Chris Graham on editing New Matilda: ‘I have pissed off a lot of people’

The editor of the independent news website that published details of Frances Abbott’s scholarship and the Barry Spurr emails defends his high-stakes journalism.

Chris Graham readily admits he is a “hard bastard” and claims to love all the high-stakes drama that surrounds his journalism.

On Thursday morning two of the scoops he published on his independent website New Matilda were the subject of two separate court cases involving anonymous sources.

Professor Barry Spurr on Thursday dropped legal action to force New Matilda to reveal source of emails. Instead the University of Sydney poetry professor will focus on preventing further publication of emails, which he claims was part of a ‘political attack’ on the federal government.

Freya Newman – in court on Thursday over documents leaked regarding Frances Abbott’s scholarship – had her sentence deferred.

She returns to court on 25 November.

“We are just trying to practise journalism which I don’t think gets practised all that much these days,” Graham told Guardian Australia before appearing in court to defend his right to publish Professor Barry Spurr’s racist emails. “I look at the mainstream media and I think it’s not the media I grew up with.”

But Spurr is not his only enemy. Graham has made a lot of enemies in government and in journalism – in particular at the ABC’s Lateline over its story which led to the Howard government’s Northern Territory intervention.

He has also been raided more than once by the Australian Federal Police, both at home and at work. “I have pissed off a lot of people over a long period of time,” Graham says. “I have many detractors.”

The saga of the Lateline stoush is too complex to detail here suffice to say Graham believes Lateline’s journalism was dishonest and Lateline strongly disagreed. It was the subject of an ABC internal investigation in 2008 which cleared the program of 29 out of 30 of the accusations.

“That Lateline story defines me in the eyes of so many journalists … in a bad way,” Graham says. “Journalists think I am the Unabomber with good writing skills. I don’t think I am the Unabomber.

“I can be an aggressive journalist. I accept my style is not loved by all. But I am passionate about what I do and I am passionate about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander views and when I believe Aboriginals have been seriously harmed I get to be a hard-bastard.”

The Walkley-award winning former editor of two Indigenous publications – Tracker and the National Indigenous Times – has only been running New Matilda for a few months but the tiny media outfit is punching well above its weight.

Now 42, Graham has dedicated much of his career to the coverage of Aboriginal affairs and was most recently the associate producer of John Pilger’s film Utopia. Coverage of the film sparked another row with Lateline but Graham says there is now an “uneasy truce” between the two parties.

After Tracker lost its funding in typically controversial circumstances, Graham bought the 10-year old website New Matilda, saving it from shutting down at the 11th hour when the previous owner Marni Cordell decided to move on. Cordell is now the editor of Crikey. The business model is a free independent website supported by donations from readers and paid advertising.

Once operating out of Graham’s apartment in inner Sydney’s Glebe, the online publication moved in August to a dedicated office space in Redfern, opposite the Aboriginal Legal Service.

Along with two full-time staff – young journalists Max Chalmers and Amy McQuire – Graham produces New Matilda out of a single room where Redfern locals and readers are encouraged to drop in for a cup of tea.

Another (paid) writer, Ben Eltham, is based in Melbourne and contributes two columns on national affairs each week and two popular cartoonists – Fiona Katauskas and Lindsay Foyle – are much loved members of the New Matilda family.

But to say New Matilda is published on a shoestring is an understatement. Graham is not drawing a wage and has to work outside journalism to support himself and his business.“I do other work to sustain New Matilda,” he says. “I don’t sleep much. I work seven days a week and work very long hours but I love what I do.”

When they have heavy traffic because of a big story like Barry Spurr or the Francis Abbott scholarship, the server can’t cope and the whole site crashes.

New Matilda’s other big hitter is retired academic and investigative reporter Wendy Bacon, who also works on a voluntary basis. Bacon, who describes herself as an activist journalist, says she helps out because she wants to contribute to the public interest mission of New Matilda.

“New Matilda doesn’t fit into any political box but it is broadly progressive,” Bacon told Guardian Australia. “That fits where I am coming from with a strong social justice perspective.”

Graham’s plan for New Matilda is to build a strong trust fund, supported by lovers of independent journalism, and to pay all his writers, including himself.

“There are issues on which New Matilda will campaign like climate change, Aboriginal rights, refugee rights. Campaign journalism doesn’t mean dishonest journalism and it doesn’t mean that you suppress the other side or you try and manipulate the coverage. It’s just about vigorous reporting and truthful reporting.”