“Anchors are the first objects tossed overboard in a storm”

Legendary news presenter Mal Walden shares his thoughts on ABC drama The Newsreader.

EXCLUSIVE: In 2013, news presenter Mal Walden wrapped a 52 year broadcasting career when he farewelled TEN Eyewitness News.

Walden had worked at 10, Seven, 3DB and 3YB-FM and was one of the first reporters on the ground following Cyclone Tracy in Darwin 1974.

In 1987 he was fired as HSV7 news presenter just minutes before reading his final bulletin.

So what does someone who was there in the ’80s think of ABC drama The Newsreader? Turns out, quite a bit.

Here’s what Mal has penned especially for TV Tonight…

When promotion began for the ABC’s ‘The Newsreader’ I admit it did little to inspire me to watch. After all I had witnessed a lifetime of news and newsroom dramas in real time. So why subject myself to re-enactments?

Having worked over six decades alongside larger than life legends of television news, I held little hope that re-enactments would do those characters justice.

However, ‘The Newsreader’ (ABC) may have revealed an exception among the irascible, cantankerous creators of television news itself, in the form of news directors.

To begin with, the role of newsreader has been an integral part of our lives since television first began in Australia in 1956. Although initially newsreaders were not journalists. Newsreaders were generally station presenters, game show hosts, radio broadcasters and in a little irony here, even actors. Remember Nine’s Charles ‘Chuck’ Faulkner?

That all changed on Melbourne television in September 1977 when HSV7’s top rating presenter Brian Naylor was poached by rival GTV9. Nails himself was the former host of ‘Brian and the Juniors’.

Management at HSV7 decided to break with tradition and replace Naylor with a journalist and I became the chosen one.

HSV7 countered GTV9’s promotion ‘Brian Told Me’, by launching a campaign promoting the fact that as a journalist ‘I knew what I was talking about’.

This infuriated Naylor. ‘You don’t have to be a bloody journalist to be a communicator’.

He was right of course but it was purely for its promotional value. Those sensitivities have since been cast aside with all networks appointing a journalist to read their news.

But sensitivity could never be applied to the TV News Directors, and actor William McInnes, has proven to be a standout as an amalgam of two of television’s greatest.

John Maher established his credentials at HSV7 discovering and mentoring Melbourne’s first newsreader Eric Pearce in 1956. When Pearce was unceremoniously sacked in 1957 he mentored and produced his successor Geoff Raymond. When Raymond left he chose Brian Naylor and David Johnston and when Naylor left for GTV9 he then took me under his wing. Affectionately called ‘Koala’, Maher became an institution after an irrational chain-smoking, expletive-driven tirade, against his senior reporter who called Koalas – ‘bears’. ‘They’re not f***in’ bears they are marsupials’.

Across at GTV9, their news room was controlled by John Sorell, another former Herald journalist, who began to emulate Maher’s eccentricities.

Sorell known as ‘The Bear’ built his reputation on Naylor at the helm yet never quite reached the distinction of discovering and mentoring the news talent Maher had achieved. He didn’t have to. Sorell just bought the talent.

But John Maher would pay a supreme price. He may have nurtured his news talent, but no news editor lost so many under tragic circumstances.

Three died in the East Timor Balibo killings in 1975 and 4 more died in a tragic news chopper crash in 1982. Some believe Maher never recovered from those tragic events. There was no thought of qualified medical support for traumatised news staff in those days. We all just self-medicated at the pub. Some more than others.

When he first adopted me, the joke at the time was: ‘Newsreaders should wear black for maturity, have glasses for authority and haemorrhoids for a look of concern.’

Maher’s first concern was my hair. Management believed it was too red and created a distraction. So, he ordered it to be sprayed each night.

The problem was each night it was a different shade. Cartoonist Robert Fidgeon was first to notice and the process ceased immediately.

Then my age became a problem. Initially I was considered too young to read a serious news bulletin, so the publicity department increased my age and promoted my journalistic status. Years later at Network Ten the publicity department was forced to reduce my age to suit their younger demographic. Again, Fidgeon noticed. ‘Some people use Botox to maintain their youth,’ he said, ‘Walden uses Biogs.’

There have been many spin offs regarding programs based on life in a TV news room. One of my all-time favourites was ‘FrontLine’.

So powerful and well researched it became almost compulsive viewing for those of us in the industry.

At that time Network Ten had just spent a considerable sum producing a series of news promotions. We believed we had discovered that an image of a newsreader played in slow motion and looking in earnest from a distant object before slowly turning directly into the camera lens, conveyed a look of authority. The night before we launched our promotion, FrontLine spoofed it all and we were forced to cancel the entire campaign.

The ABC’s ‘The Newsreader’ has captured a number of familiar threads that relate to personal experiences including the competitive nature of journalists pitching to read a news bulletin and the insecurities of readers fighting to maintain their positions.

As a former colleague once remarked newsreaders are called Anchors ‘because anchors are the first objects tossed overboard in a storm’ – and at times we were.

There is a famous and frequently used quote attributed to American journalist Hunter S Thompson: The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

I am unsure of its authenticity, and some will question its accuracy, but my experience tells me it may contain an element of truth.

Monday 9 March 1987 Victorian Premier John Cain described it as ‘one of the darkest days in the history of Australian television’.

My sacking by the so called ‘Princes of Darkness’ precipitated an unprecedented backlash of public support that reverberated for years to come and was referenced in The Newsreader as a warning against removing its established presenter.

News has been likened to a black cloud that can strike indiscriminately and no one is immune. On the same day our son James was diagnosed with life threatening cancer (lymphoma) my colleague and former GTV9 newsreader Brian Naylor lost his son Mathew in a light plane crash. Both networks moved to protect us from excessive media intrusion.

Our son would survive, but tragedy, like history, has a habit of repeating and no one could have prepared us or protected us from another black cloud which struck on Saturday February 2009 when the Black Saturday bushfires claimed the life of Brian Naylor.

The Newsreader also delves into personal lives revealing strengths, weaknesses and of course the ego’s that drive the industry. I was slightly bemused by the reference of a newsreader who struggled over the word ‘phenomenon’ knowing that more viewers have since seen it on YouTube than watched me stumble on the night in question.

And in another thread, I can relate to countless romantic trysts that have simmered and sizzled among newsrooms of alpha males and women competing for equal rights.

Today I am enjoying retirement with my wife Pauline; yes, a newsroom office romance that produced two children and two gorgeous grand-children.

We both watch television and have retained an equal passion for news and breaking news, but not from the stations I once worked for. Today there are many other platforms to choose from.

From my personal perspective, ‘The Newsreader’ (ABC) has combined the element of entertainment while serving as a tribute to those who helped shape the industry, with perhaps just a little journalistic licence.

Includes excerpts from ‘The Newsman’ by Brolga publishing.

The Newsreader continues 8:30pm Sunday on ABC.

9 Responses

  1. What nobody working in news today will ever admit is that news bulletins seemed infinitely more polished and professional back in the day of the “announcer/presenter”. Almost all of those newsreaders had beautiful, clear, expressive voices and knew how to. use them. And they knew how to project authority. Most also prided themselves on correct use of English and their pronunciation was impeccable. The other night on ABC news our local reader (I’ll not name her) read “a shot over the bow” and pronounced bow as in “bow tie”, not “bough”. Shocking!

    1. I don’t know if this still happens but years ago there used to be an award handed out each year by the deafness foundation to the TV newsreader(s) with the clearest or best diction, of particular importance to people with hearing difficulties. I can’t remember for sure but I think Peter Hitchener and ABC newsreader Geoff Raymond were among the winners of that honour.

Leave a Reply