How ‘Mitch’ landed his career at Seven News
"The person who tapped me on the shoulder and said 'Channel 7 wants to talk to you,' was Peter Hitchener," says Peter Mitchell.
This week Peter Mitchell wraps his 21st year as Seven News Melbourne anchor -the longest of any at the desk.
For a man who wasn’t quite sure what job he wanted to pursue during Year 12, he’s built a formidable career, but he credits his mother who encouraged his interest in English to pursue journalism.
“I just applied everywhere and I got two responses back. One was from the Herald and one was from Channel Nine. I went in and had an interview with (news director) John Sorrell. I was about to go out the door at home for the interview when my mother said, ‘Take that book you did on your football team,'” he tells TV Tonight.
“I thought, ‘He won’t be interested in that’ ….sure enough, halfway through the interview he asked what was under my arm and he flipped through it.
“At the end of the interview he said ‘I’ll put you on a two week trial period, we’ll see how you go.’
“That was 1977. Kate Baillieu took me under her wing and showed me around the building and I’ve never forgotten her.”
With a cadetship and RMIT journalism course, Mitchell made his way into Sports reporting and eventually presenting.
“By the time the America’s Cup came around in 1983, our sports presenter Arthur Higgins was sent to Newport, Rhode Island, so a spot became available on a Friday evening,” he recalls.
“I was sitting next to Brian Naylor. It was an incredible sequence of events that led to where I am today.”
Mitchell spent 11 years at Nine until a surprise opportunity would alter his career trajectory.
“Believe it or not, and people find this incredible, the person who tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Channel Seven wants to talk to you,’ was Peter Hitchener,” he reveals.
“I had been reading Sport alongside him. He was doing the weekend News and I was doing weekend Sport.”
Mitchell was poached by Seven as part of a ‘new broom’ under 1980s media mogul Christopher Skase. It followed Fairfax buying HSV-7 and disastrous programming decisions by Sydney that led to a backlash from Melbourne viewers.
“Fairfax bought the Seven Network and the Sydney bean counters said, ‘First thing to do is get rid of the football rights’ … and they also sacked Mal Walden,” he explains.
“I was sort of in the ruins of Channel Seven, because it literally had dropped back to no viewers. It was an asterisk (in the ratings). Poor old Greg Pearce (who had been hired from Perth to read the news) was just thrown into the bin. He ended up going back to Perth where he managed to have a long career.”
“He’s ridden in on his white horse and he wants to resuscitate Channel Seven”
News Director Paul Marshall and veteran journalist Paul Barber hatched a plan to install Jennifer Keyte as anchor and wanted Mitchell to switch from Nine to reading weekend news.
“They basically said to me, ‘Christopher Skase has come in waving his magic wand. He’s ridden in on his white horse and he wants to resuscitate Channel Seven, bring it back to the glory days. Jennifer Keyte has been sign up to do the News and we’d love you to come over and be the weekend News presenter.’ This was the first time this News presenting had ever been mentioned to me as a career. Up until that point, I’d been reporting, producing and Sports presenting. I thought ‘What an opportunity!’ What else would you say?
“It was better money and a car! So I wasn’t about to knock it back.”
“When I handed my resignation … he couldn’t believe that I was almost betraying him.”
Leaving Nine would also infuriate news boss John Sorell, whose reign and temperament are infamous in news circles.
“History doesn’t look too kindly on him now. I did see some some incidents. He could be so brutal…. just tear strips off people. He did that to me a couple of times as well. ‘Tough love’ back then was the way he operated,” Mitchell admits.
“But he was an unbelievable boss, demanding the utmost from staff. When I handed my resignation in after an offer from Seven, he was absolutely crestfallen. He couldn’t believe that I was almost betraying him.”
He would spend 12 years on weekend news and summer presenting, witnessing the next change introduced by management, when David Johnston was lured from 10 to read alongside Keyte.
“No one told Jen and she found out when she was in the makeup chair. The general manager of the station at that time came down very red-faced and said, ‘This has already gone out, but this is the plan.’ Understandably, she was most put out, and ended up a few days later leaving. That’s when she went to Nine to do Good Medicine.”
But it would be replacing Johnston and Anne Fulwood that would see him finally in the weeknight anchor chair in 2000 pitting him, ironically, head to head with Nine’s Peter Hitchener.
“I’ll never get that out of my brain”
During that time he’s seen major events including 9/11, Beaconsfield mine rescue, Black Saturday bushfires, 2019 / 2020 bushfires, and COVID-19 pandemic. While he nominates Beaconsfield as having a happy ending, there have also been more personal stories, such as reporting on a 1982 Seven News helicopter crash.
“We were the first crew on the scene to see the burnt-out wreck of the chopper with the 4 charred bodies still sitting upright in a paddock in Lang Lang. I’ll never get that out of my brain,” he recalls.
Broadcasting Live from Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 also entailed reporting the death of legendary newsman and colleague, Brian Naylor.
“This guy came up to me and said, ‘Terrible news about Brian and Moiree Naylor.’ He was a neighbour,” Mitchell remembers.
“I really had to compose myself to go on that night. It hit home to me how close this was and how easily something like that could happen.
“I know Hitch and Tony Jones, all the people at Nine, were very affected. He really was a lovely fella and Moiree used to come into the office all the time with him. They’d drive in together from Kinglake. They were so much in love, and died in each others’ arms. So tragic.”
“You’re in the midst of that, sort of the eye of the cyclone”
Indeed, every day is different in the news arena, but for Mitchell telling the story with authority is pivotal.
“Stories are breaking all the time and you’re in the midst of that, sort of the eye of the cyclone, if you like. Everyone has to be calm.
“My main focus has always been just trying to do justice to the work that’s done by everyone else during the day. Over 24 hours of the day, we’ve got reporters, producers, editors, all working, doing their hardest, working long hours. My job is to put the icing on the cake for them, if you like, and make sure that I don’t make any mistakes, and that I do it with authority.”
Melbourne audiences can also be volatile in their loyalty, with successive years with one news bulletin on top, to swing the other way for several more.
“This year has been really close. Nine’s got ahead of us, but only just. Last year they had some clear air, and won pretty comfortably. Whereas we won the year before. So it sort of fluctuates wildly as far as victories go,” he agrees.
“We’ve had a pretty good year. We won last week, for example, which was one out of the blue. But my view is always the same. We’ll take them when they come.”
Lastly, given his vast newsroom experience, I have to ask… what did he think of ABC’s Newsreader drama?
“I can tell you that the diversity of the newsroom was nothing like that. It was completely different. Back then it was solely a male domain. There were very few women. But they got it right about the smoking. If you didn’t smoke in the newsroom you were considered a weirdo.
“I thought it was pretty good overall.”