Legendary newsman and 60 Minutes founder Gerald Stone dies

The father of 60 Minutes in Australia, Gerald Stone in 2018. (Photo: 60 Minutes)

Gerald Stone, the acclaimed journalist given the task of bringing the US news magazine 60 Minutes to Australia, has died aged 87.

The American-born reporter, known variously as the ‘father’ or ‘godfather’ of the show, had a colourful career, but will mostly be remembered for transforming the way commercial television networks cover current affairs in this country.

He famously recounted the conversation he had with then Nine Network owner Kerry Packer offering him the job.

“He called me into his office and started reminding me how badly I had let him down over the years,” Stone recalled in an interview celebrating the show’s 40th anniversary in 2018 . “I was confronted by every weakness in such minute detail I began to think I was about to be fired.

“(Then) with masterful timing, he suddenly switched from berating me to breaking the news I had just been given the most coveted job in television journalism.

“He only gave me a few words of advice he said: ‘I don’t give a f**k what it takes, but just do it and get it right’.”

In his book, Say It With Feeling, Stone said he still had no idea why Packer chose him to launch the show.

At the time of the show’s conception, Stone said: “I think one of the tests of a truly great television program is to try to think what life might have been like without it.”

Nine CEO Hugh Marks led tributes to the media legend, saying: “Gerald Stone was deeply respected and much admired by everyone with whom he came into close contact.

“But he was also a feisty character who gave as good as he got, especially in the odd colourful disagreement over programming decisions with Kerry Packer – a feat in itself.”

Stone, born in Columbus, Ohio, graduated with a political science degree from Cornell University in 1957 and began his journalism career as a copyboy at the New York Times that same year.

In 1962 he moved to Australia and commenced a job with News Limited’s Sydney afternoon newspaper The Daily Mirror and in 1965 spent three months in Vietnam for that paper and The Australian as a special correspondent – later publishing an account of his experiences, War Without Honour. He then moved to the ABC as a reporter for current affairs program This Day Tonight.

During his time as founding executive producer of Nine’s flagship current affairs show from 1979, Stone’s journalistic expertise assisted in building the careers of some of Australia’s most notable television journalists. The likes of Jana Wendt, Ray Martin, George Negus, Jeff McMullin, Jennifer Byrne, Mike Munro, Richard Carleton and Liz Hayes went from just respected journalists to household names.

60 Minutes, at its peak, was appointment viewing, whereby, every Sunday, at 8:30pm, Australians would tune in. It was also referred to as a “watercooler program”, in the sense that the following day, people would discuss the program in offices around the country. It was always a must-watch.

Commenting on how the program differentiated itself from its American forerunner, Stone once said: “It was challenging because everybody would say it’s an American rip-off. And certainly it had the American format.

“It was quite a different program in Australia because Australia didn’t have that many good stories to tell. It was a small country.

“So we had to go overseas and I think that’s how we made our mark. Showing people what happened overseas. People might not care what happened in Nicaragua, but they might care about what George Negus did in Nicaragua.”

In 1992, Stone moved to rival network, Seven, and launched their new current affairs program, Real Life. The show struggled to gain viewership in the competitive timeslot with Nine’s A Current Affair, however successfully launched the career of presenter Stan Grant.

In 1995, Stone became editor in chief of The Bulletin, and stayed in the role for three years before joining the board of SBS in 2000. He served as chairman for five years.

A memorial will be held for Stone at Nine’s former Sydney studios, in Willoughby with a limited attendance due to social distancing. However, the event will be made available online for those who wish to celebrate his life.

Gerald died yesterday aged 87. He is survived by his wife Irene, his two children, Klay and Jennifer, and two grandchildren, Louis and Gina.

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Aspiring journalist. Constantly curious.