1918-2009 | Western Australia | Investigative journalist
West Australian Catherine Martin in 1978 uncovered the scandal that became Australia’s biggest industrial health disaster and cover-up when she exposed the deadly effects of blue asbestos in the remote mining town of Wittenoom. The reports earned her the inaugural Gold Walkley Award and led to the establishment of a compensation foundation by the mine operating company, CSR. Martin died 30 years later in the same week that the James Hardie company (which had acquired the relevant parts of CSR) was found guilty of misleading conduct and failing to meet its obligations over its handling of asbestos compensation.
It was never Catherine Martin’s plan to carve out a distinguished career in journalism in Australia. Nor to become a trailblazer for women and an agitator for equal pay at a time when newsrooms were an almost exclusively male domain.
But when she was widowed in 1957, Martin needed a job to support her three daughters then aged 7, 5 and 3. Armed with a slightly embellished CV, she knocked on the door of The West Australian and went on to work there for the next 28 years, becoming one of the most decorated reporters of her generation.
Martin’s career highpoint was exposing one of the biggest workplace disasters in Australia — the deadly toll of blue asbestos exposure among workers at the Wittenoom mine in WA’s Pilbara — for which she was awarded the inaugural Gold Walkley in 1978.
In total, she won four Walkley Awards and in 1967 became the first woman to win the prestigious Arthur Lovekin Prize since its inception in 1929. This is the University of Western Australia’s annual award for the State’s most distinguished contribution to journalism and it is an honour that Martin, who specialised in reporting on health and medical issues, went on to win an unprecedented five times.
Former colleagues remember Martin, known in the office as Kit, as a slightly aloof but extremely hard worker who was prepared to risk her career for equality. She was certainly not “one of the boys” who enjoyed a drink in the long-gone Palace Hotel across the road from the old Newspaper House in St Georges Terrace. Sick of being underpaid compared with the paper’s top-graded male reporters, she staged a one-woman strike until she was awarded a long-overdue pay rise.
Broadcaster and former State MP Diana Warnock sat near Martin between 1961 and 1973. “She was the brightest star and a terrific example to young journalists with her persistence and determination,” she said.
Warnock recalled Martin’s strike in the early 1970s after she had a disagreement with her former editor or chief-of-staff about her salary.
“She was in the middle of writing a story when she suddenly got up from her desk, grabbed her coat and went home,” Warnock said. “For several days, perhaps a week, she did not come to work but she got what she wanted — an A-grade salary. I was incredibly impressed. She knew how to ruffle feathers and was very formidable.”
Retired journalist Margot Lang remembers Martin as a trailblazer for women.
“She arrived at The West when my father (Griff Richards) was editor,” Lang said.
“It was so different back then. Women were very slow to be recognised. There were a lot of archaic rules. Women were not allowed to drive company cars, not allowed to go on overnight jobs with photographers and didn’t get the tough rounds such as police and industrial affairs because that was supposed to involve a lot of drinking with detectives and unionists.”
Lang added: “Kit built up a remarkable reputation with people in the medical profession who would speak to her and no one else about many of the medical advances of that time. In terms of salary, I think the newspaper was slow to recognise her and, while she might have appeared to be aloof, she worked extremely hard.”
Martin won her first Walkley in 1973 for a series of articles on health services in the North West of WA. The series was written after a two-week safari through some of the most rugged country in Australia. She became the first journalist to go on a clinical flight with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the first journalist to visit the leprosarium in Derby in the Kimberley.
She won another Walkley in 1975 for articles about the controversial Tronado machine which was being used in the treatment of cancer.
However, 1978 was Martin’s big year. She wrote the first of many articles highlighting how many workers at the Wittenoom blue asbestos mine were beginning to suffer from deadly mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. That earnt her a Walkley for the best piece of reporting in print and she received the Gold Walkley for the best piece of journalism covering newspapers, television and radio. On being presented with the awards, she said she had been personally moved by the tragedy associated with the mine: “So many people were involved, many of them still young with their lives ahead of them. I wanted to reach people’s hearts with the story.”
In 1982, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours list for services to journalism. Along the way, she won countless awards from the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Journalists’ Association.
Out of the newsroom, she was in constant demand to speak at seminars, conferences, dinners and lunches. She also gave up her time to help bodies such as the Save the Children Fund, the WA Arts Council and the Health Education Council of WA.
Catherine Ellen Martin was born in a London flat in 1918 three months premature and was so small she was not expected to survive. Her mother was a nurse and her father a lamp-lighter.
She began her journalism career in Fleet Street during World War II, walking into the offices of the Associated Press of America and asking for a job on the basis that she had shorthand and typing skills and could converse in French. She started work the next night.
In 1943, she joined the US Office of War Information and after the war she joined the United Nations secretariat in New York. She undertook special assignments in Europe and the Middle East.
In 1948, Martin was sent to Israel with the group accompanying Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte — the mediator appointed to resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict. She was walking in the city of Haifa when she tripped over a dog and fell into the arms of its owner, Francis, a Czech-born linguist and Holocaust survivor who was fluent in several languages and was an interpreter at the War Crimes Commission trials in Nuremberg.
A few weeks later, when sent to Paris for a meeting of the UN General Assembly, she was shocked to be met at the airport by the same man. He wasted no time — within three weeks he had proposed and soon they were married in Paris.
When her husband decided on a new life in Australia, Martin quit her job with the UN to join him in Sydney. They moved to Perth in 1953 but Francis died in a car accident only four years later.
Martin’s mother then moved to Perth from London to help care for the children and Martin, of necessity, had to find a job. Daughter Kaye Smith said: “Mum was totally devoted to work and family often came second. She was a pioneer in the field of women in journalism and I believe she had to fight hard in a profession which was very male dominated.”
Martin retired in 1986 and died at her Mt Lawley home in 2009, in the same week that Justice Ian Gzell, in the NSW Supreme Court, found the company James Hardie guilty of misleading conduct and failing to meet its obligations over its handling of asbestos compensation.
Roy Gibson is a former reporter and sub-editor at The West Australian. Another version of this profile was published in The West in 2009.
Courtesy of News Corp
Wittenoom Gorge Mine, 1962. Courtesy of Philip Schubert, via Flickr
‘Martin, Catherine Ellen (1918-2009)’, Australian Women’s Register, The National Foundation for Australian Women
'Journalist exposed the dangers of asbestos', The Sydney Morning Herald, Tony Stephens, 1 May 2009