“It shows the power of speaking out. It’s a really brave thing to do, because you never know what public response will be,” says the 2019 Women’s Leadership in Media winner.
This outstanding investigation exposed a doctor’s mutilation and intimidation of female patients at four hospitals. His disfigurement of women’s bodies may never have been uncovered without journalist Melissa Davey’s persistence and empathetic reporting, which gave his victims a voice.
The judges said: “She revealed a systemic bias against women patients, which contributed to a failure to stop these abuses. The stories forced medical authorities to investigate and to suspend the doctor. Davey now leads sessions for doctors on the dangers of ignoring women’s health complaints.”
How did you find this story?
One of my rounds is the medical round, and one of the things about being a medical reporter is that you always get tip-offs about dodgy doctors. It’s quite frequent, very hard to prove, legally fraught, and nothing much comes of it most of the time.
But I got a particular tip-off about one case, one woman, and what this source said happened to this woman sounded unthinkable. So I thought, well, if this is as bad as it sounds, there would be a tribunal case going on. The person who gave me the tip-off said it was going through the courts, so I requested documents from the HCCC, the Healthcare Complaints Commission, and after a bit of back and forth they sent me one document.
From memory, it was only a few pages and it was heavily redacted, as in no patient names. It had the case of the woman I’d been tipped off about, but also the cases of several other women who’d been harmed by Gayed. What I read in that document made my jaw drop and exclaim several times out loud, it was that horrific. Now that I had the tribunal document, it was much easier legally to write an initial story. But I kept looking into him, and the floodgates opened after that.
So people contacted you after they saw the initial story?
Yes, people contacted me — so much so that I went to Taree, where he practised the most. My editor Lenore Taylor was very quick to realise that’s what we needed to do, and she encouraged me. So I went there with photographer Carly Earl.
We’d contacted a few women in advance to line up interviews, but once word got around that we were in town, so many other women were calling me wanting to share their stories. Carly and I were working from early in the morning to late at night, trying to fit all these women in, driving all over town. We couldn’t keep up. It was ridiculous.
Then, through some other investigating I’d been doing, I believed he might have been responsible for a woman’s death, or at least partially responsible. I didn’t have enough proof to write about it. So while we were in Taree, I also requested an interview with the manager of the health district, and manager of the hospital. They weren’t quick to give me an interview but then I just put it to them, saying ‘I understand a woman has died’, and suddenly they agreed to meet.
Carly and I got a car, drove for two hours from Taree to Newcastle, got there at 6 or 7pm at night. I put all these questions to the hospital face to face, and they admitted a woman had died under Gayed’s watch. I had it verified 100%, so that night I wrote another story from the car while Carly drove us back to Taree, because by then another news organisation was in town and digging around. And then a few days later I wrote the story of all the women of Taree, and that was when it really took off.
I didn’t think more women could come forward than we’d seen in Taree. But it’s not only the women, right? It was doctors, midwives, people who used to work with him in Canberra two decades ago or more. I just couldn’t believe it. I was being inundated. And it’s a big task to verify. Some of the cases were quite historical. A lot of medical records weren’t there.
The moment another investigation was announced, all the health districts involved at the multiple hospitals where he worked over the years shut down. The Premier’s office shut down, and no one would talk to me anymore. They said well, the investigation is underway now, we can’t comment. And I felt like saying ‘yeah, I helped trigger that investigation!’.
I got tip-offs from various places, the stories kept coming. It was just one of those stories, the more I looked into it the more came out, and the more shocking it was, the more unbelievable it was.
It was so much more than one doctor who caused harm. It was a town of women who’d been ravaged by one guy. Particularly vulnerable women, as are many patients in regional towns.
You’ve pretty much answered my next question, which was what did it take to get this story up in terms of time and resources. Did you need a lot of input from lawyers?
Every story was legalled. Some news organisations have a big investigative team, but we didn’t. Carly was pivotal in terms of going to Taree and getting the women to trust us to be photographed. I’m so proud of what Carly and I managed over just a few days.
It’s such intensive work. Requesting documents, verifying documents, getting dozens of women contacting you, trying to verify their stories. Wrangling with health departments, wrangling with politicians, trying to get information from police, trying to track him down.
When it got really intense, other reporters helped me out despite being busy with their own rounds and I’m so grateful. One of my colleagues, Naaman Zhou, managed to doorknock Gayed and get an interview. Our Cairo correspondent Ruth Michaelson dug up his academic records, and all the editors and sub-editors helped pull all the information together about the women he harmed into one interactive. The investigation itself was all stuff I mostly had to do while doing all of my other rounds, while covering Pell, while writing about child abuse, while travelling and in New Zealand covering the terror attacks.
Did you ever speak directly to Gayed?
It was just Naaman who got him, he’s at the Sydney office so our editors sent him to Gayed’s home. I’ve called Gayed many times, I’ve doorknocked his practice with Carly, he no longer practices now. He just refuses to answer any kind of questions from me. I don’t even know where he is at the moment, he could have left the country.
What impact did the story have?
There was a HCCC investigation and tribunal hearing — that all happened before me, they’re the documents I first wrote about. But because the scale of harm was so much more than what was the subject of that initial tribunal hearing — and that’s what my reporting highlighted, that it wasn’t just a handful of women — the Premier, and [the NSW Minister for Health] Brad Hazzard, announced an independent inquiry. And part of that was a look-back inquiry, which basically means looking back at all of his patients, reassessing them. Hotlines were set up in five health districts especially for Gayed patients. Which is just remarkable, five hotlines just as crisis services for women calling about being harmed by Gayed.
The head of the independent inquiry was Gail Furness, and she was one of the child abuse royal commissioners, so she’s a formidable lawyer. She managed the investigation, and in her final report were dozens of recommendations about oversight in rural areas: the way visiting medical officers should be managed in rural areas, accountability checks in rural areas. Reporting systems were also reviewed, so if someone gets a complaint how do we make sure that all the different arms of the health department hear about it? My understanding is that all of the recommendations have been accepted by the Premier’s office. So that’s one thing.
On top of that, the HCCC is now doing another inquiry. As I mentioned, there were only several women who comprised that initial tribunal hearing, but because we know there’s so many more they’re now having to do another investigation, so that’s underway.
And the final thing, which is quite remarkable, is that the police are now investigating him. It’s so rare to get a police investigation into a healthcare practitioner.
The only ones I can think of are people as bad as Graeme Reeves, or Jayant Patel, Butcher of Bega type stuff. It’s just so rare. The ICAC are also investigating.
What about at a personal level — have you heard more from many of the women that you interviewed since the story came out?
Initially I was getting emails from women several times a day. Even now, a year later, I still get about one a month. We reckon there’s hundreds of women. Hundreds of women over more than two decades who have had their reproductive organs needlessly removed, who have been left with life-threatening infections, who have had their vaginas stitched shut, personal stuff that they just don’t talk about. Some women said to me, “oh, I just thought I was doing pregnancy wrong,” or “I thought it was just me”.
It was just heartbreaking. I once did a follow-up story where I interviewed about five of his victims, and every single one of them broke down. Just the most raw pain. And for some of them it’s been many years since Gayed harmed them but they are still suffering from complications. It’s a combination of them knowing they’re not alone, and knowing it wasn’t in their head.
Some of them went to lawyers in their town, and were told “well, we don’t’ go after locals, so you’ve got no case”. They went to other doctors, who said “don’t cause a fuss, he’s an obstetrician, complications happen”. These vulnerable women tried to get help, everyone turned them away. In the meantime they made complaints, the hospital, the regulators and the health districts aren’t passing on information to each other, so there’s no communication between the different arms of the system.
And then all these years later, finally they’re getting recognition. If I hadn’t had that initial tip off, and if that woman hadn’t agreed to speak to me… Her case was fundamental. Her name is Lyndsay Heaton, she’s been named in my articles. Her case is horrific, and if she hadn’t trusted me this would never have happened.
It shows the power of speaking out. It’s a hard thing to do, it’s a really brave thing to do, because you never know what public response will be. These women did it anyway, not knowing if anyone would listen, not knowing if anyone would care. I don’t know if I would do the same. Telling my gynaecological history, making that public, personal, medical information. So many women kept doing it just to hold him to account. That is brave.
A lot of them now are pursuing legal action as well. And the beautiful thing is there are several support groups that have sprung up. And the women all talk to each other, they support each other.
I hope it was worthwhile for them. I can’t speak to the impact of individual women, I’m sure for some women it’s been quite distressing, seeing their stories be published and knowing we don’t even know where Gayed is. But I have been told by many women that it has been incredibly empowering and validating.
What made you want to be a journalist?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left high school, like many people. After changing my majors a couple of times I ended up doing a double degree in journalism and terrorism. I had many, many crises of confidence, didn’t think I’d get a job, I was very financially insecure at the time, my family was financially insecure at the time. With so many people saying I’d never get a job it felt so precarious, though my parents always encouraged me in my chosen studies.
But once I did consider journalism there was a lot I loved about it. I got accepted into physiotherapy halfway through my journalism degree, and it was so tempting to transfer into something a bit more stable, I ended up sticking with journalism. Fear drove me. If you think you’re not going to get a job, if you’re always worrying about money and the future, then you’ll do anything and everything to make ends meet and get experience. I think I was working six or seven jobs while I was at uni, and a lot of that was industry experience.I was endlessly driving between university and jobs. I actually didn’t do that well at uni because I was so busy on the side working.
I’ve always loved reading, and the news. In the environment I grew up in, in Perth, it could have been easy to adopt a certain set of values and attitudes and not look outside that. So I think once I got to university and realised there were so many other people, experiences and worldviews out there, that curiosity drove me towards journalism.
What are you most proud of about the stories you’ve told?
A lot of people say that journalists give people a voice, but people have a voice. There are power structures, though, in play that mean some people’s voices are louder than others. These people already have a voice, it’s just that they’ve chosen to trust me to amplify it. I’m proud they’ve enabled me and trusted me to do that.
What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?
Speaking from the issues I cover — which are violence against women, child abuse, big court cases — it’s because abuse of power is still so pervasive. Even with issues like child sexual abuse, the royal commission looked mostly at historic abuse, but it’s still happening. It’s happening in juvenile detention, it’s happening in residential care. Australia is still failing children. So without journalists and interrogating these issues and realising that these aren’t past issues, they’re happening here and now, we could easily have a situation where a royal commission is held ten years down the track, because we failed children again. There are also myths around these issues that must be dispelled.
That’s just one example. There are so many institutions. Look at politics as well and the crimes some people get away with. Accountability is the key.
What’s the best thing about receiving this award?
A Walkley is recognition from your peers. I just know there are so many journalists who have equally important and hard investigations they’ve done, and might not get the recognition they deserve. There’s so much good work going on everywhere. I don’t want people to think Walkley-winning journalism is somehow more important.
I also got an award from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Having the obstetrics profession recognise that one of their own was corrupt and harming women, and to award me for exposing that was pretty powerful. And I thought reflected really well on them, to acknowledge the failure in their industry.
But there is no way when I graduated from my public high school or university that I ever dreamed I’d get national recognition from the media industry. It was so far beyond my expectations for myself at the time. And that’s what I’m really proud of. That you can get there after starting out without the connections, without money, through sheer hard work and failure. That’s what’s nice. I kept meeting mentors and people who inspired me and believed in me, and through seeing what they had achieved, my ambitions for myself slowly expanded too.