A CURRENT AFFAIR
A Current Affair (ACA) is Australia’s longest running television current affairs program. It commenced in 1971 as the Nine Network’s response to the ratings success of the ABC’s pioneering This Day Tonight (TDT). Its producer and presenter, Mike Willesee—who had been poached from TDT—was regarded as one of Australia’s best television reporters and interviewers, so his presence was seen as a guarantee of quality coverage of politics and social issues on ACA.
After Willesee left the program in 1974, ACA was hosted by a number of different presenters until 1978 when it was replaced by the wartime soap opera The Sullivans. ACA was revived in 1988, when Willesee’s company, Transmedia, sold the rights to Nine. It was presented by Jana Wendt until the end of 1992, when she resigned in protest over a story—reputedly involving topless women. Willesee returned for the next year, when his celebrated interview with the federal opposition leader, John Hewson, took place; the interview is reputed to have lost Hewson the election.
Less salutary was ACA’s intervention into a police siege in Cangai in rural New South Wales, where two children were being held hostage, in 1993. ACA broke a police blockade to secure helicopter footage and telephone access to the gunmen holding the children. Willesee interviewed them on air. Police were outraged and the incident became a notorious example of media irresponsibility, even turning up as the plotline for an episode of Frontline some years later.
Ray Martin took over the presenter’s role in 1994 and the next four years saw the program involved in several public controversies in which its ethical standards were questioned. The most sustained of these involved a family of unemployed youths, the Paxtons, in a series of ‘dole bludger’ stories. Critics accused the program of victimising the Paxtons and setting them up for public abuse, while exploiting them to improve the ratings. The frequent use of hidden cameras and chequebook journalism over this period also exposed ACA to accusations of unethical behaviour. Mike Munro replaced Martin in 1998, but Martin returned in 2003 before handing over to Tracy Grimshaw, the current host, in 2006.
Current affairs television lost considerable numbers of viewers over the 1990s, and has yet to regain them. Partly this is a consequence of an overall decline in the size of the audience in the 6.30–7.30 p.m. timeslot. Commercial producers responded by heading down-market in their choice of stories. As a result, commercial television current affairs programs retreated to a limited menu of tabloid infotainment topics— bad neighbours, cosmetic surgery, confidence tricksters, welfare cheats, fad diets and the latest treatments for cellulite. Despite its considerable contribution to the best of Australian television over its long history, the current version of ACA is part of this trend.
REF: G. Turner, Ending the Affair (2005).