Starting out as a student-writer, Melissa Davey, who is now Chief of Guardian Australia’s Melbourne Bureau, has been nominated for several Walkley and Quill awards for her work. Davey’s investigation into gynaecologist Emil Shawky Gayed, which instigated an independent inquiry and a police investigation, recently saw her receive a Walkey award for Women’s Leadership in Media—an award honouring women for their outstanding contributions to women’s visibility and gender equality.
Ahead of her appearance at Perth’s Disrupted Festival, Davey found some time to answer some of Grok’s burning questions.
Obtaining her degree here at Curtin, Davey contributed to Grok Magazine throughout her time at university, starting out as a contributor before taking up the role of Editor. She reflects on her time at Grok as an escape between classes, describing the magazine as “a great mix of journalism, opinion, humour, arts and culture”.
“Grok was such a different publication back then … We really had no oversight, and I didn’t have to check stories I commissioned by anyone,” Davey says. “I’m still amazed at some of the stuff we got away with.”
After graduating Davey headed east, working in Sydney for the Northern District Times and Sydney Morning Herald, before landing at Guardian Australia in Melbourne. Davey describes working as a journalist in the digital age as ‘freeing’, pointing to some of the differences between print and online.
“… there are so many ways to tell the story.”
“[T]here are still deadlines, but they’re not set by when a printing press does its last run. I loved working in print … but journalism has been evolving for as long as I’ve been a journalist and I try to focus on the opportunities that come from that,” she says. “With online, when a big story breaks, the pressure is intense. You can get information online instantly, so that immediacy and intensity while still needing to get it right is an adrenalin rush, but also part of what I love.”
Davey says that working online means you can utilise so many different platforms.
“… there are so many ways to tell the story: through podcast, interactives, galleries and data. I’m always so amazed by my colleagues [ability] to turn a story I’m working on into an engaging interactive piece or podcast.”
At Guardian Australia, Davey primarily covers general and breaking news, medicine, family violence, child sexual abuse and social justice issues. When asked what draws her to these topics, Davey says it was more a matter of being thrown into them.
“The royal commission into child sexual abuse was Australia-wide of course, but some of its key case-studies were held in Melbourne. I really feel lucky to report on those issues … understanding the dynamics of child abuse and family violence is essential to change,” she says.
Davey is one of the only journalists to cover the appearance of Cardinal Pell at the child abuse royal commission, his committal-hearing mistrial, his retrial and his appeal—the results of which are yet to be announced. Describing the experience of sitting through the conviction process, she says, is difficult to do.
“The trial itself was fascinating legally, watching how the courts handled the trial of a high-profile person … Because it went for so long and was held twice, I got to know the other journalists tasked with covering the Pell trial for other news organisations … I came to see them as my colleagues even though we have different employers,” Davey says.
“Then of course there has been the reaction to the conviction, the analysis, and coming to terms with all of that. The aftermath of the conviction was intense. There weren’t many of us in the trial so suddenly the spotlight was on us.”
She recalls doing interviews at all hours of the day with global news organisations.
“Then I was in New Zealand when the terror attacks occurred, so I covered that too. I’ve never been so exhausted.”
But Davey says it’s about more than Pell: it’s about understanding how “what we now know about child sexual abuse and the circumstance in which it occurs, how this applies to courts and justice, and what it all means for protecting children going forward”.
Commended for her dispassionate coverage of these events, Davey is set to release her book, The Trials of George Pell, sometime next year.
She describes her peers, colleagues, family and friends, as being incredibly encouraging and supportive of her work.
“To think that so many people believe in journalism still is heartening.”
“So many members of the public supported my crowdfund campaign. That support was totally overwhelming; I actually became quite anxious because I realised how many people are relying on this. To think that so many people believe in journalism still is heartening,” says Davey.
But not everyone has had the same reaction.
“There are also many people who, when they hear I’m writing about Pell, just throw their opinion at me, and they’re not at all interested in my expertise as one of the few people who sat through the entirety of the trial,” she says.
“I’ve had people argue with me even when I haven’t weighed into his guilt or innocence. I’ve had people use information that’s untrue to tell me how to write the book. There’s so much misinformation surrounding this case. I am now careful not to tell people I’ve just met that I’m a journalist or what I’m writing a book about. It’s too exhausting getting into those discussions every day.”
Davey with journalist David Marr (left) and Guardian Australia podcast producer Miles Martgnoni (right)
Last month, Davey won a Walkley award for her investigation on gynaecologist Emil Gayed, who was found to be needlessly removing women’s organs during medical operations. She describes the women, whose stories she helped share, as selfless and brave.
“I still find the whole situation shocking and horrific. I’ve found it incredibly sad, hearing the way the lives of women and their families have been affected,” she recounts, describing the story as being about “so much more than one doctor, but about systemic failings, rural medicine, sexism and disadvantage”.
As well as producing incredible pieces of investigative journalism that bring important issues to the forefront, the Australian media helps to hold our government accountable. Sometimes, however, it can feel like too much of that political coverage is biased.
Davey shines a different light on this, challenging us to consider why such content is being produced.
“It’s too simplistic to just blame one media company.”
“We have to ask ourselves, what were negative or problematic media reports tapping into in voters? How can we better understand and reach those people?” she says.
“It’s too simplistic to just blame one media company, though of course it’s frustrating when you see reports that are misleading or inaccurate. But we also need to ask, are people believing those reports and if so, why?”
When asked about the concentrated amount of power in the industry, Davey says that there will always be individuals who are more wealthy and powerful than others—those that have too much influence—but the job of journalists has always been to hold those people to account, and that won’t change any time soon.
“How is your own privilege influencing your reporting and opportunities?”
“Abuse of power, and power structures that amplify certain voices over others have always been problematic. Try not to get too caught up in conspiracy theories about ‘mainstream media’ [a term which I hate — what does that even mean?] and blaming ‘companies’,” she says.
Instead, she recommends asking how you as an individual—and those in the media—can lead the change.
“What are you doing personally to support more diversity in media? How is your own privilege influencing your reporting and opportunities? What work can you contribute to counteract misinformation? … It’s very easy to feel negative in journalism, and I’ve been guilty of that too. It’s been bloody tough. But there is also so much to celebrate and believe in.”
Melissa Davey will be appearing at the 2019 Disrupted Festival of Ideas, which is this weekend, Saturday 27th & Sunday 28th July. As part of the ‘Speak Your Truth’ panel, she will join Leigh Sales and Bri Lee to explore how victims have found their voice and are finally being supported. For more information visit the festival website.