Journalists say ‘this is the story of the year’, and Brittany says, ‘hang on, this is my life’.
Gold Walkley-winner Samantha Maiden discusses the issues in the coverage of Brittany Higgins’ allegations and why the result is more important than any award.
Samantha Maiden’s reporting on Brittany Higgins’ alleged sexual assault in Parliament House earned her the 2021 Gold Walkley Award and the Walkley Award for Coverage of a Major News Event or Issue. Ella McCrindle interviewed Samantha about the genesis of the piece, the issues involved and the after effects.
You would be hard pressed to find an Australian who hasn’t heard of Brittany Higgins, a former Liberal staffer whose harrowing story of alleged sexual assault at Parliament House sparked a political earthquake.
When Samantha Maiden broke the story “Open Secret: The Brittany Higgins Story”, she unleashed a national reckoning on alleged sexual assault in Australia’s Parliament and helped to inspire a march for change.
Maiden’s first story on the Liberal Party’s mismanagement of Higgins’ allegation of assault was followed by a string of exclusive agenda-setting stories that helped precipitate multiple inquiries and led to the creation of a new, independent complaints body for parliamentary staff.
The political editor’s reporting and good old-fashioned news-breaking have earned her a Gold Walkley. She discusses the significance of her award with the Walkley Foundation’s Ella McCrindle.
Describe the moment you found out you were the 2021 Gold Walkley winner, the title every journalist aspires to.
I was just sitting in the room [at the Gala Dinner] and they read it out and I was pretty surprised to be honest. It was a great honour and great recognition of a very important issue that Brittany Higgins raised in her interview.
It was fantastic to see people really take those issues so seriously over the last year and the impact that it had — I think also the way in which it has encouraged other women and men to come forward with their own stories and take action.
What Brittany Higgins did when she spoke out has triggered so many investigations, inquiries, the Jenkins Report into Parliament House, a range of other changes and the hope is of course that that will drive change, not just in the parliamentary workplace, but more broadly.
Your story started a national discussion about how women are treated in Australian politics. You must be so proud.
It’s not a story that I think you can feel triumphant or congratulatory about at all, because this is about somebody’s life. It’s a very serious issue.
I’m mindful of the fact that Brittany Higgins herself has made the point that, yes, she is pleased that Australians have really rallied around this issue and taken it seriously, but that she finds it de-humanising when it is referred to almost in terms that forget that she is a human being with a real life and that she’s a real person.
She has raised in recent days concerns about people describing it as a “story” for example. I think that the point she was making more broadly is that journalists say “oh this is the story of the year,” and she says, “hang on, this is my life.”
So, of course I’m proud of the work that we did, but I think it would be completely wrong to be congratulatory, joyful, celebratory about this award, as absolutely proud as we are to accept it, because it is about a very difficult subject matter that for thousands of Australians involves great trauma.
Yes, that makes sense. How did you discover what had happened to Brittany Higgins?
Some of this I’ll be talking about in my new book which will be coming out from HarperCollins hopefully later this year, called Open Secrets. Basically, one of the things that came up, and again I did reference this in my speech when we accepted the award, was that these stories are all connected in a certain way.
One of the things that got Brittany Higgins thinking about speaking out was the Four Corners report that Louise Milligan did, Inside the Canberra Bubble, and Rachelle Miller speaking out. Now obviously she wasn’t talking about sexual assault, but she was talking about the treatment of women in Parliament and politics. And even though you might think that, because a lot of people within the Coalition sort of bad-mouthed her behind their hands, that would sort of be a barrier to Brittany Higgins coming out. But in fact it had the opposite effect. It had a galvanising effect.
So one of the things that happened was that Brittany Higgins had seen me talking about that issue on Insiders. I was talking about how little power parliamentary staffers have from an industrial perspective because they can basically be sacked on a whim. I know that was one of the reasons why Brittany Higgins decided to come to me, because she felt that I had an understanding of the environment in which these staff were working.
I think the other thing was, and I’m not saying this is always true, but I think that she thought that I would prosecute it very hard and be fearless in terms of not being frightened about offending people — that I would basically go in there and fight for answers. That’s what she wanted and that’s what we tried to do. I think that’s why she picked me to come and talk to.
What did it take to get this story out?
I was really grateful to my employers because I work for a website where most journalists work on multiple stories a day. [My colleagues] Lisa Muxworthy and Oliver Murray, I did say to them when I got this story, that ‘really I’ve interviewed her for hours. I really need to sit down and transcribe all of that, work out where the stories lead.’
There was so much in there about who knew what and when, what the Prime Minister’s Office knew, what Michaelia Cash’s office knew. Then we had the whole issue with when we went to the Prime Minister’s Office on the Friday they didn’t in the end get back to us until the Sunday night.
I think what was really stunning to learn, that became an issue in Parliament, was that they hadn’t told the Prime Minister until the story was published. Whether it was the Chief of Staff, or the political adviser, or the media team, it’s mind blowing that they didn’t think that the alleged rape of a young staffer in the defence minister’s office was an issue that was important enough to tell him was coming.
Unfortunately you’ve had to deal with subject matter like this many times before. Were you shocked when you found out about what had happened to Brittany and how far it led?
It was a shocking story. There were many things I found shocking when I first interviewed her. Probably the main thing was that she’d been brought back into the room where the assault allegedly occurred to conduct an employment meeting with the Defence Industry Minister, Linda Reynolds. That became a huge issue in Parliament.
We had quite a difficult situation with Linda Reynolds that first weekend. We’d got all of these answers from the Prime Minister’s Office. I put all these answers that I was seeking from Linda Reynolds and Michaelia Cash to them personally and their offices individually and also to the Prime Minister’s office, thinking that their responses would be coordinated in some way anyway.
For whatever reason, we got a response back from Michaelia Cash, we got a response back from the Prime Minister’s Office. We didn’t get any response back from Linda Reynolds’ office.
The Prime Minister’s Office did suggest this idea that it didn’t know there was a rape allegation. Now this all started to unravel a bit when Parliament sat the next week because eventually Reynolds gave an account where she said ‘when I held that meeting I knew there’d been some kind of late night incident. I didn’t know it involved alleged sexual assault.’
First of all we learnt and revealed that the Chief of Staff had actually obtained advice on how to handle an alleged sexual assault prior to that meeting and that during that meeting Linda Reynolds had actually urged her to go to the police. So I’m not sure why you’d urge someone to go to the police if you didn’t think it was an alleged sexual assault.
I think that part of her answer has never really added up. I think that it is possible that she didn’t know where the alleged incident had occurred, but either way she clearly knew it had allegedly occurred.
What do you think this story meant for Brittany Higgins, and Australian women more broadly?
The truth is that I think it’s been an incredible ordeal. It’s been incredibly difficult for her and I think that it continues to be incredibly difficult for her. She’s got the trial ahead and I think it’s really tough.
Grace Tame has spoken over the last year about the fact that when victims and alleged victims come forward and talk about their experiences to force change this can be incredibly traumatising and incredibly damaging.
It’s a very difficult issue to navigate because you’ve got a whole group in Australia cheering this on and feeling kind of warm and fuzzy about it.
I can assure you it is not a warm and fuzzy experience for Brittany Higgins. It is not a warm and fuzzy experience for Grace Tame.
I think that sometimes people know these stories through the frame of Instagram or on the front pages of glossy magazines where it all looks very kind of airbrushed, if you like. The real life experiences of raising these issues is not airbrushed. It is incredibly traumatising.
I think Brittany Higgins can be incredibly proud of all of the things that she has driven change in relation to this story, but I think the personal burden that she has carried to do that is incredibly high. It’s incredibly high.
Did you expect the ripple effect from your interview would trigger something as significant as the Jenkins Review?
No, I mean I said in the beginning of my speech I thought it was an important story but also when you spend a week kind of going through a tape and listening to it again and again, working out what the angles are, and working out how to pursue them, you can go very far down the rabbit hole.
I think one of the things that made it a story was the proximity to power. I thought it was a very important story and I’m glad to have played a small role in getting it on the public agenda, but never in a million years would I have thought in January of 2021, when Brittany Higgins first came over to my house, that she’d be standing in front of of thousands of women chanting her name a few months later or that it would trigger all the things that it did. I couldn’t have imagined that.
Do you think it was important that a woman broke this story?
I think it’s important that the story got written. I think that there’s no special magic.
Brittany Higgins’ interview was always going to have a big impact. I hope to think that I pursued it with greater passion and vigour and potentially insight because I was a woman, but I wouldn’t for a minute suggest that blokes are not capable of writing these stories, because they are.
The story dealt with incredibly difficult subject matter. How do you handle the stress and pressure that comes with reporting something like this?
I’d have to say that more than anything else I just found it kind of pretty relentless. It did have an emotional impact on me but that’s never something I’d complain about because I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t have an impact on me.
The emotional impact on me was infinitesimal, non-existent, compared to the impact it had on Brittany Higgins.
I think it’s just that, which I enjoy and would never complain about, the fact that you’re working 24/7, you’re not getting any sleep, you’re still filing stories at 10 or 11 o’clock at night and you’re still setting your alarm and getting up at 6am. So you’re really living and breathing it in those early weeks and months, but I’m grateful for that because it was a once in a lifetime story.
It’s every journalist’s dream to break a story that brings about change and you’ve certainly done that. How does this story compare to some of your other career achievements?
I think that it is probably the most important body of work that I’ve done to date in terms of the impact that it’s had.
But I do think there’s quite an interesting thread in that I’ve done work in this space. I’ve been interested in these issues since I was at university thirty years ago. So, I’m not new to those issues if that makes sense. I’ve been writing about this stuff for a long time and I’m grateful to play a small role in it.
The person who’s driven the change is Brittany Higgins, not me. So I’ve played my role.
What made you want to be a journalist?
I think the truth is, the reason I became a journalist was I was interested in politics, I was interested in history, I liked writing and I liked, hopefully in a positive way, sometimes causing trouble.
I like challenging people who I think need to be challenged.
There’s always an element of luck involved. I suspect anyone who’s ever won a Walkley, certainly anyone who’s won a Gold Walkley, would tell you that there is a certain amount of magic and luck that comes along with a story that nine times out of ten is embedded in the person that you are interviewing. It’s not so much you, it’s them.
So there is an element of being in the right place at the right time.
There’s a big element of investigation to that in many cases, and finding those people, but at the end of the day you’re only as good as the people you’re interviewing and their stories that you’re trying to tell.
In light of the ripple effects your story has had, do you have a message for the Australian public about why it’s important that we continue to support quality journalism?
I think that if Brittany Higgins had not chosen to come forward and be interviewed in relation to this matter, which was absolutely her right, all of those changes wouldn’t have happened.
I think that the work that journalists do is incredibly important and we’re seeing that right now in Ukraine and the work that journalists are doing to report what’s happening there.
If journalists don’t report what’s happening, we don’t know.
Samantha Maiden spoke to Ella McCrindle, winner of the 2021 Jacoby-Walkley Scholarship with Nine.
The Walkley Award for Coverage of a Major News Event or Issue is supported by Sky News Australia.