So long and thanks for all the fish wrap

Armidale, it’s been emotional. On Friday I will pack my bags and leave you after 16 months of reporting on your political dramas, landmark court cases and sex abuse scandals.

But while you’ve tested my personal and professional capabilities, I’d like to thank you for giving me one of the most challenging experiences a cadet journalist could ask for.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that I had no idea what I was getting into as I drove west along Waterfall Way with a car-load full of possessions in February 2012, preparing to begin a new life as a cadet journalist at The Armidale Express.

I’d been told several times at university that the best way of getting experience was to move to a regional centre, where all facets of journalism would be covered. The term “thrown in the deep end” is an expression used a lot but, as a cadet journalist moving into a town that was about to experience profound, shocking changes, being thrown into the middle of the Tasman Sea might be a better analogy.

Despite being located only 180 kilometres from my hometown of Coffs Harbour, Armidale may as well have been half a world away. Subtropical rainforest and golden beaches were replaced by rugged highland and bare, grassy plains. My new hometown was filled with heritage-listed, English-style houses on streets lined with deciduous trees already turning red, orange and yellow in late summer. Sunday trading was a novelty, and a sense of regional exceptionalism lingered.

By the time I arrived, Armidale was already in the grip of major changes. As the first city to be completely covered by the national broadband network, homegrown IT companies were expanding to service international clients. Federal New England MP Tony Windsor’s deal with the Gillard government had already thrown the area into the national spotlight, with a number of projects secured for the electorate. The town was also due to host the Day on the Green concert, probably the largest music event to be held in Armidale for a long time.

But it wasn’t all good news – Armidale’s stagnating population hit the retail sector hard, with a growing number of empty shopfronts in Beardy Street Mall. The city was also about to lose its daily air service with Brisbane, with fears it would also be shut out of Sydney Airport as the latter reached capacity.

This was the environment in which I began my first job out of university. Within weeks, I had taken over the main political rounds. During my second week I met Richard Torbay, the University of New England’s chancellor and then-independent Member for Northern Tablelands in state parliament. He was to be the focus of some of the biggest stories I covered in Armidale.

Within my first month I was the paper’s official photographer for the Day on the Green concerts. I found it remarkable that I was going to be paid to go to a music festival to get up close to bands such as Noiseworks and The Choirboys!

While New England was already an area of national political interest, things really heated up after March. Spooked by a massive conservative victory at the Queensland state election, Torbay began indicating his loss of faith in the “independent” brand and positioned himself for a run for federal politics.

So began two months of courtship with various political parties; Torbay claimed he had been approached by the Liberals, Nationals and Katter’s Australian Party to run for preselection in New England to topple Windsor, his former mentor.

Having previously only spoken to Windsor and Torbay, I was now given access to other political figures such as Bob Katter and Barnaby Joyce; nationally recognised talking heads who were suddenly buying into the future of the region. To be thrust into such an unusually politically active region made me think I’d hit the jackpot.

Torbay eventually settled on the Nationals, announcing his decision to run for preselection in June. The stage was set for a bitterly personal contest between Windsor and Torbay at the federal election, as well as a string of stories to keep us going between then and the 2013 poll.

While Armidale had received a lot of attention from the local political intrigue, it was thrust into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons in July. A Four Corners report alleged a cover-up of child sexual abuse accusations by members of Armidale’s Catholic diocese. For many in the town, the report had been a long time coming; for others it came as a complete surprise. In any case, the allegations shook Armidale and dominated the local news agenda for months.

Just four months into my job, I was given the responsibility of covering the story. To this day, it remains the most challenging period of my entire life. Each day something new emerged from the scandal: more accusers came forward, the Church launched an independent inquiry, victims’ rights groups demanded a royal commission, and the police created a special taskforce to investigate the allegations. I could not publish most of the material provided to me by alleged victims and their supporters, with heartbreaking but ultimately legally contentious stories conveyed day-in, day-out.

Meanwhile, Armidale became a testing ground for new legislation. For the first time in NSW history, a man was charged with manslaughter over the death of a child in his allegedly inadequately fenced pool. The charges were later dropped, but the case started a statewide debate about the responsibilities of both pool owners and parents in child safety.

In another case, consorting charges introduced by the NSW government to target bikie gangs were instead used on a 21-year-old Inverell man with an intellectual disability. Charlie Forster successfully appealed his consorting conviction in Armidale District Court, in a move that caused headaches for the government, but was applauded by civil libertarians.

As the Express’ court reporter, the case earned me two bylines in The Sydney Morning Herald, so great was the statewide interest in its implications.

In October, a former priest living in Armidale was arrested and charged with 25 historic child sexual abuse offences. While he was initially remanded in custody, the man was granted bail under strict conditions in November and allowed back into the community. A non-publication order remains on his name to this day, meaning I needed to tread a legal tightrope while writing about the case.

As 2012 came to a close, I thought the prominent news stories may have become a thing of the past. Alas, no. In fact, even the usually quiet Christmas period was marred by an alleged murder committed in Armidale on December 24. The day after Boxing Day was spent liasing with the courts, police and Herald over what could and could not be published about the case.

Although the New Year got off to a slow start, stories from 2012 managed to tick over with fresh angles. The ex-priest was given additional charges in both January and May (he will next face court to answer a total of 126 charges in July). Windsor lashed out at Torbay, claiming he had “no respect” for his former protege.

The political rivals traded blows for the first few months, right up until the end of March when the completely unexpected happened. One otherwise ordinary Tuesday night, Torbay was removed without warning as the Nationals’ candidate for the seat of New England. The next day he resigned as the Member for Northern Tablelands and as UNE chancellor, shortly before being referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Within the space of 24 hours, the Nationals were without a candidate in a key seat, UNE was without a figurehead and Armidale was without a state representative.

The national spotlight shone on Armidale once again. A week later, I found myself at the centre of the drama.

The Thursday before Easter, I received a tip-off that ICAC investigators were outside Torbay’s house. After snapping some photos and putting a bare-bones story online, I was flooded with calls from media outlets from across the country. My copy was distributed to Fairfax publications across the country, my photos were broadcast on Network Ten’s nightly news and I was interviewed on Sydney drivetime radio. I even shared a byline in the next day’s Herald with Kate McClymont; one of my journalistic heroes. All this came about a year after starting work.

Torbay’s dramatic fall remains Armidale’s major talking point to this day. Nearly every conversation I overheard in public in the days following the drama involved some form of speculation about the reasons behind his referral to ICAC. It also meant he needed to be replaced in three key areas.

The first two areas were sorted out relatively painlessly. The Nationals quickly conducted a new preselection ballot for the seat of New England, deciding Barnaby Joyce would be their new contender. The choice, if anything, generated even greater national interest than the Windsor-Torbay contest. Meanwhile, the UNE Council decided former NSW deputy premier John Watkins would be the university’s new chancellor.

The final area was the most contentious: who would be the new member for Northern Tablelands? A byelection was called for May 25, with seven people vying for the position.

My inner political junkie was given his fix (and then some) as state ministers and shadow ministers flew to Armidale in the weeks leading up to the poll. I was given one-on-one access to some of the most prominent decision-makers in the state (including Premier Barry O’Farrell), leaks, invitations to election after-parties and more as both sides of politics fought passionately to fill the vacuum left by Torbay’s departure.

Eventually the campaign drew to a close, delivering a landslide win for the Nationals’ Adam Marshall. The end of the campaign left me with only three weeks in Armidale, and served as something of a swansong after a very dramatic period in the city’s history.

Of course, there’s still plenty left to cover: as mentioned earlier, the ex-priest’s case continues, and more is emerging about Torbay’s referral to ICAC. There’s also the federal election, with New England likely to be one of the most-watched seats in the country.

But I’ve still managed to collate a portfolio I wasn’t expecting to have over a five year period, let alone 16 months. Although it has been extremely stressful and draining at times, the events in Armidale have provided me with a grounding of which I could only have dreamed during university.

To the people who live in this otherwise sleepy northern NSW town, thanks for the support and for reading. I’ll remember my time in Armidale for the rest of my life.

My next blog post will be from sunny Queensland, where I’ll be writing about the southern Moreton Bay area for The Bayside Bulletin and The Redland Times.

To any recent journalism graduates, don’t dismiss regional and rural publications when searching for jobs. While you may be far removed from the action and excitement of the cities, you may be surprised at what you’ll be exposed to in smaller towns.

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