This speech was delivered by Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie, of The Age investigations team, in Sydney on March 2, 2014.
Listen to the address here:
Firstly, as Fairfax reporters, it wouldn’t be right to start the speech without paying our respects to the traditional owner of this land, Gina Reinhart … or should I say Eddie Obeid.
Good evening ladies and gentleman – and can I say what a great privilege it is for us to give this speech. Before we move into more serious territory, I thought I would start off by telling you how I first met Richard.
One day in 2005, while I was working at the ABC, I was called by a woman who introduced herself as age editor Andrew Jaspan’s secretary.
She said that Jaspan wanted to meet me in a discreet city café the next day and gave me the impression he wanted to talk about a job
I was pumped – I wasn’t far out of my job as a cadet at the ABC and the possibility of leaving Aunty and working at The Age, with its long and proud history of investigative reporting, was exciting.
I was also nervous. You see, I had been published in The Age once before and I was hoping Jaspan hadn’t searched my name in the clippings.
My first time in print in The Age went something like this. As a cadet doing my first TV news story, I had interviewed a farming family dealing with the drought.
As I sat in the back seat of our car as our sound man drove out of their property, I heard the sort of sound you would imagine you would hear when a large TV news crew car runs over a small and aging family dog whose name is Ernie. Or whose name was Ernie.
Anyhow, the soundie behind the wheel of the car at the time of this farm yard tragedy thought it would be a great laugh to leak the accident to The Age’s gossip column with one minor tweak: he changed the name of the driver from his name to mine.
So, if Andrew Jaspan had popped my name into the database, he would have read a headline that stated, and I quote, “aspiring ABC cadet kills family’s dog in frontline moment.”
Luckily, Jaspan didn’t search my name prior to our meeting. In fact, he hadn’t appeared to have done much homework on me at all when he arrived at the café. He began by asking me what my name was and why I wanted to meet him.
When I replied that I thought this was about a possible job at the age, he asked me why I wanted to leave the Herald Sun. when I told him it was because I didn’t think too much of Rupert, his face lit up with excitement and I knew, then and there, he was keen to have me on board at Fairfax.
Unsurprisingly, I was a little unconvinced at the prospect of leaving the ABC to join The Age and sensing my wariness, Jaspan told me there was someone who could convince me.
The very next day, I went back to the same café. Richard Baker walked in and said to me: You must be Rick from Channel Ten.
It was my job to convince Nick to come on board. It didn’t start too well. In my tour of the building, the first staff member we bumped into was The Age’s famously talented and incredibly underdressed film reviewer Jim Schembri.
A former editor once said to the brilliant and feisty Jim that if he was going to insist on wearing tracksuit pants in The Age office, could he at least make sure they didn’t have holes in the arse. Or at the very least, he could pop on a pair of undies.
Like any good journalist, Jim had refused and was wearing his usual finery when he decided to give Nick a welcoming hug.
That hug sealed the deal and Nick was immediately on board.
But it didn’t take too long for Nick and I to click. We were both hungry, passionate, idealistic and supporters of the Geelong footy club.
I remember telling Nick that there was nothing better than holding a powerful bully to account – or giving someone without a voice a platform to speak. And I remember Nick agreeing.
As Kate McClymont pointed out from this podium last year, investigative journalism is not a popularity contest, it is about gathering facts and verifying them to the best of your ability.
It’s about being as fair as you are relentless, giving the subjects of stories a chance and time to reply.
It’s about informing the public about what is going on in the inside of a company, a political party, a sporting club or a hospital.
Thankfully, practising the craft in Australia is far safer than in many other parts of the world.
And with that in mind we’d like to express our support for Peter Greste, Alan Morison and their colleagues who are either locked up or face serious jail time simply for doing their jobs.
The entire Australian media community is behind these guys and we all call on our government to do everything within its power to press the foreign governments to release our colleagues rather than subject them to show trials.
We’d also like to remember the 71 journalists killed in the line of duty in 2013. Few of us would have the courage to practice true investigative journalism in places like Mexico where your head can end up next to your laptop on a road as a message to others.
What is confronting Peter, Allen and other journalists around the globe is a reminder why press freedom is worth fighting for
But even though the risks aren’t as great here, there is still one hell of a fight going on in Australia to preserve our free press. We are increasingly seeing the rich and powerful resort to litigation to pursue journalists’ sources or lodge defamation writs purely to stop the publication of stories and scare off the rest of the media.
We are also increasingly seeing powerful agencies, be they policing or anti-corruption bodies, that seem inclined to use their powers on reporters in order to identify and charge our sources. This sends a chilling message to all whistle-blowers, who are the real heroes of our profession.
With surveillance technology increasing, it is harder than at any time before to contact a whistle-blower over a phone or a computer without leaving a trace.
Luckily, the best form of investigative journalism is still the safest—meeting sources over a beer or coffee, face to face.
But faced with increasingly demanding digital deadlines and online updates that drive and are driven by a relentless 24 hour news cycle, it is harder now for journalists to get away from their screens and out of the office.
The decline of print and the voracious appetite of digital platforms pose a huge risk to investigative journalism as we know it.
The number crunchers might say “What’s the point of a media company allowing a couple of expensive hacks to spend weeks travelling and amassing information for a complex story that could disappear from the top of a website within hours”, especially if it is deemed not sexy enough?
What good is a free press without the will to back such stories or the funds to spend on the hard yakka, expensive and legally risky reporting that so often leads to the most important work we as journalists do?
As the mainstream media and journalism struggles to prosper in this new digital environment, those with endless resources and the desire to keep things hidden get better at doing just that. This should concern us all
I recently watched a Media Watch program on the ABC that seemed to quite mirthfully bemoan the lack of quality of some of the lighter stories that appear online on Fairfax or News Ltd websites.
The editors of the SMH or Tele don’t start their day saying, “Let’s see how many times we can put the word porn into an online headline.” The challenge to remain profitable – something the ABC doesn’t have to worry about – is leading us all down an uncertain path and good journalism http://clanofthecats.com/ may not be the winner.
A story Richard and I are well known for – what one of our night editors calls, “not the fucking securency story again,” provides a case in point.
We have written over 50 stories and done two Four Corners program exposing a scandal that has led to Australia’s first ever foreign bribery prosecution and ensnared the Reserve Bank. The only day a story from this investigation rated really well on line is when we revealed that prostitutes had allegedly been used to bribe an overseas central banker.
The ABC and SBS face their own challenges. They are not flush with cash and their best programs are staffed with over worked and under resourced journalists and that is why any cuts to public broadcasting should be opposed.
I’d now like to tell you about our first real story together. In 2008, we were thrown together by our then boss Gay Alcorn to check out a commotion within the trauma and emergency department of Melbourne’s iconic Alfred hospital.
The nub of the story was that the head of the trauma department, surgeon Thomas Kossman, was accused by his colleagues of inappropriate and excessive surgery with the aim of maximising his fees
This was a risky and difficult story. Kossman had a big public profile, he was chosen by the state’s health minister to be a key adviser, had powerful supporters in Melbourne’s media and an international reputation. To make public these concerns would no doubt damage his reputation, rightly or wrongly.
The Age gave us the great luxury of time to investigate, and we needed it.
Nick and I split up the job of calling all the surgeons, hospital administrators and nurses working in the Alfred’s trauma ward. Many of the surgeons made detailed and strong allegations about Kossman’s conduct, but could not speak publicly as he was their boss and because the hospital’s rules did not allow for unauthorised media appearances.
As the weeks went by and the story built, Nick and I found that it was more fun to work with someone on a big story than to dig in isolation. As our trust with each other built, we shared contacts, shared phone numbers and continued to divide the labour. We argued our way through the writing process.
Two days before publication, our lawyer, Peter Bartlett warned us: “Great story if you’re right. If you’re not, it will cost the age at least $1 million.”
So I told Nick, we better hit the phones again. The figure was, after all, almost as much as Kerry O’Brien’s salary.
When the first stories hit, the expected blowback from Kossman and his supporters came.
Kossmann engaged lawyers and a press relations firm.
The Age’s main rival newspaper in Melbourne took a different view, as did 3AW’s Neil Mitchell. We keep going, albeit with a degree of caution.
The Alfred Hospital reacted by standing Kossmann down and instigating a panel of three expert orthopaedic surgeons to review a number of his operations. Eventually, this panel found major flaws in some of the surgical decisions by Kossman.
A subsequent parliamentary report by the Victorian Ombudsman made the strong finding that patients had been effectively harvested in an effort to maximise surgical income, with the state-funded insurer billed huge amounts.
Twice during the period that we were writing the Kossman stories, I had the misfortune to require the services of Melbourne’s trauma wards through injuries gained on the football field.
When I was being wheeled into theatre to have a broken wrist screwed back together, the surgeon and his team were asking “Are you the guy writing about Kossmann?” As the anaesthetic took hold, I said “Yes, is that a good or a bad thing …?”
Months later, the Kossman saga was still running. I had made a return to the football field only to get a solid bump and a pneumothorax, with is a pocket of air trapped in your lung. Inside the Alfred trauma ward I was once again asked by the young registrar on duty as he jabbed a needle in between my ribs to remove the trapped air if I was the guy who did those stories on the professor.
When I said I was, he replied: “I wouldn’t tell too many people round here that” and left.
This was the start of a journalistic partnership that is now into its sixth year. The Kossman experience had brought home to us just how much better two heads are than one when it comes to tough, controversial stories.
It also was the start of a firm friendship that exists outside of the office.
But more than anything, those stories made us acutely aware of the power that we have as journalists to impact on the lives of others. Kossmann was a surgeon who no doubt did a lot of good and saved many lives. Our stories cost him his job, hurt his reputation and made life very uncomfortable for his wife and children.
Still, it was unquestionably in the public interest to know that surgical decisions at Melbourne’s main trauma department were found to be being made with financial gain being a motivating factor.
With major media companies facing on-going financial difficulties, the prospect of litigation is an ever present fear for investigative journalists and their employers.
Let’s be clear on this: We are not sooks. There is nothing worse than a journalist with a glass jaw. We throw plenty of punches and have to expect people to fight back.
A defamation writ, while never pleasant, is a hazard of the job. People have every right to take legal action if they believe their reputation has been unfairly maligned by a media outlet.
And you have to cop criticism on the chin.
Going through our archives we recently found a few gems
A businessman running a large-scale migration racket we helped expose recently responded to my questions to him with a text message that said: “Every dog has his day. Watch your arse, son.”
In fact, whenever I’m called “son”, the word “dog” often follows.
After our recent expose of corruption in the building industry and the CFMEU, Mick Gatto sent me a text that said “Son, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
An underworld figure then called me and told me I was a dog and asked if I knew what happened to dogs. Well, I certainly know what happens when you run over them, I thought to myself.
I’ve not always been called just a dog. Kathy Jackson recently said in an email that I was a “conniving poodle”.
Lawyers have their own way of throwing jabs.
When we first put questions about possible foreign bribery to the lawyer for Reserve Bank company Securency, he wrote to our editor to warn we were about to make a grave mistake.
“The nature of the enquiries made by both Mr McKenzie and Mr Baker indicate that their understanding of the subject matter about which they intend to write is poor and incomplete.”
The next letter in the mail was from a lawyer acting for one of the overseas middlemen used by the firm to win allegedly corrupt deals and who had been sent a list of questions by us.
The lawyer wrote: “The distress which you have caused to our client is likely to have contributed to a heart attack which he suffered yesterday.”
We were then told the middleman had to be medically evacuated to another country and wanted Fairfax to pay for these costs. We refused and i can report that this middleman is today in robust health, having eventually settled for a free six-month Fairfax digital subscription.
But the most serious missive we got from a lawyer was from one working for us. We had been summoned to court as part of a motion advanced by the Securency bribery suspects, whose lawyers argued that someone in government was leaking us information about the bribery investigation.
We were ordered to reveal our sources. We refused, appealed, lost and then appealed again.
The night before we were to appear in court, at exactly 10.24pm, our lawyer Veronica from Minter Ellison texted us with what she called, and I quote, some friendly lawyerly advice.
“I understand you will refuse to answer questions tomorrow,” she wrote.
Her text went on: “When you pack you change of clothes, do not include Nike sneakers. They are very popular amongst other prisoners. I suggest an unpopular brand of shoes. Cheers. Veronica”
Occasionally, very occasionally, we do receive some pleasant correspondence. A few years ago, a lady from the Sydney office of the law firm Baker McKenzie sent us a kind email to congratulate us on a series of stories. The lady explained that part of her job at the firm was to collect all the press clippings mentioning Baker McKenzie, and as such, she had probably read more of our stories than anyone save our mums.
But back to business. What about when a person or organisation with access to serious money uses the courts to stop genuine public interest reporting just because they don’t like it? This happened to us in 2010 when we were exposing how $45 million in taxpayer money was being used by Frank Lowy’s Football Federation Australia to pay a couple of European shysters big bucks to court votes from FIFA delegates for the 2022 World Cup. What a success that was!
It’s true the stories did not come at a good time for Lowy and the FFA, with the FIFA vote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts only months away. But was there really anything defamatory in what had been written? We don’t think so. Nevertheless, the FFA chose to lodge a writ in the Supreme Court which effectively stopped us in our tracks and warned the rest of the Australian and international media off the story.
It cost Fairfax tens of thousands of dollars, maybe more, in legal fees to deal with this writ, which was nothing more than a stop writ. When the crucial period of time for the FFA had passed, the legal action was quickly and quietly resolved.
This week, one of the nation’s top journalists, Hedley Thomas, wrote in the Australian of Clive Palmer’s appetite for suing his critics. This type of behaviour should be seen as an abuse of the courts.
For media companies and journalists, such litigation is expensive and runs the risk of further shackling real investigative journalism in Australia. Why should the country’s richest and most influential people be allowed to operate free of scrutiny?
Using the courts to try to identify sources is the other legal action increasingly being used to undermine investigative journalism. This has happened not only with the Securency story, but our story on Chinese businesswoman Helen Liu and her donations to and her relationship with Labor politicians.
Colleagues Adele Ferguson and Steve Pennells have also faced such demands from Australia’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart. One of Australia’s top media lawyers, Peter Bartlett, says he has dealt with around seven such actions in the last 18 months and warns it is a growing and dangerous trend.
Both Richard and I, along with Cameron Stewart and Adam Shand of The Australian, and Linton Besser and Dylan Welch, now both of the ABC, Darren Lunny, formerly of Nine, and Paddy Murphy at the Herald Sun have been the subject of efforts by powerful agencies to try to find sources. And that is just the journos I know of.
In my 12 years reporting, I have been the subject of such action from the Federal Police, another body I cannot by law mention, the Office of Police Integrity, the Victorian Ombudsman and the Federal Police.
My phones have been tapped and I have been called to star chambers. I can’t say under law what happened but I never revealed a source.
I can’t tell you in many cases about how these agencies tried to get to my sources. I can say that each time it has happened, I have refused their request to speak about a confidential source, unless that source willingly outs themselves.
Source protection laws passed around the country – and which still have some way to go – only offer protection in court. They are no help when dealing with such agencies.
If we have no legal backing, how do we take on these agencies? Well, one way is to band together. Different media outlets are great at knocking each other in Australia.
It is critical that we band together – not just in rhetoric that proclaims the public’s right to know, but in our reporting and lobbying on press freedom questions such as these.
Now more than ever, we need solidarity in the media.
Richard and I now take a range of steps to protect our sources and face-to-face contact remains the preferred method.
Yet getting out and about is tougher for many journalists than it ever has been. The reality of long journalistic investigations is that they often struggle to find a place online because of the way news website churn news to keep people clicking.
Our challenge is to find a sustainable and captivating way to display great exposes on Australian mainstream news websites.
One of my colleagues recently asked if we are perhaps flattering ourselves to think that the majority of the public have a craving for hard-core investigation journalism.
As of 4.00pm yesterday, here were the most read stories of the day on the website of a major Australian paper. Number one was: “Porn video filmed in university library’’.
Number two: “Couple filmed porn on Melbourne train.” Number three: “Song master Buble better than ever”. To this last headline, all I can say is thank god Michael Buble hasn’t made a sex tape.
We believe there is an audience hungry for complex, deeply research, insightful and well written stories about the inner-workings of Australian life.
It is the task of all of us, especially those in charge of our major media outlets, to work out a way to deliver this type of journalism.
In the ultra-competitive and sometimes nasty world of Australia’s media, we sometimes forget that most of us face the same challenges.
The death of Fairfax or the closure of the Australian would be a tragedy for Australia’s free and pluralistic press. We should think about that when we report with glee on our competitors’ sliding figures.
For all the stress, legal threats, challenges of the internet, general doom and gloom, practising journalism is still the best job in the world.
Nick and I are privileged to get supported so well and left alone to follow our noses. And when stories don’t turn out to be what he had hoped, the repercussions, touch wood, are not bad.
For example, last year the pair of us spent a month solid working on what we thought was a major sporting corruption scandal. Day after day we combed through records of correspondence which we believed revealed leading figures in a major Australian sport were in secret betting syndicates using Asian exchanges and third-parties to wager on events they were involved in.
It was a slam dunk story and one we believed would change things forever.
The day before publication, and we were going to town on this, we learned that the story might not be what it seemed.
A strong possibility emerged that certain leading sporting figures we believed to be involved in the scam might in fact be the victims of a form of identity theft by an associate.
We decided caution was the best course. The story was never written. In the words of the notorious former London Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie, it was a reverse ferret. And that was that. More than a month’s work, down the drain.
Later that day, we had a few beers and reflected on what happened. We agreed that we had dodged a bullet. If we had gone ahead with the story as planned, well I don’t think we’d be here tonight.
This little tale I think encapsulates why we are all in this industry. We love the thrill of the chase. To make change and expose crooks. And for all the technology involved, journalism remains an mistakably human affair. Stories start and end with people.
Here lies the joy of the job.
Where else can get you invited into the homes of strangers to hear tales many have not even told their loved ones? What other job gives you a chance to help the little guy stand up for his or herself and right a wrong?
In what other industry, save for police, can you travel home at night knowing that in a few short hours someone who has been an absolute bastard is going to pay for how they have treated others for so many years?
Make no mistake, press freedom in Australia is under serious threat on many fronts, through the courts, through surveillance and from ourselves.
But the Australian media has a strong heart. It is up to all of us in this room to have the courage, the enterprise and the hunger to keep digging, to keep publishing and to keep broadcasting no matter what.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and have some fun.