Television is a funny old thing. Stick a program on air and if it survives for long enough it becomes an institution; one day the host is not just the host but “legendary” and “indispensable”.
But suddenly someone else is fronting the cameras, and instantly the result is so good that the previous program recedes into the distance — just as the arrival of Daniel Craig as James Bond caused a sharp revision as to what we all thought about Pierce Brosnan.
And so to Insiders, the ABC’s Sunday morning political gabfest, which began its new era in the best way possible yesterday. David Speers, a 45-year-old hot daddy* political nerd and asylum seeker from Sky News, calmly and methodically ripped the nation’s treasurer a new one.
Speers replaced Barrie Cassidy, who helped devise the program and hosted it since its debut in 2001. This was one year after Speers joined Sky News as a Canberra correspondent, when its office in the press gallery of Parliament House was pretty much a broom cupboard.
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Yesterday’s program was bold and instantly different. Executive producer Samuel Clark, the ABC’s election coverage supremo, slicked up the graphics and decluttered the set. The Sunday papers segment was also junked, to give the program more pace.
This meant that the panel could quickly get stuck into the biggest news story of the week, but not before Speers delivered his own highly-pointed editorial. Panel first-timer Renee Viellaris, political editor of The Courier-Mail, also added fresh insights to the discussion alongside The Australian Financial Review’s Phillip Coorey and The Australian’s Niki Savva.
The program was a success, attracting 425,000 viewers in the major capital cities on both the ABC and ABC News channels. That beat Weekend Today and Weekend Sunrise for the second half of the program.
Speers replaced Cassidy perhaps a little too well and delivered the toughest political interview seen on the ABC in recent times. Few among the ABC’s armoury of political talent would have dared to conduct an interview in the manner of which Speers tackled Treasurer Josh Frydenberg; they would have been terrified of the blowback, of being called out for being slavishly devoted to green-left groupthink. And the government would have been furious.
But Speers was a dog with a bone. He pushed back against the treasurer and interrupted abruptly. But Frydenberg can spin better than a Fisher & Paykel front loader, and politicians as practiced as him need roughing up occasionally to tip them into making an admission. Or, as happened here: making their determination to stick to the talking points become the interview talking point.
The backflip over the $1000 fee to extract Australians from the coronavirus epicentre in China was not a backflip but a case of everyone being “provided with incorrect advice”.
Frydenberg was left looking foolish, the first politician to get Speered on the ABC. But few politicians, after enduring such a towelling, would leave with a smile.
Unfortunately the program hit the buffers during the long-standing and tired “Talking Pictures” segment. We live in a visual age, so analysis of photographs and cartoons, but also of memes and tweets is welcome. Just not in the manner presented here.
Similarly, Mike Bowers interviewing Amy Remeikis while dressed in Hawaiian shirts and leis to mock the PM’s Hawaiian holiday could have been novel — if this was still the 1980s and we were watching The Comedy Company.
As it was, two Guardian Australia journalists taking the same pot shots weeks after everyone had done the same felt both smug and stale and undid the point of hiring Speers.
Just like Hamish Macdonald, the new host of Q&A, Speers comes to the role seemingly without agenda. Neither are ABC lifers, or former press secretaries to Labor leaders; they prefer scoops and reasoned analysis to social media posturing. No one can tell you how they vote. It is hard to make an accusation of bias stick.
Some ABC execs felt Cassidy had lost something in his final months; members of the cabinet felt he had years ago. It was telling than Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who had boycotted Insiders for years, popped up immediately after Cassidy’s departure to be interviewed by Annabel Crabb.
Now all those years that ABC News boss Gaven Morris assiduously courted Speers have paid off from the get go (although sources say that reports of Speers’ salary are inflated).
Speers and Macdonald will act as human shields, protecting the national broadcaster from accusations of bias hurled at them by News Corp and its subsidiary Sky News.
It was fascinating to read The Australian’s opinion of Speers in this morning’s media section. There wasn’t one.
No profile. Not even a review of the show. And nothing in the News Corp tabloids. So it’s official: David Speers is to News Corp what Leon Trotsky was to Pravda: invisible. Which should please just about everyone.
*Apologies for this, but am I wrong?