On the Saturday my friend dived into his beloved surf for the last time I was closeted away on Canberra’s limestone plains, landlocked, writing. Over the Christmas break I’d fully disconnected, hoping to gather some thoughts about where journalism had landed, or failed to land, after ten years of constant change, and then massage them into publishable form. That weekend was the last big push to get the words right.
When I left my desk and plugged back into the world, the messages were there: emails, voicemails, bringing the news that Mick Gordon had gone into the surf and, inexplicably, hadn’t made it out. I blinked at the words, struggling to comprehend their meaning. I rang the messengers, one by one, that terrible catch in our voices, the halting words and the silence. Everyone, sadly, has had this experience—a death for which there is no warning. A shadow brushes past you, chilling you through, a grim reminder that everything is temporal, particularly the things that trick you by feeling the most certain.
I was nothing particularly special to Mick, just a workmate. I wasn’t part of the precious family who sat at the centre of his universe, or the lifelong intimates who inhabited and enlivened his private existence. I was just one of the many journalists he’d mentored, nurtured and supported—close, absolutely, but part of a minor tribe.
The grief gathering inside me was oversized, and he would have disapproved. Mick didn’t like stridency or sharp edges. After I understood that he had died, after I’d comprehended it, then he was somehow with me on the spiritual plane, a brief touchdown on the way to the afterlife.
I’d experienced this sensation once before, when a dear friend from school died after a long illness, this sense of visitation. Mick felt entirely present, just for a few moments. I could sense his benign side eye as I absorbed the information that he’d left us a couple of hours ago without saying goodbye. This visit was his last act of generosity to me, being with me when I heard the news, giving me that familiar look that said thank you, mate, you dear, dear, woman, but try to keep this in proportion.
I could feel myself failing him, as I very often did in that particular regard, lacking his equanimity and stillness and hesitancy and mindfulness. I felt a rupture—the end of something that had been very important to me, and something bigger than just a professional relationship between two colleagues: a consequential moment in time had ended, a couple of decades when I had read him, and he had read and encouraged me, but more than that, I felt the passing of a time when Mick personified what it was to be a journalist.
There was a harbinger of this feeling some months before when he’d told me he was leaving the Age, that he was moving into a different writing life. I felt that like a kick in the guts. Mick had been part of my writing life for so long I couldn’t fathom what life would feel like without him being there, up the front, as Dennis Atkins said so correctly, the journalist you wanted to be but knew you weren’t. This summer Saturday made it non-negotiable. I was now in a different time, and without him.
• • •
Michael Gordon was newspapers. He was the son of a newspaperman and, to borrow that old cliché that is sometimes even fitting, the ink coursed through his veins as well. But he wasn’t the stereotypical newspaperman dished up in popular culture, the irascible alpha male, chest bumping and barking orders, like hold the front page—the various cinematic versions of Ben Bradlee. Journalists are egomaniacs more often than not. Mick was competitive, but his journalistic ego was checked by empathy and by a larger than average quota of emotional intelligence.
He recessed himself into the pages, like black ink fading into a blotter. The stories passed through him. He didn’t subdue the words, man versus keyboard; he shaped them and shared them, a potter, quiet and focused on the rotations of his wheel.
After he died and we all gathered together to mourn him in Melbourne, his good friend Martin Flanagan said of Mick that when you spoke to him, ‘you could hear the words drop inside him, like coins in a slot machine’.
He was sensitive. He felt things. ‘If you said personal things about him, he would blush. His smile came from deep down, like the sun appearing over a horizon. If you asked him a question, there was always a pause, then a slight stammer preceding a rush of words. But not many words—he was a clear, precise thinker. And that was how he wrote—clearly, precisely.’
The smile Martin had captured in a sentence shone down on the mourners from a bunch of LED screens arrayed around the function room at the MCG. Our friend Alex Ellinghausen had caught it one day at Uluru as the wattage crept up, bit by bit, with the image caught right at the height before the fade.
Martin felt Mick had improved with age. ‘He became more his own man, dared to do stories that weren’t going to get clicks online. At a time when, for some, clicks online were the measure of a journalist’s worth.’
Was I the only one who flinched at that point in Martin’s eulogy? I don’t think I was. I think the journalistic room flinched, understanding that observation exactly, all of us prisoners of the buzzing devices then switched to silent in our pockets, unmoored professionally and personally by the digital age, picked up and tossed about in its current, trying in different ways to find the ground beneath our feet, servants of an audience wanting their news now.
Martin ploughed on with his piercing clarity. ‘He wrote stories about refugees, powerless people none of us really want to know about because the subject is threatening in so many ways. What is remarkable about Micky’s journalism is its consistency. He wrote about football, he wrote Indigenous stories, he wrote about Canberra politics, he wrote about Manus Island refugees, and the subjects of all those very different stories seem to agree that he treated them fairly and well. Somehow his method successfully negotiated the difficulties peculiar to each area.’
Martin was right about the consistency, and the consistency was part temperament, part measure of the man, but it was also forged in the medium in which he was fashioned. Mick’s work prospered in an era where the front page of a broadsheet newspaper had currency and power and resonance, where storytelling had the capacity not only to reveal what had previously been hidden, but also to soothe and synthesise, to help settle competing interests and ideas. Print made narration of ideas and events steady, sequential and powerful.
Mick understood from the example of his father and from his own lived experience that words could influence the course of events if you formed them honestly and you didn’t abuse your position, and were trusted by an audience. He understood that because print once conferred that power upon his work. For most of Mick’s professional life, print was the steady heartbeat of the news cycle, the orderly stroke that propelled public life down the pool. The medium was the certainty and the consistency, and Mick a loyal servant of and exemplar of the medium.
Don Watson at the service characterised Mick’s political journalism as ‘putting the shattered glass back together’, which was a wonderful description of his core objective. Watson watched Mick over decades go to Indigenous communities, to Nauru and Manus Island, ‘do his best for the dispossessed and the maltreated’ and ask the questions such access and seeing demanded. Mick would ask, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, ‘In the light of this, how can we say we are good?’
Martin said he’d seen a former Age colleague at the supermarket after news of his death had filtered through. ‘She was immediately tearful and I knew why—Michael Gordon. ‘I didn’t really know him,’ she said. ‘It’s what he represented.’
‘We live in the era of fake news,’ Flanagan continued. ‘There was not a single fake particle in Michael Gordon, and that was recognised in places as far apart as the Lodge in Canberra and the Manus Island detention centre. His life stands as an example of what journalism can be and do.’
• • •
Martin spoke of the man we had lost, the one we all cherished and admired, but I think he understood we were mourning more than the loss of one of the most skilled practitioners and decent people I’ve had to good fortune to know. We were grieving in a context. Flanagan’s eulogy was also about the ebbing of an era, Mick’s era, his own and mine—or at least the era in which I’d been apprenticed to my trade.
I had spent the summer tracking back to that era, the pre-digital print era, retracing steps and trying to re-create the world of 20 years ago when I started out in journalism. The walking backwards was an effort to understand the differences between what happened then and what happened now—a modest writing project that I hoped might explain, in some small part, why public life and conversation feel untethered compared to how things felt ten or 15 years ago—untethered because we are working through a profound transition.
I had to re-create the years when Mick had been Saturday editor of the Age, and flat out demanded I produce the splash every week. He claimed this was our pact. Periodically he would also let me fill in writing a political column for the Saturday paper, which was a bit like reaching the summit of Mount Everest, because opinion in that period was strictly rationed, it was made finite by the number of slots available on a printed page, it wasn’t belched out across the internet 24/7, settling across the landscape like a film of volcanic ash.
‘That’s prime real estate, mate,’ Mick would say to me with a sunrise smile when he’d send the Saturday political column space my way. ‘Don’t you screw that up.’ There wasn’t anything more terrifying than that gentle exhortation, a running gag between us that was encouraging, affirming and deadly serious—a solemn passing of the torch. Because the internet has this characteristic of plunging us all into a constantly refreshing permanent present, it was hard for me to row back there, even though it wasn’t that long ago. I had to mine my memory to recollect the more orderly habits of those times, and then wrench myself back to the present, where disorder is the order of the day.
Mick never left that era. He sought to impose those values on the present. The technology changed, the mores of the news cycle changed, but his plumbline never moved. Journalistically, he was from a time of restraint, understatement and purpose—not flotsam, manufactured contention and shrieking.
I think he felt out of time periodically in journalism’s present, a person of composure and purpose in a time of sensation. I don’t think he ever realised how important his plumbline was for a lot of us, how it served as a beacon in times we still don’t entirely understand. I tried to tell him how important it was for me over the last 12 months before he died, in different ways and at different times. I don’t know if he understood what I meant entirely, given his feet never left the floor, but I hope he did.
I’d been looking forward to showing him the little book I wrote over the summer. When I walked out of my room on the Sunday he died, I thought I had reached the point at which I could send him the words, and he would tell me, in his halting way, what needed fine tuning and what didn’t. It was at that moment of reaching out that I collided with his death.
So I won’t be sending Mick the words, and I’ll have to do the rest of this life in journalism without the benefit of his wisdom. I’ll have to trust that I’ve learned what he was generous enough to teach me, that somehow I can pick up the shattered glass. •
Katharine Murphy began her career in the Canberra parliamentary press gallery in 1996. She is political editor of Guardian Australia and adjunct associate professor of journalism at the University of Canberra.