1956 - 2018 | Victoria | Investigative journalist & Reporter
Gordon was a rare species in modern journalism: a reporter who was universally admired and respected by colleagues, opponents, sources, readers and all sides of politics. When he died suddenly in 2018, colleagues and prime ministers lauded his decency, integrity, fairness and balance. His principles and example permeated newsrooms and inspired colleagues at The Age, The Australian and the Melbourne Herald. He was decorated with Australia’s top prizes for journalism. In the second half of his career, he focused on the disadvantage of Indigenous people and how Australia administered its offshore processing and detention of asylum-seekers. His exclusive account of the impact of detention on the babies of asylum seekers caused a national outcry and led to a softening of policies for families affected.
Michael Gordon called journalism “the family business”.
His father, the acclaimed Australian writer Harry Gordon, was editor of Melbourne’s Sun News Pictorial - now the Herald Sun - when Michael decided in 1973 he would try his hand at the business.
He was just 17, but he never considered riding on his father’s coat tails. He went to the Sun’s rival, The Age. He won a cadetship and spent the next 44 years building his own reputation as one of Australia’s most respected journalists.
Gordon, a keen surfer, enjoyed relating that he was The Age’s first surfing correspondent. In fact, he went on to cover every beat, from sports to police rounds to industrial relations to politics.
He became The Age’s national editor, served as a foreign correspondent in New York (for The Herald) and became the Saturday editor of The Age.
When he retired from daily journalism in June 2017, having served his last four years as The Age’s political editor, he was showered with accolades from political leaders from all sides.
The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, described Gordon as “a writer with an elegant pen and a big heart; someone who saw journalism as a means for making a difference, not merely a living”. The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, said he was "rightly recognised as someone who always sought and spoke the big truths, who 'called each thing by its right name'."
Among the truths he sought to relate, often causing discomfort for political leaders, were those relating to the marginalised: in particular, Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers. His approach was to submerge himself in the subject, and to write at length in an understated style about what he found.
After the Australian government imposed the so-called Pacific Solution early in the new century, Gordon became the first journalist to gain unrestricted access to asylum seekers on Nauru. In 2005, he interviewed more than half the 54 people still detained there, and his reports in Fairfax publications became the basis for a national debate that continues.
He wrote a book, Freeing Ali, which, when published in 2005, led to many of those detained on Nauru being granted new lives in Australia. Gordon later travelled several times to the Papua New Guinea island of Manus, sometimes at considerable physical risk, to report on the lives and conditions of the men detained there.
His reporting on indigenous affairs took him to remote Australian communities and inside the big national and political debates. His 2001 book Reconciliation - a Journey, followed a two-month trip through Northern Australia. It won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in 2001 for promoting public debate.
Indigenous leader Professor Marcia Langton later described Gordon’s journalism as “that rarest of achievements - a career-long and outstanding commitment to truth, rigour, integrity and fairness”.
Most of that career - 37 years of a total 44 years - was spent at The Age, with breaks in 1988-89 as foreign correspondent for the Melbourne afternoon broadsheet, The Herald, and as national political editor for The Australian from 1994 to 1998.
Born in Melbourne on 14 August 1955, the “family business” turned out to be more than journalism.
A passion for the Hawthorn Football Club was virtually bred into Gordon. His father Harry wrote the first history of the Hawthorn Football Club, The Hard Way. The pair wrote the revised history, One for All, published in 2009. Michael kept updating the book, year by year, publishing yet another sequel, Playing to Win, chronicling the years between Hawthorn’s 2008 premiership and its 11th premiership in 2013.
He devoted two of his books to the other sport he loved, surfing: Layne Beachley - Beneath the Waves (2008) and Bells - The Beach, the Surfers, The Contest (2011).
Gordon’s first book was a political biography of Paul Keating. First published in 1993 as Paul Keating, Political Fighter, it was re-published as A Question of Leadership, and updated as Paul Keating: True Believer, in 1996.
Family, however, was the most important thread to Michael Gordon’s life. He and his wife Robyn Carter, a publishing editor, had a daughter, Sarah, and a son, Scott. Michael’s joy was unrestrained when Sarah presented him, in 2017, with a grandson. The child was named Harry.
Gordon lived only seven months after retiring from The Age. On 3 February 2018, he died of a heart attack while competing in an ocean swimming race at Phillip Island, not far from the retreat he and Robyn had built in the hills above the surf beaches of Gippsland.
More than 2000 people attended his memorial service at Melbourne’s great sporting arena, the MCG - the same venue where Harry Gordon had been eulogised three years previously. Harry was 89, Michael 62.
Among those who spoke was Paul Keating, who said: “In a place of many pillars, Michael was a defining column in the cathedral of Australian journalism and opinion.” Writers Don Watson and Martin Flanagan joined family members and long-time friends to speak of Gordon’s words and his smile, a huge photo of Uluru hovered above, and five premiership trophies won by the Hawthorn Football Club gleamed by the podium.
Singer-songwriter Paul Kelly brought his guitar and sang. Ali Mullaie, one of the last refugees freed from Nauru after Gordon wrote about them, wept as he spoke of “this father figure, my brother, who did not see me as a victim, but a human.”
Michael Gordon’s journalism won him many awards, including a Walkley for coverage of Indigenous Affairs in 2003, the Melbourne Press Club’s Quill for best feature (2006) and best columnist (2007), and a string of United Nations Association Media Peace prizes (1999, 2002, 2007 and 2011). He was named Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year in 2006.
In November 2017 - five months after he retired from The Age and two months before his death - Gordon won the Walkley Award for the Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism. The submission to the Walkley judges said the word “decency” described Michael Gordon’s essential nature.
Tony Wright is an associate editor and special writer with Fairfax Media. He was a friend of Michael Gordon for almost 30 years.
Early press pass. Courtesy of Fairfax
Courtesy of Fairfax
Michael Gordon with Bob Hawke. Courtesy of Fairfax
Photo by Alex Ellinghausen. Courtesy of Fairfax
Courtesy of the Gordon family
Portrait courtesy of John Spooner
Freeing Ali: The Human Face of the Pacific Solution, Michael Gordon, UNSW Press, 2005
'You're strong': Refugees remember the friendship and support of Michael Gordon', UNSW Press, 2001, The Age, Arnold Zable, 9 February 2018
Reconciliation: A Journey, Michael Gordon, UNSW Press, 2001
Paul Keating: A Question of Leadership, Michael Gordon, UQP 1996