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The criminal understatement in John Silvester’s biography

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In perhaps the greatest biographical understatement of all time, Australia’s longest serving crime reporter is described simply as “a columnist” on his author page on The Age.

To describe John Silvester as a columnist is like describing Donald Bradman as a cricketer. Accurate, but criminally inadequate.

In 44 years on the beat John Silvester, left, has encountered some colourful and frightening characters, including the late Mark “Chopper” Read.

“Sly”, to use the nickname bestowed on him by a cop after Sylvester Stallone, is a columnist for The Age. He’s also a reporter, commentator, author, broadcaster, podcaster, expert witness, speaker, raconteur and humourist. His weekly Naked City articles, which you’ll find on our homepage at lunchtime Friday and in the newspaper on Saturday, are among the most compelling pieces of journalism you will read each week and provide a window into a part of society that most of us studiously avoid, but are endlessly fascinated by. His weekly appearances on 3AW as Sly of the Underworld are usually entertaining, occasionally poignant and always informative.

No one has a finer record of covering crime, corruption and policing in this state than Silvester, who began on the beat in Melbourne in 1979.

In the past 44 years he has seen and written about disturbing tragedies that have left scars on Melbourne, such as the Russell Street bombing, Silk-Miller murders and the Bourke Street massacre. Long after most reporters have closed their files, Sly is still writing about those incidents, and the people whose lives they changed, as they continue to reverberate through Melbourne.

The 1986 Russell Street bombing is just one of the momentous events Sly covered over the years.

He has had plenty of run-ins with crooks such as the terrifying “Badness”, who renamed him “Slime of the Underworld” and heckled him in various letters. He has received morbid Christmas cards from – and written books with – the late Mark “Chopper” Read.

During 44 years of reporting on Melbourne’s underbelly, Silvester has not lost a milligram of sensitivity, wit or ability. All three of those traits are on display in this week’s column, published earlier today, in which he looks at the latest on the Gippsland mushroom mystery, without losing sight of the fact three people beloved by their community have died in tragic circumstances.

Even though he’s apparently just “a columnist,” Silvester’s reporting instincts kicked in this week, as they often do. In tandem with Marta Pascual Juanola, our reporter on the ground, he has been chasing leads on this tragedy while police attempt to piece together exactly what happened.

A Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year alumnus, Silvester has won more journalism awards than you could poke a concealed weapon at. He has written numerous books, his Naked City podcast is a must-listen series and plans for a new weekly Naked City newsletter are in the works. He has provided evidence at royal commissions and has more cops and robbers in his contact book than a prison warden.

But I have a few contacts of my own. And these sources have told me that the 30th anniversary of John Silvester’s arrival at The Age is fast approaching. He joined on August 24, 1993.

Three decades of such excellent reporting for The Age requires acknowledgement and thanks, which I readily offer. It should also prompt a moment of reflection as to the importance of this kind of public interest journalism.

The Age has a long history of impeccable reporting on crime and justice, of which you as our backers and supporters should be proud. Our reporting has led to the prosecution of countless criminals and undoubtedly made our state safer. Our reporting on the justice, policing and corrections systems performs the essential public interest function of holding those in power to account and upholds the principle of open justice.

Your subscription funds what is quite possibly the most effective crime and justice team in the history of this publication. Beyond Silvester, we have accomplished investigative reporters such as Chris Vedelago and Cameron Houston, whose consistently fearless reporting is evidence of their unrivalled professionalism. Erin Pearson doesn’t miss a beat in Melbourne’s courts, while Juanola and David Estcourt are constantly talking to police and victims of crime out in the community. Under the direction of our news director Katie Bice, and supported by their colleagues, this team is doing a mighty job on your behalf.

Being a crime reporter is tough. Upsetting people is an occupational hazard, tolerance for mis-steps is low and a strong moral compass is a must. On all these measures, The Age’s subscribers are in very good hands.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a biography to update.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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