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Catholic journalist, who could make the surest politicians sweat, remembered among the best

Mike Willesee: “He was excellent at hitting the mark for ordinary Australians, who weren’t necessarily highly informed, who were looking to him to do the work for them, and he did.”

VETERAN TV interviewer Mike Willesee was one of Australia’s great news and current affairs storytellers.

Simply put, the veteran TV interviewer and presenter, media entrepreneur and sports fan, who died aged 76 last week after battling throat cancer, knew how to communicate well.

The son of Labor Senator Don Willesee, young Mike (pictured) grew up a Catholic but drifted away from the Church as an adult, only to renew his faith after surviving a plane crash in Kenya in 1998. 

In his own recounting of the crash he described how, before the flight he had a premonition that the plane he was about to board would crash.

He got on the plane anyway, and as the plane dived towards the ground Mr Willesee said he prayed the first genuine prayer to God in decades. 

That near-death experience prompted Mr Willesee to turn his storytelling skills to explaining the supernatural in a series of documentaries on miracles.

After learning his journalism craft with the ABC and hosting Four Corners, Mr Willesee charmed audiences on Channel Nine’s – A Current Affair, which he started in 1971.

He coaxed a generation of laconic Australians to tell their stories, he introduced a segment with a young comedian named Paul Hogan, and, it seemed, he could rip apart politicians at will.

Mr Willesee did just that during the infamous Channel Nine “birthday cake” interview with former opposition leader John Hewson, who in 1993, was favourite to become the next Prime Minister. 

As an economist, Dr Hewson had planned to introduce a GST, but Mr Willesee used the interview to tap into popular concerns that the tax would prove too complicated. 

Mr Willesee: “If I buy a birthday cake from a cake shop and GST is in place, do I pay more or less for that birthday cake?”

Dr Hewson couldn’t say whether or not a birthday cake would cost more or less with the proposed tax.

His fumbled, long-winded response made the policy look ridiculously complicated for voters, and that question is said to have turned an “unlosable election” into election defeat for Dr Hewson at the hands of Paul Keating.

“That was a kind of Mike Willesee classic,” former 7.30 Report presenter and fellow journalist, Kerry O’Brien told the ABC last week.

“He was excellent at hitting the mark for ordinary Australians, who weren’t necessarily highly informed, who were looking to him to do the work for them, and he did.”

Mr Willesee pursued his passion for journalism until the end.

He had been working on a book on miraculous phenomena around the world.

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