Last November journalist Michael Gordon took his surfboard to a Gold Coast beach near where his father Harry had lived out his final days and paddled with family members beyond the break. There, in the gentle swell of the deep blue, he scattered his dad’s ashes.
No one could have imagined that Gordon, an admired and respected political journalist for The Age, The Australian and Melbourne’s The Herald newspapers, would follow his father so soon. He died on Saturday in the waters off Phillip Island, competing in an ocean swim.
The last two articles Gordon wrote were interview pieces with former prime ministers from opposite sides of Australia’s political divide. The subjects of those interviews, John Howard and Julia Gillard, were among those who paid tribute to Gordon on the day of his unexpected death.
The twin stories, published to promote the McKinnon Prize for political leadership, are a fitting epilogue to what Paul Keating described as the mountain of work that Gordon left behind.
Rarely has a journalist navigated the nation’s treacherous political currents over so long a career, while making so few enemies.
He is remembered less for the big stories he broke than the integrity, consideration and humanity that shaped his work and personal life.
Gillard described Gordon as a thoroughly decent man. “His approach to journalism was to thoughtfully tell the truth,’’ she said. Tony Abbott remembered him as one of Australia’s finest political journalists. Malcolm Turnbull said Gordon was wise and calm. Bill Shorten said his “every word was yielded with cause’’.
Gordon, a fit, non-smoking, experienced ocean swimmer who died at the age of 62, was indeed a journalist with a cause.
He spent much of the latter stage of his career writing about refugees and subjecting to scrutiny Australia’s offshore processing and detention of asylum-seekers.
His indefatigable reporting led to him being named 2005 Australian Journalist of the Year by the Melbourne Press Club.
Last year, after Gordon retired from The Age newspaper where he worked for 37 of his 44 years in journalism, the Walkley Foundation honoured him with a lifetime achievement award. The citation read in part:
“The overwhelming impression Gordon left — with both his byline and his presence — was of decency, integrity, fairness and balance. Even when he was working at the epicentre of influence, he held himself outside the media pack.’’
Cartoonist Peter Nicholson worked with Gordon at The Age and later at The Australian, when Gordon was national political editor.
He said Gordon always found time to discuss an idea — even in the bedlam before deadline — and was forever looking to improve his writing. “There was no ostensible agenda; he would approach everything from a humanitarian viewpoint,’’ Nicholson said. “I don’t think he made an enemy anywhere. It is pretty cutthroat in Canberra and he was a good friend to have, always.’’
Amid tributes from former prime ministers, political figures and prominent journalists,
Gordon was acknowledged by Aboriginal leaders, refugees, Australia’s Tamil community and migrant families who he befriended, helped and spoke for.
Beyond politics, Gordon was a passionate surfer, dedicated swimmer and much-loved father who recently became a grandfather to baby Harry, named after his great-grandfather, celebrated foreign correspondent, Olympics writer and historian, and editor of Melbourne newspaper The Sun.
Gordon wrote books about Paul Keating, Bells Beach and the Hawthorn Football Club. He was immensely proud of the humanitarian work done by his son Scott in one of the world’s poorest countries, Sierra Leone.
Most mornings Gordon could be found at a pool in Hawthorn, swimming laps with former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu and other members of the “Lane 4 Club’’. Baillieu was due to meet Gordon for lunch this week. “He is just a fantastic bloke and a beautiful, beautiful writer,’’ he told Media. “He loved to surf and open-water swimming. He was a guy with a saltwater smile; wise with words, wild in the water, warm in the world.’’
Gordon is survived by his wife Robyn, his son Scott, daughter Sarah and grandson Harry.
This article was originally published in The Australian and can be viewed here. News Corp Australia has given NewsMediaWorks republication rights.