1951 - | Queensland | Reporter & Investigative Journalist
Tony Koch is Queensland’s most highly decorated journalist, with five Walkleys, nearly 50 State media awards, the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award and the Keith Murdoch Award. He was an outstanding political correspondent for The Australian, but his enduring impact was improving the lives of remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by persistently exposing abuse and violence against prisoners and children. His most notable story was on the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee at Palm Island, which led to a legal, political and media furore that lasted three years.
The crowd seemed a little unsure of the big burly man from Queensland who had just won the prestigious 2006 Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award, named after the legendary former editor of The Age. Who is Tony Koch, wondered Victoria’s journalistic grandees gathered at the Melbourne Press Club dinner.
In his usual, laconic Queensland country way, Koch - the best-known print journalist in Queensland in the past three decades - won the crowd over with a joke. He wondered if someone had told him that morning, on 27 March 2007, that in the evening he would put his hand in his pocket and pull out a cheque for $20,000, then added: “I would have thought I must have accidentally pulled on Santo Santoro's pants.” Santoro, Queensland right-wing Liberal Party power broker, Howard government Senator and junior minister had earlier that month admitted failing to declare share trading profits on his pecuniary interest register.
The Perkin award - for reporting on indigenous affairs - was an extraordinary pinnacle in a career that started at 15 and was never intended to include journalism. It was a journalism career that began in country newspapers when Koch was in his early 20s and finished on the national daily, The Australian, where he retired in 2012 as Queensland chief reporter.
Along the way Koch received three national Dalgety awards for rural journalism, five national Walkley Awards, News Corp's highest honour, the Sir Keith Murdoch Award, and an unprecedented 48 state media awards including Journalist of the Year.
Born in the country northern NSW town of Casino, Tony grew up in Mungallala in western Queensland near Charleville. He had three brothers and two sisters. His father was a country policeman and so was one of his brothers. His mother worked in the local TAB.
After starting work at the local sawmill, Koch moved to a job with the State Department of Justice in the local Mitchell courthouse as a 15-year-old. The department advertised positions for court shorthand reporters. Koch was given one and went to Brisbane to be trained in the Parliament House building. He became a qualified court reporter at age 20.
It was in his new job that Koch met his bride-to-be, his boss Clare Healey. Court reporters were required to be away on the road for regional court assignments 100 days a year and Clare and Tony decided that would make their life almost impossible. Koch resolved that as the junior of the two he would find another job.
"I looked in the paper the following Saturday and there was a job as a minutes secretary for the United Graziers Association. They did not get many court reporters applying for that so I got the job. I used to go around to graziers' meetings in the bush and take verbatim notes. The association also owned the Queensland Country Life newspaper and at these meetings I was often told good stories that I passed on to Country Life reporters. Eventually they just told me to write these stories myself. So I became a journalist by accident. "
He started writing pieces for the paper and then expanded into commentary and guest spots on ABC radio. He learned to fly, as all reporters did at Country Life.
Koch moved to Brisbane in 1982 when News Corp launched the Daily Sun. Many reporters had left The Courier-Mail for the new morning daily and Courier editor Kev Kavanagh and editor-in-chief Harry Gordon rang Koch to offer him a job on the state broadsheet as deputy to political editor Peter Morley.
Koch describes political reporting in the days of Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen as incredibly frustrating: "It was the Joh government that introduced press secretaries and the first real news manipulation. They would also use the Speaker to declare controversial subjects sub judice to prevent Opposition questioning in the House. Because we did not have a rival newspaper here for most of my time as a political reporter there was not the competition between journalists for state stories that there was in Sydney or Melbourne."
Reporters who tried to break their own stories or did not toe the government line got no co-operation, while those who did were spoon fed stories - Sir Joh's legendary "feeding the chooks".
It was in the mid-1990s at the Courier and later at The Australian, when he turned his attention to Indigenous relations, that Koch did his most remarkable work. He rates his long campaign over the death of young Aboriginal man Mulrunji (Cameron) Doomadgee, 36, in November 2004 at the hands of police Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, as his best work.
"Hurley was the first policeman or prison officer in the history of Australian settlement to be charged over the death of an inmate. He was not convicted but at least he was charged," Koch said.
Koch brought to light the plight of hundreds of Aboriginal children and women. He used his friendship with Cape York aboriginal leader Noel Pearson to campaign for dry communities and education reform.
He also dug relentlessly into the issue of corruption within the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and specifically its deputy, Sugar Ray Robinson. Overwhelmingly Koch was concerned for victims whose plight could be ameliorated.
"I came to the conclusion that I needed to focus on victims when Di McCauley was the Member for Callide in the mid-1990s and got up in Parliament one day to reveal that the widows of the 12 miners killed in the first Moura mine disaster in 1986 had not received a cent of compensation,” Koch said.
"I resolved not to go down the path of other journalists who were always trying to uncover the causes of such events, but to try to look after the victims. I decided this was the best thing I could do as a journalist.”
Chris Mitchell is a media commentator, and a former editor-in-chief of Queensland Newspapers and The Australian.
Staff photo. Courtesy of News Corp.
Courtesy of News Corp
Tony Koch being interviewed for 'The Tall Man'. Courtesy of SBS
Tony Koch's personal website, featuring many of his key stories