In this edition:
- Festive Glamour: When the festive season throws you an occasion, you need to glam it up.
- Andrew McUtchen looks for fun in cricket with former Australian cricketer Damien Fleming.
- Take a look at our Christmas Gift Guide.
Back in my living room in the 1970s, dreaming of asking people questions myself one day, I thought this guy was the bomb. Hed look at these poor berks with his big puppy-dog eyes as they blathered away to fill the gaps. And all they had to do was say: What was the question?
Its been important, but it wasnt a deliberate strategy, it was a natural thing, Willessee says of silence as an interviewing tool. I try to be natural. A good interview for me is when I forget my notes because its going well I think the first time it happened was when an interviewee told me something I couldnt believe. And youre not allowed to say bullshit. And you cant be demonstrative. So I just looked.
I remember the first time. It was a very nasty type of crook. He started an insurance company and scammed all the money so people thought they had their houses and cars and goods insured. And they werent because he was taking all the money and he bankrupted the company. Sorry, didnt work. Then he did it a second time and got away with it, stole the money, a real nasty piece of work.
I heard he was starting a third insurance company. So I got him in and set up the whole case. You did this once, hurt all these people, you want to do it again? Do you plan to rip all these people off? Or something like that. He answered almost rudely Everyones entitled to failure and another chance.
I was just so angry with him I just looked at him, and he froze. So I let him sit there. And it was slam dunk. And I said, I think its best that you dont start this third company. And he said, I wont. He fell down. It wasnt a strategy, it was an honest reaction from me.
People are scared of silence. Yes. People like to fill it in. Why? I dont know, but the number of times I did go to silence, the interviewee would add something, usually to their detriment.
Im sitting with Willesee at the Sydney offices of Channel Sevens Sunday Night program, which he has joined, kicking off in March with a sit-down with the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.
He has been a long time away from our screens. Why come back now? I had a couple of down years with surgeries, Willesee says. There were a number of injuries, which resulted in a hip implant. That went wrong and collapsed, and that was a worse surgical experience than the first one. It collapsed again and I had it done again. The rehab time after each one was difficult and repetitive. It was like an imposed pause in my life.
The trouble with the hip began two years ago. It was a difficult time, couldnt get going, couldnt do much, couldnt drive for a while, went to the pool for rehab. Did that four times.
Coming out of it I thought This is a chance to examine where Im at and what I want to do. And I started taking some notes for an autobiography. I was getting quite excited about all the stories. And there were so many stories, I thought Wow. I was almost entertaining myself by bringing up these memories. Then it occurred to me that I enjoyed being on location so much theres nothing stopping me going back. So that was it, he says.
I remember those stories much better than I remember the studio stuff. I used to get frustrated at the years, hours I spent in the studio, and I was always trying to find excuses to get on the road.
I rang (Sevens head of news and current affairs) Peter Meakin, and he said, This is the best news this network has ever had. No, I made that up. There was a pause and he said, Well, this is surprising. The guy you need to talk to is Mark Llewellyn, pretty good man, enthusiastic, youll like him, thats the program and thats the man. And he was right.
Llewellyn is the executive producer of Sunday Night and one of the many experienced news people from Channel Nine now at Seven. Why did Willesee approach Seven? Probably because (at Nine) there was a culture and a camaraderie and a feeling of being the best and doing the best. And that was with Meakin and a lot of guys like him. And theyre here (Seven). I think that culture is now here and not at Nine.
Has Nine dropped the ball on news and current affairs? Lets just say this is the best program and it rates the best, with very little promotion. It works on a much smaller budget than 60 Minutes, and I like all that. I like the way its not formally structured. A story can go longer or shorter or harder or more personal. Its got interestingly wide boundaries.
Did he miss journalism? No. I was busy, doing my own things and I made some documentaries. I didnt even think about it. Did he miss the adrenalin rush of reporting? Sometimes Id watch a story and Id get frustrated that it wasnt being done well enough, particularly if it was a good story, and Id want to be there. I wish that were my story, I think I could do it better. But that rush, I felt that coming back.
Now 69, Willesee has had a remarkable career. In the 1960s he worked for the pioneering current-affairs show This Day Tonight (TDT) before moving to the ABCs Four Corners in 1969 and then Nines A Current Affair, which is where he made his name to a mass audience.
His interviews were often riveting. Possibly most famous of all was his questioning of then opposition leader Dr John Hewson about how the proposed goods and services tax would affect a birthday cake. Hewsons excruciatingly mangled response has been credited as contributing to the election loss to Paul Keating.
I asked Willesee about changing trends in interviewing and current-affairs television since he was on TV. Well, obviously with ACA and TT, theyve moved to a more magazine-type program. They say thats what the audience wants, they measure it minute by minute.
He says journalists have the right to work on that type of program if they want to. And the network has the right to do that type of program if it wants to. You cant criticise them for doing what appears to be a lessening of the value of current affairs. But where they say Thats what the audience wants, the audience can only vote on whats presented to them. I believe it can be done differently. For example, the common wisdom in commercial television is that you cant sit down and interview the Prime Minister one on one. The ABC can do that and no one cares.
But we did it in our first program and there was no turn off in that minute-by-minute nasty rating (measure). What does that show? You can do it. Youve got to get the right politician at the right time and do it well.
As prepared as Willesee was for the encounter with Gillard, he found it frustrating because of the Prime Ministers refusal to unpack some thoughts. Her spin is brilliant, like any politician. It was very frustrating, and that became the interview. The answers should be the interview. The challenge became the interview I was a bit frustrated that I didnt crack the wall.
The politicians learn these days that you can stonewall Your adviser might say, You have the opportunity to get one message across or two or three. No more. So no matter what the interviewer asks you, you give your answers. If you know the politician is immovable on that, you dont do the interview.
Theyve got an obligation to tell the electorate what theyre doing and what theyre proposing to do. So to really simplify it, they should do that or say Im not going to be interviewed.
In the US, the media still features older journalists such as Morley Safer and Barbara Walters, while
in Australia the trend has been to pension them off. We only started current affairs in this country in a small way in the 60s and going commercial into the 70s, Willesee says. There are a lot of people becoming 70 now who were young then. Its a pretty natural progression.
How does it feel to be about to turn 70 and back on the road? It feels pretty good. It feels natural, it feels like it always did. I have a sense of age when I hear a news report about a 65-year-old pedestrian knocked down, I think Poor old fella. Then I think Wait a minute, Im four years older than him. My reaction is people of 65 are old. I have to remind myself Im older than that.
Willesee has six children. Theyre my best friends, he says. They range from a daughter in her 40s to a seven-year-old son. Its very enjoyable. Its all good.
Its said there are upsides and downsides to being a late father. What are the upsides? Upsides are everything, he says. Boy growing up, going through all his challenges, laughing with him and playing with him and surfing with him. Its just all good. The downsides there are none now. But Im aware that when he turns 21 Ill be whatever (84). And when hes 30 maybe Ill be dead. Id like to be around for him for quite a while.
Thats 45 years of parenting, Is he tired? No. Theres great joy in it. I see all of them regularly.
I asked how the kids felt having a famous father. I dont think they ever got hurt by it. It was a natural thing. They didnt (know) any different. Dad was on television and people came round to the house and they were on television. It was very normal for them to meet famous people.
He has six grandchildren. So Im a babysitter. Its all natural. You dont have to remind yourself of anything, its all natural. I babysat Lucas, whos nearly two, a couple of weeks ago. My daughter went out and left us with some food. She said Be careful, its hot. So I was feeding him and blowing it and he kept trying to grab stuff himself and he finally beat me and got a hot bit and put it in his mouth. It wasnt that hot, but I said, My goodness thats hot. And he repeated it. He kept saying, My goodness thats hot. The next morning Jo called and said, What have you done to him? Hes walking round the house saying, My goodness thats hot.
Its lucky that despite bad hips and 45 years of parenting, Willesee still has what it takes not just to maintain a media career but also chase a seven-year-old around. He often does the school run. We walk to school. Willesee smiles. He runs and I walk.Watch » Sunday Night is on Channel Seven at 6.30.