Quill Awards: Behind Richard Baker & Nick McKenzie’s Journalist of the Year Award

Baker discusses the investigative duo’s win at 2017 Quill Awards.

Four Corner’s Nick McKenzie and The Age’s Richard Baker were presented with the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award at the Melbourne Press Club’s 2017 Quill Awards last Friday March 16. The prestigious prize was awarded for a series of reports on China’s increasing influence on Australian politics.

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The pair were also part of the Fairfax Media and ABC team, led by McKenzie, that won the 2017 Gold Quill award. McKenzie has previously won 24 Quill Awards, including the Gold Quill twice.

Baker and McKenzie’s partnership has lasted for more than a decade. Last year, their investigative work on the growing Chinese influence over Australian politics caught Senator Sam Dastyari warning a Chinese donor that he was under surveillance. This resulted in him resigning from the parliament.

“There are a couple of things that go through my mind when something like this happens. People might not believe this about journalists, but on a personal level, I don’t take any particular pleasure from stories that require dramatic action such as a resignation,” Baker told Mediaweek.

“I can only imagine the pain and turmoil that the person and their family are going through but that doesn’t absolve them from taking the responsibility for their actions either. So it’s about balancing that.

“We are here to serve the broader public so you do get some satisfaction out of making a case for change. In this case, hopefully we will get a more upfront and transparent approach to relationships between prominent politicians and the donors with substantial foreign power behind them.”

Baker and McKenzie with the Gold Quill

The duo first started looking into the Chinese influence on Australian politics in 2009. This story has been a long time in the making. “The interest that was sparked back then continued, and got bigger and bigger as we talked to more people,” Baker said.

Having the power of TV and print on their side helped these revelations make a real impact in the wider community. “The double punch of having national exposure through programs like Four Corners or 7.30 is huge. Decision makers and people with the ability to investigate or ask questions are watching that,” Baker said.

“The power of print and digital gives us the ability to reflect back and continue updating the story. Programs like Four Corners and 7.30 are a big hit but that’s only once. Then they move on to something else the following week. Print gives you extra gravitas and the ability to have longevity in a story.”

The first big story that Baker and McKenzie worked on together was about the trauma department at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. In 2007-2008, they investigated allegations of inappropriate procedures and billings. This led to an ombudsman inquiry. “That was the first time we put our heads together and divided up the work. It worked really well and has just snowballed from there,” Baker said.

Apart from his body of work with McKenzie, Baker has also produced a podcast series for The Age in 2016 called Phoebe’s Fall. The six-part series won a gold award at the New York Radio Festival in 2017. The series was about the mysterious death of 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjuk in the rubbish chute of a luxury Melbourne apartment building in 2010.

Baker revealed to Mediaweek that he is currently working on another podcast series that is “very different” from Phoebe’s Fall. However, it still has the same level of mystery. He remained tight-lipped about giving any more details away.

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