In the last week two giant names in Australian journalism have passed away.
The first of these was Mike Willesee, possibly the finest interviewer of the last fifty years. Back in a time when political interviewing was an artform (a time, sadly, long past) Willesee was king. He would appear every night on our TV screens, mostly on A Current Affair (when it wasn’t a tabloid program), probing and interrogating a range of politicians and hucksters and very often bringing them undone. He was highly intelligent and very well researched and had a composed, patient, insistent manner. When he was on your tail you knew it you were in trouble – most famously John Hewson, caught out ahead of the ’93 election when questioned about the GST on a cake.
Growing up dad would watch the program every night, and over time so did I. Truth mattered then and our officials were held to account daily. I don’t think that’s been the case in Australia since Willesee’s successor, Jana Wendt. I think there’s a distinct connection between the decline in journalistic rigour and the knowledge and active engagement of the electorate, and democracy is the loser.
The other to have died, just yesterday, was Les Carlyon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of another Australian journalist anywhere near as good a pure writer than him. Everything he wrote was evocative. I read a lot of his stuff over the years – his books on WW1, both wonderful, plus his general journalism, particularly his heartfelt appreciation of great horses – and often times I would pause reading to truly appreciate his prose, and to reflect on the insights he shared with us.
He was a grand writer, but he had a way of seeing that told of his journalistic background. He was editor of The Age at 33, so he had more than just a way with words. That’s what made him so memorable – a wonderful writer paired with insight and sensitivity. I reckon he saw beneath the surfaces and touched upon the human truths which really are the basis of every good story. You read his stuff on the big race days or our abiding affection for the racehorses of folklore and what he understands is the essential meaning of these things, a meaning held deep inside which is something close to love. We want to believe. We want to belong. We want to love and share and celebrate.
His histories have that, too. He was a humane, incisive commentator who valued the uniqueness of experience.
He was 76. Sadly this means there’s no more of his writing to look for, but grateful for what we have.