Rachael Brown, ABC journalist

ABC journalist Rachael Brown.
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“Brave journalism needs brave people to back it. You’ve got to have brave bosses who are willing to back you, and give you the luxury of time.” ABC journalist Rachael Brown talks with reporter Shelby Garlick about what led to her ground-breaking podcast investigation Trace.

What made you interested in becoming a journalist?

I did an internship with the Herald Sun in year 10. I bought these new shoes for the internship and I ended up traipsing through this muddy paddock with Craig Binnie to look into malnourished horses. I was filthy, covered in mud and we were climbing over fences, and I remember thinking it was a bad idea. Craig then got a call to say the Agriculture Minister was at the airport, and when we arrived at the airport he said, “I’m going to race in, can you park the car?” And I said, “I can’t drive I’m only 16!” He quickly taught me how to use his recorder and he said, “Just run in there, he should be in there somewhere”. So, I ran in, this little year 10 student covered in mud, trying to find a guy that I didn’t know. I noticed a small press pack and so in my muddy clothes I climbed in under their feet and held the microphone up and remember thinking, “Yep, this is where I belong.”

How did you get your start at the ABC?

When I was at university I did placements everywhere. In 2000, I worked at the Olympics as a waitress and I wrote columns about what it was like working in the athletes dining room. I just tried to get anything I could published. By the time it came to grad interviews, I had done heaps of internships. Back in 2001 I never saw myself as a broadcast journalist, I thought I was always going to be in print. I went for the ABC cadetship not thinking I’d get it and also got offered a cadetship at The Age. Never in a million years when I made that decision [to go with the ABC] did I think that newspapers would be dying out so soon.

After your cadetship, where did you go?

The ABC, after you finish your cadetship, like you to cut your teeth in a regional area. They sent me to Gippsland. In regional areas, the news you cover is so diverse. You literally have to do everything on your own. You can’t use twitter to find a story, you have to build contacts and earn people’s trust… All regional journalists know that when you’re chasing a lead the first person you call is the local publican or the local hairdresser.

Trace has gripped the nation, why did you decide to do it?

I read an article in the Guardian about how Serial could never happen in Australia because of our strict rules around sub-judice. I realised that if I was going to do a journalistic deep-dive podcast I’d have to choose a cold case. I chose the Maria James case because a colleague of mine had mentioned a particular element that niggled at me for quite a long time. Which was that someone had come forward and said they had seen someone covered in blood at the time of the murder. I was confused as to why it hadn’t been reported. So, it was really my own curiosity.

How did you cope with what Trace uncovered?

I had a lot of nightmares last year. I reached out to a counsellor, which was really helpful. They equipped me with skills that have helped me approach those sensitive conversations. I’ve got really good friends who have kept me sane through all of this… Even now I sometimes think I don’t have the life experience to be dealing with some of the things that have arisen from Trace. Rape victims, claims of satanic ritual abuse, not many people would be prepared for that. I found myself on the other end of phones calls with very damaged people and even now I don’t feel equipped to know what the perfect thing is to say. I’m always worried I might say the wrong thing. That type of gravity I don’t think I could’ve dealt with as a young reporter.

You were a foreign correspondent in London, was it a steep learning curve for you?

The pace was intense. Some days it was crazy, I’d jump out of a radio booth, to jump straight into a TV booth for a live cross on a completely different story. It was intense but electric as well, which is why I became a journalist. The breadth of what I was covering and the speed at which you have to do it teaches you like nothing else. The hours are long and you have to be across everything. There were many periods where it was hard to maintain a work/life balance.

What piece of advice do you carry with you into every story?

Remember that the people you’re dealing with aren’t stories, so don’t treat them like they’re stories, treat them like individuals, and remember that you’re helping to facilitate their story. When I was a court reporter, I used to find it so frustrating watching journalists shove a recorder in victims’ mouths and ask things like, “How do you feel that your wife is dead?” It made me sick to my stomach. You’ve got to be a good person to be a good journalist.