With a new television ratings season dawning on the horizon, some of Australia’s heavy hitters in television journalism, no doubt, have been in search of the Holy Grail that is to find the next Jana Wendt. One media boss might have struck gold in the shape of SBS TV Dateline reporter Sophie McNeill.
Wendt in her heyday - the late 1980s and early 90s - was unbeatable. She is a highly educated woman who speaks many languages and could out-interview some of the big names of politics and celebrity. Her nickname was the perfumed steam-roller and she picked up a Gold Logie as Australia’s top television celebrity in 1992.
Legendary news bosses Peter Meakin and John Westacott made their names at the Nine Network when Wendt was hosting the A Current Affair program.
Since Wendt’s retirement, Nine has focused its attention on current ACA host Tracy Grimshaw, who is a formidable interviewer in her own right, to carry the torch. But Wendt and Grimshaw are as different as chalk and cheese. Grimshaw recently went head to head with foulmouthed Scottish chef Gordon Ramsay, with the result that the tough guy lost
Meakin, after a bitter falling out with Nine, took his bag of tricks to the Seven Network. At first the beautiful, blue-eyed brunette Naomi Robson was the host of Today Tonight, Seven’s answer to A Current Affair, and began to beat Nine at its own game. In a takedown over a cannibal story in West Papua, Robson was left with egg on her face in 2006. The Seven network counter-claimed that she was set up.
Reporter Anna Coren was poached from the Nine network and filled the breech at Today Tonight. Coren was sent, wearing a flak jacket, into the short lived Israel-Lebanese Hezbollah war. But Coren had other ambitions and left for US media giant CNN.
Coren, who was the subject of many send ups by comedy team The Chaser from ABC TV, had this to say about her war reporting: “The highlight was going to Israel and covering the war against Hezbollah. It was fascinating being in a place where air-raid sirens were going off all the time and rockets were falling; it makes you feel very alive being in that particular environment."
So that now brings us to Sophie McNeill, video-journalist with SBS TV Dateline program. McNeill was in Afghanistan last year reporting from the frontlines about alleged civilian casualties caused by Australian soldiers.
In 2008 she was named Young Australian Journalist of the Year and is an accomplished film maker.
In fact her rise has been meteoric. She was hailed as child prodigy and a wiz kid way back in 2003 by George Negus, legendary reporter, on his ABC TV show George Negus Tonight:
Sophie McNeill is a remarkable young woman who's been a political activist and social campaigner since the age of nine. When she was 15 she went, alone, to Timor and produced a self-funded documentary (Awaiting Freedom) that received national praise. Earlier this year she produced another on the death of a detainee asylum-seeker. Sophie is now 18 and studying politics at Curtin University in Western Australia. … working in Sydney as an investigative journalist for the SBS programme “Insight”.
Negus is now the host of SBS TV's Dateline program. In 2008 McNeill requested that I not contact her to discuss media issues, including Afghanistan. She has no previous military experience.
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