1956 - | Victoria | Crime journalist
John Silvester became Victoria’s pre-eminent media commentator on crime in print, radio and as a public speaker. No journalist has done more to explain the world of crime, the justice system and the politics of law and order. His dispassionate analysis won the respect of sources in law enforcement agencies, the legal profession, the judiciary, among victims and in the underworld. He has written or co-authored more than 30 books including the Underbelly titles that became a high-rating television series. Informative and entertaining, Silvester has a style with echoes of Jimmy Breslin and Damon Runyon. And he never forgets the jokes. Or the nicknames, bold metaphors and bad puns.
“Roberta Williams is on the phone for you.”
When someone addresses this remark to the person you’re sitting next to, it tends to get your attention. The person sitting next to me was John Silvester. Yes, Roberta Williams, widow of slain crime boss Carl Williams, wanted to speak to him on the telephone.
Silvester became the most eminent crime reporter in Melbourne for just this sort of reason. Both sides speak to him. The good and the bad. For if Sly wasn’t talking to the dark side on the telephone, he would be perched over the drip tray at the Police Club in the company of a gaggle of detectives.
The reason both sides speak to him is trust. It is not that he regards the dark side and the light side as moral equals. He is a firm believer in the existence of right and wrong, and that the good guys are in the right and the bad guys are in the wrong. But he also places great value in the truth of Damon Runyon’s observation: “Many legitimate people are much interested in the doings of tough guys and consider them very romantic”.
His spiritual mentor is Sir Winston Churchill, no doubt heavily influenced by the fact that his adored father was English. It is perhaps from Churchill that he takes his life’s mantra of “Never take a backward step”.
Examples of never taking a backward step:
One. It is how we met. In 1989 I was a young lawyer, co-presenting a program called ‘Lawyers, Guns & Money’ on community radio station 3RRR. A call from Silvester to our program was the first telephone call we ever put to air. He rang because we were talking about him.
Silvester had written a story that had reached the front page of the Sun that Saturday. It was a story relating to a criminal scandal of sorts in the market gardens of Werribee. One particular sentence caught our eye and was the subject of, dare I say it, our mockery. He wrote of standover tactics being employed by “sleazy street types, laden with chunky gold jewellery”. As we babbled on reading the sentence over and over, our producer sprinted into the studio to inform us that a John Silvester had called in, asking if we would like to speak to him on air. Of course, we said, confident that a little forensic cross examination would reduce this upstart journalist to a quivering mess within minutes.
We spoke to him. He was articulate, instructive, and extremely funny. We were charmed. The following year when we shifted to commercial radio, we invited him to be a weekly contributor. That was 1989. He has been on the program ever since.
The folks love Sly. The fact that they love him doesn’t mean that they always agree with him. In the middle of a flurry of headlines this year about African gangs and out-of-control crime, Sly came out and declared, “The crime wave is over”. Generally speaking, it is as much in the interests of crime reporters to say that a crime wave is over, as it is for dentists to declare the permanent defeat of tooth decay. Also, it was not what people wanted to hear. Many of his readers and listeners didn’t like being told that the crime wave was over. They were fearful. But he believed it to be true, so he said it and wore the widespread opprobrium. And crime figures subsequently released proved him to be right.
Two. It is how he met Chopper Read. Mark “Chopper” Read was serving time in Pentridge. Sly had written something to offend, but it being Christmas time, Chopper was full of the Yuletide spirit. He sent Sly a Christmas card. It read (words to the effect): “My perfect Christmas present is to own a 1,000-room hotel and to find a dead Sun journalist behind every door.”
Never take a backward step. Sly visited Chopper in prison. They talked. They didn’t hate each other. Thereafter, uninvited, Read started sending Sly hand-written letters which were effectively the story of his life. These letters subsequently became The Chopper series, which in Sly’s words “went on to become one of the most shoplifted books in Australian publishing history”. His (along with colleague Andrew Rule) Chopper books and the Underbelly series have sold over one million copies. One million.
After graduating from university, Silvester worked at the Sun News-Pictorial as a police reporter, soon becoming chief police reporter. Here he established lifelong friendships with many of his young colleagues. Geoff Wilkinson, Andrew Rule, Charlie Walker, Jim Tennison, Brian Walsh and Bruce Tobin were among them.
He was with the Sun Herald-Sun for 15 years before joining The Age, where he remains today, largely as a columnist of the much-read “Naked City” column. As part of that journey, an AJA-ASEAN scholarship took him to South East Asia to study crime and corruption and a News Limited Exchange saw him work in London on the Sunday Times Insight Team.
His mantelpiece is crowded: Three Walkley Awards, a Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award, six Melbourne Press Club Quill Awards, Victorian Law Institute Journalist of the Year, a Ned Kelly Award for True Crime Writing and a Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award.
It was at the 3AW studios. The infamous gangland wars were in full swing at the time and no-one could be sure how long they would last. Silvester opined that they would continue for some time. Not only would the killings continue, he said, but also: “Benny – you’re next”.
We then went to an ad break. It was at this point that a producer appeared and announced that Roberta Williams was on the phone for him. Silvester left the studio went to the production area and picked up the phone: “John Silvester speaking.” He heard the voice of Roberta Williams: “Heh smartarse - it’s Benji not Bennie.”
Clearly a stickler for journalistic accuracy. Let’s call the phone conversation a draw, for indeed Roberta was right, the nickname of underworld figure Andrew Veniamin was indeed Benji not Bennie, but he did end up being next.
Ross Stevenson is a 3AW broadcaster who has topped the Melbourne radio breakfast ratings in every survey for more than 15 years.
John Silvester's press pass pass from The Sun
Silvester with police rounds colleagues. Courtesy of Fairfax
John Silvester with Mark 'Chopper' Read. Courtesy of John Silvester and Fairfax
John Silvester and Andrew Rule, authors of the Underbelly series. Courtesy of Fairfax
Underbelly series 1-11 and other Underbelly titles, John Silvester and Andrew Rule, Floradale Production, SLY Ink and other publishers
Silvester's Naked City column