1937-2009 | VIC | Broadcaster
A double Walkley award-winning newspaper journalist, Sorell became Australia's most successful television news executive. Despite a total lack of broadcast experience his innovative and adventurous approach to television news set the template for modern news bulletins. He took risks and ignored conventional TV wisdom, lifting Channel Nine Melbourne into an unprecedented period of ratings dominance. A prodigious drinker, he first made his name breaking big news stories in his On the Spot column in The Herald followed by a brief but colourful stint editing the sensationalist Sunday Observer.
When John Sorell moved from print journalism to television in 1975 his career had hit a low point, and his rise to become Australia’s most successful TV news executive did not happen quickly or easily.
When he was approached by Kerry Packer to lead Channel Nine’s Melbourne news service, Sorell was editing the sensationalist Sunday Observer newspaper, which was facing financial collapse despite big circulation increases delivered by Sorell. The Observer’s brilliant but unpredictable owner, Maxwell Newton, was struggling to pay his staff and Sorell had a huge personal tax bill.
Sorell knew virtually nothing about television production but Packer’s offer to clear his tax debt swung his decision to make the switch. Many staff at the network were alarmed by Sorell’s appointment, fearing he would bring the Observer’s sensationalism to what was then a rather serious, and struggling news service.
It was several difficult years before Sorell won the hearts and minds of his staff and lifted the bulletin’s ratings to number one.
Sorell first made his name writing the ‘On The Spot’ daily news column in The Herald. Conceived by then chief of staff John Fitzgerald, the column aimed at getting a hard news interview with the newsmaker of the day published in the paper’s first edition. That meant a 4am start and a 9am deadline for completed copy, a regime requiring enormous, energy, bold initiative and reporting skill.
Sorell’s news-breaking interviews with Prime Minister John Gorton when he voted himself out of office, and the colourful American oil rig firefighter “Red” Adair won him two Walkley Awards.
The Adair story typified Sorell’s bold and risky style. In 1968, the legendary firefighter was flying from the US to tackle a gas fire on a platform off Lakes Entrance. Sorell flew to Fiji to connect with Adair’s flight and somehow managed to persuade the airline to shuffle seats so he could sit next to Adair, who he interviewed mid-air. Landing in Melbourne with only minutes to his paper’s deadline, Sorell dictated his story from an airport phone.
Long-time colleague Ken Davis later wrote: “Sorell also had diagrams Adair had drawn in the reporter’s notebook of how the fire would be plugged. The diagrams were rushed to the office while Sorell was on the phone. Back in the office, cadets were lined up to run each paragraph to the sub-editors’ desk. He filed his last words as the presses began rolling. Sorell’s interview appeared before many of his rivals knew Adair had arrived in Melbourne”.
But that effort alone does little justice to the writing skills, initiative and enormous energy he poured into his work. He was a major news breaker and his columns were a compelling part of Melbourne life, bristling with crisp, economic and muscular writing. Even at the height of his TV career, Sorell retained a love for newspaper journalism.
Born in Hobart, he began his career as a cadet on The Mercury before joining the merchant navy. Two years later he jumped ship in Geelong and talked his way into a job on The Age before switching to The Herald.
In the early 1970s, as editor of The Sunday Observer he provided Melburnians with some startling and confronting tabloid journalism with headlines such as “My Billy’s no poofter – Sonia tells” after rumours about former prime minister William McMahon. Sorell lifted the Observer’s circulation from 60,000 to 200,000.
But it was his charismatic leadership of the Channel Nine news that became the stuff of television legend.
When first approached by Packer, Sorell admitted he had no idea how television worked. Packer didn’t care, saying he wanted a good journalist and that a news director who knew how cameras worked was in the wrong job.
According to Ken Davis, the clincher was that Packer would advance Sorell $25,000 to pay off the tax debt. Many years later when Sorell rang Packer to thank him and said the debt had been repaid, the billionaire had forgotten all about it.
Sorrel’s first strategic move was to persuade respected former news reader Sir Eric Pearce out of retirement to re-brand the bulletin, as he launched a two-year campaign to lure top-rating news reader Brian Naylor away from Seven. The second move was to install a fridge in his office and make sure it was always well stocked and open to anyone who had finished their work.
Trusting his instincts, he ignored conventional TV wisdom. He disdained screen tests and hired reporters on first impressions, often after a session at the pub. He hired women and nurtured the careers of people such as Tracy Grimshaw and Jo Hall.
Some of his decisions, such as taking Naylor out of the studio to put him in the middle of the Ash Wednesday bushfires, were bold and brilliant. Other ploys, such as getting a 16-year-old schoolgirl to present the weather in a bikini were less widely applauded.
By the time ratings began to rise Sorell had established an unbreakable routine of marathon lunchtime sessions at the local pub with an entourage of producers, editors and, in some cases, bosses. Richmond hotels could be made or broken if he tired of them and took his patronage elsewhere.
Only a Packer visit could get Sorell back in the newsroom before 3pm, and when he did reappear it was with a ritual cry of “Right! Let’s get this show on the road”. Then, to the
frustration or approval of his producers, he would frequently turn their day’s work upside down.
Sorell constantly tested friendships, set high standards and demanded they be met, but even in his full post-lunch fury, journalists knew they could stand their ground on the facts of a story and he would always support them. “You were there, I wasn’t.”
Some managers tried in vain to shorten his lunch sessions, but long-term boss Ian Johnson believed the way to get the best out of Sorell was to give him his head. “I always thought he was better off staying out of the newsroom until about four o’clock,” Johnson said.
Sorell gave and inspired extraordinary loyalty, and hundreds of newsroom staff enjoyed the generous hospitality he and his first wife, Carol, regularly turned on at their home in Kew.
One critical test of loyalty came from Packer after the release of the Costigan Royal Commission report when Packer was depicted in other media as “The Goanna”, and incorrectly linked with drug trafficking and pornography.
Packer rang Sorell and tried to get him to bury the story. The conversation was especially difficult because Packer was more wounded than angry, but Sorell convinced him his personal credibility and that of his television network was at stake. The story led the bulletin.
David Broadbent was a Director of News at Channel Seven and former Channel Nine state politics reporter.
Photo courtesy of News Corp.
Sorell with veteran Channel Nine newsreader Brian Naylor.
Where Were You When…The news that stopped a nation, Natalee Ward, 2003, News Custom Publishing.
'Nine News guru John Sorell dies', Sydney Morning Herald, April 13 2009.