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Walkley Young Australian Journalist of the Year

Oliver Gordon was named the 2019 Young Australian Journalist of the Year for his ABC Background Briefing story “The Black & White Hotel”, an investigation into racial profiling at an Alice Springs Hotel which won the Longform Journalism category and was also a finalist for the Public Service Journalism category. The Walkley Judging Board, represented by Lenore Taylor, Claire Harvey, Stella Lauri and Heidi Murphy, found Oliver’s entry stood out amongst a strong field.

“Oliver Gordon’s entry comprised an excellent piece of investigative journalism, told well,” said the judging panel. “He had the tenacity to pursue the story, and looked at the systemic issues behind it, with reporting that was balanced and fair throughout. Bringing the community members along with him, he won their trust, and had enormous impact.”

We sat down with Oliver a few days after the Mid-Year Celebration, while he was still in Sydney, to talk about his winning work and why he became a journalist.

How did you find this story?

The key email was leaked to me by a contact that I had been meeting up with, for no particular reason. I think it shows that building relationships with people in the community you’re reporting on is really important, and it shows that it’s worth going out for coffees with people even if there’s no prospect of a story.

What did it take to get this story up?

Once we had the whistleblower agree to take part in the story, we worked on it for six weeks. The first challenge was finding a “scene”, how can we capture this? So we had to apply to the ABC management to go undercover. Luckily with great support from management we were able to get that approval really quickly. Because the day where Barb, Tommy, Gloriana and Phillip could go undercover happened to be just three days away. We had to make it happen really quickly. And I’m really pleased to say that despite the fact sometimes working in really big organisations can be slow, in this instance it was really speedy.

The risk of going undercover is that you’ll get found out. Actually, when I went to record the undercover recordings, the microphones started to not have as long a range as they did on the day before when we tested them! So it meant that I had to get out of the car and go much closer to the hotel to be able to capture that audio. So that was a huge challenge, it was hugely stressful and a bit risky.

Can you talk about how you set it up? When you went undercover, the people who were miked up while you were recording in the car outside…

They booked rooms as guests. Setting that up was really challenging. You’re wanting to make sure everyone feels safe and invested in the story, which they did. But you’re also aware of the fact that it could all fail. I think we got quite lucky on the day that everything went to plan. Apart from the mics cutting out!

What impact did the story have?

We identified a process in the law that could be improved, arguably. That process is that if you’re someone who’s been told to do something racially discriminatory, and you want to tell an Anti-Discrimination Commission about that, they can’t take that information as seriously as if it was coming from someone who’s actually experienced racial discrimination. So they can’t treat it as a formal complaint, and because they can’t treat it as a formal complaint, they can’t investigate it.

There was a follow up story to this, where a box office worker at Adelaide Oval, heard the Background Briefing story about the Ibis, and got in contact with me to say she’d had the same experience working as a ticket seller at Adelaide Oval.

So that led Dr Niki Vincent, the South Australia Equal Opportunity Commissioner, to publicly call for a change to the laws around whistleblower reporting of discrimination.

On the morning of the Mid-Year Celebration, I checked in with Dr Niki Vincent to see what progress there had been, and she said she’s optimistic. “Your reporting really did trigger the impetus for change, and I think we’ll get it through.”

So the impact in that respect is that the law might change in South Australia so that whistleblowers can report discrimination. And that’s pretty great.

The NT Anti-Discrimination Commission’s response has been more subdued; but cabinet ministers in the NT Parliament and also people living in the community, have said they’d known about this practice happening for years, but they’d never been able to prove it. They were so glad that our story was able to expose this practice they had seen happening in hotels all around the north of Australia. [Alice Springs Aboriginal rights campaigner and Central Land Council Deputy Chair] Barb Shaw got on CAAMA, the local Aboriginal community station and talked about it. She filled people in about what discrimination is, what you can do if you think you’ve experienced it — and at the end of the day that’s probably the most important thing that happened. We raised awareness not just among people in the parliaments but people who might be experiencing discrimination.

The Ibis is closing next month, as well. But they say that is unrelated to the story. It’s been on the market for a while.

What’s it like as a young reporter in Alice Springs, how long have you been there?

I’ve been there just over a year. It’s a great place to report from. There’s about nine or ten staff at the ABC, there’s also a local newspaper, there are freelance journalists and two community radio stations.

It’s a town that is in a really unique position because it’s often the interface between First Nations People and white culture. There’s all these issues that arise from that, but there’s also all these really fantastic things that arise because of that. And there’s never any shortage of things to report on. You talk about being a young reporter: it’s also just a great place to start your journalism career.

It has totally changed my idea of what Australia is, what this country is.

What made you want to be a journalist?

I just loved consuming journalism when I was younger. I enjoy talking to people, and telling and listening to stories. I feel so amazed and lucky and privileged that there is a job called journalism, that you can do, and you can just do that all day, and that’s your job.

There’s obviously another side to journalism, which is keeping people accountable. And I really believe in the power of journalism to do that. And feel like it’s a good way to spend my time.

You had a different career before journalism, in global health and development. Can you tell us a bit about that? How does that experience come through in the stories you look for, or the way you work?

Before starting in journalism I worked lots of different jobs. I worked in hospitality for a long time. I worked in NGOs for a few years. And I worked in freelance filmmaking. Working at the WHO and in those NGOs overseas helped my journalism a lot because it gave me confidence, and helped me to contextualise some of the stories that come up in Australia in an international context.

But global health NGOs haven’t impacted my journalism as much as working in admin jobs, hospitality, retail, and stuff like that. Having spent a lot of time in those industries has influenced my reportage a lot. There’s a lot to be said for having spent 5–10 years washing dishes.

What are you most proud of about the stories you’ve told, or your career so far?

Well, my career’s pretty short so far. Probably hearing Jan Fran — the funniest and best host in the world — say my name is a moment I will never forget..

What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?

Journalism helps to tell stories that people in positions of power might otherwise not want to be told. It’s a way of empowering people.

I think the other thing that gets forgotten a bit, is that journalism is entertaining. At Background Briefing, so much goes into creating these really fabulous listening experiences. The craft of capturing audio correctly, or framing a photograph in the perfect way, or telling a story so that it flows and makes sense — these things are not easy. The reason we spend so much time perfecting them is so that watching or listening to the end product is pleasurable!

Did you want to shout out anyone who worked on this piece with you?

[Oliver pulls out a piece of paper] I’ve actually still got my speech from the other night! Lots of people to thank. Firstly the other finalists in the two categories I was nominated in. Osman Faruqi’s fantastic reporting is so brave and so important. I loved Jack Banister’s piece about the Tiwi Islands. And also Laura Murphy Oates’ “Turned Away” which was also nominated for Longform. Those were the ones nominated alongside me but all the finalists were great. Family, friends, my partner Sally, my mum and dad John and Vicki, all very important.

And then there’s the Background Briefing team: Ben Sveen, Ali Russell, Leila and Ingrid in the sound area, Scott Mitchell in digital, all worked on the story. We were led by Alice Brennan, who is just doing amazing things at Background Briefing, which is shown by all the awards. I think what she’s doing with longform narrative journalism is really great, I’m watching Background Briefing become this show that heaps of people are talking about and interested in, and I’m so glad that someone like Alice is running it and taking risks, and collaborating with regional bureaux. Thanks to everyone at ABC Alice Springs. The other people in the Background Briefingteam like Alex Mann, his journalism is astoundingly good.

And then the whistleblower, Barb Shaw, Tommy, Gloriana and Phillip who all went undercover. These are the people who really made this story and deserve the most thanks of everyone. There was also people like Kamal Farouque, the lawyer who gave us these amazing interviews about the “Bermuda Triangle of unreported racism”, helped us understand the context. Sophie Trevitt from NAAJA who was so helpful, and so willing to say really controversial things. This is people putting their professional reputations on the line and they should be commended as well.

What’s the best thing about receiving this award?

The validation of pursuing a story that was incredibly hard to tell and being able to share in it with all the amazing people that helped it happen. This says Oliver Gordon on the award, but it’s a massive community team effort and I hope everyone who worked on this story with me knows that.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks a lot to the Jibb Foundation who support this award. I was too frazzled at the time to actually thank them in my speech. Being at the Walkley event — it gives you so much hope. It can be a hard job being a journalist but going to those events and seeing that people actually care about what we do is so enriching, and I think it plays such an important role. So thanks to the Jibb Foundation, the Walkley Foundation, the judges and all the sponsors.

I loved Emma Field’s tweet congratulating you as a regional journalist and a redhead! It got me thinking about the pantheon of great Australian red headed journalists….

Yes, I’d also like to pay respect to my senior redhead journalists. To the fine redhead journalists that have come before me, such as Leigh Sales and Kerry O’Brien, I say thankyou. You are both an inspiration to all aspiring ginger journos.

Oliver Gordon is a journalist based at ABC Alice Springs. He works across all platforms, but most enjoys narrative investigative journalism. Prior to joining the ABC, Oliver worked in the global health and development sector with organisations such as the World Health Organisation. This background in global health and development informs much of his reportage — which appears on programs such asAMThe World Today and Background Briefing.

Follow Oliver on Twitter: @olgordon