It is two days after the Friday night shooting of Graham Kinniburgh and Carl Williams is a key suspect, not only in police circles but in the underworld where he dwells. Undeterred, the chubby gangster from Broadmeadows meets „Age. journalist John Silvester for a coffee on Spencer Street on a sweaty summer afternoon in 2003. Dressed casually in running shoes, shorts and a t-shirt, and sitting with his back to the street, Williams looks more like a bloke on a tea break at a building site than a smooth criminal. “I did think: where.s your cashmere jacket and your dark shades?” Silvester remembers. “In a way I found his style endearing but his actions were naïve and very cocky…stupid, certainly”.
Seven years later Silvester returned home to an urgent message – there was a whisper that Williams had been bashed to death in maximum security prison. It was a finale Silvester had long predicted, but, even so, the implications were huge. “It immediately became obvious that the consequences were going to be enormous because he was a bigger player in events that are presently suppressed (by the courts); it.s not just about a crook who got his head beaten in…the whole system is under question and there is so much more to write.”
John Silvester has been writing crime since 1978 when he first breathed in the musty aroma of the small, shared office on the ground floor of the Russell Street police building as a graduate cadet for The Sun newspaper. Surrounded by reporters (“some eccentric, some mental”) from the ABC, Herald and The Age, sans toilets and air-conditioning, Silvester.s inauguration was laced with the smell of stale beer and half-eaten pizza. Here he would sit with the chunky Bakelite telephone in one hand and a Marlboro Red cigarette in the other relaying his tales to the newspaper copytakers. It was in this tight-knit environment that legendary reports Alan Dower, Geoff Clancy and Geoff Wilkinson taught young journalists their craft, fostering careers that would ultimately carry them into editing roles, or to become foreign correspondents and television front men. Unlike many of his peers, Silvester stayed put because “being paid to play cops and robbers is the best job in the world”.
Silvester.s conversation is similar to his style of writing. Clichés play a leading role, while anecdote after anecdote makes for entertaining listening. His eyes sparkle with a cheeky
wickedness not unlike those of a wayward ten year old boy, while a dry smile portrays an even drier wit. Even his perfectly bald head adds to the impish caricature. There are moments of seriousness though too – when conversation leaps from a hilarious tale about gangsters gobbling up lobster to a face-to-face meeting with mass murderer Paul Stevens Haigh, an experience which sickened the almost unflappable Silvester. His fascination with the good and evil of human behaviour is clear, as his huge body of work holds testament.
Since those early years as a junior reporter on police rounds at Russell Street, Silvester has written, edited and published more than 30 crime books, including the best-selling Underbelly series, the basis for the top-rating television series on Melbourne.s Gangland War that involved more than 20 tit-for-tat murders over a decade. He has won a Walkley award, five Quills, a Ned Kelly award for true crime writing and numerous Victorian Law Foundation awards. In 2008 Silvester was also honoured with the Graham Perkin Award for Australian Journalist of the Year. He has given evidence at criminal Royal Commissions, appears regularly on radio as “Sly of the Underworld”, a kind of deep throat connection to Melbourne.s criminal goings on, and is often interviewed by other media as an expert on crime in Victoria. In short, he knows as much about law-breaking as a law abiding citizen should and then, perhaps, some more.
A life of crime, so to speak, seemed to be his destiny, although crime writing, Silvester insists, was a career path he “just fell into”. Growing up in housing commission accommodation in Preston, Silvester was just a young boy when his mother died, leaving his policeman father to juggle full-time work and domestic duties. The well-regarded Fred Silvester became a Victorian assistant commissioner and was known as an „old school. officer – tough, honest and very straight. His parenting techniques followed suite: “Dad made it quite clear that just because he was a copper, I wasn.t going to get an easy ride,” says Silvester. “He.d say: „I guarantee that if you ever find yourself in a police station you will be charged. I won.t be getting you out. If it.s a matter of discretion, you.ll be going the hard way.”. While it didn.t do him any favours as a youngster, Silvester concedes his father.s line of work probably secured
him the trust of police and that of older gangsters who respected Fred.s brand of policing, as well as providing him with avenues for an exclusive story or two.
Those tips-offs have landed the journalist in hot water with criminals on many occasions but when asked if his work ever caused him to be fearful, however, Silvester plays down the danger with alarming frankness: “Most people who have threatened me are now dead, “ he quips. He has received late night phone calls, been eyed off by mobsters at funerals and once received a cheeky Christmas card from Mark “Chopper” Reid with a greeting that wished a log would fall out of Silvester.s fire and burn his house down. An article Silvester had written after a chat with Reid had prompted the parole board to extend his sentence by six months. Despite these claims to fame, Silvester remains modest, nominating as gallant the feats of journalists covering wars and natural disasters as well as the everyday work of the police force. “The fact of the matter is tonight somewhere a policeman or woman will get a punch in the nose doing their job and I.ll go home to my wife and kids and have spaghetti for tea…The smarter gangsters know it.s not a good idea to go after people like me with ill intent because the back lash is really bad for business.”
Those who do realise practise a „keep your enemies closer. approach and Silvester has toed the fine line between reporter and friend. There.s a glint in his eye as he tells tales of frivolous gangster spending – the time when Mick Gatto, who was acquitted of the 2004 murder of William.s associate Andrew Veniamin, allegedly as a pay-back for Kinniburgh.s slaying, won a Mercedes on a punt or when another crook took his girlfriend to Singapore on a whim to quench a crab craving. Silvester is a clever story-teller – often sharing tales in dramatic fashion from the sides of his mouth, almost sotto voce – and it is clear that a part of the underworld has seduced him, too. “It.s easy to see why these women hang around (gangsters); it is hard not to be impressed sometimes,” he says. He has sat behind security gates with Gatto, sharing a cigar, gulped coffee and been mediator between crooks and the producers of the Underbelly television series and has eaten at the exclusive Flower Drum restaurant with mobsters on more than one occasion. “Mick Gatto is as charming a man as you.ll ever meet,” says Silvester. “I thoroughly enjoy his company and Chopper Reid is an
enormously funny bloke, but he was an extremely brutal man. Sometimes I have to remind myself that both those men, although very different, use their charm and charisma as a weapon.”
Luckily for „Sly. he is quick, as long-time friend and Underbelly collaborator Andrew Rule knows: “He can think on his feet in any situation, which few people can”. It.s a sort of street-smart intelligence that has ensured Silvester.s longevity on the police rounds circuit – moving across town from The Sun to The Sunday Age in 1993 and then later joining the daily Age, where he has held the title of crime and law editor for more than 10 years.
It is difficult to imagine Silvester ever contemplating retirement; in fact, it is difficult to imagine crime in Melbourne existing if he were not there to report on it and also the fallout from the murder of Carl Williams. “There are so many suppression orders”, he explains. “There.s an enormous amount that currently can.t be told. There are cases that have been dealt with and there are cases that will need to be dealt with. The death of Carl Williams opens a whole new chapter, of whether it was just one lunatic (killer) or set up from the outside.”
On the morning of Williams. death, The Herald Sun published a story revealing that his daughter.s school fees were being paid by Victoria Police. Williams apparently died while reading it. Says Silvester: “Anyone with any logic would say „well, why would the police do that?. and a reasonable conclusion is that Carl was providing information to them and that is not something that would make you popular in the prison system.”
Though he enjoys producing exclusives, just like his competition, Silvester understands the fine balance of publishing incriminating information, or information that could disrupt legitimate police investigations. As the Herald Sun article blamed for Williams. death has shown, reporters can influence events to dramatic ends. But Silvester wonders: “There are times when crime reporters must withhold information because they don.t want to destroy an ongoing investigation. The wrong story at the wrong time can allow someone to get away with murder.” Silvester applies this test to his own work studiously, something acknowledged by Rule: “To use one of the clichés he knows and loves, he is an ornament to the game”.
And just when I think I.ve got this dapper journo figured out, he swings his leg casually across his knee letting a glint of royal blue and black cowboy boot poke out from beneath his slick business suit – there is something a little bit maverick about John Silvester too.
By: Effie Mann