Adam Shand is not your average crime journalist. The Walkley Award-winning investigative journalist and author is the host of Channel 9’s Australian Crime Stories but his career boasts covering historic events such as Nelson Mandela’s rise to power in South Africa and Melbourne’s gangland war in the early 00s.
As part of his investigations, Shand was up close and personal with some of Australia’s most notorious criminals including Carl Williams, but Nicola Gobbo, also known as the infamous Lawyer X, has fascinated him no end.
“I first met her in 2003 when the Gangland War [in Melbourne] was going on,” Shand said in an interview with TheLatch—.
“I’ll never forget meeting her in a cafe in Melbourne one summer afternoon. And I’ve just been hanging around with a lot of gangsters, including Carl Williams and others like that. And she honestly looked more like one of their wives or girlfriends than a lawyer, and I thought, “This is an interesting situation.”
Following the meeting, Shand investigated Gobbo further for his true-crime podcast called Understated Lawyer X.
“This was a whole situation where these lawyers were getting rich down here by defending these crooks, keeping them out of jail, in some cases just delaying their day in court, getting them bail and so forth, putting up protection and this type of thing. She made them very rich, so she felt like a player,” he said. “She, with great gusto, assumed this role of police informer and undercover agent and she was always after reward money and greater trust from her crook clients.”
Lawyer X is one subject of the current series of Australian Crime Stories, which is in its fourth year and Shand believes its popularity comes from being “brilliantly made”.
“I think what we’ve been able to do with these stories is look at each one and say, “Can we add value?” It’s not enough just to say, “Let’s tell another story because they may have heard of Roger Rogerson, or they may have heard of the Qantas Hoax in 1971,” Shand said during the interview. “How do we add some value to this? Because after doing this for 20 odd years, I really worked out in my life, I want to solve things.”
Here, Shand talks with TheLatch— about Australian Crime Stories, how he became a crime journalist, why Australians are so fascinated by true crime and what his extensive research involves.
Anita Anabel: Hi Adam! I am really excited to chat you because true crime is just so fascinating!
Adam Shand: A long time ago, I looked at how the audiences of true crime is skewed female. It’s sort of 60, 65%, something like that.
I was taken back to a quote from a crime writer from the ’50s called Raymond Chandler and he said that the crime story begins with a tragedy, with the possibility for a happy ending — which is a great story arc I think, without stereotyping women.
Men are a bit more nihilistic and kind of like a more destruction-oriented [story] and so I think women are more reflective and they want good to triumph. You want by the end of it for the forces of good to prevail.
AA: I am so shocked by that statistic! You’re up to season four of Australian Crime Stories. I know we’ve spoken about it a little, but why do you think this series is so popular and continues to do so well?
AS: I think it’s brilliantly made, working with a full box team out of Sydney. They understand this genre. We’ve been working together for quite a while now, Ever since I started doing work with them on their Tough Nuts shows probably 10 years ago.
I think what we’ve been able to do with these stories is look at each one and say, “Can we add value?” It’s not enough just to say, “Let’s tell another story because they may have heard of Roger Rogerson, or they may have heard of the Qantas Hoax in 1971.” How do we add some value to this? Because after doing this for 20 odd years, I really worked out in my life, I want to solve things. I want to get things to resolution. I want to be able to help people to understand what’s happened, and maybe bring it to the solace or close it. So that’s an exciting prospect in our work.
I hope that we try to bring our enthusiasm and passion, rather than getting into that sort of glued storytelling mode that I guess some of the shows do. And so we have a sense of mission about these stories that I think is really essential to produce something a bit unique.
AA: Why do you think Australians are so fascinated by true crime?
Well, let’s look at the word fascinating. I’ve done a study of this because that’s always the word that people use. Fascinate comes from a Latin word, fascinātus, which is basically to “cast a spell on somebody”.
In old English, a snake would fascinate its prey, to the point where it’s compelled to stay still. And so seeing into this world where people act so differently and so ruthlessly is appalling, but at the same time captivating, and we can’t take our eyes off it. Like I mentioned before, we want to see the forces of good triumph. And that’s what certainly fascinates me about this.
It’s a combination of entertainment value, but also human value and the real values that actually creates. I like to say that I’m involved with “real crime”, not “true crime” because true crime isn’t always true.
I guess what we’re striving for is a reality, and that’s been about getting also to speak to police officers, police forces around the country for these stories. I think too often true crime we use the story based on public statements, suppositions, assumptions.
AA: After three seasons, are you finding that people are sending in leads or new evidence in cases that have investigated?
AS: Constantly. I mean, a good example is the Lawyer X story that we’re doing about Nicola Gobbo.
I spent 18 months doing a podcast on that called, Understate Lawyer X, where we got to a lot of people that no one had spoken to, and we got some interesting storylines including Nicola Gobbo’s alleged knowledge of two unsolved murders. What we’re seeing there is Nicola Gobbo is a one-person PR machine. She got to the ABC, which should be our most effective interrogator of crime and other issues in the country, and she’s completely held a knife-edge. She’s gone in and given them interviews, so she avoids all the hard questions. So it’s our job in that situation to ask those hard questions because there are at least two cases where she has some vital knowledge she has not shared yet. So that again is driving us in our story selection.
Over that long period of time, people come in here and say, “I can’t believe what is going on. Here’s my part of the story.” And I say, “You’re brave enough to come and talk about it.” And I said, “Well, as long as you give it a fair go and have a crack,” and I said, “That’s what we do.”
I think consistently, we always try to make sure that we don’t over-promise and underdeliver, and make sure the people who come to us with information get that heard in a balanced way.
AA: Nicola Gobbo is such an interesting character. When you did the podcast, why did you decide to study her for 18 months?
AS: I first met her in 2003 when the Gangland War [in Melbourne] was going on. I’ll never forget meeting her in a cafe in Melbourne one summer afternoon. And I’ve just been hanging around with a lot of gangsters, including Carl Williams and others like that. And she honestly looked more like one of their wives or girlfriends than a lawyer, and I thought, “This is an interesting situation.”
I then saw a picture of her partying with Carl Williams and Carl’s hitman Andrew Veniamin, and again I’m thinking, “This is a different kind of lawyer.”
And as you went through, you saw more and more instances where she crossed the line. But she wasn’t the only one, by the way. This was a whole situation where these lawyers were getting rich down here by defending these crooks, keeping them out of jail, in some cases just delaying their day in court, getting them bail and so forth, putting up protection and this type of thing. She made them very rich, so she felt like a player. At the same time, she was also cultivating relationships with the police, which is also very necessary for a defence barrister in Melbourne. You’ve got to have a foot in both camps. And she was just the go-to person for both of them. And at the same time, she was having relationships with them.
She tries to paint herself as a victim who’s under pressure to do these things, and under threat from the police, nothing could be further from the truth. She, with great gusto, assumed this role of police informer and undercover agent and she was always after reward money and greater trust from her crook clients.
I mean, why there wasn’t another adult in the room who said, “This is only going to end badly…” They’re all driving towards the cliff, and no one was looking at the road, they were just all enjoying each other’s company, I guess.
“I first met her in 2003 when the Gangland War [in Melbourne] was going on. I’ll never forget meeting her in a cafe in Melbourne one summer afternoon.”
AA: As a crime reporter, what does your research involve?
AS: Getting every piece of paper I possibly can, that’s the starting point. I’ve got a process. It’s called “knowledge, courage, action”. Without knowledge, you’ve got no courage, and you won’t act.
It’s like any endeavour in life, you have to have that knowledge. So a long period of time is spent talking to people and talking to people off record. I think a lot of journalists want to rush in, rush out, get the story. And I understand the deadline pressure and all that sort of stuff but I always have a luxury of saying, “No, I’m going to spend time because I want to produce something that’s got something unique in value.” It’s not just about getting up in front of the camera and saying, “Look at me, I’m doing a story on Nicola Gobbo.”
I guess I’m lucky enough now after 20 years of this to have a pretty good archive of contacts and people I speak to who will give me the unvarnished truth.
“I guess I’m lucky enough now after 20 years of this to have a pretty good archive of contacts and people I speak to who will give me the unvarnished truth.”
But, you know what I’m really suspicious of? It’s when someone comes to me from power and says, “Hey, I want to give you a story,” and you go like, “Well, why are you giving me that story? Why are you giving me that? How am I being used here?”
There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and it’s particularly so in crime. We’ve seen this consistently.
AA: You mentioned before that you investigate by talking to people — you must get told some really interesting things?
I think you’ve always got to be driving forward, and I think trust is an essential element of that and building longterm relationships. I love keeping secrets. I love that someone can say to me, “I trust you with this thing, this secret.” And upon pain or death, you do not reveal it. And I’ve been called before various courts and places I can’t talk about, and being asked to reveal sources. And it’s a matter of great honour to me, but I don’t give them up. Because the moment I give somebody up is the moment my career ends. I can never to the next person say, “I can do this for you. I can make this commitment to you that we’ll protect you on the way through…” [Only] If they deserve protection. I don’t protect those who don’t deserve it.
AA: Has keeping these secrets ever compromised you personally?
AS: I guess you get this sort of judgment from people who say you may be compromised or lack objectivity in certain situations. And the famous line is, “I think you’re getting too close.” And I have to, with a slight bit of arrogance say, “I think you’re too far away to make that judgment.”
A lot of the crime reporter are actually police reporters. They rely almost entirely on handouts from the police, which I don’t think is a healthy thing. So I was always motivated to get out and speak to people and judge them on what I thought of them, rather than what someone else told me. So yeah, I guess you have to walk that line. And sometimes these relationships end when you have to say to somebody, “Listen, we’ve been talking on this level about something, but this has come up, and I’m going to write it now. I’m terribly sorry.”
And that’s a hard moment, especially when they’re a hard man, But I think people respect those who are honest with them.
you must speak to everyone. Everyone’s got a story. And if you bring your own preconceived ideas into something, or your reputation, or your ambition, you’re useless to anyone. You’re not going to be a great journalist, you’ll be a time server.
AA: You have done quite a few podcasts and are currently helming NSW Crime Command — how have you worked this in with Australian Crime Stories?
What’s happened over a couple of years is that I’ve brought some of the podcast sensibility, the way we’re making it over there and bringing in a sort of a three-dimensionality into the music and the imagery. Cause I think what we’re doing with podcasting is using audio to create the mental pictures and style of storytelling that I think is now coming into a lot of TV product. For instance, Dirty John, a worldwide success, came from a podcast. There’s going to be more and more of those in the future. So the podcast is now influencing the way television’s made and we see Netflix is really all over this now. So that’s what we should all be doing. I’m glad to be an early adopter.
AA: You’re such a talented storyteller. When you started out as a journalist, did you think this is what you would end up doing?
AS: Well, my great journalistic hero was Tintin. So I guess it was always going to be like this really. He had the greatest adventures in the world, and he never seemingly had to file a story. And you would see him say, “Sorry, Captain Haddock, I’ve just got to go off on my next adventure.”
I was like, “Who wouldn’t want that life? Who wouldn’t want that?”. I think every journalist should have a sense of adventure and a sense of naivety.
AA: How do you not take these stories home with you?
AS: It’s an adventure. I mean, my father told me — he was a psychiatrist — he said, “Son, you’ve got to be the hero of your own drama.” Right? And I don’t want to live humdrum, mediocre thing where I get home at five o’clock and I shut the phone off and nothing happens. I want that phone to ring. I want someone to say, “You wouldn’t believe what’s just happened.” And I’m going to say, “Mate, I’ll be there in five minutes.” Right? What could be more exciting than that? Why would you want to make your world so small by cutting yourself off?
Australian Crime Stories premieres Wednesday, September 16 at 8.30 pm on Nine and 9Now.