Investigative reporters, The Age
Born in: Melbourne/ Geelong
Home Town: Melbourne
Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker’s stories aren’t always sexy, nor are they always followed up with zeal by their competitors. But when it comes to exposing wrongdoing and making the powerful squirm, this prolific pair makes many seasoned investigative reporters seem like part-timers.
On their own they’re great journos; together they’re a news-breaking juggernaut.
The duo’s reporting on sex abuse in the Victorian Catholic church -- based on confidential police reports showing at least 40 former victims have committed suicide -- forced Premier Ted Baillieu to launch a parliamentary inquiry in April. Earlier this month they revealed Damien Oliver had allegedly bet $10,000 on a rival horse, a scoop that led to the champion jockey being dumped from the Cox plate.
Then, of course, there’s their rolling investigation into bribery allegations at Reserve Bank of Australia-owned note printing companies -- a series that’s sparked police probes across the globe and the first Australian prosecutions under foreign bribery laws.
The two work closely together -- emailing draft stories back and forth while on holidays overseas, cross-examining each other on issues of accuracy and style -- but they don’t always agree.
"We have some pretty testy, fiery arguments but that makes the stories better," says McKenzie. "A lot of journalists work as lone wolves, but often I don’t think that’s the best way to do it."
The Geelong-born Baker, who began his career as a 21-year-old Age cadet, is the old-school newspaperman and forensic digger. McKenzie, who was broke big corruption stories as a cub ABC reporter, is the more extroverted and telegenic of the two. He's assiduously used his Aunty connections to get more exposure for their stories by filing for Four Corners and 7.30.
"Nick McKenzie is arguably the single most influential journalist in Australia," says 7.30 executive producer Sally Neighbour, who worked closely with him last year on a series on sex trafficking. "Nick is a superstar. I can't think of any other print journalist in the country who could ring up and say 'I've got a story for you' and the next week it will be the top story on 7.30."
The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell tells The Power Index he’d hire them in an instant if he had a chance.
If they feel puffed up with influence, however, they aren't admitting it. "Journalists who think they're powerful tend to be dickheads," McKenzie says. "It's the story that makes the journalist, not the other way around."
Both admit to frustration that their time-intensive investigations often get drowned out in the news cycle -- and that appearing on page one of The Age no longer carries the clout it used to.
"In the 1980s, newspapers would dominate the day and lead the news that night," McKenzie says. "Now a front page can be old news by the middle of the morning. It's much harder to make a noise now." Baker concurs: "On our website it can be bloody hard to find a story four hours after it's published."
The Securency story has been a particularly hard sell. Both major parties have avoided the issue as much as possible; other media outlets, including The Australian and The Australian Financial Review, have given it scant coverage until recently. It's a complex, hard-to-digest story involving shady financial transactions in foreign lands. Even The Sydney Morning Herald relegated to page two their August revelation that at least one senior RBA official knew of the alleged bribery.
"I'm not as obsessed with the securency stories as they are," says Chris Mitchell. "It hasn't really lit up the imagination of the public."
"This is a classic story where there has been almost no media buy-in or political buy-in," says McKenzie, lamenting that corruption stories seemed to cause a bigger stir in the 1980s. Baker is more philosophical. When a Securency employee first told him in 2008 of bribery concerns -- which he'd taken to the police to no avail -- he says: "It blew my mind. I couldn't believe it was true."
But: "We knew it wouldn't be easy to sell to the masses ... Twenty per cent of the population really love it and for the rest it doesn't matter too much."
Other stories have generated more media heat. The pair's first major effort together was a series on allegations of botched surgeries and rorting against Melbourne doctor Thomas Kossmann, reporting slammed by 3AW host Neil Mitchell as "agenda journalism". Kossmann was eventually cleared by five separate bodies and the Alfred Hospital apologised to him.
In 2010, the pair, together with Phillip Dorling, alleged that the then-defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon received $150,000 as part of ''a campaign to cultivate him as an agent of political and business influence''. Although Fitzgibbon denies receiving the money, the fallout from the scandal eventually forced him off the frontbench.
Even with Fairfax's financial woes, McKenzie can't contemplate a time when such risky, complicated stories can't be told.
"Good investigations do have an impact and people do care. It still amazes me how many people ring up to blow the whistle and tell their story. While there are still people wanting to blow the whistle -- and people wanting to hear it being blown -- we'll be in the job for a long time yet.”