A distinguished investigative reporter for The Age [now 774 ABC Radio], Walkley Award winner and former Europe Correspondent, Rafael Epstein was baptized in journalism through a cadetship at the ABC, which he scored in 1995.
Then a late night DJ for Triple R radio and writer for a local Jewish magazine in Melbourne, Epstein was studying Arts and Science degrees at Melbourne University, though never quite finished the Arts component. He was making plans to complete Honors in Washington D.C., when his uncertainty about what he wanted to do after he finished, prompted him to seek the advice of others.
“I quite literally did one of those questionnaires with the careers counselor at Melbourne Uni and she said ‘you should be a journalist’ and I vaguely thought about it, and then got into it from there,” he says.
Some of his earliest stints at the ABC, which he describes as ridiculously lucky, included working on the foreign desk, cutting up stories from the BBC and producing reports from correspondents at the tail end of the Bosnian War.
Though he never made it to Washington for his Honors semester, he would later travel extensively as a reporter, steering coverage of the aftermath of the Balkans wars almost a decade after they had been relayed to him as a junior reporter in Sydney.
“When they arrested Radovan Karadzic, who was the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, I quite literally flew to Belgrade and within an hour and a half of being on the ground I had to do a cross into Lateline to talk about what was going on,” he recalls.
Not thrilled to be going before the camera so hastily after arrival, he still managed to make the best out of an imperfect situation.
“I did what I always do, which is just to go to the local café and talk to people and so the least you can say is the truth: ‘I’ve spoken to people and this is what they think’, and it was good because as soon as someone in the café knew that I was a journalist he just started ranting at me and accusing me of being part of a global conspiracy to do with Serbia.
“So it was great to say, you know, that there is a radical element in Serbia that hates the Western media and thinks they were totally right during the Bosnian wars,” he says.
Of the work Epstein is most proud of, he nominates his Walkey Award-winning scoops for the ABC, about the bungled AFP case against Indian doctor Mohammed Haneef.
“The Mohammed Haneef sim card story was great, just to be a part of that. Hedley Thomas also did some important stories in The Australian, but showing that the AFP got it wrong on its link to the bomb plots in Britain was great,” he says.
“He was in jail, and then he wasn’t, and it was one of the few times that you could say that you had a genuine impact in helping someone. So that was good.”
Epstein is nevertheless circumspect about the craft of investigative journalism and compares the process to magic.
“It looks like people just fling you documents and stories and ideas and just ring you up and say ‘Hey, how about this?’, when it actually very rarely happens like that. A lot of the time it’s the compilation of lots of separate bits of information.
“If you told people how it worked then you would be a bit disappointed. It’s far more mundane, just hard work, and then it appears.”
-PATRICK HUTCHENS, MPC INTERN