Investigative Journalism : the long Asbestos trail 3

It’s a bit depressing when your key contacts keep dying on you, according to ABC journalist Matt Peacock. Peacock, who began investigating James Hardie Asbestos in 1977, reckons that up to 60,000 Australians could eventually die from disease caused by asbestos industrial products. In a forty year career in journalism, Peacock worked on  investigative programs including This Day Tonight, Four Corners and the 730 Report. Last year, he released the book on his investigations into asbestos, Killer Company.

Peacock’s interest in asbestos was sparked by an inquiry about an innocent interview Peacock had broadcast, made by a PR consultant representing the asbestos company. “I had to play it back to find it [the reference] ,” Peacock said. There was a brief claim  by the interviewee who said, “It’s not all bad. Some companies have really cleaned up their act, notably the asbestos company, James Hardie”. Peacock asked himself why a PR company was monitoring “a fairly obscure Radio National program and wanting to use this quote”? “It was just a bit too strange. What were they trying to cover up?”

I started going around asking people about asbestos. I got two types of pictures. One was from the Hardie people and public servants who said it used to be a problem in the past but now its all been cleaned up. But every now and then I would find someone who would give evidence which showed quite the opposite.

Mining asbestos

The claim that it had all been cleaned up, was just a lie, Peacock said. It had been known for many years that Asbestos fibres caused lung diseases, including the deadly mesothelioma. James Hardie was sued by a sufferer of asbestosis in 1928. It continued manufacturing asbestos based building products until 1987. Asbestos related deaths started with miners exposed to dust, spread to those who bagged and transported it, affected factory workers and their families and today even included home renovators.

Peacock’s early inquiries took him to the little aboriginal community of Baryulgil, near Grafton in northern New South Wales, where many of the locals worked at the nearby asbestos mine.

When I first drove into that community, I was aghast. It was a dirt road and the dirt changed from red mud to white. I pulled up, opened the door and sure enough, they had been using asbestos tailings to seal the road. I walked into the school, because it was the only place with a phone. The kids there were playing in this big sand pit. But it wasn’t sand. It was asbestos.

The health problems at Baryulgil had never been properly investigated, he said. There had been a big turn over at the mine, and few autopsies had been carried out. Asbestos related deaths were meanwhile on the increase across Australia. “There’s a long latent period,” Peacock said. “With mesothelioma, its about forty years”. James Hardie peaked production in the late seventies. “They were predicting that the peak of deaths would be reached by the late eighties… But its still climbing”.

Industry apologists often used medical language to obscure the issues, he said.

My theory is if you ask someone the first time and you don’t understand it, ask them a second time. If you still don’t understand it, get suspicious. If they have to explain it a third time then you know you have got a story and you have to try to find out what they are hiding.

Matt Peacock

Peacock said he reported the long story of asbestos in “bursts”. “The biggest problem with continuing to cover a story, is that your editor gets sick of it”. “They start thinking you are obsessive, which by and large you have to be”. “But if you are in a good organisation, they can make it a virtue.” Peacock said that his first job had been as a cadet on This Day Tonight, which had been investigating illegal gambling which the government of the day denied existed. “We used to run a story every night for weeks on end,” he said. “It used to aggravate the Premier, but it became a feature of the program and people enjoyed it”. “Bashing away” at a story sparked feedback which led to better and better stories.

That happened with asbestos. After about a year, I was getting all sorts of leaks…all sorts of tip offs and documents. You need to keep those documents. The third things is to take a lot of care with your contacts. Try to meet everybody face to face. Just don’t talk to people on the phone. Treat them with respect. Some of those contacts I still have.

Some tips:

  • It pays to be well organised at the start. (“Not that I ever was,” claimed Matt.)
  • Documents should be stored in an orderly fashion.
  • Notes should be archived.
  • Interviews should be annotated with date, time, place and contact numbers
  • Networks of contacts should be nourished.
  • Press releases should be disbelieved until they were proved to be true.

Matt Peacock was a speaker at the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism conference, Back to the Source. (16-17th September 2011)

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3 comments

  1. I worked as a laborer for three months at the AGI plant in Waterloo around 1966. I was in the glassblowing section where skilled glassblowers would form large lamps from raw glass heated in huge furnaces. My job was to carry the lamps direct from the blowers to a cooling oven on asbestos-coated tongs about the size of a garden fork. Asbestos dust was everywhere. I have spent much of the rest of my life wondering if that particular experience will come back to haunt me.

  2. Pingback: Why Asbestos Removal Is Becoming Such a Trend

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