1956- | VIC | Journalist, Presenter
During her three-decade long career in television news and current affairs for all three commercial networks and SBS, Wendt fought to uphold journalistic standards, publicly delivering a trenchant criticism of the dumbing down of commercial television current affairs. Her forensic television interviewing skills earned her the nickname the perfumed steamroller and a Gold Logie for most popular personality. Wendt has also worked in radio and magazines and written three books, including a novel.
November 27, 1992: the last edition of Channel Nine’s A Current Affair before the summer break and – after five years in the host’s chair – Jana Wendt was stepping aside. She introduced the regular Friday closing segment – comedians John Clarke and Brian Dawe with their quizzical take on the week. But what the pair delivered instead was a valedictory tribute to their colleague.
Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke was among those with a recorded goodbye message, but his body language and stone-face suggested warm words for the interviewer known as “the perfumed steamroller” didn’t come easily. After a relatively short time, he said she’d become “a legend in current affairs in Australia.” A grab from one of their earlier encounters provided a clue. A question about the authenticity of a Prime Ministerial display of emotion was angrily described by him as “despicable and contemptible” and a “repugnant” assertion.
Former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and sometime opposition leader Andrew Peacock were shown in combative mood too, but non-politicians had kinder words: actor Dustin Hoffman seemed totally smitten, Kermit the Frog proposed some kind of inter-species affair, and comedian Robin Williams just didn’t want his interview to end.
A lot of the viewing public seemed to feel that way too, despite – or perhaps because of – Jana’s outspokenness, as well as her striking screen presence and forensic interviewing skills. The previous year she’d walked out on the program for two days in protest against a story on topless shop assistants, and what she increasingly saw as the dumbing-down of commercial current affairs television.
Reportedly among the highest-paid presenters on Australian television at the time, she was in a strong position to have her views heard.
So did November 1992 mark the end of Jana’s on-air career? Well, no. There were plenty of programs and plenty of fireworks still to come. But let’s go back to the beginning. How did the daughter of Czech immigrants, who studied French and Philosophy at Melbourne University, graduating with honours, come to be locking horns with prime ministers, both actual and aspiring, and being worshipped from afar by actors, musicians and comedians?
Jana’s father was a journalist, writing for a Czech dissident newspaper when the Communists were in power, and she acknowledges that a seed was planted there. But she felt no overwhelming pull. Straight out of uni, working as a researcher at the ABC, she heard that Channel 0 – after 14 years they were still the new kid on the commercial TV block – might be hiring. News director Michael Schildberger agreed to see her, saw potential and put her on the road as a C grade reporter.
Two years later, Channel 0 was Channel 10, the Eyewitness News format had been imported from the States and Jana was sharing presenting duties with the experienced David Johnston. An era of outstanding success for Channel 10 News had begun. As David recalls “much of the credit for that success goes to Jana. She was beautiful, intelligent, a classy presenter ... and loved a long lunch!”
Things can move quickly in television, in all sorts of directions. For Jana it was onward and upward. Producer Gerald Stone, who had introduced the 60 Minutes current affairs format to Australia in 1978, liked what he saw. After two years in 10’s news studio, Jana joined Ray Martin, George Negus and Ian Leslie – she was the youngest and first female member of the globe-trotting team. For Stone, she was “more like a Hollywood film star than anyone else in Australian TV”. She was certainly a success: admired for her cool, probing interviewing style, her determination to get beyond the surface of the issues she reported on and – perhaps not least – the touch of glamour that kept viewers enthralled and led unwary interviewees to overlook her considerable intellect (but not for long!).
By 1987, motherhood suggested a change of direction: globe-trotting 60-Minutes-style isn’t exactly conducive to bringing up a young family. Jana took over as host of A Current Affair, succeeding Mike Willesee in the early evening time slot. Ratings were strong and continuing success seemed assured. But Jana became increasingly unhappy with what she saw as an unhealthy trend in commercial TV current affairs – away, as she put it in her Andrew Olle Lecture in 1997, from “journalism that is true to itself, into journalism dictated overridingly by the market”. Disagreements with management culminated in the walkout over the topless shop assistants and then her departure from ACA in 1992.
A series called On Assignment was created for her, followed by a return to 60 Minutes and an arrangement to contribute to the CBS program of the same name, but Jana Wendt and the Nine Network parted company in 1995.
The Seven Network, aiming to take the high ground in commercial current affairs television, brought forth Witness in 1996, delighted to have the top female proponent of the craft as its host. But acrimony, followed by litigation, set in when Jana accused the program and the network of failing to live up to their promises about pursuing quality journalism.
The Andrew Olle Lecture, in honour of one of the ABC’s finest, provided a platform to put her views on the record: television journalism, she said, “at its worst ... is deceptive in the claims it makes to sell itself. At rock bottom, it is no better than the small-time conmen it often smites with phony outrage. Principles like objectivity and fairmindedness have been replaced by cheap opinion and popular prejudices”. These sentiments were hardly likely to endear her to commercial television managements (or some of her erstwhile colleagues), and they didn’t.
But the ABC found it interesting and commissioned a special program called The Uncertain Eye, which documented her views about commercial television. It was followed by Uncensored, a series in which Wendt interviewed – among others – US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and writer Norman Mailer.
After a three-year spell at SBS, hosting Dateline, she was invited back to Nine in 2003 to succeed Jim Waley as presenter of the highly-respected Sunday. It seemed a perfect fit, but by 2006, network management was looking for ways to combat Seven’s Weekend Sunrise and save money at the same time. Rumours suggested Wendt’s position was under threat; she was critical of the planned changes. By September it was all over: after a total of 15 years with the Nine Network she’d departed for the second time, only six months into a new 3-year contract. Her column for The Bulletin, a news magazine with the same ownership as Nine, was also abruptly terminated.
The following year saw the emergence of Jana Wendt, author, with the publication of her first book A Matter of Principle, examining the fundamental principles of a number of high-profile individuals. It was followed in 2010 by Nice Work, looking at the daily working lives of people in a wide range of jobs.
Wendt says her own working life has taken on a more satisfying shape, enjoying writing, telling an interviewer that – despite her extraordinary celebrity in the television days – she’s more suited to the solitary life of a writer, quite happy to work alone.
What’s next for this woman whose powerful contribution to television current affairs made her own first name a byword whenever the genre was discussed, and provided a role model for many aspiring young female journalists along the way, with her ability, her style and her refusal to play by the boys’ club rules of the day?
Well, she says: “I am ensconced in what is for me the new, and deeply personal, occupation of fiction writing. From where I sit, it is hard to imagine doing anything else.”
Bob Kearsley has been in journalism for more than 50 years, mostly in television news. His working life has included 16 years with the BBC in the UK and Asia, a similar time with GTV9 Melbourne and spells with the ABC and the Seven Network.
Courtesy of Jana Wendt
'Andrew Olle Lecture', Jana Wendt, 1997 – ABC website.
A Matter of Principle, Jana Wendt, MUP, 2007.
Nice Work, Jana Wendt, MUP, 2010.