Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism
Trevor Sykes has been a journalist for 61 of his 77 years and finds himself failing at being retired, as he continues to write a monthly column for The Australian Financial Review. From the global financial crisis to the corporate raiders of the 1980s and ’90s such as Alan Bond, Conrad Black and Christopher Skase (whom he once taught to type), Sykes has been a chronicler of the great and the wicked in corporate Australia.
Sykes, a proud Adelaide son, started work age 16 as a copy-boy with the Adelaide Advertiser. He credits that publication with the solid grounding in shorthand and typing that has been his “technological” foundation throughout his writing career.
An early scoop happened in London where, as the Reuters’ House of Commons correspondent, he rushed from the House to report the denial of the then secretary of state for war, John Profumo, of any knowledge of Christine Keeler. Sykes’ report set Fleet Street abuzz as they sought to disprove Profumo’s denial.
Back in Australia with the high circulation Sun News-Pictorial in 1969, Sykes covered the trial of the last man sentenced to death in Australia. After that drama, Sykes feared daily reporting might become boring so he switched to the finance section, operating on the basis that he would spend all of his time “trying to work out what smarter people than me were doing.”
He soon discovered that his subjects might be wearing smarter suits than him, but were otherwise no brighter and frequently – too frequently for his liking – a lot more dishonest than the individuals he had written about as a court reporter.
During his first stint at The Australian Financial Review, Sykes created the corpulent columnist “Pierpont”, in which guise he has been able to lampoon the follies of business and politics while enjoying a delightful red at his exclusive club.
Pierpont and his wise but indulged ways were an instant hit with the public and Sykes fought Fairfax in court for the right to take his creation with him when he shifted to The Bulletin in 1977. It was, he notes, “a landmark case for journalists’ rights” in Australia.
At The Bulletin, first as writer and then editor, Sykes found his stride as an investigative finance reporter, chronicling the excesses of the ’80s corporate raiders. As editor, he took The Bulletin to an all-time circulation high of 125,000.
It was at ‘The Bully’ that he employed both Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott – Bob Carr was already on staff. According to Sykes, Turnbull wrote the best analysis proving the innocence of Lindy Chamberlain, years before the Chamberlains were exonerated.
Although it was his series on the corruption in the Painters and Dockers Union that led to the Costigan Royal Commission, Sykes opposed the establishment of the Commission, calling instead for a straightforward police investigation.
When his boss, Kerry Packer, was falsely accused of corruption by the Commission (with the accusations published in the National Times), Sykes responded with a clinical disproval of the claims.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Sykes (and Pierpont) continued to report on corporate greed and corruption as editor of the Australian Business magazine and as a senior writer and contributor to The Australian Financial Review.
Although Sykes regrets that too few of his targets were punished with jail time, their condemnation in the court of public opinion can often be attributed to the many frontpage stories he achieved as a one-man corporate watchdog.
Sykes has won eight national awards for financial reporting and written eight books explaining various financial scandals and failings. This is his first Walkley Award.