1971- | Western Australia | Investigative journalist
Steve Pennells is Western Australia’s most celebrated investigative journalist. He won five Walkley awards and 16 state media awards with the West Australian for exposing injustices and as a trouble-shooting correspondent sent to the world’s hot spots. He won the 2012 Gold Walkley for his reports on the fight between Gina Rinehart and some of her children over a family trust fund. Australia’s richest woman sued Pennells and his paper in a bid to force them to reveal his sources. His court victory was the first proper test of shield laws that were designed to provide some protection for sources. In 2013, Pennells joined the Seven Network’s Sunday Night program and scored regular scoops that helped the program match the ratings of Nine’s 60 Minutes.
Steve Pennells has been one of Australia’s most influential journalists in the first two decades of the 21st century, both in print and on television. He is a one-man news-gathering machine, adept as a writer, photographer, video journalist and television presenter.
Pennells has an unerring sense of what makes a big story and is undeterred by any personal danger in pursuing it. But his empathy with people and his reputation for trustworthiness have enabled him to get interviews other reporters could only dream about. His courage was underscored in 2013 by his defence of principles in refusing to betray his sources in the face of Gina Rinehart’s assault demanding he do so.
Lifting the lid on human suffering has been the hallmark of Steve Pennells’ brilliant career. But more than that, he has shown a determination to follow stories through, to stay on the case until his reporting provokes action that makes a difference.
From his beginnings as a cadet reporter at the Esperance Express and Kalgoorlie Miner, Pennells by 2012 at The West Australian had achieved Australian journalism’s highest honour, the Gold Walkley Award, for his stories from the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan and reports on Gina Rinehart’s bitter feud with her children. That investigation also saw him embroiled in a long legal battle with the mining magnate. The Rinehart stories won him a second Walkley that year for the best scoop across all media.
But it was his stories from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that stamped him as a cut above most other journalists and earned him his third Walkley in the Social Equity category.
Sent to cover the deaths of more than 50 asylum seekers, mainly Pakistanis, in a boat tragedy at Christmas Island, Pennells saw it as much more than a story about numbers and politics. He wanted to know where these people had come from and what drove them to embark on a perilous journey to their deaths.
He flew to Pakistan and travelled down dangerous roads controlled by the Taliban to a village near the Afghan border. There he learnt that the entire community had sold everything they had in a desperate attempt to send a generation of their young men in search of a better life.
On a visit to the Kimberley town of Halls Creek for a story about school truancy, Pennells found a dysfunctional Aboriginal community riven by child sexual abuse, alcoholism, unemployment and appalling housing. As is his way, he gained the trust of the community and produced a series of reports that elicited a massive response.
Within weeks, ministers and senior department heads had flown into the town for crisis meetings, the Government announced a multi-million-dollar rescue package, extra welfare officers were employed, the town got its first dedicated child protection officer, maintenance and employment programs were set up and extra police officers were posted permanently to the Halls Creek station. The reports earned Pennells the 2006 Walkley Award for Social Equity Journalism.
In 2005, Prime Minister John Howard promised millions of dollars for the victims of the suicide bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Ten Indonesians died in the attack and Howard pledged that the survivors and the families of the dead would never be forgotten.
But four years later, on a visit to Jakarta, Pennells discovered that much of the promised aid had never arrived and the families of the dead, including the widow of an embassy security guard, were living in poverty. His report, published on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the bombing, forced an embarrassed Australian Government to honour its original promise and fund extensive ongoing medical, financial and educational support for all the survivors. That report won Pennells his second Walkley for Social Equity journalism in 2009.
In 2013, Pennells travelled to eastern Jordan to report on the plight of thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war in neighbouring Syria. His guide on that perilous journey, Jordan’s refugee ambassador Major General Anmar Hmoud, was killed when his four-wheel-drive rolled on the night drive back to Amman.
Pennells’ work, along with Seven cameraman Paul Walker, won gold for Seven West Media that year in the category of best cross-media editorial coverage at the Asian Digital Media Awards in Malaysia. His haunting images from that assignment were also part of a portfolio that saw him named as a finalist in the Walkley Press Photographer of the Year awards in 2014.
Pennells made several trips to the Middle East, reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, where he interviewed an Australian woman facing jail for adultery.
His continuing concern for the plight of refugees found him in Kenya in 2013, filing compelling reports and images of the misery of refugees from the civil war in Sudan.
Later that year, Pennells reported on the plight of a community torn apart by Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, that killed more than 6000 people and left millions more homeless. His images of the devastation won him the best photo essay prize at the WA Media Awards.
Pennells fluency in Bahasa Indonesia helped him provide insights into the trial and tribulations of drug smuggler Schapelle Corby, the trials and executions of members of the Bali Nine and the case of Noor Ellis, the Bali Black Widow, jailed for 12 years for organising the murder of her Australian husband. Those language skills helped him gain access to Bali’s Kerobokan prison for exclusive reports on Corby and the Bali Nine’s Andrew Chan, just months before his execution.
Pennells is also an accomplished photojournalist. In 2005, he was the only Australian to have his work selected for The Press Photographers’ Year, a book and exhibition at London’s Royal National Theatre representing the world’s best photojournalists.
He has won the Clarion Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism and has been awarded the United Nations Media Peace Prize a record six times. He has won WA’s the Arthur Lovekin Prize for Journalist of the Year four times. In 2011, he was named by Media Week magazine as one of the top 25 people working in the Australian media.
With the merger of Western Australian Newspapers and the Seven Network in 2011, Pennells for a time straddled both platforms before moving permanently to Seven’s Sunday Night.
His work on Sunday Night has included investigations into the Simon Gittany and Oscar Pistorius cases, the Syrian refugee crisis, Ivan Milat’s unknown first victim, the Claremont serial killings, the Rothschild Prayerbook, mining heiress Olivia Mead’s first interview and a global investigation into international tax evasion.
Bob Cronin is a former editor-in-chief of Western Australian Newspapers and former editor of the Sun News-Pictorial in Melbourne.
Jordan's Azraq camp, 2014. Copyright Steve Pennells, The West Australian
Raed Abdulrahman, 15, comforted by his mother as he screams in pain as doctors treat bullet wounds. Copyright Steve Pennells, The West Australian
Syrian refugees arrive across the no man's land on Jordan's eastern border with Syria. Copyright Steve Pennells
Court during legal proceedings initiated by Gina Rinehart. Courtesy of The West Australian
MEAA conference on shield laws for journalists (L-r): Journalists Richard Baker, Nick McKenzie, Steve Pennells and Adele Ferguson. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer, courtesy Fairfax
"One of these people is an awesome singer, beloved entertainer and gay icon. The other is @DollyParton." Courtesy of Steve Pennells, Twitter
Pennells currently report for Channel 7's Sunday Night
Steve Pennells on Twitter
'Pennells decision a win for source protection and investigative journalism', The Conversation, Johan Lidberg, 2014