Renee Geyer performs at the 2015 Walkley Awards

It took Trevor Sykes 62 years of journalism to score a Walkley, and as his history was retold on stage, one could only wonder what had taken so long.

For over half a century, Sykes has been a “one-man corporate watchdog”, exposing the schemes of corporate Australia. A former editor at the Australian Financial Review and The Bulletin, he’s outlasted many of his subjects: he taught one-time journalism cadet Christopher Skase how to type. Sykes, whose praises were sung on stage by figures like Alan Kohler and Greg Hywood, not only exposed corporate wrongdoing, but he did it with style and flair, in part through his Pierpont column, which still runs once a month in the Fin.

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And yet, it took a nomination from Paddy Manning (who Sykes thanked on stage) for him to take out the Outstanding Contribution to Journalism gong. As he put his hands around what must be one of the most long-sought Walkleys in the awards’ history (Sykes has, after all, been a journalist for longer than the 60 years the gongs have been around), the 78-year-old journalist told the crowd to drink up. “If someone wants to know my attitude towards winning my first Walkley, I can sum it up in one word,” he said, before launching into an ear-spitting “yee-haa!”.

The Walkley awards are an annual celebration of the best of Australian journalism, and for the most part, it’s not hard to guess who will take out which gong. But it’s often the unexpected or lesser-known winners who make the biggest impact.

The Journalistic Leadership Award typically goes to an editor, producer, host or senior reporter who’s guided a newsroom through thick and thin. This year, the judging committee awarded the gong to true crime author and Sunday Night investigative journalist Debi Marshall.

Marshall’s investigation into the Family Court murders, first on Channel Seven’s Sunday Night in 2012 and later through her book The Family Court Murders, resulted in a man being arrested and charged with the murders earlier this year, over 30 years after four people were killed. Marshall has examined “the coldest of cold cases” over her long career, helping give some measure of relief to the victims of crime. The judges lauded her “ongoing courage and determination to get to the truth despite risks to her personal safety”.

As Marshall told the room last night, her work had always been something of a personal crusade. In 1992 her partner, Ron Jarvis, was murdered in Tasmania over a drug debt. His killer, Stephen Roy Standage, was sentenced to 48 years in prison last year. Marshall had been investigating the case for years, confronting and being repeatedly threatened by her partner’s killer.

“My chosen career as an investigative crime journalist and true crime author isn’t an easy gig,” she said as she received her Walkley. “It’s tough to consistently challenge police and the judiciary, to confront serial killers, and to wade deep into the darkest recesses of humanity to bring harrowing stories to light for the public interest.

“Over the years, I’ve held the hand of many, too many, people who have felt abandoned by the system, by police, and judiciary, and who believe their loved ones were not just lost to them, but had been forgotten entirely — had been relegated to become just another name or number in a cold case file. The greatest reward of all is to gain and maintain their trust, that some good just may come from a fresh and rigorous journalistic investigation. In the case of the Family Court killings, not one of the victim’s families had heard from NSW police for more than three decades. It often falls to us as journalists to resurrect the coldest of cold cases.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Walkley awards night without a bit of friendly (or not so friendly) competition. The final tally was 10 to journalists at News Corp, eight to the ABC, and seven to Fairfax. Channel Seven did well, courtesy of both Marshall and the channel’s Sydney siege coverage, which scored the network another two gongs. Sky got its second Walkley as David Speers, as he did last year, brought home the best interview Walkley. Four Corners had another stellar year, with four Walkleys all up including the Gold (to Caro Meldrum-Hanna, Sam Clark and Max Murch, for grayhound industry investigation Making a Killing).

Earlier in the night, Making a Killing had been nominated for the Best Sports Story, but that ended up going to the Courier-Mail’s Chris Garry. Which is, Crikey presumes, what prompted News Corp network editorial director Alan Oakley to tweet: “So the story that didn’t win its category wins the Gold Walkley. Go figure”. About an hour earlier he’d tweeted his general disappointment with the crop of winners, writing: “in all fairness, this is not a vintage year”.

The criticism of the winning field wasn’t appreciated by some News Corp journos Crikey spoke to, who figured Oakley was trash-talking plenty of hard-working Murdoch reporters as well as the competition. News took out some big gongs, like Annika Smethurst’s scoop of the year gong for breaking the Choppergate scandal (in the Herald Sun).

The Best Documentary Walkley was fiercely contested between the ABC’s Killing Season, SBS’ Prison Songs and Only the Dead, a documentary that has only received a limited Australian release, by Michael Ware, Justine Rosenthal, Patrick McDonald, Bill Guttentag and Jane Moran. Only the Dead charts the rise of Islamic State, having been put together from Ware’s footage over several years covering the Iraq War. Ware is a 20-year journalism veteran, having spent much of his career with Time and CNN. But he’s a film producer now. “It’s typical of the Australian media; you work for 20 years as a professional journalist and you have to leave the industry to finally win a Walkley,” he quipped when getting his gong.

Ware broke down when recalling the deaths of two of his colleagues, both Australian cameramen, while covering recent conflicts in the Middle East. “To my cameraman Harry Burton who worked for Reuters, who was executed by the Taliban. To the ABC cameraman Paul Moran whose body I scooped up after a suicide bombing during the invasion of Iraq. This is for them.”

“We stand at a bloody crossroad in our profession,” he continued as he regained his composure. “We either rage against the dying of the light, or bear witness to its passing. We are the custodians of this profession. And now more than ever, it’s important for us to be the journalists that we need to be. And for me, that’s what this award means. And personally, it’s a homecoming. Thank you very much.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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