1933 - | NSW | Current affairs broadcast journalist
The American-born Gerald Stone began his career as a copy boy at the New York Times before emigrating to Australia in 1962. He worked for the Daily Mirror in Sydney and the ABC before being appointed founding producer of the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes. The program, based on the US model with star reporters at the centre of the story, became a ratings juggernaut for the Nine Network in the 1980s and cemented Nine’s reputation as the leading commercial network for news and current affairs. Stone enjoyed a close but sometimes difficult relationship with his proprietor Kerry Packer and, after Packer’s death, wrote a compelling book on the decline of the network, titled Who Killed Channel 9? Such was the respect for Stone that despite that savagely critical book he was commissioned to review the most damaging affair in 60 Minutes’ history, a botched child rescue attempt in Lebanon.
While best known in Australia as the “Godfather of 60 Minutes”, Gerald Stone had carved out a significant reporting career in the United States and Sydney before his surprise appointment as founding producer of the Nine Network’s flagship current affairs program.
Working for the Daily Mirror in the 1960s he covered the Freedom Rides led by Charles Perkins, scored a major scoop in the scandalous and baffling Bogle-Chandler murders, covered Royal tours and was embedded with Australian troops in Vietnam during their first clash with the Viet Cong.
A year later he published his book War without Honour and in 1967 joined the ABC’s This Day Tonight delivering ground-breaking television reports on “draft dodgers”, the plight of sex workers, police corruption and the shame of Australia’s “invisible poor”.
It was this journalistic pedigree and his commitment to accuracy and ethics — together with hitherto unheard-of salary packages - that helped Stone recruit respected reporters Ray Martin, Ian Leslie and George Negus to the inaugural 60 Minutes.
In his book Say it with Feeling, Stone says he still has no idea why Kerry Packer chose him to launch the Australian version of 60 Minutes in 1978. “He called me into his office and started reminding me how badly I had let him down over the years. I was confronted by every weakness in such minute detail I began to think I was about to be fired,” Stone says. “With masterful timing, he suddenly switched from berating me to breaking the news I had just been given the most coveted job in television journalism, declaring: ‘I don’t give a fuck what it takes. Just do it and get it right’.”
The first episode was universally canned as an expensive flop. But by breaking big national and international stories, the program steadily improved to become a ratings monster and turned respected journalists including Jana Wendt, Richard Carleton, Jeff McMullin, Jennifer Byrne and Mike Munro into television stars.
Martin says there are insufficient superlatives to describe Stone’s impact on television journalism: “Gerald was light years ahead of all of us in his instincts for a good story and the best way to present it. He was always clearly commercial with a special skill for a colourful phrase or headline, but always with real class. Ethics always came before ratings. He would excuse anything except inaccuracy and unethical behaviour. He had a ferocious temper but the loyalty was amazing. If you had Gerald’s support you could go to war.”
It was not the career path the young Gerald Stone had contemplated when he started work as a copyboy on the New York Times in 1957. Growing up in the mid-west, Stone thought Australia was the “least newsworthy country on earth”. But by 1960, when he joined United Press International’s United Nations bureau, Stone had become deeply alarmed by the military madness and McCarthyism gripping the United States. Boring Australia now looked like a very attractive place to raise a young family.
After his spells with the Daily Mirror and the ABC, Stone was hired by Frank Packer to co-host Federal File alongside veteran political journalist Alan Reid. Tired of the stultifying bureaucracy and censorship at the ABC, Stone was ready for a change. But, shortly before he started at Nine, Packer died, leaving his inexperienced 36-year-old son, Kerry, in charge of a network at an all-time low, trailing Seven and Ten.
Appointed News Director, Stone launched the short-lived “National” News Bulletin co-hosted out of Sydney and Melbourne. His belief was that Australians were ready for a broader national view than the parochial diet of crime and road accidents. The experiment was a disaster and Stone was shifted sideways.
In 1975 Stone and camera operator Brian Peters were offered the chance to board a medical supply ship bound for strife-torn East Timor, but the organisers needed $6000 to fund the mission. Packer agreed to pay on the condition that he would come as well. The mission produced dramatic vision of the fighting and the wounded with Stone, Peters and Packer coming under fire as 300 refugees were evacuated.
Six weeks later, Peters and Nine reporter Malcolm Rennie together with reporter Greg Shackleton, sound recordist Tony Stewart and cameraman Gary Cunningham from HSV-7 Melbourne were sent to cover the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. All five were murdered by Indonesian troops in Balibo.
Their deaths were a matter of lifetime regret for Stone who thereafter became obsessive about crew safety, to the extent, Ray Martin says, that the 60 Minutes team sometimes forgot to tell their boss about dangerous exploits until they were over.
Looking for a new challenge after Packer sold the network to Alan Bond in 1987, Stone spent three years at Murdoch’s Fox News in New York before returning to Australia to launch the Seven Network’s new current affairs program, Real Life, in 1992. The new program struggled to compete with Nine’s A Current Affair but launched the career of presenter Stan Grant, Australia’s first indigenous host of a major television program.
From 1995 to 1998 Stone was editor in chief of the Bulletin magazine and in 2000 joined the board of SBS, which he chaired for five years.
Throughout his career, Stone encouraged his teams to push boundaries in pursuit of big stories, but in 2016 60 Minutes’ involvement in a botched attempt to “kidnap” a child in Beirut and return her to her mother’s custody in Australia saw its star reporter, Tara Brown, and her camera crew jailed. Stone described the affair as the show’s greatest misadventure in 37 years, but blamed network management for insufficient supervision of the program, declaring the subsequent sacking of producer Stephen Rice to have been patently unfair.
David Broadbent is a former Channel Nine News State Politics Reporter and was Director of News at Channel Seven.
Gerald Stone with 60 Minutes team, courtesy of Fairfax.
Gerald Stone in 1995, courtesy of Fairfax.
Courtesy of ABC.
Say It With Feeling, Gerald Stone, Macmillan Australia, 2011
Who Killed Channel 9? Gerald Stone, Macmillan Australia, 2008
War Without Honour, Gerald Stone, Jacaranda Press, 1966