2020 Walkley Award-winner for Coverage of Community and Regional Affairs with Helen Gregory, Anita Beaumont and Donna Page
“Community journalism, whether it is small weekly papers or whether it’s regional media like the Newcastle Herald, we essentially serve the communities in a unique way that larger state-based and national-based media can’t do.”
The Your Right to Know campaign, spearheaded by Matthew Kelly, Helen Gregory, Anita Beaumont and Donna Page of the Newcastle Herald, tackled a broad range of issues, from the number of medications lost or stolen from hospitals, to asbestos contamination in schools, and toxic pollution leaching from an abandoned waste processing facility.
The reporting highlighted just how much the government had been keeping from taxpayers, in violation of their right to know, and delivered tangible change to the community.
The Walkley Judges said the campaign “came at a critical moment for journalism and the quest for transparency and accountability. Determined to shine a light into some of the darkest corners of the community, the Herald exposed a broad range of injustices and prompted much-needed change.”
We spoke with Matthew Kelly about keeping government agencies accountable and the critical role of regional media.
How does it feel to you guys to be recognised by your peers for this particular body of work?
We all feel a great sense of achievement, but it wouldn’t have been possible to achieve what we did without an even bigger number of people helping us.
This project would not have been possible without the exceptional journalism of Joanne McCarthy and the Judith Neilson Institute who gave us financial support to get this project on the road. It all began when Joanne won a Kennedy Award, and part of that award was support from the Judith Neilson Institute to fund a project of her choosing. And she chose to put the money towards the Your Right to Know campaign. Then our editors, Chad Watson and Heath Harrison, our deputy editors Xavier Mardling and Matt Carr, and numerous people in the newsroom who assisted us to achieve what we did.
How long did the story kind of take to get up in terms of time and resources, and how many people were working on it?
The Newcastle Herald has been pursuing the issue of increased transparency and accountability from governments for many years, and there are many journalists in our newsroom who have experienced the challenges and frustrations of being knocked back for requests for information.
So this subject wasn’t new to our newsroom. It’s been a well-worn path by many journalists. But this time around, with the assistance of the Judith Neilson Institute, we were able to strategise it into the Your Right to Know campaign.
Over a period of about six or seven months we put in a number of Freedom of Information and government access to information requests, which formed the basis of this particular campaign. But as I said, it’s something that we’ve been pursuing at the Newcastle Herald for many years and will continue to pursue.
What are some of the impacts that the campaign has had?
My colleague Donna Page is currently pursuing the City of Newcastle on a number of fronts for information and the response to those stories has been particularly interesting. We’ve both had a wide variety of feedback from the community in support of our campaign to gain access to information that we’ve been seeking from the council.
Also, Anita Beaumont’s work with Hunter New England Health — we’ve had quite a positive response from people in the community who have had similar frustrations to the ones that we’ve been highlighting regarding access to information in the healthcare system.
“We’re trying to highlight the problems with the system as it stands at the moment, and hopefully our work will lead to reform and improvements in the freedom of information systems both at the state and federal level.”
How did you get into journalism in the first place?
I would probably say it was a desire to tell stories about the world in a non-biased and factual way, and the desire to seek the truth through journalism.
It was that desire to seek the truth and to report the world for what it is, both the good and the bad.
Do you have any stories that stand out from across your career as ones that you’re particularly proud of?
Freedom of information is something that I’ve been involved in for a long time, but if I pass my mind to another project that I was involved in a few years ago, it looked at the issue of air pollution from coal trains and the impact that was having on communities in the region.
That was a project I was involved in for close to two years, calling for greater protection for communities from the air pollution caused by coal mining. That led to a number of inquiries and reports, and we have since seen tangible changes in the transport of coal as a result of some of that work. I won the Kennedy Award for Best Environment Reporting for that one.
Community and regional journalism has taken a bit of a battering around the country in the past year. Do you have a message for the people of Australia about why supporting strong regional journalism is important?
More and more people are moving to the regions and living in the regions than ever before, and it makes sense that people want to know about what’s going on in the communities. Just at that level, we need strong journalism to be able to inform the people who live in the communities about what’s going on. You simply don’t get that level of detail from metropolitan media.
Community journalism, whether it is small weekly papers or whether it’s regional media like the Newcastle Herald, we essentially serve the communities in a unique way that larger state-based and national-based media can’t do.
At the same time, the issues that we raise and that we cover are of equal relevance to the state and the nation, and often those stories have their origins at a regional or even community level. In my view, and I’m sure the view of journalists who work in regional media around Australia, the work we do is of equal importance to the coverage of metropolitan media.
Where are you hoping to see the Your Right to Know campaign go in the near future?
The Newcastle Herald’s Your Right to Know campaign is certainly not over. It’s an ongoing campaign. We’re lobbying for increased accountability and transparency from all levels of government and public sector agencies. At the moment we’re particularly interested seeking information from the City of Newcastle, and we are also seeking more information from New South Wales Health, New South Wales Education, and the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority.
It’s an ongoing campaign with a high level of engagement with the community, and we will keep going with it until we see the reforms that are necessary to create a more open and transparent system which allows people to gain information about government agencies.
Are there any last shout-outs you’d like to give to anyone who contributed?
Joanne McCarthy and the Judith Neilson Institute, who made this particular project possible. And also the Walkley Foundation for its sustained support of journalists working in Australia. It’s an organisation that I think in many ways is the glue that holds disparate journalism communities across Australia together. And the Walkley Awards are a great way to recognise and celebrate that.
Matthew Kelly has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years and as a general reporter at the Newcastle Herald since 2018, where he has reported on a range of subjects including environment, energy, water security, manufacturing and higher education.
Helen Gregory joined the Newcastle Herald as a reporter in 2010 and is passionate about telling the personal stories behind the news. Gregory was part of a Newcastle Herald team that won the UN World Environment Day Media Award for Environmental Reporting in 2015.
Anita Beaumont has worked as a journalist at the Newcastle Herald for more than 15 years. She is the paper’s health reporter, covering breaking news and public interest pieces, as well as writing longform news features for both the news section and the Weekender magazine.
Donna Page is an investigative reporter for the Newcastle Herald, where she previously worked as chief-of-staff and day editor. Passionate about regional journalism, she won Walkley Awards in this category in 2016 and 2019 and was a finalist in 2013. She also teaches journalism at the University of Newcastle.