One of the three reporters who launched 60 Minutes in Australia has described George Negus being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease as like losing a family member.
Ian Leslie, who with Negus and Ray Martin became a household name during his time on the program, said he learnt of his old friend and colleague’s condition with ‘deep sadness’.
‘In a sense it’s a bit like losing one of the family,’ Leslie told Daily Mail Australia.
‘But I’m sure given George’s enormous strength of character and that sharp mind of his he’s going to be around for a long time.
‘Somewhere there he’ll know what’s going on and he’ll remember the life that he’s lived.’
Ian Leslie (centre) has described George Negus (right) being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease as like losing a family member. Leslie, Negus and Ray Martin (left) were the three original reporters when 60 Minutes first aired in Australia
‘I’m sure given George’s enormous strength of character and that sharp mind of his he’s going to be around for a long time,’ Ian Leslie said. ‘Somewhere there he’ll know what’s going on and he’ll remember the life that he’s lived.’ Negus is pictured with fellow 60 Minutes reporter Liz Hayes
Leslie had been aware for more than a year that Negus had dementia but was only able to discuss his failing health now that it had been made public by his family.
‘George is a dear friend and a colleague of mine and I’m deeply sad to hear of his condition and his change in life,’ the 79-year-old said.
‘We were very close, the three of us, George, Ray and I. So, George’s situation means a great deal to me and it’s very sad.’
Negus, Martin and Leslie were handpicked by executive producer Gerald Stone to front 60 Minutes when Kerry Packer imported the format from the United States in 1979 to air on his Nine Network.
The new concept took some time to establish itself with viewers in its 7.30 Sunday night timeslot but when it did 60 Minutes became a ratings juggernaut.
‘We have a lot to thank George for in a sense,’ Leslie said.
‘The three of us started that program along with Gerald but I always think it was George’s wit and outgoing character that credited 60 Minutes with its early success because he certainly got people’s attention.
‘And then we caught up with George.
George Negus (centre), Ray Martin (left) and Ian Leslie (right) were chosen by executive producer Gerald Stone to front 60 Minutes when Kerry Packer imported the format from the United States. They are pictured at a Nine Network 50th anniversary celebration in 2006
The Negus family made the difficult decision late last year to provide Negus with the additional care he needed in a Sydney nursing home. Negus is pictured giving a video tribute to founding 60 Minutes executive producer Gerald Stone in November 2020
‘He was a trailblazer. He wasn’t afraid to lead with his chin and that was very important when you’re struggling to make a mark.
‘It was new in the market place. You needed an ice breaker and George was that ice breaker.’
Leslie, a multiple Logie winner, began his journalism career in Toowoomba in 1962 and before joining 60 Minutes was a reporter for Ten News then A Current Affair on the Nine Network.
During his decade on 60 Minutes he covered conflicts in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Burma, Korea and Northern Island.
After leaving the program in 1989 Leslie returned to the Ten Network, where he anchored the evening news, and formed his own production company specialising in corporate communications.
Negus and his partner of more than 35 years, Kirsty Cockburn, had lived on the New South Wales mid north coast for decades. Daily Mail Australia understands Cockburn had been concerned about her husband’s safety as his health declined. The couple is pictured together
‘Of all the journalistic vehicles that I’ve worked with during my life over the years in current affairs 60 Minutes was by far the closest bond that I’ve formed with fellow reporters,’ he said.
‘In my vast experience in journalism reporters are a pretty selfish breed, we keep our cards close to our chest, we guard our information.
‘That wasn’t the situation on 60 Minutes, we freely exchanged our experiences, wished each other well, we always took a fair share of risks. It was a wonderful work environment.’
Earlier, Lisa Wilkinson paid tribute to Negus as ‘an icon of Australian journalism’.
The Project host described Negus as a generous mentor when she she first joined the Today show in an Instagram post that featured a picture of the pair together.
‘Thoughts are with George Negus and his family today with the sad news of his dementia diagnosis,’ Wilkinson wrote.
Lisa Wilkinson has paid tribute to her onetime colleague George Negus as the giant of television current affairs journalism is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Negus is pictured with Wilkinson, Karl Stefanovic and Liz Hayes
‘An icon of Australian journalism – 60 Minutes, Today Show, Foreign Correspondent, and countless brilliant writings.
‘George’s words of encouragement when I first joined Today meant the world.’
Wilkinson also referred to Negus inadvertently finding himself providing expert commentary with her on the day Julia Gilliard took office as prime minister in 2010.
That day the noted soccer fan had been due to talk for just three minutes about the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
‘It was an honour, a privilege and a joy I will never forget,’ Wilkinson wrote.
Daily Mail Australia revealed on Wednesday that Negus’s family had made the difficult decision late last year to provide the 79-year-old with the increased care he needed in a Sydney nursing home as he battled dementia.
‘As a family, we are sharing the new path we walk as George faces the realities of his diagnosis of dementia from Alzheimer’s disease,’ son Serge Negus said.
Wilkinson referred to Negus finding himself providing expert commentary with her on the day Julia Gilliard took office as prime minister in 2010. He had been due to talk for just three minutes about the FIFA World Cup. L-R Karl Stefanovic, Wilkinson, Negus and Liz Hayes
‘We continue to share wonderful family times and are grateful for the care and support we have had from extended family and friends over the past few years who understand our challenges.
‘George continues to give and receive the love and respect of us all. We appreciate all the good wishes from near and far at this time.’
Family statement in full
‘As a family, we are sharing the new path we walk as George faces the realities of his diagnosis of dementia from Alzheimer’s disease.
We continue to share wonderful family times and are grateful for the care and support we have had from extended family and friends over the past few years who understand our challenges.
George continues to give and receive the love and respect of us all. We appreciate all the good wishes from near and far at this time.’
Negus and his partner of more than 35 years, Kirsty Cockburn, had lived on the New South Wales mid north coast since the late 1980s.
Daily Mail Australia understands Cockburn, herself an award-winning journalist, author and documentary filmmaker, had been concerned about her husband’s safety as his health declined.
His condition had reached a point where the 65-year-old was no longer able to look after him by herself.
The couple’s sons Ned, 34, and Serge, 32, are helping their mother cope with her new circumstances.
Negus made his last notable public appearance at the November 2020 memorial service for television trailblazer Gerald Stone after the inaugural 60 Minutes executive producer died aged 87.
‘Until 60 Minutes most of this country’s international coverage came almost exclusively from the US and UK,’ Negus said in a video tribute.
Negus, who appeared on the screen white-haired, full-bearded and seemingly frail, referenced his own childhood when he described his relationship with Stone.
‘I am not sure if you guys realise my own father died at 26 when I was only four years old,’ Negus told an audience including Leslie, Martin and later 60 Minutes addition Jana Wendt.
A thick 1970s moustache and open-neck shirts when on assignment contributed to the knockabout Negus image. His distinctly Australian delivery came with a twinkle in the eye
‘I never really had a father figure, I didn’t really have a grandfather figure either and so for the period I found myself working with Gerald was the closest I felt to being fathered.’
Stone once said of his creation that 60 Minutes made its mark by bringing big foreign stories to Australia, which meant sending his star reporters around the world.
‘People might not care what happened in Nicaragua, but they might care about what George Negus did in Nicaragua,’ Stone said.
At its peak in the 1980s, a third or more of the national television audience tuned into 60 Minutes.
Negus criss-crossed the globe, often reporting from war zones, where there was a sense that at any moment the camera might capture him being killed.
Negus became a household name while working on the program as he criss-crossed the globe, often reporting from war zones. There was a sense he could be killed on camera at any time. He is pictured on assignment in Algeria
He landed exclusive interviews with major entertainment figures and world leaders, including a famously confrontational encounter with then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
George Negus: A giant of television journalism
1942: Born in Brisbane. Attended Indooroopilly State High School then studied Arts and Journalism at the University of Queensland.
1960s: Worked as a high school teacher then on newspapers including The Australian before moving to television on This Day Tonight.
1970s: Press secretary to attorney-general Lionel Murphy in Gough Whitlam’s government.
1979-1986: One of the original reporters on 60 Minutes with Ray Martin and Ian Leslie, then Jana Wendt and Jeff McMullen.
1987-1990: Hosted Today with Liz Hayes.
1992-1999: Hosted Foreign Correspondent.
2002-2004: Presented New Dimensions, later known as George Negus Tonight
2009-2011: Panellist on The Project
2015: Made a Member of the Order of Australia ‘for significant service to the media as a journalist and television presenter, and to conservation and the environment’
2021: Moved into aged care facility after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease
When Negus asked Thatcher why citizens described her as ‘pig-headed’ she demanded he tell her where, when and by whom such comments were made.
A thick 1970s moustache and open-neck shirts when on assignment contributed to the knockabout Negus image. His distinctly Australian delivery came with a twinkle in the eye.
The Negus presentation style became so familiar to television viewers that Paul Hogan sent him up with a George Fungus character on his eponymous show.
[Serge Negus, billed as Serge Cockburn, starred with Hogan as the title character’s son Mikey in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles in 2001].
Brisbane-born Negus was a high school teacher until his late 20s when he began writing for newspapers including The Australian, followed by a stint on the ABC’s ground-breaking This Day Tonight.
Negus served as press secretary to attorney-general Lionel Murphy during Gough Whitlam’s short-lived Labor government and was handpicked by Stone to help establish 60 Minutes in 1979.
He worked on the program until 1986, sharing reporting duties with Leslie, Martin, Wendt and near the end of his tenure Jeff McMullen.
Negus stayed with Nine to host Today with Liz Hayes from 1987 to 1990.
He was the first host of the ABC’s international current affairs show Foreign Correspondent, fronting the program from 1992 to 1999.
He presented George Negus Tonight, previously known as New Dimensions, on the national broadcaster from 2002 to 2004.
The next year he began hosting Dateline on SBS before becoming a regular panellist on Ten’s The Project, followed by presenting 6.30 with George Negus on the same network.
Negus was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2015 ‘for significant service to the media as a journalist and television presenter, and to conservation and the environment’.
The Negus presentation style became so familiar to television audiences that Paul Hogan sent him up with a George Fungus character on his eponymous show. He is pictured on assignment
Negus made his last notable public appearance at the November 2020 memorial service for television trailblazer Gerald Stone died aged 87. He is pictured giving a video tribute to Stone
Negus has written several books, including one about the 15 months he spent from 2000 living with his family in Italy and a six-part children’s series co-authored with Cockburn.
The couple has also run Negus Media International for almost 35 years, collaborating on various film, publishing and other media projects.
They have hosted train and ‘cultural-political’ tours to countries including Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Turkey, Burma, Iran and parts of Africa.
Negus and Cockburn bought 12 hectares at Gleniffer on the Never Never River near Bellingen in 1988 and raised their sons there.
Negus landed exclusive interviews with major entertainment figures and world leaders, including a famously confrontational encounter with then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. He is pictured in 1991 with then Australian prime minister Bob Hawke
Part of the property, set in a spectacular treehouse, is available for short stays through Airbnb for $300 a night with Cockburn listed as host.
A Balmain terrace, bought by Negus for $70,000 in 1979 when Negus was still single, was listed with expectations of $2.6million in September last year and sold for $2.8million.
Negus had used the three-bedroom house, which has water views from is upper level, as his office when he worked on Foreign Correspondent in the 1990s.
Serge is a radio producer on Triple J’s Hack program and Ned runs a business growth consultancy firm specialising in the sports and entertainment industries, having previously worked in football marketing.