After Mal Walden finished up at TEN News Melbourne in 2013 it was planned that he stay on for another year to mentor younger journalists. But despite his 53 years in the media, 44 of them in television, it didn’t work out that way.
“It was a ‘keep off the grass agreement’ to stop me going anywhere else. I had an office and went in every week to mentor the young journos. But only one person came to me in the whole 12 months,” he says.
That was a young journo by the name of Georgia Love. She went on to become a news presenter for WIN Tasmania before quitting to become The Bachelorette. Walden now watches her Reality TV journey with interest every week.
“It was a bit sad. There were so few people left at TEN after all the sackings they were too busy trying to get the News together to spend time talking to an old guy like me,” he tells TV Tonight.
“The perfect storm hit Channel TEN”
TEN was in the midst of more job cuts and a management overhaul. Walden had seen it all before -at both TEN and Seven. The most recent saw Melbourne presenter Helen Kapalos sacked, despite the network knowing Walden was himself on borrowed time.
“They wanted to reduce all newsreaders to one (presenter). So they determined which ones would cause the least amount of collateral damage. They determined Helen would have to go, Bill Woods and all of the others,” he recalls.
“But they knew I was coming to the end, yes.”
Since then TEN has returned to dual presenters. A case of reinventing the wheel?
“I know. I don’t understand. Someone once told me ‘The first thing they thrown overboard in a storm is an anchor.’ And the perfect storm hit Channel TEN.
“But they’ve recovered and I have to say Network TEN is the most resilient network of them all. It’s been battered quite a few times in its short history.”
Walden remains upbeat about the network he joined in 1987.
“Psychologists always say the third-born child is the one who has to push the boundaries to make a point of difference. And TEN has had to push to make a point of difference all along. First with the hour (news), first at six then first at five.
“Sometimes they’ve pushed and it hasn’t worked, but they’ve always taken that chance. It is a very resilient network.
“It’s an inherent thing at TEN. It’s quite unique and it’s a wonderful place to work.
“They’re cheeky, irreverent, and it’s very admirable.
“I’m not critical of TEN in any shape or form. I admire them so much because of their resilience.”
“Every night I would sit down and write an observation, a highlight and a reaction.”
Walden began his media career as a 17 year old at 3YB Warrnambool. Remarkably, he documented his memories in 53 annual diaries which now forms the basis of the book, The Newsman.
“Every night I would sit down and write an observation, a highlight and a reaction. And I did that for 53 years. So I have 53 diaries! About 20 years ago I looked back and realised what I possessed: not only the story of my life but the evolution of broadcast news,” he continues.
“So I went and did some interviews with the legends and icons of broadcasting to get their story and fill in some of the gaps.
“All the media books I have ever read are written by Sydney-based journalists or authors about Sydney-based networks and the rise and fall of Sydney-based tycoons. But this is Melbourne story to balance the books and is a tribute to all those I’ve worked with, the legends and icons who are largely forgotten because they are behind the scenes.
“This is a behind the scenes look at television news right from the opening night in Melbourne: 4th November 1956 at Seven.”
Walden joined Seven News Melbourne in 1970 from Radio 3DB, later becoming its presenter when Nine poached the legendary Brian Naylor.
“The ’70s was the most defining year in television news with the introduction of satellites, the transition from black and white to colour, and more importantly the transition from film to tape. That saw the birth of the insidious 10 second sound-bite which is now, at times, reduced to about 3 seconds!
“I was sacked …. but the public backlash was incredible”
“Brian Naylor going from Seven to Nine led to me being the first journalist appointed as a newsreader. Up until that stage they were station presenters, radio hosts, game show announcers. It would have happened anyway, but it was a network decision to do it then.”
When Fairfax Media picked up Seven in the late 1980s Walden was sacked and replaced by then-Perth presenter Greg Pearce. It turned out to be a fortuitous career moment, but not without severe lessons for Seven.
“I was sacked and picked up by TEN but the public backlash was incredible,” he continues.
“It opened a chasm of inter-city rivalry like never before between Melbourne and Sydney. How dare Sydney people come down and tell Melbourne who they should and shouldn’t watch!
“A few years later I was at TEN when we went into receivership and Bob Shanks was sacking people every Friday. I went to the management and said ‘How safe am I?’ And the management said, ‘Mate you’re the bottom of the list, a protected species!’ The receivers said ‘Never to be sacked.’ And I never was.”
“We had no idea what was coming next!”
Amongst the other network changes he recalls was the TEN News Revolution of 2011 when 6pm with George Negus was partnered with local news bulletins and The Project as part of 2.5hrs of news. For Walden, who had started his TV career with a Seven Revolution campaign in the 1970s, 95% of the changes actually made sense.
“I thought ‘What a great way to see out my career, with another Revolution.’ But I was unaware that James Packer was planning his own revolution. He launched a network takeover and appointed Lachlan to run it. In all fairness to TEN no Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with as much drama to follow that.”
The TEN News team, which had been running its own race, endured a lazy susan of programming moves that kept everybody guessing.
“We had no idea what was coming next! But I was sitting there taking notes, diarising everything.”
These days Walden is enjoying travelling, writing and says he watches Nine News, The Project and ABC News (if only because he isn’t home for TEN’s 5pm news). He laughs at the idea many of his ‘off-script’ moments have become the stuff of TV legend.
“My life is on Google and my mistakes are on YouTube!” he admits.
“I read the news the way I would like it read to me if I was sitting at home. I hate the forced smiles and the over-serious looks. There has to be the balance in between, and the occasional quip, and occasional line just to show you’re attached.
“Take your news seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. That’s my motto.”
The Newsman: 60 Years of Television by Mal Walden is published by Brolga Publishing and launched 6:30pm Wednesday at Readings Hawthorn.