The new executive producer of Nine’s Today show Neil Breen made the jump to TV after 23 years in print. He spoke to Brooke Hemphill about his surprise appointment as editor of The Sunday Telegraph, being in Kevin Rudd’s bad books and his plans for Today.
Neil Breen sits behind The Sunday Telegraph editor’s desk at News Limited’s Sydney headquarters on Holt Street. He’s into his last few days on the job and outside his office are rows of empty desks as many of the staff have moved across the floor to join their colleagues from The Daily Telegraph in the newly consolidated seven-day newsroom. Breen is about to leave the building to start his new role as executive producer of Nine’s breakfast program, Today, and he’s talking down expectations about making the leap to a different medium in which he has little more experience than being a regular guest on the program. “Maybe I’ll come a cropper. I’ve come a cropper before,” he says.
Breen started out as a cadet at Brisbane newspaper The Daily Sun before working his way up through the ranks at The Courier Mail. Chris Mitchell, now editor-in-chief of The Australian, was overseeing the publisher’s Queensland papers in 1995 when Breen was working as a police reporter. Mitchell tells Encore: “I made him the deputy sports editor and sports editor. When I came back to The Australian in 2002, I hired Neil down here as sports editor. I plucked him out because I thought he was bright and somebody who wouldn’t fail given bigger tasks.”
Breen made the move to Sydney to test himself. He says: “The Courier Mail’s in a one-paper town so I decided to go to Sydney to compete.”
Three years later, he was given the mission of launching a men’s sport and lifestyle magazine for News Limited’s magazine arm which would become Alpha, a task Breen looks back on as preparation for editing The Sunday Telegraph. “They chose me to edit and launch this magazine. That was the training. It wasn’t openly told to me. It’s never openly told to anyone. The last thing you do is go upstairs and say ‘I want to be an editor’. If you’re on a list, I reckon you slide down a few rungs,” says Breen.
Nick Smith, now a publisher at News Life Magazines, worked with Breen to launch Alpha. Smith says: “He’s a bit of a genius. He could talk intimately about what happened on Big Brother, what happened in rugby league or what is happening in politics. He can take all this information on and also have a point of view. He’d be like, ‘this is how you fix Big Brother. This is how you fix rugby league. This is how you’re going to fix the nation’”.
Breen’s subsequent appointment at The Sunday Telegraph caught Smith off guard. He says: “It was a massive surprise. I was really sad to see him go.”
The appointment was also a shock for Breen and he colourfully recounts the day News Limited CEO John Hartigan broke the news.
“At News Magazines Phil Barker the MD had this policy that you couldn’t wear a tie – it was all open neck shirts,” says Breen. “Harto hated it because Harto was a suit and tie man. So one day I was up in his office showing him the latest issue and he goes ‘mate, I think you’re done there’ and he hit me on the shoulder and said ‘you need to put a tie on.’ I said, ‘what does that mean?’ and he goes, ‘you’ll know’.” And so Breen brought a tie from home and stashed it in his desk draw. A few weeks later, he was summonsed by Hartigan. Breen put the tie on. “He opened the door to his office and said ‘you’ve got a tie on’. And I said, ‘well, you told me to put one on’ and he said, ‘well, you’re going to need it’. And he said, ‘you’re the editor of the Sunday Telegraph’. He gave me a scrap piece of paper and it had a dollar figure on it. He goes, ‘that’s what you’re getting paid. You go around and see Keith Brodie.’ I went around to Keith who was running HR and he had this full contract. He pushed it over to me and goes, ‘just have a read of that and sign it at the bottom’ and I said, ‘we’re not going to negotiate any of this?’ he goes ‘oh, don’t be stupid’. And that was it.”
Breen’s retelling of the tale is just one of the many engaging yarns from his time at the paper. He is a natural storyteller which begs the question whether a book could be in the works. There is certainly plenty of fodder. Among his triumphs as editor are major stories the publication has broken, including the secret pact between John Howard and Peter Costello for handover of the Liberal Party leadership, a story that came early in Breen’s time at The Sunday Telegraph and helped to put him on the map.
Behind his desk is a Kevin Rudd “hero wall”, as Breen calls it, where the memorable Kevin007 front page is displayed marking the paper’s story about the politician being a double agent. Alongside it is the bold PM RUDD headline that announced Rudd’s election victory. Breen says: “The first significant Kevin Rudd story we broke was when he went to the strip club that night in New York City.” The Sunday Telegraph also broke the story of Sunrise and Rudd’s manipulation of the timing of an ANZAC dawn service which Breen says did little to curry his favour with the politician. “Kevin Rudd spent a week talking to my bosses upstairs trying to get me sacked and I survived that,” he says.
And Breen has ruffled more than just Rudd’s feathers. The paper’s story about Cate Blanchett fronting a campaign supporting the carbon tax which spawned the headline ‘Carbon Cate’ displeased the actress but Breen’s biggest controversy came in 2009 when he published nude photos he wrongly believed to be Pauline Hanson.
“I still don’t 100 per cent understand that whole business but I think that story definitely made me better. I’m a far better journalist for having published that story,” says Breen. The bad judgement call of running the images, which ultimately turned out to not be Hanson, was a result of Breen’s desire for the paper to succeed.
“I was trying to beat The Sun Herald,” says Breen. “I was trying to get the margin back to 200,000. It had been 200,000 only twice in history and I couldn’t get it there. So I was trying to win the race without running the race. I wasn’t making proper decisions. I could have come a cropper on some other things but I got out of those pickles.”After the incident, Breen put his head down and focused on playing the long-term game.
The most recent circulation figures for the period ending June this year show he will be going out on a high with The Sunday Telegraph sitting at 610,253 compared to the Sun Herald on 346,960 – a margin well above his goal and a number Breen says will rise at the end of the next audit period.
In September, Breen announced he was giving up the helm of the Sunday Telegraph. A month later Nine revealed he would take on the executive producer role at Today where he already had an onscreen role.
Breen says: “Moving to television, I’ve always had this belief that I’d do it one day. I just didn’t know how to do it or when to do it. I was never ready to finish editing The Sunday Telegraph because I still love this job. I wanted to edit the paper for 10 years. But if in six to 12 months time I phoned Channel Nine and said ‘hey, I’m ready to come over’ they would have said ‘what job because we’ve given them away’.”
Breen is the first to admit he has much to learn about television but he has plenty of ideas of his own for the program. He’s been seeking inspiration from American breakfast television and says: “I’m always stunned by the quality of guests so there might be a hint for you in what I want to do.”
Breen is also planning to up the journalism involved in producing the program. “I’m not going to make it a serious news show. It is what it is. It just needs more eye-popping moments so when you’re walking past TV in the morning and it’s on you might stop. But if I said any more, I’ll end up just having someone at Channel Nine saying I’m a dickhead talking out of school before I got there,” he says.
But should Breen come a cropper in the land of television, you get the sense that News would welcome him back with open arms. “I certainly would have kept him here if I were running the show myself,” says The Australian’s Mitchell. And Breen’s not ruling out the possibility of one day returning.
“I could be back here,” he says pointing out at the newsroom.