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Ladies’ night at the Walkleys for women in media

The future of news in Australia is in good hands. Last night’s Walkley Awards in Brisbane showcased the very best of Australian journalism, and highlighted in particular the depth of female talent now operating at the highest level across the range of journalistic genres.

The award for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Journalism was made to Caroline Jones, after a fifty year career of pioneering work at the ABC; an appropriate decision by the judges, and a demonstration of how much has changed since she joined the ABC in 1963. The first female reporter on This Day Tonight, the first female host of Four Corners, success on radio – she blazed a trail for the younger women who received a clutch of the key awards, solo or in partnership with teams.

Joanne McCarthy of the Newcastle Herald won the Gold Walkley, Australian journalism’s supreme accolade, for her work on child sex abuse within the Catholic Church in the Hunter Valley. Self-effacing and close to tears as she accepted the prize before a packed hall at the Royal International Convention Centre, Joanne confessed that on leaving school she had never even wanted be a journalist, but instead dreamed of being a librarian.

Librarianship’s loss is journalism’s gain, I’m happy to say, since McCarthy’s resilience and dogged determination – she compared herself to a boulder blocking the road against those who wished only that the sex abuse scandals would go away – made a major contribution to the setting up of a Royal Commission on Child Abuse, and all that is now flowing from it. If any single story confirms the importance of well resourced investigative journalism in our public life, it ‘s that one.

Pamela Williams won the Book Award with Killing Fairfax, Kate Geraghty the Nikon Press Photographer of the Year. I myself had the privilege of presenting the Radio Documentary award to ABC’s Sarah Dingle, for her intimate and unflinching study of child sex abuse within the home.

There were many other women in the line up of winners, and for all that gender equality in journalism is still some way off, it is beyond dispute that there is real progress happening in the industry. Not that there’s room for complacency. Today, in Brisbane, Caroline Jones and other senior women will be publicising the MEAA’s Women In Media initiative – a networking and mentoring group intended to keep up the pace of progressive change in the industry.

It wasn’t all about the ladies, however. Other notable winners included Barat Ali-Batour, the Afghan asylum seeker whose photographic essay depicting from the inside a failed journey by boat – the first such to make it to the mainstream Australian media - was humbling.

Investigative reporter Gerard Ryle won the Leadership award for his work in building a transnational collaboration around the ‘offshore leaks’ story of tax evasion by the super rich. Martin Butler and Bentley Dean won the Documentary award with First Footprints, their study of the history of indigenous art and culture.

In her acceptance speech Pamela Williams spoke of her optimism and hope for the future of news media in Australia, and observing this parade of journalistic excellence it was hard not to agree.

These are hard times for Australian journalism, as many observed last night. Media organisations and their staff are still wrestling with the disruptive impacts of digital transformation, and not all of them will make it through to the other side. But the mood in Brisbane last night was much more positive than might have been expected, and indicative of the growing acceptance and, yes, embrace of the digital I wrote about the other day on these pages.

From the stage Pamela Williams described digitalisation and social media as “not the enemy”, but a “challenge” to the old ways of doing things. The delivery modes for journalism are changing, she said, but the public’s need and desire for news is undiminished.

It is up to Australia’s journalists, inspired by the talent on display in Brisbane last night, to capitalise on that fact. If they can do so with journalism of such quality as was celebrated there, their future is bright.

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