The dog days of Ray
What’s a hard-working TV legend supposed to do when his fans stop watching him?
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Promo by Ray Martin on Channel Nine at 6.25 p.m.:
“Coming up on A Current Affair – dangerous footpaths.
Don’t trip, the Council will blame you.
Plus, are we really ready for war?”
No doubt about Ray, he’s always got his priorities right.
The Latham Diaries: March 7, 2003
Ray Martin is talking the moment he shakes hands, peppering the air with a volley of words – about the story he is working on that has brought him to Melbourne, about a follow-up to another story airing that night, about yet another story he is chasing concerning a woman with a rare disease. His voice is deeper than it sounds on TV, but that impression barely registers as details about stories – names, places, times – roll on in smoothly compressed sentences. He is doing what might be called a piece-to-interviewer, speaking swiftly to impress on me his journalistic credentials and his program’s urgent engagement with the issues of the moment.
And it is impressive. But is it necessary? A couple of weeks later at the Sydney offices of A Current Affair, the Channel Nine program he hosts five nights a week, he greets me with another volley: “You’ve come on a good day, mate. The Dr Holt story has hit the fan. It’s unbelievable. John Holt is a respected doctor, he’s got 26 letters after his name. He’s been treating people with cancer for 30 years with a machine he developed himself called the Tronado, and having real success. We’ve been campaigning hard on this story for the past 18 months. The NHMRC [National Health and Medical Research Council] is releasing a big report on it today, and The West Australian got a break on it and have reported this morning that the report says his treatment doesn’t work.”
Until recently, every day was a good day for Martin. He is probably the most successful Australian journalist in commercial TV history, earning more than $2 million annually since the 1990s according to Business Review Weekly and collecting Gold Logies seemingly at will. His blend of professional credibility and personal warmth has attracted millions of advertising dollars and millions of viewers from middle Australia. Blessed with bloke-next-door good looks, his tanned, relatively unlined face belies his nearly 61 years.
Recently, though, the days have dulled. The tectonic plates of the media world are shifting. The godlike authority of TV presenters has eroded as audiences opt for shows like the ABC’s Australian Story that put the story, not the presenter, at the centre of attention. A Current Affair, which wooed three million viewers at its peak, averaged 1.2 million this year and was overrun by its Channel Seven rival Today Tonight. Martin has slipped off BRW’s list of highest-paid entertainers in two of the past three years, and his last Gold Logie came in 1996. Media academic Graeme Turner, in his recent book Ending the Affair, declares that current affairs on commercial TV is a dying form.
“Dr Holt is not a shonk,” Martin goes on. “I’ve had my share of shonks, and when my producer first came to me with the idea I said: ‘Oh no, not another miracle cure for cancer.’ When I called Dr Holt to check it all out I offered to fly over to Perth to talk to him, but he didn’t want the publicity. The shonks always want the publicity cos it brings them money, but he said: ‘I don’t want any more patients. I’m too busy with the ones I’ve got.’ We’ve interviewed about 50 people who say they’ve been cured by him.”
He pauses to greet the owner of the sandwich bar near Channel Nine’s Willoughby headquarters, on Sydney’s north shore, and orders two coffees. It is 9.45 on a bright spring morning. Martin says he normally gets up at 7 a.m. and reads The Daily Telegraph, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Financial Review, while flicking between Alan Jones on 2GB and Mike Carlton on 2UE, before listening to the 7.45 news and Am on the ABC. He arrives at work at 10 o’clock except when he is working on a story, which is about once a week. Then he’s in at 6 a.m. The show’s senior producers hold a daily teleconference at 7 a.m. No longer is it their aim to develop the news of the day, as they used to do and as the ABC’s 7.30 Report still does; instead they are careful not to repeat what was on the 6 o’clock news. One producer brings to conference the emails sent in by viewers, which are then scoured for story leads.
The question of what time Martin gets to work was famously picked over by comedian John Safran in a mock intrusion at Martin’s home, when Safran – wearing a Mike Munro mask and accompanied by a member of the Paxton family, who had been harangued by A Current Affair for turning down a job offer on a Queensland resort – began buzzing Martin’s intercom and demanding: “It’s 9.30, Mr Martin. Why aren’t you at work?” Seven years later, it takes little prodding for Martin to recount what happened. Edited, it goes like this: Safran (which he pronounces “Saffron”) used deception to get past Martin’s gate, behaved like a prat and violated the privacy of Martin’s wife and son (“I’m just a Dad here. I’m not Ray Martin superstar”), all for the purpose of making a joke that was as funny as a trip to the dentist. The incident prompted some observers to suggest that the man who fronts a program notorious for its intrusive tactics and stern moralising had suffered a humorectomy, a view Martin both accepts (“I overreacted, no doubt about that”) and rejects (“They should perhaps have been outside Mike Munro’s place”).
In October, Martin notched up 40 years in the news industry. He made his reputation breaking important stories and gaining big interviews, first at the ABC and then for 60 Minutes. He still finds his own stories, unlike Today Tonight host Naomi Robson, although he rarely participates in the morning conference. Sipping his coffee, he says he doesn’t like some of the stories his program runs but his colleagues disagree, and they are experienced journalists too. “I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.” After taking a break, he returned to A Current Affair in 2003 with respected journalists Paul Barry and Ellen Fanning and a promise of fewer stories that followed what the annual Fugly Awards call “the fatties, freaks and finance formula”. For a while the show did air some powerful stories – about temporary protection visas and the rights of gang-rape victims – but the ratings, despite patches of improvement, fell slightly. At this point, it appears, Channel Nine lost its nerve, bringing back David Hurley – who is now primarily in charge of the show’s struture – as executive producer. Colleagues genuinely like and respect Martin. On jobs in out-of-the-way locations, he’ll sleep in a makeshift bed amid the “farting and snoring” crew. Chris Masters, the veteran Four Corners journalist, thinks that without Martin A Current Affair would air even fewer good stories. And yet a comparison between the two is instructive. Masters still has the investigative journalist’s irascible obsession with chasing the story. Martin, in the end, loves to be loved and needs to be at the centre of things. As he himself says: “I’m driven by what I want to do. I’m an absolute hedonist.”
It is nearly 11.30 by the time Martin returns to the office, holding open the door for a cleaner wheeling out a rubbish bin. “It’s going bananas in Perth,” his personal assistant Kym Weatherley tells him. “Dr Holt’s copping a bucketing and so are you, from Abbott.” Health Minister Tony Abbott has released a report finding that Dr Holt’s radio wave therapy treatment is no more effective – and in many cases less effective – than conventional chemotherapy.
Taking off his coat, and showing no reaction to Weatherley’s comments, Martin sits down at his computer, finds the report on the web and scans its executive summary. He scrolls down to a recommendation that journalists reporting on cancer treatments should be referred to the new Australian Communication and Media Authority. “So whenever we’re going to do a story on cancer we have to check in first with the government? This is Big Brother stuff,” he says, referring to George Orwell’s 1984 rather than the reality show whose genre is one reason why audiences are leaking from current affairs on commercial TV.
Evidence of his glory days adorns the o?ce. There are photos of Ray with Don Bradman, Barry Humphries and Gough Whitlam (who signed “It’s time”). A large picture of John Sattler, former champion of Martin’s beloved South Sydney Rabbitohs, sits alongside a poster signed by the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. From his years hosting The Midday Show are snaps of Ray with John Denver, Robin Williams, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Martin phones one of Dr Holt’s patients he has spoken to previously, John Wickham, and schedules another interview. He walks round to managing producer Darren Wick’s office to discuss how they will run the story and how it will be advertised on the midday promo. Wick, like several senior A Current Affair staff, came to TV after spending years at tabloid newspapers. He listens as Martin, concerned but measured, says: “They’ve attacked me, they’ve attacked us.”
“How do we sell it for noon?” Wick replies. “The government’s basically slammed him. They’ve shut the door.”
“How about Holt – The Final Verdict,” says Hugh Nailon, Martin’s producer on the story.
“That’s my worry,” says Wick. “It’s a negative. I know we’ve been campaigning on Dr Holt, but it’s not grabbing them [the audience].”
“It’s a question,” says Martin, “of the spelling bee [another story in contention] versus the biggest killer of Australians.”
“The spelling bee is a campaign too,” Wick points out.
“What it’s telling us time and again is if we’re not giving them [viewers] good news, they don’t want to hear.”
“It’s that thing of outrage, though,” says Martin, “because people have gotten better from Dr Holt.”
“No question he went really well for us last year,” says Wick. “But not the last two times.”
“I don’t agree,” says Martin. “I think the figures show it’s gone really well for us.”
Wick goes away to consult with David Hurley, who has the final say. When he returns he announces: “We’ll rev it in Perth but not the rest of the country. What’s the promo?”
“Surviving patients are outraged,” says Martin.
“Perth patients outraged,” Wick replies.
“But it’s right around Australia.”
“This promo’s just for Perth.”
It is nearly noon, so Martin goes off to record it. The network’s research shows it’s the promo ads, rather than the stories themselves, that drive the program. “Ray’s very passionate about Dr Holt because it’s his story,” Wick explains.
“You want that in a journalist, because if they’re not fighting for the story, who will? But we’re looking for stories that push that button.” The program-makers’ buttons are pushed by the remote-control button, which enables viewers to flick incessantly between channels, whereas once they would begin their evening’s viewing with the news and stay on that channel all night. Ratings figures arrive at 8.45 each morning, charting the previous night’s performance minute by minute. As both Wick and Nailon say, separately: “They do your head in, these ratings figures.”
With the all-important promos shot, Martin heads out to John Wickham’s house in a nearby suburb. He is passionate about the Dr Holt story, as Wick says, but whether he’s in an editorial meeting or in the car with a camera crew, Martin’s tone rarely deviates from the evenly modulated voice that viewers hear each evening. Wickham is elderly. He firmly believes Dr Holt’s treatment has added many years to his life. “Ray,” he says, “this has nothing to do with cancer, but we don’t know enough about the effects of electromagnetic technology. The Soviets did a lot of research into it ...” Production crews learn to schedule additional time when they are on a job with Martin because Martin listens to his interviewees. His nickname, according to former 60 Minutes producer John Little, is ‘Captain Have-a-Chat’.
In time the interview is done, and Martin is back in the office soon after 2 p.m. He’s put a call in with Tony Abbott’s press secretary requesting an interview. In the edit suite, Hugh Nailon and editor Laura Battistel are compiling a background piece that goes for two minutes and 30 seconds, allowing Martin at least three-and-a-half minutes with Abbott if the minister agrees. Stuck on the door of the edit suite are the “15 Principles of Good Editing”. Number three reads: “Do not arrive with a clear concise plan of what you have shot or indeed what the finished item is about. It does spoil the element of surprise for the editor.” Battistel, though, is surprised about the report’s findings, and disappointed that the scientists involved have dismissed the testimony of Dr Holt’s patients as mere anecdotal evidence. Paul Thompson, a sound recordist, walks into Martin’s o?ce and says: “It’s a real pity. He’s not over there driving an SL Mercedes and living in Cottesloe. He was trying to get a cure for cancer, for crying out loud.”
Listening while he chews on a roll, Martin is working his way through the 570-page report. He’s preparing questions for the minister, who has agreed to be interviewed. It is a small victory for Martin. The program seldom interviews politicians anymore because the ratings counters show that viewers switch channels the moment a politician appears. From this, program-makers conclude that viewers find politics boring. Others conclude that what viewers find boring is the way commercial TV shows present politics. “Watching Kerry O’Brien interview Peter Costello on Budget night,” says Graeme Turner, “is like watching two cats attempt to play with the same mouse.”
Martin interrupts his preparations to record the 4 o’clock promos, featuring the “Dubbo dog update” – about a story from the previous night fulminating about housing commission tenants in Dubbo who leave their “taxpayerfunded” homes without cleaning up. Viewers, according to the station’s feedback log, were less outraged at this than at one unfeeling tenant who left behind a hapless mutt.
Few people remember that Martin, back in his time at 60 Minutes, once broke a story about the systematic abuse of patients at Sydney’s Chelmsford psychiatric hospital. That story led to a royal commission. In the late 1990s he left A Current Affair, apparently frustrated by the program’s unwillingness to do investigative journalism. But in the past year or so he seems to have resigned himself to his (comfortable) lot.
He tells me of his desire to do a PhD. Sounds fine; at his age and with his accumulated income he could certainly make the change, although his topic – “something about the 19th-century gold rush in Australia” – seems rather well traversed. During the two days I spent with him Martin, when pressed, steadfastly defended A Current Affair against the ivory-towered critics who think they know what audiences need. He has been saying similar things in interviews ever since he moved to commercial TV in 1978. He is unwilling or unable to consider that the relationship between what audiences want and what they need is more complicated than this simple dichotomy suggests.
Weeks later, he rang me to check up on rumours he had heard that this profile would include comments he had made criticising A Current Affair. Puzzled about the source of rumours concerning an article I had only just finished writing, I assured him that unless I had missed something he made no such comments. “So,” he persisted, “if this was a story in a tabloid newspaper, what would the headline be?”
Ros Thomas, from A Current Affair’s Perth office, has emailed saying Today Tonight are heavily promoting the Holt story with the words: “We’ll tell you what Channel Nine won’t tell you.” “That’s Channel Seven,” says Hugh Nailon. “Typical guerilla action.” Pause. “We do exactly the same thing.”
At 5.55 p.m., with 35 minutes to go, Martin walks over to John Muldrew, who writes the introductions and linking scripts between stories. The links need “Martinising”, as he puts it, so that they read the way he talks. One critic, former Media Watch executive producer David Salter, has described this style as a “calculated blend of the mawkish and the matey”. On one item, “one of the great arguments of our time” is Martinised to read “an old argument”; another is Martinised from “So, a win for the good guys” to “So, a win for people power.” Martin stands behind Muldrew, touching him on the shoulder and reading the scripts under his breath as he requests his changes. Then it’s over to the studio for make-up and a superfluous brush of his luxuriant hair, which hasn’t moved a centimetre in nine hours.
Tony Abbott has agreed to a live studio interview (“they do that so you can’t edit them,” says Martin) and arrives from make-up at 6.25. “I’m sorry it wasn’t better news about Dr Holt, Ray,” he says. They chat briefly before the program begins. The interview goes for four-and-ahalf minutes, with Martin pressing Abbott to declare Dr Holt a quack and asking: “How do you tell all these good people that Dr Holt did nothing for them?” Abbott’s voice drips sincerity. He feels deeply for cancer sufferers and their loved ones; he won’t be drawn to criticise Dr Holt, and nor does he knock A Current Affair.
In the control panel, Muldrew gets a phone call from Hurley saying that Abbott was more direct in a pre-recorded interview on Today Tonight, describing the report as “the best word and the last word” on Dr Holt. Martin’s performance in his Abbott interview is polished but no more than that – how much can you achieve in four minutes? He is the consummate professional but compared to Naomi Robson, who has the gleaming stare of the true believer, Martin seems to be “phoning in his performance”, as one industry observer puts it.
After the show, Martin bumps into Hurley. He is wondering, given the media pasting he’s likely to cop for his support of Dr Holt, whether he should postpone his planned leave. “Nah,” says Hurley, “don’t interrupt your holiday. [Tracy] Grimshaw is organised for tomorrow night.” Nailon is pleased, saying Today Tonight have run more of Martin than of themselves. “That must mean they tape our show,” says Martin. “Or that they get it through Media Monitors or Rehame,” Nailon replies.
The next day, however, there is little media follow-up. It may be because the Dr Holt story is not as important as Martin believes, or it may be because of the news media’s habit of ignoring rival outlets’ stories. Or it may be because commercial current affairs programs have so saturated themselves in consumer feel-good, do-bad stories that not only have they been bypassed by politicians in favour of talkback radio, but they have cut themselves adrift from the broad mass of public debate, and are now stranded on an island where the only source of food is each other – or a miracle diet pill. For Ray Martin, once a breaker of important stories and an instantly recognised, much-loved face among everyday Australians, is it worse to be reviled by the critics or ignored?