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This Day Tonight (TDT) ABC visionary Ken Watts’ Greatest Legacy

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In the 1960s and 1970s, ABC TV was a creative powerhouse led by an exceptional executive, Ken Watts. The most significant and controversial innovation of the era was ‘This Day Tonight’ (TDT). A mixture of current affairs and satirical humour, it broke away from the sedate format of traditional news programs and not only set a benchmark for future current affairs programs but launched the careers of some of Australia’s most legendary presenters and reporters. Alumnus Eric Hunter continues our tribute to Ken Watts …

TDT: Ken Watt's Greatest Legacy: Part 2

By the late-1960s Ken Watts was entering his third and most productive decade at the ABC.  He had long considered that the one great gap in the ABC program line-up was a fearless daily TV current affairs program that could delve into the key issues of the day. Not only did This Day Tonight (TDT)fulfil that role but it soon won the approval of the wider Australian audience. 

While the BBC’s Tonight was the model, TDT – launched in April 1967 – from the start adopted a strong Australian flavour, mixing tough reporting and interviewing with dashes of levity. It was a whole new experience for ABC audiences used to a more sedate approach to reporting news and current affairs. Its impact was immediate and controversial. It was predictable that it would involve Watts in regular battles to defend his baby: against his senior management colleagues, the Commission, politicians and disgruntled viewers across the political spectrum. But TDT was also a resounding success, a model for similar programs on commercial services, and the antecedent of today’s 7.30.  

At this time, I was working as Canberra Talks Officer as well as doing some TDT stories. After my involvement in Our World, a ground-breaking international broadcast, Watts invited me to transfer to Melbourne to join the team there as a full-time TDT reporter. So began the most exciting decade of my ABC career, arguably of my whole working life.  

With its cheeky and sometimes brash approach to social and political issues, TDT was often unhelpful to the quiet life most top ABC executives craved. None of us around in those early days will forget the fiery management reaction to the satirical jingle ‘Run the bastards over’, provoked by NSW Premier Robert Askin telling a business lunch audience in 1968 that he’d said words to this effect in relation to Vietnam protestors who, two years earlier, were lying down on the street and interrupting US President Lyndon Johnson’s cavalcade through Sydney. A bright young TDT researcher, David Salter, was the jingle writer. 1

At the end of the program’s first year, compere Bill Peach remarked ‘TDT has found its proper role – getting into hot water’. 2 Bill was the on-camera pivot around which TDT’s success was built. Here was this fresh-faced bloke with a cheeky grin and an Australian accent, in sharp contrast to the traditional 7pm newsreaders. A genuine bloke (with a Masters in English), Bill’s talent was his skill at delivering sharp observations that often got him into trouble with politicians and ABC traditionalists. Yet he was described by one media critic as ‘every Mum’s favourite son’.     

Of course, the early TDT made mistakes – many of them – but we tried to learn from them and gradually developed a journalistic standard that more than justified its existence. Its investigative journalism – a fine example was Caroline Jones’ exposé of the Sydney Anglican diocese’s role as a slum landlord – drew both conservative criticism and public acclaim.  

I generated the first TDT political storm on only its second night, with an interview that exposed the Holt government’s secret plan to appoint a former Liberal Cabinet minister (Sir Howard Beale) as the next Chairman of the ABC. The resulting media outcry caused the plan to be dropped, but the government wasn’t happy – nor was ABC top management. 

I like to think the ABC’s now well-established tradition of astute TV political reporters began its long journey that night.  My interviewee was young gallery newspaper journalist Mike Willesee, who was soon to join us as TDT’s Canberra political correspondent, setting him on a path to becoming a national TV celebrity. Others were to follow, all of them highly competent, but I believe few have matched the ultra-sharp political insights and natural TV journalism talents of Willesee, Richard Carleton and Kerry O’Brien. And it was Watts who foresaw the value of a dedicated specialist political reporter in Canberra as a key element in TDT‘s ongoing success.

Over the next decade TDT continued to present revealing and important stories. Some were given additional bite with satire, which could occasionally fall flat – though usually a good laugh supplied welcome relief.  

Watts was keen to see young creatives have a go at a genre in which they had never before been tested. Peter Luck, originally a print journalist with The Canberra Times, barely knew what a film camera looked like. TDT gave him the opportunity, with dedicated film training, to develop his own special brand. His clever short films established him as one of Australia’s most creative short film makers and led to a highly successful commercial TV career.  

It was essential to Watts’ vision that the ABC should be at the forefront with experimentation, whether with new program ideas or untried talent. When Luck and others were later criticised for moving on to earn greater public recognition (and money) in commercial TV, I asked Watts for his reaction. He replied simply, ‘I regard it as a compliment to the ABC’s capacity to develop new talent’. People like Michael Willesee, Ray Martin, Mike Carlton, Richard Carleton and George Negus became commercial icons; but some eventually came back to the ABC and with their additional experience, enhanced the public broadcaster’s output in a wide range of programs.  

The so-called national edition of TDT covered NSW, the ACT and Victoria and presented a nightly review of national issues. Other states ran their own editions, focusing on their local interests and issues. Inevitably, the local teams managed to attract the ire of their political establishments as well as disturbing local ABC management. But at the same time audiences were growing.  

Kerry O’Brien and Andrew Olle cut their TDT teeth reporting on the Bjelke-Petersen government while I was EP of the Queensland edition. Andrew once earned the ire of a nun in North Queensland who accused him of becoming ‘an out-and-out communist since joining TDT’. She concluded, ‘He was such a nice young man when he was with News’.3 Of course, there were numbers of other bright and eager young journalists in all BAPH4 states also making notable starts, and local versions of TDT often outrated their preceding news bulletins.

Regrettably, the nightly state editions were gone even before savage funding cuts could be blamed. After Watts left the ABC, there was no one around at the most senior levels to defend them. The Victorian unit remained temporarily as a stand-alone after breaking away from NSW in 1974 on the reasonable grounds that the program had become too Sydney-centric.  

A departmental battleground: News vs Current Affairs  

As head of TV Programs, Watts had to fight hard to establish TDT. News was a separate Division and historically, a law unto itself. It was ironic because, originally, News had been forced to fight mightily to establish itself in the face of stiff opposition from Australia’s print media.  

News believed it should be the sole arbiter and presenter of news and how it was covered. The idea of the Program Division intruding on News’s patch with current affairs was met with the view that inexperience and ‘journalistic arrogance’5 would take priority when making judgments and producing news analysis – in particular, regarding political issues. (Looking back now, we TDTold fogeys have to admit that the News fogeys of those days sometimes had a point.)  

Even after TDT started, the Head of the Canberra News Bureau was demanding to approve all requests for senior politicians to appear on the program. News’s view seemed to be that investigative journalism and strong interviewing were not the role of the public broadcaster.6  But Watts was persuasive and won the day, a decision that senior ABC News people and their supporters continued to contest – sometimes quite bitterly.  

At the end of the ’60s, Watts lost the battle to retain control of current affairs and it passed into the hands of the former News boss, Wally Hamilton, by then Assistant General Manager (Administration). Hamilton at first appeared eager to take on the role of ‘taming’ TDT. His major tactic was to make his presence felt on TDT’s home ground rather than summoning producers to the Elizabeth Street executive offices.

There was much trepidation on one of Hamilton’s first visits to TDT at Gore Hill. He was coming along the corridor just as Peter Luck came out of one of the editing suites. Peter yelled out ‘Watch out everyone, it’s a raid’. Hamilton put on his well-known executioner’s smile and said quietly, ‘Had it been a raid, Mr Luck, you wouldn’t have seen me coming’. Bill Peach also got a surprise when Hamilton, unannounced, walked into his office, stuck out his hand and said, ‘I’m not the devil, you know’.  

Much to our surprise, Hamilton soon accepted that current affairs was a legitimate journalistic role for the ABC and TDT was actually doing what it should. Even if it sometimes went over the top.  

But Hamilton was soon to retire, replaced by Charles Buttrose, instructed to continue with bringing TDT to heel. He began by insisting the TDT Sydney producers send him the program’s progressive rundown several times each afternoon for vetting. They complied, but frequently used disarming story descriptions or conveniently discovered that last-minute changes were needed after Buttrose had left for the day. 7    

Buttrose, to my knowledge – and unlike Hamilton – never visited TDT on its own turf, preferring to summon its producers to his office to explain their latest indiscretion.  

By 1978, however, TDT NSW had become even more ‘Sydney-centric’ in the selection and presentation of its stories than it had been when it sparked the Melbourne team’s split some four years earlier. We in the BAPH states called it, ‘the centre-of-the-universe syndrome’.  

Watts had left in 1975 to become chairman of the Australian Film Commission, where he proved as creative and visionary as he had been at the ABC. But his departure left no one in senior management who seemed to have any real interest in re-invigorating TDT.  

Its 1979 replacement Nationwide, shown at 9.30pm, flopped. What followed was the even more ill-fated 7pm combined news and current affairs program, The National.  The separate 7pm News and a 7.30 current affairs program returned in 1986 and there they remain today.   

I don’t think there can be a fair comparison between today’s 7.30 and the TDTof my day, because today’s circumstances are so very different. But thanks to Ken Watts’ absolute commitment and vision that the ABC had to be the leader in quality productions across all genres, we continue to have a public broadcasting current affairs program like 7.30 holding to account those responsible for decision-making. And now that’s extended to other programs and coverage across all ABC platforms.  

Controversy is inevitable, but daily current affairs must have a senior ABC executive group that knows when and how to intervene, and when to leave it to the team’s experience, while providing support and advice if it’s needed. Equally critical is the imperative on the ABC to gather teams of journalists and producers who demonstrate the highest levels of professionalism.  

I earnestly hope there are one or two Watts-like talents already walking the corridors. Manifest existential threats to the ABC – now and ahead – call for executives with genuinely true vision. The immediate need is greater than ever before.  

Part 1 of this tribute can be read here.


1 Later first EP of Media Watch, with Stuart Littlemore

2 Bill Peach, This Day tonight: How Australian Current Affairs TV Came of Age, ABC Enterprises, 1992

3 Annette Olle and Paul Lyneham, Andrew Olle – a tribute, UNSW Press, 1996

4 BAPH: ABC-shorthand for 'Brisbane Adelaide Perth Hobart'

5 Wally Hamilton, former head of News who took over control of TV current affairs after Watts was deposed, used this description in admonishing me for an alleged TDT ‘funny’ I had done about the reported outcome, nine months later, of a 24-hour New York winter power outage. He told me, ‘The Commission, Mr Hunter, was not amused’. Years later, I came to realise he had meant ‘journalistic arrogance’ in a constructive way. Others, of course, thought otherwise.

6 Bill Peach, op cit (2)

7 Ibid. Bill Peach describes in detail how Charles Buttrose sought to exercise control over TDT’s operations and content and carry out the wishes of the then General Manager, Talbot Duckmanton, and some members of the Commission itself. Had it succeeded, the tactic would have effectively pulled TDT’s journalistic teeth; it would no longer be able to ask probing questions or even put to air a ‘contentious’ interview if it wasn’t ‘balanced’ by an opposing view. This would have provided the perfect opportunity for governments, in particular, to ‘decline to appear’, thus killing a story that appeared not in their best interests.

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