I first met Nick McKenzie when he joined The Age in 2006. I was deputy editor of The Age and was appointed to be his manager. I greeted him in the foyer of the old Age building in Spencer Street where he was dressed in shorts, carrying a surfboard. He wasn't due to start work for a couple of weeks, but he had already filed a story for us and was breaking his holiday to discuss it.
Nick was 26, and I have never met someone as precociously talented and committed, his ideals high, his work ethic formidable. What is also notable about Nick is his self-scrutiny, the pressure he puts on himself to be fair and ethical.
The Age is a team effort, and we have many outstanding journalists, photographers, artists and editors. But this week, I want to mark Nick’s extraordinary week in what has already been an extraordinary career – and he’s not yet 40.
As we noted in our editorial on Friday, it was in June 2018 that The Age published extracts from a confidential defence inquiry into allegations of war crimes committed by members of the elite Special Air Service Regiment soldiers serving in Afghanistan. There have been dozens of news and features since, despite criticism by some of our competitors and even senior political figures, who warned against judging soldiers for “fog of war” incidents.
This week, a public version of the four-year inquiry by Justice Paul Brereton found there was evidence that special forces soldiers had allegedly committed 39 murders in Afghanistan. Nineteen current or former soldiers will face possible prosecution and the stripping of their medals. A “warrior-hero” culture contributed to alleged criminal conduct, including the shootings of unarmed prisoners.
Nick would insist – and he would be right – that Brereton’s report was a vindication of courageous soldiers who spoke up about what they had seen, even to the detriment of their own careers. But it is also a vindication of his and fellow journalist Chris Masters’ journalism.
This story was fraught, difficult, and time-consuming but by any standards, it was journalism of the highest public importance. Many families in Afghanistan have waited years for justice for the loved ones taken from them. We continue to defend a defamation action brought by Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith, who is alleged to have committed war crimes while in Afghanistan. He denies the allegations.
I used to say, only semi-jokingly, that Nick was “unmanageable”, so I want to pay tribute to his manager for the past five years, Michael Bachelard, who is now the deputy editor of The Age. Michael leads our investigative team, and has with great skill overseen Nick’s coverage of this story for several years. Also, due praise is group executive editor James Chessell, who supported this story without flinching, even when the pressure was intense.
Last year, Nick began reporting for The Age and 60 Minutes on what would become a major corporate scandal. He revealed Crown's partnerships with "junket" tour operators connected to organised crime, its failure to stop money laundering at its Melbourne casino and the dangers faced by its staff in China.
It was this journalism that led to a NSW Independent Liquor inquiry into whether Crown is fit to hold a licence for its $2.2 billion Sydney casino. This week, the gambling regulator blocked Crown from opening next month after an 11th-hour admission that criminals probably laundered dirty cash through the group's bank accounts. It ruled that its casino could not start gaming operations until the inquiry was completed next year.
To cap off the week, Australia's longest-running bribery investigation came to a head on Wednesday with the arrest of a former senior executive from construction giant Leighton Holdings over his alleged involvement in a $1 billion international graft scandal.
Nick first reported on that story in 2016.
What is obvious is that complicated journalism like these stories take time. They often develop over months or years. Nick seems to specialise in the hardest, most ambitious journalism, and he sticks with the stories, no matter the pressures from the powerful and the influential.
Tonight, I am off to the Walkley Awards that reward the best journalism produced through the year. Because of the pandemic, there is no big gala, so we are gathering in a small group in a Melbourne pub to watch a livestream.
The Age has 14 nominations and I am proud they recognise work across the newsroom. We are nominated for scoop of the year, news reporting, business journalism, for our production excellence, for commentary, cartooning, headline writing, photography, TV journalism, public service journalism and feature writing.
Nick has won a record 25 Quill awards that recognise the best in Victorian journalism. He has already won nine Walkley awards. Tonight, he has three more nominations. What a week it has been. We wish him – and all the other nominees – the best of luck.
Note from the Editor
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