1942 - | NSW | Current affairs roducer & presenter
Mike Willesee can rightly claim to have created nightly commercial television current affairs in Australia. In 1971, he designed, produced and presented A Current Affair on Channel Nine. It was still going nearly half a century later and defied several attempts by the other networks to copy or supplant the formula of nightly tabloid television news mixed with serious interviews. Willesee became the pre-eminent television interviewer for more than 20 years. Earlier, Willesee had been a reporter on the ABC’s This Day Tonight and presenter of Four Corners.
At the height of his interviewing powers, in his second stint at the on-air helm of A Current Affair, one of Mike Willesee’s most potent weapons in his weekday battles with politicians, industry leaders and celebrities, involved him saying nothing at all.
Just when his target interviewee had thought they’d disposed of a question and were probably nervously anticipating the next one, Willesee, with his trademark quizzical half-smile, would just sit there.
The interviewee, thrown off-balance, would start talking again, to fill the “dead” air-space. And say things they hadn’t intended to say, sometimes things they’d been determined NOT to say. The trap was sprung: the next question – when it came – took them further down the same path and there was no going back.
It was no accident. Willesee, the son of a Labor senator and foreign minister in the Whitlam Government, had learned his craft as a reporter on the ABC’s trail-blazing This Day Tonight in the 1960s and quickly made a name for himself, locking horns early with the Holt Government over allegations of ABC bias. For two years from 1969 he hosted Four Corners. He has spoken since of the formative influence, on his work and life, of assignments to the Vietnam war during his ABC years, and how issues of social justice became the main force that motivated his journalism.
In 1971, under the banner of his own production company, Transmedia, he sold Channel 9’s Clyde Packer – and eventually his father Sir Frank (who at first labelled Willesee a communist because of his family’s Labor background) - on the idea of a weekday early evening current affairs program. A Current Affair was born, going to air early in 1972 on TCN in Sydney and GTV in Melbourne. Among its early claims to fame was Willesee’s recruiting of a knockabout bloke called Paul Hogan to do a comic “social commentary” spot.
Willesee left for the 0/10 network after three years, but the program continued – hosted for the most part by Michael Schildberger – until competitive pressures forced its cancellation in 1978. Six years later, Willesee returned to the Nine Network, in an eponymous program which re-established him as the television star big-name interviewees couldn’t afford to refuse, however much they’d have liked to.
Mike Willesee had fame, and the money and connections to indulge his other interests. He became a property developer, bought and sold radio stations, ran a thoroughbred racing stud and earned a reputation as a gambler, drinker and socialiser. As former Nine Network News and Current Affairs boss Peter Meakin put it: “You know he enjoyed a bet, he enjoyed a drink. He was not unattracted to members of the opposite sex and I think he’d a pretty healthy self-esteem too. He told me once, ‘The difference between you and me, Meakin, is that I’m a sex symbol and you’re a shit-kicker.”
The ACA brand name was re-introduced when Jana Wendt took on hosting duties in 1988, but – when she left after an argument with network bosses in 1992 – Willesee was back in the chair, in time for his famous 1993 “Birthday Cake” interview with Federal Opposition Leader John Hewson just before what was regarded as an unloseable election for the Coalition.
Typically polite and unrelenting, Willesee explored the controversial Goods and Services Tax (GST), Hewson’s understanding of how it would work and his ability (or otherwise) to explain it. The Coalition lost the election.
Less well received, in the same year, was his interview by telephone with two young children while they were being held hostage on a New South Wales country property. Many viewers and commentators regarded it as reckless and possibly putting the children at risk.
Willesee also achieved a certain notoriety – if less opprobrium - while hosting the program one evening in a slightly bemused state. His demeanour was genial, but his speech was slurred. Had he been drinking before the program? His answer? He was on medication; tired and emotional.
More positive in the public eye was his long-standing friendship – both on and off air – with Quentin Kenihan, a seven-year-old disabled child when they first met, born with bones which were broken and which kept on breaking, into his adulthood. Quentin’s sense of humour, positive attitude and willingness to take on the great interviewer at his own game helped two generations of viewers better understand disability – and courage.
In mid-life, Mike Willesee began to re-explore the Roman Catholic faith he’d grown up with but grown away from, after depressing and sometimes painful experiences at Church schools. Describing himself as a mature-age convert, he turned his mind and his program-making abilities to some of the enduring mysteries of the Church – like Stigmata, the Eucharist and the authenticity of the Turin Shroud. Deploying his interviewing skills against himself, he examined the strength of his own belief and whether science could ascertain the truth about matters of faith.
In 2012, he returned to mainstream Australian television, contracted to the Seven Network’s Sunday Night program to do high-profile interviews. Then prime minister Julia Gillard was his first interviewee. Billionaire casino owner and former Nine Network boss James Packer was among those who followed. The technique of the master interviewer was once again in evidence.
In 2016, Mike Willesee was diagnosed with a cancer of the throat, treatment for which has included being part of a trial of a radical immunotherapy drug. However effective or not it proves to be, for himself and for others, he’s set himself another interviewing task – to retrace his steps over nearly six decades in journalism and produce a memoir. It should be worth reading.
Bob Kearsley has been in journalism for almost 60 years, mainly in television news. He was at GTV9 when Frank Packer took it over in the early sixties and retired from it in 2007, after spells overseas with the BBC and Visnews and in Australia with the ABC and the Seven Network.
Mike Willesee and Paul Hogan
Mike Willesee in 2012, courtesy of Fairfax.
Compass: The Conversion of Mike Willesee, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 9 March 2003.
'Episode 117, Michael Willesee', Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 21 August 2006.