Lorna Knowles on the ABC, #MeToo and watertight journalism

When you are producing the type of stories for which ABC journalist Lorna Knowles has become renowned you leave no stone unturned.

“You have to be forensic,” Knowles told student journalists while visiting Macleay College this week.

“Check your facts, check them twice. Be fair, be balanced and don’t be intimidated by threats.”

Knowles is nothing if not a seasoned journalist. She got her start as a fresh face in community newspapers, before going into court reporting for the Daily Telegraph, working on Channel 7’s Today Tonight and finally knocking on the door of the ABC where she’s been producing ground-breaking work for 12 years.

In the midst of the upheaval within the public broadcaster, Knowles says from the beginning one thing that set the ABC apart was its impartial approach to news.

“You’re able to cover stories at the ABC that the commercial networks are reluctant to touch because the ABC isn’t as driven by ratings,” she said.

Now a senior reporter in the ABC’s investigations unit, her work has put institutions ranging from the Catholic Church to the Greens party under the microscope. Knowles says for her it’s all about newsworthiness, regardless of how big or intimidating an institution may be.

“I report what’s newsworthy, and often that involves someone that’s in a powerless position who’s been badly treated by a big institution,” she says. “So a big motivator for me is to give a voice to the voiceless.”

It’s a motivation that shines through in her most recent work, which helped to unleash the #MeToo movement in Australia. Knowles’ collaboration with Tracey Spicer and Kate McClymont covering allegations of sexual misconduct against Don Burke earned her two Walkley Award nominations this year (she has already been a Walkley finalist five times), and set the ball rolling on what was to be a year of revelations and reckoning for Burke and others.

It’s the story she says she is most proud of, but the process of bringing the Don Burke story to light was arduous, and really came down to meticulous research and teamwork.

“That was the biggest story I’ve been able to work on and that was a dream team of senior women,” she says.

“There were a lot of women to talk to from that list, and we just went through it. We divided it up, we went through it methodically, we spoke to each woman – men as well – who witnessed things and experienced things.

“[We] did a lot of fact checking around those claims, which takes time, and eventually persuaded four very brave women to talk on camera.”

This meticulous approach to her journalism is something she comes back to time and time again, a skill honed through years of court reporting and a law degree Knowles obtained on the side. For her, when confronting the delicate task of verifying a #MeToo story, honesty and detailed fact-checking must always be the cornerstones.

“I think when it comes to interviewing people, being very upfront with them about where you’re coming from, being genuine and preparing them for difficult questions is key,” she says.

“I think that sensitivity also needs to be extended to the person that’s being accused as well,” she adds. “I’m very mindful that they have partners, they have children, so I think it’s vital that we get our facts right and that we have a strong case.”

The most watertight cases in the world, however, still have their critics and Knowles is no stranger to this, having received her fair share of trolling online. She says that her perseverance and a strong support network are what keeps her going.

“I’ve got a lot of senior women, in particular, who are very supportive and who are always there to give advice and support,” she says.

“You’ve just got to keep your head up and keep doing what you do. Don’t stop.”

And what is it that keeps her doing what she does?

There’s the real-life change she’s effected. Her stories have empowered women to come forward in the #MeToo movement and given a voice to many survivors of child sexual abuse.

It’s the bravery of these people that ultimately keeps her going.

“I come across a lot of people in my work that bravely speak up about stuff that’s happened to them, and their overriding motivation is to prevent it happening to others,” she says. “That gives me faith in humanity: the bravery I see in people who have been victims.

“It’s why we do this job.”

* Footnote: Lorna Knowles won two Walkley Awards in 2018 (in collaboration with Kate McClymont, Tracey Spicer, Alison Branley and the ABC and Fairfax team) for the Don Burke investigation and stories: print/text news report; and television/video current affairs short (less than 20 minutes).