Journalist Mike Willesee has died after a long battle with throat cancer.
Willesee, who was 76, started his 50-year television career with the ABC before high-profile periods with the Nine and Seven networks.
“His death has robbed us all of a trailblazing pioneer of journalism, the likes of whom we’ll likely never see again,” Nine CEO Hugh Marks told network staff in an email shared with The New Daily.
“He all but invented current affairs television in Australia at the ABC in the 1960s. Across the craft he shone like a beacon.”
Seven’s Sunday Night host Melissa Doyle said Willesee’s death was a “loss for our industry”.
Wrote Doyle on Twitter, “Deeply saddened to hear that our colleague and TV legend Mike Willesee has passed away. Our thoughts are with his family. We’ll remember an incredible journalist, tenacious and tough.”
— Australian Story (@AustralianStory) March 1, 2019
His famous ‘birthday cake interview’ with former opposition leader John Hewson was widely credited with changing the course of the 1993 federal election.
Interviewing the Liberal leader 10 days before the election, Willesee pounced with a dangerously simple question on Dr Hewson’s controversial GST policy.
“If I buy a birthday cake from a cake shop and GST is in place do I pay more or less for that birthday cake?”
Dr Hewson’s stuttering reply made it look as if he did not understand his own party’s policies. He subsequently suffered a landslide loss to Paul Keating.
ABC Breakfast host Michael Rowland said on Friday that Willesee’s Hewson interview would “go down as one of the greatest political interviews”.
Saddened to hear of the death of Mike Willesee. So many career highlights, but his 1993 ‘birthday cake’ encounter with John Hewson will go down as one of the greatest political interviews in Australian history. Vale. pic.twitter.com/SNK8Eeh5Yx
— Michael Rowland (@mjrowland68) March 1, 2019
Born on June 29, 1942 in Perth, Willesee was the son of ALP senator Donald Willesee. He was married and divorced three times, to Joan Stanbury, Carol Willesee and Gordana Willesee.
He was a father of six.
Willesee was introduced to Australian audiences in 1967 on the ABC current affairs program This Day Tonight.
In April 1967, the Holt government decided not to reappoint ABC chairman Dr James Darling – a move attributed to Willesee’s critical coverage of Harold Holt’s policies on the ABC.
Legendary television journalist and #9ACA’s first host Mike Willesee has sadly passed away after a lengthy battle with throat cancer, aged 76. Our thoughts are with his family during this time. pic.twitter.com/tl1YN4m3ri
— A Current Affair (@ACurrentAffair9) March 1, 2019
Willesee went on to host the ABC’s flagship current affairs program, Four Corners, from 1969-1971.
That year, commercial television beckoned so Willesee shifted to the Nine Network as host of A Current Affair – where he sometimes made the news as well as reported it.
“His particular skills as an interviewer are unarguably the stuff of legend. Most famously the ‘Willesee pause‘ where Mike deliberately allowed many seconds of silence to pass before his next question,” Mr Marks said.
“He knew the power of silence, or a slight quizzical tilt of the head, would usually cause a hapless interviewee to fall into the mistake of speaking to fill the dead air.
“This ‘gotcha’ technique came to represent Michael Willesee at his brilliant best.”
When others spoke too much, he said only what was necessary – the short, sharp question which everyone was thinking, but no-one dared ask. He had a mind as sharp as a steel trap and a sense of humour as cheeky as his smile
In March 1993, three men had killed five people in Queensland and NSW, before kidnapping four children and holing up with two of them in a farmhouse in Cangai, near Grafton.
As police surrounded the property, an ACA researcher was able to place a call to the house.
During an interview broadcast on ACA, Willesee asked two of the children being held hostage if they had seen anybody killed. The broadcast prompted an industry-wide examination of news reporting.
He also spent several years at the Seven Network, where he presented a nightly current affairs program called Willesee at Seven.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2016, Willesee opened up about his battle with the disease in a two-part series on the ABC’s Australian Story in 2017.
Other journalists and celebrities added their own memories of Willesee.
“We’ve lost a legend of journalism and broadcasting. Grew up watching Mike Willesee, a fearless interviewer, a master of the measured pause. Thoughts with loved ones,” tweeted Seven’s sports editor Jim Wilson.
In a varied career which also included horse breeding and racing, Willesee also was a one-time host of Australia’s This is Your Life.
In 2002, he was inducted into the TV Week Logie Awards Hall of Fame. That was followed by induction into the Australian Media Hall of Fame in 2017.
In a pre-recorded acceptance speech, Willesee said, “To be a journalist, for me, has been a gift that just keeps on giving.”
In 1998, during a profile in another Australian Story, Willesee said a plane crash in Kenya that year prompted him to return to the Catholic faith he had abandoned.
“That made me stop and think about God,” he said.
“I thought on balance there probably was a God, otherwise this world doesn’t make much sense.”