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Getting to know Joanne McCarthy

In 2013 Newcastle Herald journalist (and University of Newcastle alumna) Joanne McCarthy received Australian journalism’s most prestigious award, the Gold Walkley, for her coverage of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

We asked Joanne about her work in journalism, what inspires her and what she loves about living on the Central Coast.

Tell us about your background, including what drew you into journalism?

Born at Gosford Hospital in 1960 and I’ve lived on the Central Coast, apart from a stint in Sydney in the late 1970s, for my whole life. I went to school in Catholic and public high schools on the Central Coast. I’m the eldest of a family of 11.

I wasn’t drawn into journalism as much as fell into it. I signed up to be a nurse in early 1978 and stayed at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney until late 1979 when I decided nursing wasn’t for me. I was all ready to start a degree to be a librarian when an advertisement appeared in the Gosford Star newspaper about a cadetship with the paper. I applied because my boyfriend at the time kept annoying me to do so, and got the job without even having an interview, and with quite possibly the world’s worst job application.

The consequence of falling into journalism rather than having a passion for it at the start is that I have something of a purist’s view of the job, rather than a careerist’s. I think the media is essential for a democracy and I tend to gravitate towards those areas that reflect that.

What are you passionate about?

Because my work takes up so much of my time, and the kind of work that I do tends to settle at the activist’s end of the spectrum, I tend to expend my passions in work issues and keep peace and tranquility for my spare time. I get passionate about power imbalances in our community, and situations where powerful people and institutions try to exert power inappropriately against those less powerful, or even vulnerable. I represent a powerful institution in our society – the media – and I try to provide alternative perspectives on issues to counter the powerful voices in our community.

Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?

I read a lot, and widely. I read fiction and non-fiction, and my only requirement is excellence. I don’t read junk. I don’t read books that are promoted because of plot, but are poorly written. Brilliant writing inspires me – whether it is a brilliantly written history, or a beautifully written novel. I’m not sure that any books have actually inspired me, but many books have astounded me by the dazzling nature of the writing, or been a comfort or a joy. And there are so many. A few stand-out favourites are The Transit of Venus (Shirley Hazzard), A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth), anything by Richard Ford, Benang (Kim Scott), As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner), Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel), Independent People (Halldor Laxness), The Tree of Man (Patrick White) and Maurice Guest (Henry Handel Richardson). Favourite non-fiction includes Post War (Tony Judt), The Years of Extermination (Saul Friedländer) and The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddhartha Mukherjee).

What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?

The fact that I’m still doing it. I’ve been a journalist since February 1980 and although I’ve been doing it for 34 years, I feel like I’ve always had one foot out the door. I resigned from a Central Coast newspaper in 1996 because I was sick of working in the media, and returned a couple of months later for personal reasons. I made the move to the Newcastle Herald in 2002, not because I particularly wanted to work for the newspaper, but because I was approached at the right time. I thought I would work for the Herald for a year and then leave, probably to work in aged care which is where I think I will eventually settle. But the work has remained interesting, and while that continues I’ll stay. Certainly there are matters relating to child sexual abuse in institutions that should keep me working at the Herald for the next couple of years at least.

What do you hope will be achieved by your work and what did you achieve or realise personally?

I’m pleased that we have the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry. Both have demonstrated they were needed. Throughout 2012 I said, to anyone who cared to listen, that the public was miles ahead of politicians and the media in terms of supporting a royal commission, because the public sensed what the campaign was actually about – the need to investigate the abuse of power by a powerful institution, the Catholic Church, against some of the most vulnerable in our community, the people who had been silenced by sexual abuse in their childhoods because of their involvement with the church.

I’ve realised a lot about myself while doing this work since June 2006, so much so that it would take too long to write it all down. I know that I have a lot more patience than I ever thought I had, that I am good at strategy, and that I know where my responsibilities begin and end. That has been important because emotionally this has been quite draining work at times, but essential. I have had to manage how to stay with it for nearly eight years.

What’s been your proudest achievement to date?

Lots of things. My three sons rank number one, and nothing I do at work would ever change that. I am proud that the newspaper I work for was able to mobilise the community to support some of the most vulnerable in our community. I am proud that people might just have changed the way they think about the media and journalists because of that work.

What would be your dream project?

Something with a lot of research, the opportunity to find things that people don’t know, but realise they should know after they’ve read what I’ve written.

What does the future hold?

Looking forward just to the end of this year, I have an enormous amount of work to do, lots of obligations relating to work and following up on issues raised by the Royal Commission and the Commission of Inquiry, and I’m travelling overseas to three completely different locations, which will be wonderful. I’m travelling to South America in April and May, on a Pacific Ocean cruise in June and to England and Scotland in October. I don’t like to look too far ahead because I can’t see the point.

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JOANNE’S CENTRAL COAST

What’s your favourite Central Coast area and why?

I live at Wamberal and I like walking and running on Wamberal Beach, but my favourite Central Coast areas are in the bush, and I have a lot of favourite places where I walk and run. They would include the cliffs above Point Clare and Tascott where there is a fabulous view of Brisbane Water, down to Box Head at Bouddi National Park where you look across the water to Sydney, on Kincumba Mountain and Katandra where it’s quiet and leafy and the trees are beautiful.

Can you name a local hero?

My local heroes are the many men and women who have been sexually abused as children, but retain their dignity, generosity, vitality and, above all, sense of humour. I know many of these local heroes. They spend their lives looking for the people they would have been, but for the crimes committed against them, and sometimes that search overwhelms them, but over and over again they have displayed more humanity and grace in their little fingers than the senior clerics who either committed crimes against them, or did nothing when those crimes were reported to them.

What do you look forward to doing most on the Coast in summer?

Those lazy evenings when it’s still warm and everyone’s out walking their dogs or watering their gardens or wandering down to the beach for an evening swim. You can smell the barbecues and the sun cream.

And winter?

Running in the bush when it’s cold and misty.

Where and what was the last greatest meal you had on the Coast?

It would have to be any of the meals I’ve had at my son’s cafe at Terrigal, Bellyfish. I’m biased, of course, but he knows his stuff.

What is your favourite getaway destination?

I like going to the Blue Mountains. I like the cold, I like the sandstone cliffs, I love the bush and the sense of wildness about it.

Tell us your number one Central Coast insider’s tip.

Don’t try to drive into Terrigal on a sunny summer weekend. Park your car and walk in because you’ll just get cranky waiting in the traffic queue.

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Do you know someone in our region making a difference? Let us know! engage@newcastle.edu.au

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3 Responses

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  1. Richard Millington
    Jul 20, 2014 - 09:43 AM

    Joanne, I am 76 yrs of age, have lived in N’cle all my life, and have followed your articles, particularly on the Catholic Church in particular and, & child abuse in general. I have never to the media before, but your article in the N’cle Herald Saturday June 19th.moved me to tears. – What a brave man Graham Rundle is to expose his demons – what bastards these peodofiles are that hide within these institutions- and the evil people within these organisations that hide these people. I cannot understand how any decent minded person can support & attend church services with any faith. Joanne, keep up your good work – There is a lot more for you to do in this area yet.

    Reply
  2. Larry Emory
    Mar 19, 2015 - 08:08 PM

    Just saw the Australia Story program about your struggle to get the truth out on child abuse in church (I am American living in Thailand). If I were to have a hero list, it would not be a long one, but you would be right up there. I have deepest admiration and respect for you and what you have done exposing betrayal of trust by institutions that should be trusted. I wish I could give you a hug, slap on the back and say “Good on ya” (think that would be correct Australianism). You make positive differences in many lives.

    Reply
  3. Elma G. Wilkie
    Mar 03, 2016 - 09:44 PM

    Joanne, I saw you on television for the first time tonight and my antennas leapt into the air because of the way you expressed yourself!
    Why haven’t I met you before? I have just read ‘Getting to know you’ and am not surprised that you won the Gold Walkley!
    You should be on many of the discussion panels on television so that we can all benefit from your opinions.

    My father died last month and I have been going to see him every night for 4 years in the nursing home to keep his spirits up since my mother died 2 years ago. If you do become a carer later in your career, I promise you, your next topic is going to be the ‘inadequacies of life in nursing homes’!

    I plan to explore your reading list. I have just finished reading ‘A Boy from Nowhere’ by Andrew Rule which was quite inspirational.

    Best Wishes,

    Elma Gordon Wilkie ( Cranbourne South, Melbourne)

    Reply

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