“If you’ve worked in the tax division of a large accountancy firm, you’re not frightened of balance sheets or lawyers, and you know there’s a lot of fraud out there, so you’re already a step ahead in your research,” says three-time Walkley Award-winner Colleen Ryan, who won her first Walkley in 1993 for reporting the missing millions at the prestigious Sydney law firm Allen Allen & Hemsley. In 2004 she won two, including the Gold Walkley for her investigations into the Swiss bank accounts of flamboyant stockbroker Rene Rivkin, who died in 2005.
Ryan, who grew up in Wollongong, showed a talent for numbers from an early age. “I went through the Catholic school system, got a scholarship to Sydney to study economics, and majored in accounting and commercial law,” she says. “After I’d graduated I got a job as a chartered accountant with Arthur Andersen.”
It only took Ryan a year to work out that, in the early 80s, accounting was a sexist industry. “I saw that the bigger jobs never went to the women,” she says. “I’d always been interested in journalism, and I decided to apply to Vic Carroll, who was editor of The Australian Financial Review at the time, who told me that he’d take me on for 12 months and then see how it went.”
Ryan took a massive dive in salary, joined “the Fin”, then went back to university to do her masters in economics, before travelling for a year. When she returned Ryan went back to the AFR as a cadet. “I found it a much more egalitarian place,” she says. “Andersens didn’t have a single female partner. In journalism I was treated like a human being – I worked with journalists like Anne Lampe and Marian Wilkinson, and with Deborah Light, who later became editor of the Financial Review, and Valerie Lawson, later editor of The Times on Sunday. It was collegial, and back then we had the luxury of taking three or four months for a good story.”
One thing Ryan had learned during her year travelling was that she wanted to work overseas, and it wasn’t long before she and her husband, Stephen Wyatt, spread their wings, with Ryan working in PNG for two years, followed by two years in the UK. In 1996 she became the Washington correspondent for the AFR, and on her return was appointed editor of the paper.
A position Ryan particularly enjoyed was her time with Wyatt as fellow foreign correspondents in China from 2004 to 2011. “If you live in a small community all your life you never get to see how changes move through an economy,” she says. “We were in China just as the world was taking notice of their growth. Shanghai made New York look like Byron Bay – it had the best food, the best nightclubs, the best bars.”
The stint in China was followed by Ryan’s best-selling book, Fairfax: The Rise and Fall, published in 2013, which investigated why Australia’s oldest newspaper company had lost billions in value. Another, very different, book followed only a year later when Ryan and Wyatt co-authored Sell Up, Pack Up and Take Off, a light-hearted but sensible tome full of suggestions on how to live a comfortable and cheaper life overseas.
In 2016, Ryan and Wyatt moved to a property in the Byron Shire, where Wyatt concentrates on regeneration through planting rainforest and Ryan lives a quiet country life. “I worked full time all the way through having children,” she says. “Now I’ve started another chapter – I have four grandchildren and two of them live near Byron, so I can give back to my kids, and the best bit is I don’t have to read business stories anymore.”
By Candida Baker