Interview with Tracy Grimshaw

10 August 2011

Written by: Matthew Smith

Interviewing Tracy Grimshaw, host of Channel 9’s A Current Affair proved to be one of the most inspirational experiences of my journalistic life thus far.

Rather than humour me and glibly respond to my questions, Grimshaw went to pains to highlight faults and suggest improvements: ‘since you are learning journalism and have plans to be a journalist perhaps you will welcome some guidance from me?’

Grimshaw says dedication and persistence emerged as the strong characteristics required for success in the competitive field of television current affairs.

‘When I was growing up I must’ve changed career aspirations dozens of times,’ Grimshaw says.

‘Flight Attendant was one of the early ones, as I recall. Towards the end of High School I’d pretty much settled on Veterinary Science and I started a Zoology/ Psychology double major at Uni with a view to ultimately studying Veterinary Science and becoming an Animal Behaviourist.’

‘But a chance meeting with my HSC teacher led her to writing me a reference for journalism. I got a cadetship in suburban newspapers within a couple of months of sending off a fistful of applications to every news organisation I could think of and 31 years later, here I still am. ’

Grimshaw believes it is essential for journalists to master the skill of listening.

‘The ability and willingness to listen is a journalist’s greatest gift. It’s not the only one of course, but if you can tune into what people are saying and learn to read between the lines, you will be on the way to developing the intuition that is vital in this profession.’

And impatience does not sit well with her.

‘I must say it irks me when young students talk about wanting to read news or host TV shows,’ she says.

‘Ambition is fine but at such an early stage I’d rather hear them say how keen they are to learn the profession rather than concentrating on the end game.’

Her success has been well documented. She first joined National Nine News in Melbourne as a reporter in 1981, later co-hosting The Midday Show with David Reyne, and Today with Steve Liebmann

Then in 2006, Grimshaw took over from Ray Martin as the sole host of A Current Affair proudly claiming as one of her achievements a major shift in the paradigm of on-screen interviews.

‘When I started on the show five years ago the producers told me that viewers didn’t like interviews much and would switch off after three minutes which meant every interview I did got cut down to three minutes. I set about changing that with the result that we now routinely devote the entire show to one interview and those interviews are our highest rating shows. That’s a pretty big evolution I think and I’m proud of it.’

This experienced journalist has enjoyed many good times and some moving ones. The Shelley Walsh interview sprang to mind.

‘A memorable one that moved me to tears last year was with Shelley Walsh, a young policewoman from Cowra who sat down and talked with me about the day her father killed her mother and two children, then attacked her with an axe.’

‘The depth of her betrayal and her discovery as she walked through her parents’ home with him beside her, finding her mum and kids dead….then having to fight him off him when he turned on her was deeply moving.’

It is not clear whether her rise has coincided with the emergence of female presenters or led the charge.

‘When I started in 1981 there were few women; almost no women reading news and hosting shows; and we were pretty much out the door by 40 years old. I just turned 50 this year and I’m hosting the Nine Network’s only live prime time national nightly show. I think that says we’re doing pretty well and it’s getting better.’

An interview of this kind could not ignore the issue of privacy. It seems paradoxical that interviewers could regard the interviewee as ‘fair game’ yet fiercely protect their own privacy. She used the Matthew Johns interview to contrast the difference between ‘intrusive’ and ‘intense’.

‘That interview was certainly the latter but I would argue not the former. I am generally as respectful of other peoples’ privacy as I would like mine to be respected.’

That said some people are more comfortable talking about their private lives than I am and if they have volunteered for an interview I will establish some guidelines before we begin.’

Nevertheless, if the interview is one of confrontation Grimshaw plays it hard. ‘If the interview is an adversarial – that is where the interview subject is going to have to be put on the spot to unearth some uncomfortable truths – I will give little away to them beforehand.’

As the interview concluded Grimshaw précised her formula for success, ‘Be a sponge. Learn as much as you can from everyone you meet in the industry. Swallow your pride and ask lots of questions. Don’t be shy…be noticed and memorable. Show respect. Be the sort of person an employer would want to have around…keen, hard working, fast learning, friendly.’

Sound advice indeed!

Roland Buttigieg is a second-year Bachelor of Media Studies student at La Trobe University.  This is his first piece for upstart.