Winner of the 2020 Walkley Award for TV/Video Current Affairs Long (more than 20 minutes) with Joel Tozer and Sumeyya Ilanbey
Multiple Walkley-winning investigative journalist Nick McKenzie collected his tenth Walkley Award last year for “The Faceless Man”, a collaboration between The Age and 60 Minutes to expose branch stacking in Victorian Labor.
“’The Faceless Man’ lifted the lid on the inner workings of the Victorian ALP,” the Walkleys judges said, “including the exploitation of unsuspecting members of the public in the pursuit of power, and the use of influence to play puppet master behind the scenes. The stunning evidence of alleged corruption and branch stacking forced the Premier to sack ministers and the Federal Labor Executive to seize control of the state party. Gripping television.”
We spoke with Nick shortly after the Walkley Awards to get the lowdown on the collaborative work with Joel Tozer of 60 Minutes and The Age’s Sumeyya Ilanbey, its enormous impact, and the “management insulating” effects of winning Walkley Awards.
Congratulations — it was an extraordinary story and had a huge impact. Can you tell me, how did you first find out about the story?
We first found out about the story, or the allegations of branch stacking in the Labor Party, years ago. There’s been whispers about rampant branch stacking involving Adem Somyurek, a Victorian cabinet minister, and I’d been asking around about him in Victoria and Melbourne for a couple of years.
He was a very, very powerful person politically, but was largely unknown in the public realm. At the very outset, I thought maybe I do a profile on him, try to understand him better and try to communicate to our readers exactly who this person is, and try to gauge his influence not just in the Victorian Labor party but federally.
“That process of trying to understand [Somyurek] led to some doors opening and some significant evidence coming our way, which exposed his involvement in rampant branch stacking and other alleged political corruption.”
And as a result, the Premier Daniel Andrews called a press conference within 24 hours to announce that Somyurek would be sacked from the party and he’d be removed from Cabinet.
Somyurek tried to spin it to say he’d resigned himself, but that wasn’t the case. The Premier made that clear in the following days. Marlene Kairouz stood aside from Cabinet, another Cabinet Minister, as did Robin Scott. Three Cabinet Ministers gone. Significant investigations ordered by or started by the independent broad-based anti-corruption commission, which is Victoria’s main corruption watchdog. The state ombudsman launched an ongoing investigation. The Labor Party itself launched an investigation headed by Steve Bracks, former Premier, and Jenny Macklin, former Federal Minister, and that is actually finishing up as we speak.
They’ve got rid of a couple of thousand suspected fake members from the party in Victoria. They’ve overhauled the rules, really overhauled the way that grassroots Labor politics works in Victoria to try to make sure the party is only controlled by real members, not the factional warlords.
Pretty serious consequences for everyone, really. What are you most proud of in the print and broadcast stories?
I think what any journalist is most proud of, and what we aim to do, is have impact and to make our journalism matter. So much of what we do, while we put our hearts and souls into it, doesn’t matter. It’s passed over very quickly.
So to see the story have real impact, to see the story improve the political system, the way that the Labor Party operates…we want a strong coalition. We want a strong Labor Party, because we want political parties that are free of corruption and free of malfeasance. To contribute to a better ALP — just as we contributed to a better Liberal Party when we exposed branch stacking within the Liberal Party — we’re there just to serve public interest journalism, and ideals of scrutinising the political system and improving it where it’s weak or compromised. And I think the story did that.[Our whistleblowers] took huge risks, so to empower them and make their bravery and courage pay off… We’d say to them, “It’s worth doing this. It’s a big risk. There’ll be fingers pointed at you, perhaps, but I think we can make the political system a better and a more democratic place,” so to pay off their bravery was really heartening as well.
What’s the best thing about receiving a Walkley Award for these stories?
In our industry, often we’re just cutting each other down and newspapers are attacking each other, so to have peer recognition and to have a sense of solidarity in the industry once a year [is great], where we say, “Well, hang on, this is really great work. We wanna acknowledge good journalism. That’s what it’s all about, let’s put our rivalries aside and recognise the journalists and pay tribute to work that does make a difference.” That’s extremely special.
I also think Walkleys are a great way to insulate yourself from the penny-pinching management. You can say, “Well, hang on. Expensive, time-consuming, legally risky journalism is worth it. It’s been recognised by our peers.”
It’s a bit of a payoff to the bosses who back sometimes pretty unpopular or expensive journalism, so you get that bit of breathing space that makes, perhaps, the next story, when you’re knocking on the door asking for more time and more backing — it makes it a bit easier, so it’s terrific from that perspective as well.
Nick McKenzie is a ten-time Walkley-winning investigative journalist with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He occasionally works with 60 Minutes and has previously worked with the ABC’s Four Corners and 7.30.
Joel Tozer is a producer at 60 Minutes. He has covered stories from the Christchurch terror attacks and Brexit to local investigations on corruption, illicit drugs and money laundering. In 2014, Tozer was named Walkley Young Journalist of the Year for Television and the Kennedy NSW Young Journalist of the Year.
Sumeyya Ilanbey is a reporter at The Age where she has been covering state politics since November 2019. While at the Melton and Moorabool Star Weekly, Ilanbey won an award following a year-long investigation into police resources in Melbourne’s western suburbs. In 2019, Ilanbey, Chris Vedelago and Cameron Houston of The Age won a Quill award for an investigation into toxic waste dumping across Victoria.