Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism 2017

Winner: Michael Gordon, former political editor, The Age

“Not long after I turned 17, I entered the family business. My old man, Harry, was the editor of The Sun (now the Herald Sun), so I applied for a cadetship at Melbourne’s other morning newspaper, The Age.”

So wrote Michael Gordon in his farewell column, marking his retirement from the newsroom’s frenetic pace at much the same age as his father. And while Harry Gordon was highly commended in the very first Walkley Awards in 1956, now Michael is recognised for his outstanding contribution to the industry. What he achieved in his 44 years in journalism speaks to what journalism can be at its very best.

From his cadetship at The Age he progressed through the rounds – police, industrial, politics, sports – and he would ultimately spend 37 years with the masthead. He covered every beat, from surfing to parliament, reporting on nine federal elections and more than 20 federal budgets. He was New York correspondent for The Herald from 1987-89, and had a stint at The Australian in the 1990s as political editor. His accolades include the Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year award in 2006 for reporting on asylum seekers. He even found time to author seven books. But it was at The Age that he was best known, respected and loved as a peer and generous mentor within the industry.

The overwhelming impression Gordon left – with both his byline and his presence – was of decency, integrity, fairness and balance. Even when he was working at the epicentre of influence, he held himself outside the media pack. And his compassion shone through as he fought to give voice to the underdogs. He was the first Australian journalist to gain access to the detention centre on Nauru; he spent time in remote communities listening to our first peoples, and won a Walkley for his coverage of Indigenous affairs in 2003.

Professor Pat McGorry, mental health advocate and former Australian of the Year, said: “He has attracted deep respect not only from those who share his perspective but, tellingly, also from many of those who do not agree with his perspectives.” Distinguished scientist Sir Gus Nossal said “Michael’s journalism carries messages of hope and optimism without underestimating the scale of problems and challenges”.

As Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy said, “Mick has used his professional platform to speak up for people with great care, and empathy, and moral clarity… People know he is there to hear them. His lack of self-aggrandisement and his desire to find the truth makes him a trusted custodian of the voices and histories of the country, and his talent makes the storytelling indelible.”

He was respected by some of our nation’s most powerful. As Laurie Oakes wrote: “Julia Gillard said Michael’s perspectives were ‘different from the pack’. Bill Shorten said he ‘excelled particularly as a seeker of lesser-known stories’. Malcolm Turnbull spoke of an ‘elegant pen and big heart’. Having known Michael since very early in his journalistic career, I endorse all of these comments.”

He never sought fanfare, but he made a difference to many: his readers, his subjects, his peers. In a group statement, the 22 staff of the Canberra bureau of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald wrote: “Michael led by example with his courageous, fair and meticulously accurate reporting… While extremely modest, Michael was always happy to share the lessons he had learnt from his decades in journalism, to give constructive feedback on stories and to give you a hug if you were having a rough time. Softly spoken and without a shred of self-importance, he was never too busy to help out and offer support.”