Virginia Trioli on Reith, Barnaby and her favourite Melbourne haunt

Virginia Trioli on Reith, Barnaby and her favourite Melbourne haunt

The ABC broadcaster is not afraid to say what needs to be said.

Virginia Trioli is walking cheerily towards me. It's 10am and she has just finished work at ABC TV's News Breakfast. We are in Bank Place, a cobbled laneway that runs between Collins and Little Collins streets, in the heart of Melbourne's financial district.

I have asked her to select a place for this new column: a corner of Melbourne that has special significance for her.

Virginia Trioli with her younger sister Rebekah Trioli.

Virginia Trioli with her younger sister Rebekah Trioli.

So why Bank Place?

"I love the old CBD," Trioli says. "And this is one of the great little streets of Melbourne."

Virginia Trioli at Bank Place.

Virginia Trioli at Bank Place.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

The lane features some venerable Melbourne institutions: the Savage Club; the Mitre Tavern; Bank House; and Normanby Chambers, a four-storey colonial building that presides over everything that happens here.

Bank Place feels like a secret – a portal to an older, more gracious Melbourne.

"It takes you right back to gold rush Melbourne," says Trioli.

We are marvelling at the high-Victorian architecture.

"It has an over-engineered and over-built quality which comes from sudden wealth," she says. "The city was settled by wealthy Tasmanians who bridled at the idea that the Governor of New South Wales could tell them where they could or couldn't settle. Bank Place tells you a lot about those settlers and their strong sense of self. 'We're going to make our money and make our mark!'"

Trioli stops mid-thought: "Sorry for mansplaining."

We sit down outside the elegant Syracuse restaurant and order coffees. The building is a former banking chamber that she describes as "one of the most beautifully proportioned rooms in Melbourne".

For many Melburnians, Virginia Trioli is the face of our city. She's the person we switch on when we wake up, to find out what's going on in the big wide world – before we head out to face it for ourselves. She's whip-smart, principled and funny. This is a view I discover is shared by many passers-by who come over to shake her hand and tell her how much they love her.

You don't want to be thinking: Bugger! Why didn't I speak up?

Virginia Trioli

I discover she's been up since 2.30am. That's when her alarm goes off. Every weekday morning.

Trioli became a national figure in 2001, when she was presenting the Drive show on ABC Radio Melbourne. She was interviewing the defence minister Peter Reith.

Reith claimed that he had evidence that asylum seekers rescued by HMAS Adelaide had thrown their children overboard. He proffered photographs of people – including children – in the water.

The photos were on the front-page of the newspapers. But, it was Trioli who pointed out that none of these photographs showed any child actually being thrown into the sea. Again and again, she pressed the minister for actual evidence.

REITH: It is an absolute fact, children were thrown into the water. So, do you still question it?

TRIOLI: I am a journalist, I'll question anything until I get the proof.

REITH: Well, I have given you the evidence.

TRIOLI: No, you have given me images.

The minister had no comeback. This was Trioli at her best: fearless and clear-thinking.

The encounter sparked the "children overboard" scandal; Trioli won a Walkley award for the interview.

This restaurant – Syracuse – is a special place for Trioli: it's where she married Russell Skelton, a former Age journalist and editor, and now the director of the ABC Fact Check team at RMIT.

One chilly Friday night in July 2004, she and Skelton were here, when they spotted the businessman John Elliott pestering a group of young, attractive women. Despite requests from the management and the women themselves, Elliott didn't stop. In fact, he moved on to join another table of women, uninvited.

Meanwhile his mate, ACTU official Greg Sword, had passed out on a table outside, resisting the suggestion of the maitre d' that it was time to go home.

As the drama developed, Trioli said to her husband, "I'm sorry. I'm just going to have to get my notebook out."

Skelton replied, "God yes. I'm surprised it's taken you so long."

According to Trioli, bar staff urged Greg Sword into his coat before he vomited extravagantly and then blundered into the women's toilet.

Eventually, staff called an ambulance and Sword was extricated from the ladies' loo and wheeled out on a stretcher. Elliott had abandoned him declaring, "He's not my problem."

Trioli wrote a story about the incident in The Age.

I wondered why she decided to go public.

"It was the beginning of a refusal to tolerate men behaving badly. We've had it for millennia. And you know what? We've had enough of this shit."

A short distance down the hill, we pass the Mitre Tavern. Trioli points out the low height of the doorway at the entrance. "It makes you wonder just how small and malnourished those early settlers must have been."

It looks, for all the world, like a pub from Dickensian England. You wouldn't be surprised to see Bill Sikes and the Artful Dodger wandering in for a quiet pint.

The whole street feels a bit Harry Potter. "Look at the curved front of Bank House," says Trioli. "Doesn't that remind you of Gringotts – the wizards' bank?"

Trioli was born in Bendigo. "That's where the gold came from," she says, deadpan. She was the third last in a family of seven children.

When the family moved to Nunawading, there were nine Triolis in a three-bedroom brick veneer. For a brief time she shared a room with three others, one of whom was a baby in a crib. "It's amazing to think of how much room we've persuaded ourselves that we need, these days," she says

"Mind you, it was pretty annoying always having people pounding on the toilet door. So I definitely see the benefit of having two dunnies."

When I asked her about growing up in such a large family, she said, "My Mum was great at raising competent, independent women.

"We all have a highly developed executive function. When there's a clutch of Triolis together we all say, 'I'll do it! Give it to me!'"

We stop outside a gracious Georgian building that sports a red front door. This is the discreet home of Melbourne's exclusive Savage Club, a self-styled bohemian gentlemen's club.

"Does it annoy you that women aren't allowed to be members?" I ask.

She equivocates between being bolshie and disinterested. "I imagine it's got manky carpets and smells of old men's urine. So, part of me couldn't care less."

Perhaps the most poignant story of all is the one that involves the notorious Barnaby Joyce incident. Unaware she was on camera, Trioli twirled her finger around her ear, indicating that she thought the Coalition member was bonkers. Immediately she realised her mistake. Her heart stopped dead. At a time when Aunty was under sustained attack for perceived bias, this did not look good.

Trioli called Barnaby Joyce immediately she was off air to apologise.

But what she didn't say to Joyce or to a single soul was this: that morning she was in a state of unparalleled euphoria. After a sustained period of unsuccessful IVF procedures, she was at last pregnant.

Her jubilation and clowning and unrestrained high jinks were bubbling over from joy. Not bias.

The trauma that followed was intense. Two days later she lost the baby.

When Trioli makes a mistake it's a very public mistake. But owning her mistakes, apologising and moving on has given her a new freedom. When you watch her on television you can see she is bringing her whole self to the job. She is rational. She is gracious. She is mischievous. And she is fearless. How does she account for that courage – that readiness to look powerful people in the eye – and not be unnerved when she makes mistakes.

"You know that beautiful French phrase, l'esprit d'escalier?" she says. "It's the spirit of the staircase. When you leave and descend the stairs you don't want to be thinking: Bugger! Why didn't I speak up? That's the worst feeling. You want to be able to say: You know what? I said what needed to be said. I represented myself."

Most Viewed in Entertainment