‘I wouldn’t change a thing’: Ray Martin on life in journalism

One of the three founding journos of 60 Minutes and long-time host of The Midday Show, five-time Gold Logie winner Ray Martin is proud of his half-century friendship with George Negus, whose family disclosed his battle with dementia this week. I spoke to Ray on Friday.

Fitz: Ray, there was very sad news on your old friend and fellow 60 Minutes founder George Negus this week, so badly suffering from dementia that he’s had to be put in a home. Are you two close?

Ray Martin: It is very sad, and we are very close. I think George was the reason why 60 Minutes was such an early success. He was so larger-than-life, and without him it wouldn’t have kept going in those early days, until Jana Wendt came along and helped.

Fitz: How long have you known that he had dementia?

RM: About a year. I saw him in Coffs Harbour, and know him as I do, I realised he was in a bit of trouble.

Fitz: Was he aware that he was losing it and scared of it? Or did the dementia protect him from fear?

RM: No, he was aware of it. And we talked about perhaps doing a television program in which he would talk openly about what he was confronting. As to whether he was scared, I guess he was, and he’s not normally scared by much, Negus.

Fitz: Looking back on your own career, it occurs to me that as a journalist, you were a lot like the ABC’s Andrew Olle: no one would have had the first clue which way you voted. I don’t ask which way you vote now. But may I ask? Do you have strong political passions one way or another?

RM: Very strong. But back then nothing pleased me more than doing an interview with John

Gerald Stone, left, in 1979 with his original 60 Minutes reporting team: Ray Martin, Ian Leslie and George Negus. Credit:

Howard, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating, and have 50 per cent of the people say “It’s clear from that interview, you’re a card-carrying Commie, and the other half, you’re a blue ribbon Liberal.” But I do have strong political views.

Fitz: Go on?

RM: Gough’s “It’s Time” campaign was 50 years ago to the year. I think it’s time [again]. I have interviewed every Prime Minister since Bob Menzies and I think this is the most incompetent government we’ve had. It’s time.

Fitz: Beyond occasionally being interviewed by you, I first got to know you when we did that thing at Leichhardt Town Hall as the cameras rolled on changing the Australian flag and getting rid of the Union Jack. That’s the first time I remember you taking flak for having a really strong political stance.

RM: Yeah, that’s right. But I took probably more flak when I went public with the fact my sister and I had done some family history to discover my great-great-grandfather, an Irishman, had set up life with a Kamilaroi woman outside Gunnedah. I’m very proud of it and I wrote a piece in the Women’s Weekly about that and the hit-back [was ferocious] that a percentage of my blood was Aboriginal.

Fitz: Do you identify as being Aboriginal?

RM: No. I acknowledge that 15/16th of my blood is Irish, 1/16 of my blood is Aboriginal, and I’m very proud of both.

Fitz: Every time I run into you these days, you have a camera crew in tow. And you’re heading for the hills somewhere doing substantive journalism, for the likes of ABC and SBS. Is it that you made your money in commercial TV, and now you’re telling stories you want to tell rather than stories that pay the mortgage?

RM: No question of that. I am able now to do things that I want to do. So, if there’s something I don’t want to do I don’t do it, whereas if you work for a newspaper full time or a network, you usually have to do what you’re asked to do.

Fitz: What are you pushing now? What are your journalistic political passions, the stories that need to be told?

RM: I am pushing – and have been pushing for the last 40 years long before I realised that I had any Aboriginal blood – reconciliation. I’m ashamed of Australia’s Aboriginal policy over the years. As Sir William Dean says, that’s probably the festering sore of Australian society that we still shamefully treat our First Australians, so badly.

Fitz: I love the line, “Over the mountains down in the valley lives. The former talk show host. Everybody knows his name.” It’s one of Paul Simon’s most famous lyrics from Graceland. You were also a long-time host of the talk-show Midday. For the hell of it, can you give us your best war story? Who were your best and worst guests?

Ray Martin and Geoff Harvey on the Midday Show in 1986.

RM: Interviewing Sir Donald Bradman was the best. I’ve never met anyone who was that superior to everybody else in his trade or his profession, whether it be arts or sport or business. The athlete Michael Johnson was the worst. He was one of great athletes of all time, but he was a pig a man, most particularly after I asked him about drugs in sport. He sort of stood up and raised his fist. I thought, please hit me because three cameras are on you, but don’t hit me too bloody hard!

Fitz: You’ll be pleased to hear that I don’t think you look much older now than in your halcyon days at Channel Nine in the 80s and 90s, but do you ever drive past that massive hole in the ground at Artarmon now, to see where the network once stood and feel old, that the entire schtick of that once magical place is just gone. And now even more people who were a part of it are gone, too?

RM: (Softly.) I do indeed. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

Fitz: Okay, last question. No one who worked for Kerry Packer for as long as you did can come away without a killer Packer story. What’s yours?

RM: One night, Negus, Jana and I were having dinner with Kerry, and Jana was telling a story about having just interviewed Mick Jagger in Paris on a Rolling Stones tour. She told it really well, about how Jagger had these long skinny shoes with pointy toes, and she said, “My god you’ve got big feet.” And in this Scouse accent Jagger replied, “You know what they say, big feet, big willie.” We all laughed and at this point Kerry put his big boot on the table and said “Look at these -size 18!” Brought the house down.

Fitz: Such times you’ve known, Ray . . .

Ray: Better than working for a living!

Tweet of the week

Grace Tame, @TamePunk, makes reply to the kerfuffle of a photo published of her, as a 19-year-old sitting with a friend, with a bong on her lap.

Quote of the Week

“Everything that is connected to Simon is connected to the ocean. The news hit us like a truck because he was one of the people who make this earth lighter.” Della Ross, a friend of shark attack victim Simon Nellist, taken by a great white at Little Bay on Wednesday.

What they said

Prince Andrew paying a huge sum of money to someone he said he didn’t know or he had ever met is quite the take today. @JaneyGodley

Dress Code/House Policy: *No Visible Tattoos. *No Designer Labelled Apparel. *No Heavy Jewellery. Such is the dress code for the chi-chi Bedouin Restaurant in Double Bay, trying to keep out us riff-raff.

“By paying a massive cheque to avoid a showdown in court, he’s confirmed himself to be a snivelling little coward whose denials and demands weren’t worth the paper they were written on. And we also know that by doing so, he has destroyed what’s left of his shattered reputation.” Piers Morgan on Prince Andrew’s settlement with Virginia Giuffre, to avoid court action.

“I understand the consequences of my decision, and one of the consequences of my decision was not going to Australia, and I was prepared not to go, and I understand that not being vaccinated today, I am unable to travel to most of the tournaments at the moment . . . Because the principles of decision-making on my body are more important than any title or anything else. I’m trying to be in tune with my body as much as I possibly can.” Novak Djokovic, still as mad as a box of frogs.

Thousands of nurses stopped work on Tuesday in the first statewide strike in a decade.Credit:Renee Nowytarger

“To be told the hospital system is coping – it’s like a knife in the heart.” A nurse on strike this week.

“We are in vogue at the moment. We’re trendier than smashed avocado on toast. In this world, people want to have something special about them and they see being Aboriginal as a point of difference.” Playwright Nathan Maynard, author of At What Cost? and previously Tasmanian Aboriginal Artist of the Year, about false claimants to Indigeneity.

“It’s a cynical move for a politician to co-opt music in an attempt to humanise themselves come election time.” The band Dragon fuming about the Prime Minister’s mangled attempt at singing the hit from the 1970s, April Sun in Cuba.

“No one who is here is here legally, and if they’re getting wet from below as well as above, they’re likely to be a little bit less comfortable and more likely to go home.” The New Zealand Parliament speaker, Trevor Mallard, after authorities deployed Barry Manilow – oh, the humanity – and turned on the lawn sprinklers against COVID protesters at its Parliament, playing his greatest hits at hundreds camped out in the grounds. Protesters responded by playing their own tunes, including Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It but started to move on.

Laura Peel falls during the women’s aerials finals at the 2022 Winter Olympics.Credit:AP

“It’s not the outcome Peel was hoping for.” A Channel 7 commentator, as Australian aerial skier Laura Peel crashed out in the final, ruining her medal hopes in a single landing after four years’ hard training. Do ya think?

Joke of the week

Four drovers are sitting around a campfire discussing what they’d want if they were lost in the outback and were only allowed one thing. The first says, “I couldn’t do without my trusty old horse. She could probably lead me to a homestead from the back o’ Bourke.”

The second says, “You can have your horse but I’d want my swag. If you’re gunna be lost, you may as well sleep warm at night.”

The third says, “There’s no question. I’d want my old Queensland eeler ‘Blue’. He’s my best mate, and if I was gunna die out there I’d want him beside me.”

The last old bushie says, “Only one thing I’d need – a pack of cards. See, I’d start playing patience and before long some bastard would be looking over my shoulder saying, “Red jack on black queen.“’

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

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