In a rare personal interview, ABC Insiders host Barrie Cassidy talks politics, football and Twitter.
Published on The Guardian Australia (14 November 2015)
It’s 5:30 am on Sunday and Barrie Cassidy has already laid out the morning newspapers like tablecloth. At this point, the old Cassidy– the one who was a night owl, unwinding late in restaurants and bars – might still have been “a little hoarse” or else planning to doze off in the makeup chair. Instead, the new Cassidy – and the host of the ABC’s hit political program Insiders – is quiet and focussed. He jots down a few notes, clears his throat. Dark eyebrows crease together under loose silver hair.
Barrie Cassidy has been a morning person for the past 14 years now – as long as Insiders has been running. And he’d need to be. In six months, the show has surged ahead of both Channel Seven’s Sunrise and Channel Nine’s Today to become Australia’s most watched morning program.
“Seeing as it’s been the better part of the year, I guess we can finally boast about it,” Cassidy says. “We’re now the top ranked morning show any day of the week.”
In the wooden booth of the Korean restaurant he’s “been meaning to try”, Barrie Cassidy explains this is his day off. Downtime has long been something of a novelty for the veteran journalist in a career now spanning 47 years.
At 65, he golfs “badly,” jogs a regular path along the Yarra and works his way through some of Melbourne’s better restaurants.
“In a job like this, you never really switch off,” Cassidy says.
And Australia, it seems, has yet to switch off from Barrie Cassidy. He has been on our screens for the better part of half a century – as a newsreader, a foreign correspondent in Washington and Brussels, the host of shows from The 7:30 Report to Offsiders. He has been press secretary and political advisor to a Prime Minister, accused of “losing the plot” by Malcolm Turnbull and of “declaring war” on Kevin Rudd but insists he is a friend to neither party – and gets along just fine with them both. He has a great shaking laugh, the kind that catches you up under his arm.
Most seriously of all, though, according to outgoing ABC news director Kate Torney, Barrie Cassidy is “too humble.” She is surprised to hear he has even agreed to be profiled.
“When he offered me the job as Executive Producer on Insiders, I was really surprised he knew who the hell I was to be honest,” Torney says. “I was just in awe of him in those days but also a little scared of him because he’s a man of very few words.”
That seemed to serve him well enough on the morning of the show’s very first episode in July 2001 – when the then Prime Minister John Howard appeared as their guest. That in itself said something of the clout Cassidy already commanded, having spent the last two decades covering politics around the world.
But, it was also the weekend the Wallabies won a test match against Britain and, from the stands, Howard had screamed himself hoarse. Less than an hour to airtime, he could barely speak.
“He thought about pulling out,” Cassidy says. “But he was good company; at least I’m not the only one who suffers from getting carried away at football matches.”
Football, it seems, is one of the few things Barrie Cassidy has loved longer than journalism.
“They tell me my performance will sometimes be affected by Collingwood’s performance,” he says.
It’s something Kate Torney can attest to, after steering the program through two bitter Grand Finals for the club.
“He didn’t say a word before going to air and I was wondering whether he’d say a word on air to be honest,” she says.
There is something still of the footballer about Cassidy even now, leaning forward at the table with shoulders squared, waiting to catch your pass or punch it back to you. He talks that way too, in his usual gravel baritone – straight down the line. No surprises then that this is the same man who moved from his first job at the Border Morning Mail in Albury to Shepparton News so he could play football on the weekends.
Worth remembering too that it was the cheek of a football fan that landed Cassidy his first ever stint reporting in 1962. Twelve years old and thumbing through the weekly four pages of his home town of Chiltern, Cassidy decided the match reports weren’t up to scratch.
“The shire president owned the newspaper and he was a lovely bloke but he wasn’t a great writer,” he says. “Even at 12, I understood that.”
But, it would be many years and many jobs in between, including court reporting for the Melbourne Herald, before Cassidy became truly excited about journalism. The feeling stole up on him suddenly, on his first day as a press gallery reporter in Melbourne’s Old Parliament House.
“Almost instantly, for the first time really as a journalist, I loved what I was doing,” Cassidy says. “I had no background at all in politics growing up, but I loved the debate. I could sit there all day listening.”
For the next year, Cassidy spent his evenings at night school, taking any class even vaguely related to politics to find out “who was Prime Minister before Menzies.”
Meanwhile, during the day, a routine was forming. It began at 10:30 am each morning in Premier Dick Hamer’s office, with a cup of tea and the rest of the press gallery.
“Hamer would sit on his desk and chat to us about whatever we wanted and then at the end he’d say ‘get your tape recorders out and we’ll put it on the record,’” Cassidy says. “It was such a quaint, old-fashioned way of handling the media – it was almost neighbourly.”
But, a chance to see further into the political world came in 1986 when the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke offered Cassidy a job as press secretary.
“I remember he was 10 points behind in the polls and people said I was crazy,” Cassidy says. “But I thought if I was ever going to see politics from the inside, then this would be the guy to do it with. And even though he was a lout and a larrikin and a drunk, I still admired him.”
That Cassidy was himself something of a blank slate in political terms, not driven by any ideology or faction, made him particularly helpful to Hawke. After a rocky first day (in which an unsuspecting Cassidy threw Hawke’s carefully marked up horseracing form guide in the bin), the Prime Minister came to rely on “Butch Cassidy his press bloke” more and more. It was a job that took him to over 30 different countries, to intimate dinners at the White House and talks that changed history.
Also along for the ride at the time was advisor and former Labor minister Craig Emerson.
“When I met Barrie, I thought he was really famous, Barrie Cassidy from the ABC” Emerson says.
Over their four years working for Hawke, the pair formed a close “and entirely deniable” friendship.
“He’s got a great sense of humour,” Emerson says. “And he’s very experienced in analysing bullshit from politicians. Barrie can do that better than anyone.”
He can also smell political survival better than most, which is why when Paul Keating challenged Hawke in June 1991, Cassidy knew it was “only a matter of time” before Keating succeeded him. But, he quickly realised Hawke couldn’t be persuaded to bow out.
“He said to me ‘I think you’re a bit tired’ and I said ‘you’re right’ and left,” Cassidy says. “When I’m introduced at functions, people always say that I left when Hawke left, but actually I left between the two challenges.”
It was then, after an approach by the “most senior numbers man” in the Labor party, that Cassidy’s own career could have swung into politics.
“I said there was only one seat I’d ever take – the seat where I grew up, because you’d need to have an emotional attachment to that seat to really tolerate the things politicians do,” Cassidy says.
Instead, he chose journalism – and the chance to create his own show, Insiders.
But, those four years in Hawke’s camp left their mark. Accusations of Labor bias have followed Cassidy ever since.
In 2013, the day after the September election was called and in one of his last acts as arts minister, Labor’s Tony Burke appointed Cassidy Chairman of the Old Parliament House Advisory Council.
The move was quickly branded “political favour” by opponents, with both the new Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Attorney General George Brandis calling for Cassidy’s resignation.
Abbott accused Labor of rushing “to appoint its friends to all sorts of positions in the dying days”.
In the end, Cassidy gave in, resigning from the position to avoid “shrouding the board in controversy”.
“It was a pain in the ass actually,” he says now. “I was never a member of the Labor party but you build up lifetime relationships with people. That’s never stopped me getting on well with Coalition MPs too. I think they understand that I do my job and they do theirs.”
Of course, there have been times when even Barrie Cassidy has needed a break from his. In 2014, he took three months off to write his family memoir Private Bill, travelling through the old war zones of Europe in the footsteps of his father, who had been taken prisoner during WW11.
The time off could well have been a permanent decision, Cassidy says, but he missed the “engagement” too much.
“I wasn’t ready to walk away from it all,” he says. “People have said in the past that I’ve been a mentor to them but in the last few years, because of the changing nature of journalism, I’ve seen that reversed and now young people are mentors to me.”
He stops to skewer another dumpling and check his phone. In the spirit of the new digital era, he’s just celebrated his third month on Twitter.
“It took me a long time to get on, I thought it’d be too negative or too time-consuming,” he says. “But I don’t want to be irrelevant. I don’t know how long the ABC wants me to do Insiders and maybe my career is coming to an end. Twitter is about survival.”
Right now at least, with a 30 percent ratings jump in two years, the numbers are on his side. But Cassidy is hardly the type to get complacent. He is constantly looking to try new things and reach new audiences.
As Kate Torney says: “So many of the ideas on Insiders are Barrie’s, but he hasn’t created a program around himself, he’s created one that I hope will go on for decades – hopefully with him there!”
Something beeps under Cassidy’s finger and, with one deft tap, falls silent. He reads it and chuckles.
“If I’m going to remain relevant, I better start now.”
By Sherryn Groch