Insiders marinated in instinct – how the ABC show began

Insiders’ beginning was soaked in instinct and alcohol. It was the easiest decision I was to make as ABC Director of News and Current Affairs –  in fact it was very first one, on my first day in the role.

To continue the bad culinary metaphor, it was easy because the idea had marinated in professional chagrin for years. It was to simmer for a many more months due to then managing Director Jonathan Shier (more on that later).

But on that day – June 23, 2000 – this most Australian of shows was eased into the world by Italian beer and French wine in a Turkish restaurant in London. Over lunch – then dinner.

I was based in London for the second time as a Europe correspondent and Barrie Cassidy and Heather Ewart were in ABC’s Brussels bureau when my appointment to head Aunty’s NewsCaff division – as it was known – was announced the previous day.

By phone we quickly agreed Barrie and Heather would come to London – by train or plane, I forget, post-haste  – for serious discussions. We all knew what was on the menu (sorry!).

They arrived in time for lunch next day at Efes 2, a longstanding favourite for ABC types in Great Titchfield Street, tucked in behind the ABC bureau at Portland Place in W1.

The Peronis were soon in full flow and so was the discussion about a national political show. Barrie had thought about it a lot. He had a willing audience. We’d previously discussed the absurdity of the national broadcaster not having such a platform.

Clock rewind: when I finished up my first stint in London (1990-94) I’d returned to Sydney and taken up the role in 1995 of second banana network editor, overseeing the day-to-day production of ABC TV News bulletins. My roster was the back end of the week and weekends.

Sundays infuriated me. The first story usually was labelled Canberra; today’s date. Senior  pollies inevitably would be interviewed by the indomitable Laurie Oakes on Nine’s Sunday program. We (and every network) dutifully recorded Sunday. So that night we’d have Keating and/or Howard or others in our lead story, complete with Laurie, clipboard and big Sunday logo. It was branding triumph for Nine and an embarrassment for the ABC.

Worse still, other stories in the bulletin covering other issues of the day or week would also feature interview excerpts from the Nine program . To our huge national audience it looked like we’d surrendered Sundays to the power of Packer – and the ABC had.

Fast forward – through Washington stints for both of us in some form – Barrie was political editor of Kerry O’Brien’s 7.30 Report and I was national editor of TV news. During this period, Barrie would bring up the idea of a Sunday political program for the ABC. It’s safe to say that the idea burned in Barrie for a long time.

So, really, it was a pretty bloody easy decision that day in June 2000.

But, of course, it was a serious discussion and we needed to mull it very seriously and what better aid for such rumination than the excellent French wines that Mine Host at Efes used to hand pick from the speciality bottle shop on Little Portland Street. Perhaps cognacs figured as well. Then, still throwing ideas around, we segued from lunch to dinner.

Not the London session, but a warm-up nine years earlier in Washington DC .

Barrie and I shook hands on a show. But we hadn’t factored in Jonathan Shier.

Long story short, after my return to Sydney, the controversial MD kept stalling me on the political show as the ABC was engulfed in unprecedented upheaval and NewsCaff had become his bête noire. I learned that Shier was planning to give the show to the television division and was considering a prominent print journalist to host it.

Ringing Barrie in Brussels to reassure him it would happen in the end wasn’t always fun

Then the resignation of Television Director Gail Jarvis shocked Shier – who’d sacked four other directors – and gave us a golden opportunity. I’ll never forget a meeting with the deflated Shier, who threw up his hands and asked what he’d say at the Senate Estimates that week.

“You need to give them some good, positive news,” I said as Shier visibly perked up. “And that good news would be to announce Agenda (our working title ) as a new Sunday political program .”

He did. There was another national show announced, perhaps the arts show Coast but don’t hold me to that. I rang Barrie in Brussels. The rest is history. Well, almost. We had to change the name because Sky News already had a show called Agenda. In a funny little twist, the anchor for Sky’s Agenda was a bloke called David Speers, the very same talented host who will take over Insiders next year.

After such a long mental gestation, we had something like five weeks to get the program on air with set, graphics, format and a little detail like staffing. Our Head of NewsCaff Marco Bass in Victoria nominated Kate Torney as the inaugural Executive Producer and a gun logistics specialist named Jeremy Custance was hauled in from Canberra as 2-I-C*.

The title caused the usual to-and-fro debate. There was a suggestion of The Insiders which didn’t convince some of the executive team. It was Greg Wilesmith – a man of few words anyway – who suggested we prune “The”. Insiders it was, not THE Insiders. Nuance. 

It was head of national coverage Wally Hamilton and national editor John Cameron – not me – who worked with Barrie and Kate on the nuts and bolts of the format and look in that mad countdown flurry. Cammo would enjoy joining the Insiders weekly editorial huddle for years, including after he took over as News Director.

Wally remembers: “One of the great knock-ons from Insiders was the pride instilled in the Melbourne newsroom, having a national live-to-air news and current affairs program in their stable. A great deal of work went into the set design and mapping the camera moves, particularly at the head of the program, taking Barrie to the screen and later to the couches. These moves look simple to audiences, but they have to be pulled off perfectly every week, and the crews did very well. I remember the ‘buzz’ in the control room, and Kate’s calm, authoritative demeanour.”

We all look forward to at least another 18 years of Insiders. It shouldn’t take another 10-hour lunch-dinner to mull that decision, but I’m always up for the challenge.

*Jeremy Custance would go on to an international career as producer with Al Jazeera and then a media executive in Asia while Kate Torney, of course, would succeed John Cameron as News Director.

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