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Case Study – John Silvester

Case Study – John Silvester

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Published by Anthony Read
A profile of high-flying Melbourne crime writer John Silvester.
A profile of high-flying Melbourne crime writer John Silvester.

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Published by: Anthony Read on Apr 25, 2011
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Writer Case Study:John Silvester
 Anthony Read 
Background…
 
John Silvester is a veteran Melbourne-based Australian crime writer. He currently writes for The AgeNewspaper, and used to be the chief police journalist for the Melbourne Sun (Melbourne Crime,2000). During his time
, he has been nominated for four Walkley awards, and has won one for ‘BestUse of the Medium’ in 2004. He has also won the Graham Perkins Australian Journalist of the Year
award in 2008, and was nominated for the same award in 1998 (Melbourne Writers Festival, 2009).At the Age, he has assumed the role of the senior crime and police writer. His writing is splitbetween two main forms: feature writing and hard news. One can see the difference between thetwo forms by searching his name on the Factiva database. His features normally number between2000-2500 words, and usually consist of an in-depth analysis of one major crime topic or character.His shorter hard news pieces are typical of hard news, but he manages to put his own stamp onthem by incorporating subtle feature writing techniques. Because of his high standing within the journalistic community, he can use these otherwise frowned-upon devices and get away with it.One trait that Silvester exhibits is a balanced outlook on his subjects. When the subjects in questioninvolve drugs, murder and crime syndicates it could be easy to pick sides, but Silvester demonstratesas objective an outlook as possible. In an interview conducted on ABC Local Radio, Silvester talksabout the personalities of the Underbelly world. He shows no remorse for their actions, but at thesame time he has the clarity to feel pity for the children stuck in those situations. He also talks abouthow all underworld figures may put forward a sense of superiority and fearlessness, but inside they
 
are just as scared as anyone else about death or punishment (ABC Local, 2009). This ability to seeboth sides of the underworld clearly is a testament to his journalistic abilities.
His Feature Writing Features…
 
Silvester has a knack for writing profiles that makes people seem larger than life, yet human at the
same time. His profile of judge Frank Vincent does just that. Silvester’s ability to capture ambience
and atmosphere with simple wordplay is demonstrated as he paints a picture of the young judge on
one of his first cases. He uses phrases such as “the two young lawyers sitting at a restaurant tableare filled with red wine and indignation”, “they scrawl their final submission on restaurant napkins,”and “they wake the next morning with dry mouths and second thoughts”. None of the
se phrases are
particularly showy, but in our mind’s eye we can see the young Vincent at that same table, debating
the case before him. Silvester also shows an ability here to tell a simple fact-based story with vigour.
He weaves the history of Vincent’s judging career with small anecdotes from the man himself.
 Another example of how he makes characters larger and smaller at the same time is when he talks
about Vincent’s reputation as a “go
-to guy for the tough, controversial or emotion-charged criminal
trials”. This sentence makes Vincent seem like a
n immovable movie judge type, but a few lines down
changes all that as he talks about horrible moments from his career, such as the case of the “B
ega
girls”, which he describes as “nothing other than grotesque” and that “these things stay with you”.
Silvester has managed to cut to the core of this character and really expose him for what he is, whichis the mark of a fine feature writer and interviewer.
In a feature titled ‘Pack Mentality’, one can compare the beginning to the leads we see in hard newseveryday. In hard news, the inverted pyramid presides over all, and ‘Pack Mentality’ certainly would
not wash as a straightforward news story. Where this story comes into its own is precisely there: inthe lead. The first six pars of the story detail the familiar story of a lone man being set upon by apack of 
youths at night. The true lead, or ‘billboard’,
comes in par seven, where Silvester says,
“Welcome to Melbourne, one of the most liveable cities in the world”. This single sentence drips
with so much personal contempt from Silvester that it certainly would not get past an editor for abasic news story. The fact that it is a feature allows that slight bias to be used, and the previous six
 
pars is truly what makes this sentence so venomous. If that sentence began the story, one could
think it to be about Melbourne’s
fantastic nightlife. How wrong they would be.Another interesting aspect of Silveste
r’s writing is that he has a tendency to add a short list at theend of most of his features. This can be seen in ‘Pack Mentality’, as he succinctly describes a series of 
inner city bashings in short, sharp pars. This is quite a good way of rounding off a story, and allowsthe reader to put the characters of the feature into context. Another story in which he uses this
technique is entitled ‘The Case of Judy Moran: All Will Be Dealt With’. This profile on Judy Moran and
her family ends with a sentence separated into different lines for each family member. It describeseach person, their connections to the person before and after them, and also their criminal charge.It really allows the reader to see how deeply embedded the criminal interest is in her family, and it areal point of difference for Silvester.
The story ‘Crime Scene’ was written around the time of the gangland war and murders in 2003.When one reads this story, one can see the influence for the ‘Underbelly’ series that Silvester co
-authored with fellow crime writer Andrew Rule. The story itself revolves around a single one-dayfollowing of a lead in a small area of Melbourne. The real hook of the story comes almost at the end,where it is revealed that police were trying to track and apprehend a criminal for a petty offence,but it ends up in the murder of Michael Marshall, and the killer being shortly arrested afterwards.Silvester shows the police in this story to always be one step behind the criminals, and the only realbreak they get is when they make the arrest at the end. By that time, the murder had already beencommitted and there was not much else to do. This story differs from much feature writing in thefact that Silvester makes no attempt to hide the fact police were not up to scratch that day, an doesnot give us an easy way out or a happy ending. This makes a good feature because it makes thereader think more deeply about the issues raised and whether what the characters did was right,wrong or otherwise.Silvester also has a way of introducing a reader to the underworld, and its vast array of characters,
with ease. His story ‘Wise Guys, Tough Guys, Dead Guys’ illustrates all the main players of the
Melbourne crime syndicate operating in the early 2000s. In one fell swoop, he illustrates each

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