Kerry O'Brien and Maxine McKew reflect on Lateline's demise

In 1990 the first season of The Simpsons was screening on American TV and Mr Bean first appeared on British tellies.

In Australia, however, the new decade ushered in something much more serious and profound - a late-night program on the national broadcaster dedicated to reflection on and discussion of big ideas.

On February 13 of that year, from a studio in Canberra, presenter Kerry O'Brien introduced what would become a television institution in Australia, and for many viewers a window to the world.

Kerry O'Brien presented Lateline when it premiered in 1990. Photo: Fairfax Media

Kerry O'Brien presented Lateline when it premiered in 1990. Photo: Fairfax Media

The program was the brainchild of Peter Manning, the then head of ABC news and current affairs, who commissioned the program and brought in Ian Carroll as executive producer.

Lateline would bring big names on the world stage - Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher among them - into people's lounge rooms, and routinely keep hundreds of thousands of Australians up later than they intended.

Twenty seven years on, the ABC has confirmed the end of Lateline, announcing on Thursday that it would cease at the end of its current season later this year.

"Ian and I basically shaped the program between us, with high quality input from a very small but dedicated team of reporters and producers," O'Brien says.

"We took that [Nightline] concept and went a little bit further with it, but fundamentally it was this: our principle underwriting the whole project was that each night's half hour would be dedicated to a single issue."

They had no idea what to expect in terms of audience response, he says, but it soon took off, regularly drawing up to 400,000 viewers a night.

"We learnt immediately that there was a real hunger out there for a serious, reflective program," O'Brien says. "It was unique because there was nothing else like it on the schedule."

He recalls some nail-biting moments when the then relatively recent satellite technology that enabled them to speak to guests overseas failed them.

"We flew by the seat of our pants for years. Often I'd be sitting there in the semi darkness of the studio, hearing the theme playing and watching a blank screen in New York or Jerusalem or Moscow or Canberra, where the guest hadn't shown up, or where the guest was there and we had a blank screen, or we didn't have the sound.

"Or we had two guests in different parts of the world who couldn't hear each other, and I'd be presenting my introduction while listening to the sound of the director wringing his hands about what they could do next to resolve the problem. And sometimes that showed on air, and the audience would understand."

For Maxine McKew, who replaced O'Brien as presenter in late 1995, some of her most memorable Lateline moments include interviews with figures such as Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, while she was still under house arrest, and Tony Blair in the months before he became British prime minister in 1997.

McKew, who as the Labor candidate for Bennelong ousted then prime minister John Howard from his seat in the 2007 election, and now works at the University of Melbourne in the Education faculty as an Honorary Enterprise Professor, name-checked her interview with One Nation founder Pauline Hanson after she was elected to federal parliament in 1996 as one that drew most attention.

"I got the first major interview with Pauline Hanson," says McKew. "And it was the first interview where she was seriously challenged about the fact that she operated within a fact-free zone.

"The ABC phones went into meltdown for about 48 hours afterwards. It was a lonely place to be for a while because the board didn't really hold their nerve. There were board members who, it was revealed to me later, actually thought I'd gone a step too far.

"Certainly it is true that I didn't treat her with the same civility that I reserved for other guests. And these were early days, but quite simply I was profoundly shocked - this shows you how na??ve I was - that she would come onto a program like Lateline, where you have to talk not for 20 seconds but 20 minutes ... and she thought she could get away with just blather, as she then doing everywhere else.

"That wasn't going to happen on Lateline, and I exposed her. When I consider where we are now, 20 years on, I think this was a bit of a dry run for what we hear now, which is a more intense fact-free zone."

Both O'Brien and McKew seem sad at the program's demise, but understand why the ABC has made the decision, and instead divert resources to reporting teams. They and many others saw the writing on the wall when the program's timeslot was changed in 2015, screening first at 9.30pm on ABC 24 and repeated on ABC1 at 10.30pm.

"Lateline has been a significant force in national current affairs, I think for a long time a central force," says McKew. "You trade away a brand like that and I think you lose something ...

"You either back a program or you get rid of it. There's no doubt that over the past few years ... and others have acknowledged this, its resourcing has been very choppy and they've really been chopping off limbs.

"To come to this decision is really not very surprising."

The story Kerry O'Brien and Maxine McKew reflect on Lateline's demise first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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