Mike Willesee
Mike Willesee (Image: A Current Affair)

The news of the death of journalist Mike Willesee late last week, following the announced appointment of journalist Ita Buttrose as ABC Board chair, tells us something big about the 20th century Australian media: “there were giants in the earth in those days”.

Now not so much. Fragmented media, social diversity, and declining trust means that we will never see their kind again.

Each of them emerged from distinct — and not repeatable — historical circumstances.

Willesee was part of that first-of-a-kind generation of television journalists who came out of Australia’s founding TV current affairs program, This Day Tonight — a generation that included legends of the craft like Caroline Jones, Mike Carlton, Bill Peach, Sonia Humphrey, George Negus, Peter Luck and Richard Carleton.

As a group, they dominated public perceptions of what a journalist was for close on 30 years. They benefited both from being first in their field and from being first at a time when Australian news had a powerful intertwined narrative that relied on journalism; documenting the social change of the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnam, and the rise and fall of the Whitlam government.

Willesee himself parlayed that into commercial television’s first successful nightly current affairs program, which continues on Nine as A Current Affair. These twin firsts made him a larger-than-life public personality without sacrificing his public status as a journalist — a rare combination that was reflected in the media and public mourning over the weekend.

Buttrose was the first to grasp the opportunity to mesh the personality and journalist personas through the Australian media’s commercial adoption — and monetisation — of the feminist movement of the 1970s and ’80s. She was also one of the first Australian journalists to embrace the personal brand management that social media has now made near universal.

Both media platforms and individual journalists have attempted — and still attempt — to replicate each of these models. Most successfully, in the ’80s, Nine hot-housed a founding group of journalists on 60 Minutes and Sunday (including This Day Tonight alumni such as Negus and Gerald Stone). Both Ten and Seven have made plays at the same space, although without the long-term commitment that drove success at both the ABC and Nine.

Political reporting on our home screens through the drama of the Hawke-Keating years led to the rise of reporting stars like the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien and Nine’s Laurie Oakes, giving them a status that has endured through to this century.

But through the ’80s and ’90s, public awareness of the personality manufacturing process led others to stumble. How do you sustain the profile of the personality with the integrity of the journalist’s craft? How to resist the network’s drive towards wearing sequins on Dancing with the Stars rather than a bullet-proof vest in Afghanistan?

Being first, the media giants of the Willesee and Buttrose generation benefited from having their own narrative fed into cultural iconography, most famously in Cold Chisel’s song “Ita” (and, perhaps, most harshly in the 1990s’ ABC sitcom, Frontline). And, of course, each benefited from the trailers and promotions of their parent media companies and their associated awards.

This promotional infrastructure of 20th century television makes it difficult to tell whether TV reporters are ever genuinely embraced as recognisable personalities to their audiences. Earlier this decade, MEAA polling on attitudes to journalism asked respondents to name a journalist — just one, any one. The most common response was “don’t know.” In a distant second: Andrew Bolt.

Now the fragmentation of media and the slow decline of free-to-air television means that broadcast media is no longer a path to the manufacture of the giant journalistic personalities that shaped late 20th century journalism.

Instead, the path to the personality runs through opinion economy — the more outraged, the better. The political economy of that shift seems simple: broadcast advertisers are chasing engagement. This demands the commercial broadcasters, in radio and TV, in free-to-air and in pay, build a dedicated, committed audience.

That doesn’t require the popular, journalistic personalities that deliver diverse, mass audiences. It requires presenters who bring confirmation bias for their (often aging) demographic powered by resentment and outrage.

Personalities? Sure. But not giants.

Peter Fray

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