Fairfax, the very company that was employing me as one of its senior writers.

“News,” said Lord Beaverbrook, one of the first media barons of Fleet Street, “is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress.”

Beaverbrook was on the money. There is always someone, somewhere, determined to suppress what journalists have to say. My motivation is to shine a light on what people and companies try to hide.

In 2013, a record number of subpoenas were served on journalists in Australia; I bagged three of them. Increasingly, journalists are being targeted with subpoenas to intimidate them to close down a particular issue or a piece of investigative journalism. This tactic to use the courts as a weapon to suppress information must be resisted at all costs. Information is the lifeblood of our democratic system. Sever this vital artery and the body politic of the nation, and all the people who live in it, will be the poorer.

The problems we face today are not new. As journalists we must be eternally vigilant and fight to maintain the free flow of information and the right of journalists to protect their sources.

Adele Ferguson is a reporter for Fairfax Media. She was a Gold Walkley winner in 2014 and gave this keynote address at Storyology in Sydney in November 2015.