1954 - | Investigative journalist
Marian Wilkinson was in the vanguard of the resurgence of investigative journalism in the 1980s and amongst the first women to specialise in muckraking. As a university graduate – uncommon in journalism at the time – she used research techniques to mine information from public records in Australia and in the US, where crime records and police intelligence were easier to obtain. Wilkinson wrote crime and corruption exposés in The National Times, became the first woman executive producer of the ABC television investigative program Four Corners and served as Washington correspondent for Fairfax papers. In 2010, she rejoined Four Corners as a reporter and continued to mentor younger female journalists. Wilkinson won two Walkleys and many other awards.
One of the finest and most forensic investigative journalists this country has ever seen, Marian Wilkinson was a Brisbane teenager when she had her first encounter with the man who would later become the face of corruption in the Queensland police force.
Terry Lewis, the Queensland police commissioner who was later convicted and jailed for corruption, was running the Juvenile Aid Bureau when he encountered Wilkinson wagging school and swimming in the river.
Wilkinson was given a stern talking-to about attending school and taking her education seriously. And did she? “No,” she laughs, “I left school in Year 10.”
Wilkinson was born in Slough, England, in 1954 and at the age of nine emigrated to Australia with her four siblings and parents John and Elizabeth. “My mother had a lot of romantic notions about Queensland, largely from reading novels about Australia. She was shocked when she arrived,” said Wilkinson.
The family lived in housing commission accommodation in Brisbane’s western suburbs. Life for the new arrivals was tough.
Wilkinson never did take too kindly to the nuns or convent schooling. When she dropped out of school at 15 her father insisted on her getting a job and paying rent. A tedious filing job was followed by a stint in the surgery of a “crazy Albanian skin doctor who tried to sexually harass me every day I went to work,” she said.
Her stint in the workforce made her realise the value of education and Wilkinson went back to school, this time a state school where she was fortunate to encounter two brilliant teachers. Not only did Wilkinson top the state in history, she received a scholarship to study arts at the University of Queensland.
While at university she helped establish Brisbane's first alternative FM Radio Station, 4ZZZ-FM, and was a vital part of its newsroom.
As she was completing her degree, Wilkinson, then aged 22, was simultaneously praised in Federal Parliament and received her first libel threat over a story she had written about the suspect share dealings involving Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his cronies. It was 1976 and the story had been published in both the student newspaper and Nation Review.
“I was completely terrified by the legal threat,” said Wilkinson, who caught the train to Sydney to see George Munster, the Nation Review editor. “I went into the office in George Street sort of quaking in my boots thinking he was going to rip me to shreds. He pulled open the filing cabinet drawers and laughingly said, ‘Look, here are all our writs’.”
It was another lawsuit that sparked Wilkinson’s meteoric rise in the world of journalism.
Anne Summers, a rising star of The National Times, was being sued by some of the same corrupt Queensland cops Wilkinson had written about. Summers was so impressed by her work she urged the late Evan Whitton to take her on at The National Times. Wilkinson, who had moved to Sydney, was soon making a name for herself reporting on corruption in the Labor Party, the bashing of MP Peter Baldwin, the Griffith mafia and the Nugan Hand Bank.
If it had not been for “the sterling work of The National Times in particular-the work of Brian Toohey and Marian Wilkinson - the sordid story of Nugan Hand would have remained untold and unknown,” Senator Arthur Gietzelt told parliament of their forensic expose of the bank’s connections to money laundering, the CIA and drug dealing.
And then came one of the biggest stories of Wilkinson’s career.
"Big Shots Bugged," blared the front page of The National Times. It was the first day of summer in 1983 and, although he wasn't referred to by name by Wilkinson, it was the beginning of the end of the career of then High Court judge Lionel Keith Murphy.
Working with Bob Bottom, Wilkinson had obtained transcripts of a highly-secretive and illegal police surveillance and bugging operation which exposed extraordinary links between Sydney solicitor Morgan Ryan, a "Mr Fix-it" for organised crime in Australia, and the judiciary and corrupt police.
Wilkinson’s fascination with campaign donations and the links between politics and money deepened with her first of three postings to Washington. This became one of the recurring themes in her journalism and it was at the heart of The Fixer, her unauthorised biography of Labor party strongman Graham Richardson.
In 1989, Wilkinson won a Walkley Award for Best TV Current Affairs reporting and a Logie for her Four Corners program, “True Believers,” which chronicled the dumping of then federal Liberal leader John Howard for Andrew Peacock. As the judges noted, Wilkinson had achieved “unbelievable interviews” and “the impact of this program is still being felt on the national political scene.”
The following year, Wilkinson joined The Sydney Morning Herald, but she was soon back at Four Corners as the program’s first female executive producer. She later returned to the Herald where she worked as deputy editor. In 2002, she enjoyed her third stint in Washington where she reported on the Iraq war and the 2004 presidential campaign. On her return, she worked at The Australian for a year before rejoining the Herald as national security editor.
In 2003, Wilkinson and David Marr published their impeccably researched book, Dark Victory, which examined the Tampa affair and the “Children Overboard” saga.
Wilkinson has always had an uncanny ability to spot crucial issues in society long before they became the subject of mainstream media scrutiny.
In 2008 she travelled to the Arctic on a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker to observe the dramatic decline in summer sea ice caused by global warming. “The Tipping Point” - a joint Herald/Four Corners investigation - won her a second Walkley award as well as the Eureka Prize for Environmental Journalism.
In 2016 Wilkinson was nominated for a Walkley for her Four Corners’ story on The Panama Papers, which exposed Australians who were the beneficiaries of offshore tax structures set up in Panama.
Among her peers, Wilkinson has long been regarded as one of the finest investigative reporters this country has ever seen. But to the wider world she is renowned for upholding the finest values of the profession: honesty, ethics and decency.
Kate McClymont is a multi-award-winning investigative journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald and a member of the Australian Media Hall of Fame.
Wilkinson while a student at the University of Queensland
Wilkinson with Paul Barry, Andrew Olle and Chris Masters. Courtesy of Fairfax
Cover of The Fixer: The untold story of Graham Richardson
Marian Wilkinson with the ABC 4 Corners team
Dark Victory, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Allen & Unwin, 2003
The Fixer: The Untold Story of Graham Richardson, Marian Wilkinson, Heinemann,1996.