The newsroom where Peter Meakin started his television career almost 50 years ago was vastly different to the ones he oversaw as head of news and current affairs at the Seven and Nine Networks.
As ”news director” of SES8 Mount Gambier in 1963, the 21-year-old had his baptism of fire running a newsroom of one, shooting, editing and writing his own material to fill five half-hour and one 15-minute bulletin each week. He was spared the task of reading the news by a local accountant.
The 70-year-old newsman announced last week he would leave his job as Seven’s director of news and public affairs as part of a shake-up of the executives, making way for Rob Raschke and Neil Mooney from Seven’s Brisbane office. Meakin will continue in an advisory role with the network, which he joined in 2003.
He joined Nine in 1973 as Melbourne producer of the Mike Willessee-fronted A Current Affair, until it was axed in 1978 to make way for The Sullivans.
The following year, the bold current-affairs venture 60 Minutes began, with Meakin as deputy to executive producer Gerald Stone, whose role he eventually took over. For 10 years, he was director of news and current affairs at Nine when it accurately sported the tag-line ”Still the One” and had a large portfolio of news and current-affairs programs, including Sunday.
In a move that surprised many in the industry, Meakin jumped ship for long-time rival Seven in 2003, after falling out with PBL Media boss John Alexander who, Meakin claims, undermined him by appointing people to his department without consultation. To this day, Meakin does not dispute the colourful language (”24-carat c—”) that was used after he threw a tantrum in Alexander’s office.
When Meakin joined Seven, he recalls, the network ”was not in very good shape … had problems everywhere but Perth.” But within a couple of years of his arrival, Seven had regained the news and current-affairs crown from Nine.
It’s a position Seven now holds by a narrower margin than in previous years, the resurgent Nine having won back the news and current-affairs hour in the key markets of Sydney and Melbourne.
But Meakin denies his departure was related to Seven’s recent setback, saying that at 70, it’s time for someone else to have a go.
A Current Affair presenter Tracy Grimshaw, who worked under Meakin for 22 years since starting at Nine in 1981, says much of Seven’s recent success is due to him.
That’s a view the self-effacing Meakin would question. In a 2006 interview, he expressed his displeasure at articles crediting him with Seven’s turnaround. ”Seven provided me with a parachute from a failing scene at Channel Nine with the management there changing. I’m eternally grateful for that and I’ve inherited the best group of people I’ve ever worked with,” he said at the time.
Meakin often projects himself as an irascible rogue – an image helped by his drink-driving offences and indifference to the dress codes and ”on message” sensibilities of network executives – whose populist leanings and gut instinct for commercial news set him apart from the ”serious” news types of the ABC. But colleagues and rivals see him very differently.
”Meakin was always just so great at gauging the zeitgeist – he’d wander up and say something like, ‘I reckon we need a show about money’, and Money [the Paul Clitheroe-hosted finance program] was the result,” one former Nine executive says. ”He did that over and over. If he had an idea he thought would work, it didn’t matter if it was in his area or not, he’d push it.
”And then there were the news stories he just instinctively knew were important. I remember years and years ago there was a story about a very ill Dutch man who wanted to commit suicide. It was a tough story, controversial, and a lot of people were saying we should stay away from it. Peter argued it was important to show. And he was right. It started a lot of conversation in Australia.”
For those who worked with Meakin, the memories tend to share common themes. There are the long lunches, the straight talk that would rupture a modern HR department, and his incredible ability to sniff out a good news story.
But overall is the fact Meakin laughed. At life, at himself, and especially at anyone who gave him an opening.
”He’s a genuinely happy, gregarious bloke with a withering sense of humour who would cut you in half like an August westerly,” says Nine’s David Hurley, who worked with Meakin from the late 1980s until 2003.
”You know those moments when you say something, and as it leaves your lips you think, ‘Damn, I wish I hadn’t said that’? Meakin would jump on them.
”One of his favourite lines was to turn, level a stare and say: ‘Thanks for that penetrating glimpse of the bleeding obvious.”’
Peter Manning, as executive producer of Four Corners and later head of news and current affairs at the ABC, worked in direct competition with Meakin during the halcyon years of 60 Minutes and A Current Affair.
Manning says Meakin was ”the best-ever news director for both Nine and Seven, getting eyeballs to the channels during their news hours with serious political events or crises”.
”He brought all his commercial and populist expertise to bear to bring a serious perspective to commercial TV. When it would have been easier to ignore difficult, serious events that were happening, Peter committed himself to intervene in the schedule.”
Beneath the gruff James Cagney mask, says Manning, is a very decent human being.
It’s a view shared by George Negus, who received a call from Meakin to join the original 60 Minutes team.
”Regardless of the bombast, there’s far more to Peter than being an angry ant,” Negus says.
”He’s a closet intellectual hiding behind a mask.”
Grimshaw believes Meakin’s skill is in putting the right people in the right spot, understanding what works in the format, balancing the requirements of a team, spotting talent and nurturing it. ”It comes down to reading people,” she says.
An enduring memory of working with Meakin is when she was called in to do an ACA special when bushfires ravaged the suburbs of Sydney in 1994. What was meant to be a half-hour special after the Saturday night news became a 90-minute live show.
”We threw out the script, we went live. Meakin was there. When we finished, he shouted us all beers,” Grimshaw says.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.