Five minutes with Crime Reporter John Silvester

Senior Crime Reporter for The Age, John Silvester, shares his career insights and podcast, Naked City.

Throughout your career, what are some of the most memorable stories you have covered?

Probably the so-called Melbourne Underbelly War as the gangsters became so well known to the public. It was as if a Hollywood gangster movie was being shot in our streets except the bullets were real.

In your view, what role does journalism play in exposing and addressing issues related to crime and corruption in society?

Give victims a voice, expose holes in the law, pursue corruption, expose the best and worst of human behaviour and you have a bloody good time along the way, playing cops and robbers and getting paid at the same time.

What inspired you to study crime and corruption in Southeast Asia, and how did that experience change your perspective on crime reporting?

SEA was the major source of our drugs at the time. I met and interviewed Australians in prison facing the death penalty, saw the exploitation of the poor through human trafficking and found Aussie crooks who had established businesses to launder proceeds of crime. The food was good too.

Are there any particular cases or individuals that have had a profound effect on you personally?

To watch the case of the Frankston serial killer who killed three women in seven weeks in 1993. To see the homicide team working under extreme pressure, knowing there would be more deaths if they didn’t catch the killer and to see the ultimate breakthrough resulting in the arrest and conviction of Paul Charles Denyer.

When interviewing people like Chopper Read, how do you gain the trust of some of Australia’s most notorious criminals?

Having done this job for so long the crooks know my work. Some hold grudges while others think I have been fair. Police say that when they carry out raids they will often find our books on the bedside table of the crooks. Stolen, I imagine.

How do you balance the desire to captivate readers with the ethical considerations of crime reporting?

The facts of a serious crime do not need to be embellished. Hysteria just frightens people. I tell fiction writers they have the hard job of making their stories believable. True crime is often so bizarre you couldn’t make it up. Who would think that a standoverman like Chopper Read would become a best selling author?

Can you share more about your relationship with Chopper Read and how it developed over time?

I wrote a story about him that was less than complimentary. In return, he sent me a Christmas card that was also less than complimentary saying:“I hope the yuletide log falls from your fireplace and burns your house down.” It was funny and sparked my curiosity.

What motivated you to visit Chopper in prison and engage in conversations with him, despite the initial offence caused by your writing?

He was a colourful character. Colourful characters make good stories. I couldn’t imagine it would end in eleven books and an international movie.

John Silvester’s Podcast, Naked City. Ep: 73 seconds to a tragic death.

What can our subscribers expect from series six of Naked City? How did you decide on the cases you’re covering in season six?

To hear from the insiders, the people who were there – the judges, the cops and the victims. I am lucky that having been around for a long time I know the main players. The cases I pick are the ones I think we can take the listener to places rarely visited.

Which has been your favourite Naked City episode to date?

Probably Ron Fenton. A policeman shot, who fought his way back from his physical disabilities, suffered PTSD and considered taking his own life until he was saved by Yogi, a companion dog trained by an inmate in NSW. A story of courage and compassion. The world isn’t a bad place after all.

Across your 43 years of crime reporting, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Be right and assume nothing.

If you could have dinner with any 3 people dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Barack Obama. I’m sure they would want to hear my crime stories.

Article initially published by The Sydney Morning Herald, June 2023.
Naked City Podcast available via The Age website.

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