It’s hard to think of a topic 60 Minutes has not covered in 30 years on air. With over 1200 programs and more than 3500 stories there is hardly a star the Nine Network flagship program hasn’t interviewed or a country it hasn’t visited.
From exposes and investigations to medical marvels, environmental disasters, reports from every war zone and front line, political grillings and all manner of mysteries, there has always been one constant in every 60 Minutes story: getting the viewer as close to the action as possible.
Australia’s leading public affairs program celebrates 30 years with a special edition that highlights some of the most memorable interviews and events that have shaped our generation when 60 Minutes returns on Sunday, February 22 at 7.30pm – presented by Liz Hayes, Tara Brown, Liam Bartlett, Charles Wooley and Peter Harvey.
When 60 Minutes premiered on Sunday, February 11, 1979 it was a monumental gamble. Before then, Nine’s Sunday night audience was comfortable with Hawaii Five-0. The idea of sitting through an hour of current affairs was a foreign one – literally – as the program was based on the American 60 Minutes that began on the CBS network in 1968.
The critics said it wouldn’t last and at first the audience seemed to agree. But within 12 months it became a success and audiences responded to a format that, for the first time, had Australians reporting the big stories around the world with a refreshing new personality and attitude, rather than being dispassionate observers.
Since then the program has become a Sunday night staple in Australian households, fending off challenges from more than 150 shows on rival channels, including the best of British and American drama and sitcoms.
60 Minutes set out to get the story in what has become its unique journalistic style – don’t cover the Great Flood, interview Noah. By telling it through the eyes of those involved, by personalising stories and issues and writing in a relaxed, contemporary fashion, 60 Minutes broke new ground in the staid world of current affairs reporting. However, spectacular pictures and exotic locations can only tell part of the story. It’s the people who entrusted 60 Minutes to tell their story that have really given the program its life.
With the most recognisable roll-call of reporters on Australian television, including Jana Wendt, Richard Carleton, Ray Martin, George Negus, Charles Wooley, Ian Leslie, Jeff McMullen, Mike Munro, Jennifer Byrne, Tracey Curro, Tara Brown, Peter Overton, Ellen Fanning and Liam Bartlett, 60 Minutes has enjoyed almost continual dominance over three decades, not only winning its timeslot but also often ranking as the most watched program of the week.
Sustaining its reputation among viewers and critics alike, 60 Minutes has been at the forefront of investigative journalism – like The Chelmsford File (1980), Ray Martin’s award-winning investigation into psychiatric abuse at Chelmsford Hospital in Sydney which led to police investigations, coronial inquiries and a Royal Commission that identified more than 40 suspicious deaths.
In The Miranda Downes Case (1987), Ian Leslie’s interview with the main suspect in the murder of Miranda Downes led to Ernie Knibb being charged and later convicted of the crime, while The Sting (1997), a six-month investigation by Liz Hayes and her team, led to the capture and arrest in Honduras of Australia’s most wanted fugitive, the paedophile Robert “Dolly” Dunn.
Some reports have even led to the textbooks being rewritten. In 2006 Liam Bartlett, along with a group of seven Sydney diving enthusiasts, solved one of our greatest maritime mysteries by locating the wreck of the Japanese midget submarine that got into Sydney Harbour in 1942.
Interviews are the backbone of every 60 Minutes story, and the formula for a good interview has many elements, but often it’s as simple as just being direct. Occasionally the people being interviewed resent the questions, as in Peter Overton’s testy exchange with Tom Cruise (2005), who told Overton to “put your manners back in” after a question about his ex-wife, Nicole Kidman. Or Mike Munro’s dilemma in 1986 before interviewing Dolly Parton: is it the height of rudeness to ask a beautiful woman the size of her enormous bust? He did anyway. Then in 1996 Tracey Curro asked a fairly innocuous question to Pauline Hanson, but the answer – “Please explain?” – became part of the Australian language.
60 Minutes has never been afraid to ask the tough questions. George Negus set the benchmark with The Woman at Number 10 (1981), a tense and terse encounter with Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. “Why do people stop us in the street and tell us you’re pig-headed?” he asked her. “Could you tell me who has stopped you in the street and said that?” she demanded in reply.
There are also the stories of incredible people who have been so inspirational, like Tara Brown’s emotional report Out of Control (2008) about Bianca Saez. A teenager with the worst case of Tourette’s syndrome in Australia, Bianca had a deep brain stimulation operation after seeing a 60 Minutes story that dramatically improved her condition and changed the Saez family’s life forever.
Join Liz Hayes, Tara Brown, Liam Bartlett, Charles Wooley and Peter Harvey for a special presentation that highlights some of the most memorable interviews and events that have shaped our generation when 60 Minutes celebrates 30 years:
Sunday, February 22 at 7.30pm on Nine