Ian “Hendo” Henderson was the voice of the ABC’s news coverage for a quarter century. The man saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the media transform. He may no longer read the news, but his inexorable personality remains indelibly planted in the zeitgeist.
Ian Henderson was the voice (and face) of the ABC for more than a quarter century. The man known best as “Hendo” sat down with us to discuss his 38 years with Aunty, what inspired him, and what continues to chide the great man.
What made you want to be a journalist?
I actually trained to be a teacher. I had a bit of experience at student journalism at Monash Uni doing some broadcast at the Monash radio station and loved it. It was the sense of contributing to discussions and probing, asking questions, it fired me up.
I taught for a year but during that year the itch for journalism never left me so I was writing freelance articles. I then got a job at an insurance company writing training manuals then at Leader newspapers. I thought, “Yes! I’ve finally got here and the only thing that’s going to hold me back is my capacity for hard work.”
What was it like working at the Leader?
As a graded journalist you were put in charge of a newspaper – you had to supply all copy for the paper, in my case the Northcote Leader.
It was great because you had a sense of ownership and you got to craft it all. It was a great training ground. It was the sort of project that really appealed to me because you were responsible for something and at the end of the week it was yours.
What was the most challenging part of the job?
The ever-present deadline. I still have dreams and even nightmares about not meeting deadlines. If you didn’t make the deadline it was all on you. It’s something that stays with you and informs other parts of your life.
After a few years of working as a journalist at the ABC you were made the Europe correspondent and covered the fall of the Berlin Wall. Could you please describe that?
It was utterly exhilarating. We had to move very rapidly. We went there expecting the East German Community Party to announce they were opening up the country for free elections.
This was a big story in itself but as soon as word of that got out East Germans just started to take events into their own hands. They just went down to the wall and pushed aside the barricades. If people tried that even a week before they would have been shot!
It was a joyous throng of people taking charge of their own destiny. You can’t believe your luck to be there at something like that. I still pinch myself occasionally.
What is the most difficult part of being a newsreader?
I always really struggled with stories where children had been hurt or mistreated and it is sometimes hard to keep a professional detachment at times like that.
You have to be careful to make stories not about you, but if you don’t have an appropriate tone to the story you can offend people. It’s a difficult subject matter but it’s never about your feelings.
Were there any words you found hard to pronounce or would stumble on?
I’m fairly talkative in the newsroom anyway and I’m exercising the vocal chords all day. Everyone has those few minutes before the performance to get yourself in the right frame of mind.
Which journalists do you admire the most?
Nick McKenzie who works for The Age. I trained him as a cadet and all I can say is he very quickly exceeded my expectations: he has been brilliant and continues to produce some very good journalism.
In the television sphere, it was a real privilege to present the work the ABC’s talented foreign correspondents, including Lisa Millar, Matt Brown, Zoe Daniel and Phil Williams.
Many newsrooms are closing down or contracting. Are you hopeful for the future of journalism?
I am worried because newsrooms around the country have been laying off journalists for a long time now because the funding model has changed.
Subscriptions are the way we are going to go. It’s like insurance for all your interests, to pay that subscriptions and ensure you are well informed.
Do you think we could have more than one or two publicly funded broadcasters? What about a publicly funded newspaper?
You’ve got to convince governments that it’s a good idea. I think it would be a wonderful idea, it’s good to have as many players in the field has you can because competition is a good thing.
What are your thoughts on recent events at the ABC concerning the board, the CEO and the ABC’s independence?
When I look at the composition of the board now I do not see enough people who have experience in public administration, the arts or program making. This needs to be put right before we can get the ABC into a more secure position. I think it was a great shame that there was so much silence on the part of current board members when the independence of the ABC’s editorial part was called into question.
Governments should ensure when appointments are made to the ABC board they understand the grave responsibilities of that position and have the expertise to understand that properly. All I can say is for the ABC to run effectively you need people to understand its core business. Its editorial independence is one of the ABC’s core roles and if board members don’t understand that they have no business being there.
What are your plans for retirement?
My plans are to have no plans! It’ll be an active retirement, there will be a lot of time for my family and friends and bush walking, gardening and travelling. I also want to keep my journalistic skills sharp so you can expect me to dabble.