News director Ross Dagan had been at Ten for six months when he reached out to van Onselen. He wanted a credible voice as part of his rebuild, and approached van Onselen, who had previously co-authored a major biography of John Howard and was then freelancing in TV and print after being squeezed out of Sky News by its pivot to a news by day/conservative shilling by night format.
“Our viewers and our readers and our listeners need to understand what’s going on in the political landscape,” says Dagan. “He can connect very easily in a conversational magazine-style chat, on the other hand he can provide very detailed analysis and understanding of a complex issue. That’s a pretty rare skill set-up.”
Sitting in a conference room at Ten’s Melbourne offices and speaking widely on any question asked, the 44-year-old van Onselen – or PVO, a school nickname that’s become a work handle – is the affable alternative to his on-air persona, which is assertive and often unfiltered. On air and online, where his Twitter feed can be equally sharp, van Onselen might describe the Australian Federal Police as a “bad joke” over a contentious decision, or tell newsreader Jennifer Keyte that “the antics were quite pathetic” after showing a hallway argument between Nationals exile Barnaby Joyce and Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon.
Van Onselen, who made his bones as a broadcaster at Sky News and continues to write a column for The Australian and feature on the ABC’s Insiders, has hammered away at Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government over the handling of both the bushfire crisis, the coronavirus response and most particularly the sports rorts affair. He’s described the latter as “flagrant wrongdoing” and has played a leading role in keeping the story alive as the government has tried to stonewall further inquiries.
“I want to have some editorial license to give a position on things, but I’m very conscious that you can’t do that on everything. Something like sports rorts isn’t about who’s in government, it’s about the fact that no government should be able to do that,” van Onselen says. “What irks me is that there’s no reform that will prevent it happening again, no acknowledgment that it was wrong, and a belligerent holding on to the fact that it was right.”
We mostly associate passion and pointedness in political coverage with partisan allegiance. But van Onselen, who is politely emphatic that he’s neither partisan nor tribal despite a background with some early Liberal Party links, can also be seen as an advocate. Australian politics is his defining passion and he refuses to treat it merely as a grand game. Political editors have traditionally been sagacious and somewhat removed, but van Onselen’s reports show him to be emotionally engaged with what’s unfolding.
“When they picked me I found it really interesting,” van Onselen says. “On one level I really admired Ross making that call because it’s outside the box, and I liked the idea that Ten wanted to operate outside the box. But the other side was me going, ‘Wow, that’s risky because this could go anywhere’. I admired it but thought it could be foolhardy.”
Both Laurie Oakes and Seven’s current political editor, Mark Riley, gave van Onselen advice, while Ten’s veteran newsman Hugh Riminton, who now shares The Professor and the Hack podcast with van Onselen, came to Canberra as a seasoned voice for his first week.
Van Onselen thought he would thrive on the talking, whether on the 5pm News or filling in on The Project, but wasn’t sure how he’d go packaging news reports. Now that’s his daily professional pleasure, and a distinguishing feature of his output. The journalist and his editor, Achim Bormann, might add an irreverent visual reference… might add an irreverent visual reference to their report, so that when sports rorts was compared to Australian cricket’s ball tampering scandal there’s a shot of former test captain Steve Smith in tears to succinctly spike the tone.
“I’m looking to push those boundaries a little bit and my bosses are very understanding. But they’re also my bosses so they’re wanting me not to do too much,” says von Onselen, who readily concedes that he overdid one recent comic insert of Leslie Nielsen from Police Squad. “I wasn’t reprimanded, but I was reminded that you’re at your best when, even if something like that is occasionally warranted, you tell the story with what they’re doing so viewers can make the assessment.”
Van Onselen may well be the first network political editor here whose influences include Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert – satire is part of his style. That in turn makes him accessible to younger audiences, which free-to-air networks are keen to secure. But the married father of two, whose 13-year-old daughter gives him feedback on politically incorrect phrases, is ultimately sanguine about what might transpire.
“I don’t know how well it all works,” van Onselen says. “To be honest I just want to do it my way and the people above me will decide if it works or not. But if it doesn’t work for the audience and it doesn’t work for me then we kind of have an answer. But for now I can’t stress enough my enjoyment at doing all this.”
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.