With a new Australian television ratings season about to kick-off, the search for the next Jana Wendt, super reporter, continues…

ON LINE OPINION – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate


Reporting on the reporters
By Sasha Uzunov – Thursday, 4 February 2010

With a new television ratings season dawning on the horizon, some of Australia’s heavy hitters in television journalism, no doubt, have been in search of the Holy Grail that is to find the next Jana Wendt. One media boss might have struck gold in the shape of SBS TV Dateline reporter Sophie McNeill.

Wendt in her heyday – the late 1980s and early 90s – was unbeatable. She is a highly educated woman who speaks many languages and could out-interview some of the big names of politics and celebrity. Her nickname was the perfumed steam-roller and she picked up a Gold Logie as Australia’s top television celebrity in 1992.

Legendary news bosses Peter Meakin and John Westacott made their names at the Nine Network when Wendt was hosting the A Current Affair program.

Since Wendt’s retirement, Nine has focused its attention on current ACA host Tracy Grimshaw, who is a formidable interviewer in her own right, to carry the torch. But Wendt and Grimshaw are as different as chalk and cheese. Grimshaw recently went head to head with foulmouthed Scottish chef Gordon Ramsay, with the result that the tough guy lost

Meakin, after a bitter falling out with Nine, took his bag of tricks to the Seven Network. At first the beautiful, blue-eyed brunette Naomi Robson was the host of Today Tonight, Seven’s answer to A Current Affair, and began to beat Nine at its own game. In a takedown over a cannibal story in West Papua, Robson was left with egg on her face in 2006. The Seven network counter-claimed that she was set up.

Reporter Anna Coren was poached from the Nine network and filled the breech at Today Tonight. Coren was sent, wearing a flak jacket, into the short lived Israel-Lebanese Hezbollah war. But Coren had other ambitions and left for US media giant CNN.

Coren, who was the subject of many send ups by comedy team The Chaser from ABC TV, had this to say about her war reporting: “The highlight was going to Israel and covering the war against Hezbollah. It was fascinating being in a place where air-raid sirens were going off all the time and rockets were falling; it makes you feel very alive being in that particular environment.”
So that now brings us to Sophie McNeill, video-journalist with SBS TV Dateline program. McNeill was in Afghanistan last year reporting from the frontlines about alleged civilian casualties caused by Australian soldiers.

In 2008 she was named Young Australian Journalist of the Year and is an accomplished film maker.

In fact her rise has been meteoric. She was hailed as child prodigy and a wiz kid way back in 2003 by George Negus, legendary reporter, on his ABC TV show George Negus Tonight:

Sophie McNeill is a remarkable young woman who’s been a political activist and social campaigner since the age of nine. When she was 15 she went, alone, to Timor and produced a self-funded documentary (Awaiting Freedom) that received national praise. Earlier this year she produced another on the death of a detainee asylum-seeker. Sophie is now 18 and studying politics at Curtin University in Western Australia. … working in Sydney as an investigative journalist for the SBS programme “Insight”.

Negus is now the host of SBS TV’s Dateline program. In 2008 McNeill requested that I not contact her to discuss media issues, including Afghanistan. She has no previous military experience.

Her boss is the veteran, wily and street smart Peter Charley, who replaced “Iron” Mike Carey as Executive Producer of Dateline in 2007. Charley was previously EP of the ABC TV’s Lateline. Carey told me that Charley is a close personal friend of his.

Charley has a reputation for speaking his mind. (As EP of Lateline he issued this warning to me over my criticism of why Lateline was reluctant to open up Australia’s defence debate: “It is neither wise nor clever to suggest that “little ol’ Lateline” is “afraid” to have anyone on the program…” (Friday January 13, 2006, email). Why is it not wise nor clever?)

I had observed that Lateline had only used one Australian journalist with actual military experience to comment on defence issues and that was legendary newsman Gerald Stone, the founding producer of Australia’s version of 60 Minutes on the Nine Network in 1979 and a former US Army officer. You would think that Stone would have been utilised more often and other journalists with military experience given a chance to speak on Lateline.

In 2004 Lateline host Tony Jones played hardball with Liberal political head kicker Tony Abbott over his alleged secret meeting with Catholic Cardinal George Pell to discuss government policy. There were overtones of a dark conspiracy between the Abbott and the Catholic Priest. It was actually more high farce on Jones’ part. But when it comes to defence experts, Jones’ blowtorch is nowhere to be seen.

Ironically, Charley served his apprenticeship as a producer under the master Gerald Stone on a failed show called Real Life on the Seven Network in 1992-93. Charley is an award winning journalist but has never served in the military.

I have spent years studying Stone’s playbook. In all seriousness the man is a genius, whether you like or dislike tabloid TV news. You have to give him his dues. The great man is now Non-executive Director and Deputy Chairman of the SBS Board.

In the late 1970s Stone probably sensed an Australian society needing strong masculine heroes to fill the void left by the controversial Vietnam War which had overturned traditional stereotypes. He recruited three journalists, Ray Martin, Ian Leslie and George Negus. As canny Mark Day, a newspaperman of the old school, observed:

I guess we can blame Gerald Stone and George Negus for the emergence of the celebrity journalist – at least in Australia.

Stone was executive producer of the Nine (TV network) clone of CBS’s 60 Minutes when it launched here in 1979 with the premise that the reporter was the story.

George, along with Ray Martin and Ian Leslie were sent into war zones, deep jungles, and dark places in search of ripper yarns, and the cameras tracked them tracking down the story.

George, coat slung over his shoulder, embraced this role with a particular gusto, adding his idiosyncratic commentary into which he wove his personal beliefs.

It wasn’t long before George was a bigger celeb than any of the news makers he pursued, even after being savaged by the likes of Margaret Thatcher.

Negus was dubbed the Balmain Cowboy after a tough working class inner Sydney suburb because of his macho image, even though he never served in Vietnam but was a school teacher who dabbled in journalism and later became a press secretary to a politician, Lionel Murphy.

But with the resurgence of the Anzac Legend and in particular a new respect for those who serve in uniform, where does that leave the war reporter in society’s eyes after having fulfilled the role of surrogate “warrior” stereotype during the 1970s and 80s?

Rival Australian television networks, in a game of one-upmanship, have inadvertently brought the notion of the warrior-as-reporter to the surface. A famous case involved veteran Nine Network reporter Jim Waley wearing a the flak jacket in Iraq in 2004 as opposed to his competitor Adrian Brown of the Seven Network who did not. Both were metres away from each other in Baghdad.

Australian soldier Mark Donaldson’s award of the Victoria Cross medal for bravery in Afghanistan has now well and truly put an end to the era of the media tough guy as society’s hero. Perhaps this is where McNeill fits in. Women can also be seen as brave role models.

Maybe Charley, in taking his master’s game plan and tweaking it for the 21 century, could be onto a big winner in the form of McNeill.

The Dateline website blurb about McNeill once read:

“Pick, arguably, the most dangerous region in the world today and that’s where you’ll find Sophie McNeill.”

The current big star of Dateline is reporter Mark Davis. Davis, a former lawyer turned video journalist without military experience, has his own unique style of going into war zones carrying his own camera, which stays focused on himself most of the time. This style has earned him pop-star status but SBS TV insiders say that there may not be room for two big stars at Dateline. The word is McNeill maybe given her own current affairs show at SBS or even head hunted by a commercial network, perhaps CNN.

Time will tell.