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The proud tradition of shameless self-promotion behind brand Bolt

Commentator Andrew Bolt now has his own Sunday morning opinion show. AAP

The cartoonist Ivan Rowley is captivated by a “New TV Idol” - a radio commentator and “CRITIC”. It’s Andrew Bolt, surely, broadcasting from the “The Temple of Enlightening Discussion”? No, it’s another Melbourne media figure, Norman Banks, portrayed as an octopus and Eastern guru by a cartoonist from another era.

This 1963 Rowley sketch from The Age sprang to my mind as rumours of Bolt’s own Network Ten show began to circulate. Like Banks, Bolt is a media brand. From the 1930s onwards, Banks was Melbourne’s most popular radio personality, calling VFL matches and the Davis Cup, greeting in-coming ships, hosting talent shows, even founding Carols by Candlelight.

He was increasingly conservative and controversial, and always a workaholic, as John Lack explains in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

On radio Banks presented shows with titles like I’m on Your Side and Voice of the People. He secured his own eponymous television show on GTV-9 in 1963 and, unsurprisingly, he moved into talkback radio when the genre was legalised in 1967. Close to Menzies, Banks supported apartheid in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, and revelled in a daily dust-up with Claudia Wright and Ormsby Wilkins on 3AW.

Unlike Bolt, Banks was not a journalist. He had begun his career as a car salesman. But Bolt is also in the business of selling something - himself. And he’s good at it, judging by his rise from a cadetship on The Age to associate editor and columnist on the Herald Sun.

His 2005 book The Best of Andrew Bolt: Still Not Sorry, by “Australia’s most controversial columnist”, was published by a division of News Limited. Condemning so-called “elites”, the book proactively dealt with themes like the environment, radical Islam, the “Stolen Generation”, and the arts industry.

A year later Bolt launched a blog hosted by the Herald Sun. It has an extraordinary reach, boasting 2.5 million page hits in March 2011. (Banks is probably turning in his grave.)

With columns in the Daily Telegraph and the Adelaide Advertiser, Bolt’s profile went national, and extended to the broadcast media, with appearances on ABC-TV’s Insiders and a daily spot with Steve Price on Melbourne’s fledgling talk station, MTR.

Last Sunday Bolt put in a spectacular final appearance on Insiders, badgering his fellow panellist Lenore Taylor, and hammering his favourite (trick) question: “How much will world temperatures fall if we introduce a carbon tax?” Yesterday it was announced that The Bolt Report will appear at 10am Sundays on Ten.

Bolt already appears on the 7PM Project, and his growing role at Ten is believed to be at the behest of mining magnate Gina Rinehart, Ten’s new co-owner.

There is a nice irony about this turn of events, for the panel discussion component of Insiders had been inspired by The Last Shout, an entertaining though little-remembered late-night weekly program hosted by Barrie Cassidy at Ten in the mid-1990s.

While panel discussions are reasonably common on ABC, SBS and commercial television, as well as on Sky News Australia, the spectre of a politically partisan show is not.

When TCN and GTV-9 broadcast anti-Whitlam “editorials” during the 1972 election at Sir Frank Packer’s behest, there was an industry and public outcry. And when Packer also decreed that the ACTU’s Bob Hawke was not to appear on Nine, Clyde Packer resigned all his positions in the family empire that same year.

Bolt’s new show is to be followed by a re-scheduled Meet the Press. Although low-rating, the program continues the tradition of Sunday-morning shows featuring politicians and other newsmakers being grilled by a panel of interviewers.

This tradition began in the late 1950s, following American programs of the 1940s. It has taken Australian television considerably longer to follow the American example of programs hosted by figures from the far end of the political spectrum.

It remains to be seen whether Bolt will emulate Glenn Beck, who was this week dropped from Fox News due to low ratings, or the old warhorse Bill O’Reilly, who makes the Tea Party seem just that.

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