It’s often said that timing is everything in politics, and Barrie Cassidy has seen a lot of politicians get it wrong over the years.

But the astute political observer chose just the right moment to announce his departure from Insiders, the ground-breaking Sunday morning discussion program he started and has steered for 18 years.

Cassidy elected to go out on a high, surrounded by peers at the Melbourne Press Club’s Quill Awards for Excellence in Journalism, where he was honoured with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his outstanding contribution to political journalism in a career spanning more than 50 years.

“I see (this Lifetime Achievement award) as a singular honour, given the status the award now holds across the media,” he said.

In his acceptance speech, the 69-year-old Cassidy revealed he will leave Insiders on June 9, but is staying with the ABC.

He’ll work on the upcoming federal election, his 14th federal campaign, before taking a break to “reboot” later in the year.

“I have always admired and respected all of the panellists that I’ve worked with, and all those on staff who made it happen, particularly the longest-serving EP, Kellie Mayo.

“But I am convinced after 18 years that it’s time to give somebody else a go. I could list half a dozen within the organisation who could do it well … but I won’t!”

Director of ABC News Gaven Morris applauded Cassidy’s vision and drive to keep developing the program over the years.

“I’ve worked with Barrie for over 20 years and his hunger for new ideas and to always push the act along has never waned,” he said.

“Barrie is straight up and down, honest and thoroughly decent. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to have him at Insiders.

“While we’ll miss him in that post, he’ll continue to play an important role in ABC News.”

One of the finest reporters of his generation

Cassidy has been at the forefront of ABC political coverage since the late 1970s, starting as state rounds reporter in Victoria before moving to Canberra in the early 80s.

He was the The 7.30 Report’s political editor in the mid-90s, and since 2001 has hosted Insiders and provided commentary on a range of other programs and election coverages.

“Barrie is one of the finest reporters and broadcasters of his generation,” Melbourne Press Club chief executive officer Mark Baker said.

Cassidy is widely respected by his peers for his deep political knowledge and sharp insights.

“When we started national 7.30 Report in 1995 there was only one choice for our political editor and that was Barrie Cassidy,” former host Kerry O’Brien said.

“And the same story with Insiders, now the undisputed go-to program for political discourse in this nation.”

“The short Barrie compliment is one that you crave, whether it’s about what you might have done on the program or what he might say something about something you’ve written,” said Laura Tingle, 7.30’s chief political correspondent and the former political editor of Australian Financial Review.

How Insiders reinvented political discussion on TV

Cassidy had long been “banging on” about the need for a new kind of Sunday morning political program on the ABC and was working as the broadcaster’s Europe correspondent when then-news director Max Uechtritz agreed to commission it.

Morris, previously Cassidy’s producer at The 7.30 Report, and legendary press gallery photographer Mike Bowers (later to present the popular Talking Pictures segment and coin the now familiar phrase, “Back to you, Barrie!”) were visiting and in true journo fashion, they all went to dinner to workshop ideas.

“Barrie loved the American Sunday morning discussion shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation, but he wanted to create an Australian experience,” Morris recalls.

“It sometimes made both politicians and journalists uncomfortable — appearing on TV without a suit or tie to discuss serious matters hadn’t been done before Insiders.”

“We went out to dinner and it was back-of-a-napkin kind of stuff,” Cassidy says.

“We mapped out some ideas and it’s amazing how many of those, the structures that we put in place for the program, remain with Insiders today as an essential part of the program.”

Respected by politicians from all sides

Despite looking to provide some light relief to the serious issues of the day, the program and Cassidy never dodged the tough questions, and that garnered respect from across the political divide.

Former prime minister John Howard agreed to be interviewed on the first episode of Insiders, and holds Cassidy in high regard.

It’s a sentiment shared by Bob Hawke, who has known Cassidy as both a tenacious young reporter — his persistent questioning during a television interview in 1982 led a furious Hawke to call him “a bloody pest” — and as a trusted media adviser for five years.

“He was an excellent member of staff and has gone on to be an outstanding member of the ABC team,” Mr Hawke said.

High praise from high places, but those who know Cassidy well say he’ll be embarrassed by all the fuss.

“The thing about Bazza is that he’s quite modest and humble,” says Heather Ewart, former political correspondent and current host of the ABC’s Back Roads program, and Cassidy’s partner of more than 35 years.

“But I think for someone who started as a country kid from a working-class family that didn’t have a lot of luxuries in life, and for whom education was not a priority, he’s done incredibly well and he should feel very proud of that.”

Writing stories from the age of 13

Born in 1950, Cassidy grew up in Chiltern, in north-eastern Victoria, then a town of about 800 people.

He was one of six children (five boys and one girl) raised by Bill and Myra Cassidy.

In 2014, Cassidy wrote a book — Private Bill. In Love and War — which told a moving story about his father’s experience as a POW in World War II and his mother’s shock confession decades later of a wartime fling that resulted in a half-brother given up for adoption.

In Chiltern, like most country towns, people took their local footy seriously and a teenage Cassidy wasn’t happy with the coverage in the town’s weekly newspaper, the Federal Standard, so he asked the editor to give him a go.

“I was 13 years old and the editor Bill Hicks would write the football — he also ran the movie theatre and was shire president — and I didn’t think he knew much about football, which was a pretty fair assessment, and he said he’d give me a chance,” Cassidy says.

“I wrote a story, he looked and it and said, ‘I’ll use that’, and he used me for the next five years!

“Every Monday before I’d catch the school bus I’d put the copy under the door at the Federal Standard.

The moment he discovered politics

That led to a cadetship at The Border Mail in Albury.

Cassidy then moved to Melbourne as a court reporter for The Herald newspaper in Melbourne and eventually to the ABC, where he became fascinated by politics.

“The ABC needed a gallery reporter [in the Victorian parliament],” he says.

“Frank Galbally’s brother, Jack, was the leader of the Labor Party and Greg Hunt’s father, Alan Hunt, was leader of the Libs and they were great orators.

“That influenced me, the quality of the debate — I wouldn’t say the same about it these days — so I thought this is for me and I really want to start understanding more about this.”

He studied politics at night school for three years while continuing to cover state rounds.

In those days, premier Dick Hamer used to invite journalists to morning tea to discuss the story of the day.

“Dick Hamer was one of the nicest people you could ever meet, he was extraordinary. He never seemed to lose his temper, never with the media, surprisingly enough,” Cassidy says.

“So, we’d have this off-the-record discussion every day and it would last 15 or 20 minutes, then he’d say, ‘anyone want something on tape’ and if something out of that discussion interested you, you’d then have this one-on-one interview.

“Sometimes it would get a bit tricky when really difficult issues did arise, but he would still stick with that routine.”

When Cassidy arrived in Canberra in the early 80s, the ABC was still shooting TV news on film and it was a slow, frustrating process, in stark contrast to the immediacy of 24-hour news and social media.

“Shooting on film meant a two-hour delay while you waited for the film to be processed before you could put anything to air,” he says.

“It was only a couple of years before I arrived that you had to shoot everything in the morning and then put your film on a plane to Sydney at one o’clock for it to be processed.

“And then it would be three or four o’clock before the people in Sydney would get hold of the film and then be dealing with the journalists in Canberra writing the scripts and trying to make it all work.

“It was far from professional and if you got something to air it was an achievement.”

A chance to see politics from the inside

With his journalism career in full flight, Cassidy decided in 1986 to cross to the other side and join Mr Hawke’s team.

“I thought if I was ever going to experience politics at the very top and from the inside there is probably only one person I could do it with, and that was Bob Hawke, because I knew him fairly well and I admired his style,” Cassidy says.

“He had this attitude that politics was about policy; that if you get the policy right the politics takes care of itself.

“And it was. It was an incredible time politically because he was about eight points behind in the polls in the run-up to the ’87 election when I joined and watching how he rebuilt that was interesting.

“We must have gone to 30 countries in my time with him and I met some fascinating people, Princess Di, Nelson Mandela, [Mikhail] Gorbachev, and George Bush Senior. And that’s a bit of a thrill.

“I was always known as Butch to Hawke. Now I don’t know whether George Bush understood Australian, but he understood some of it because he said, ‘ah, you’re like Marlin Fitzwater’, who happened to be his press secretary, so I thought that’s pretty impressive, you got that.”

While joining Mr Hawke’s team proved to be a good decision, Cassidy recalls he had a rocky first day when he inadvertently tossed out the racing-mad PM’s form guide.

“We’d flown to Perth and he got off the plane and he handed me these crumpled newspapers and I threw them in the bin,” he says.

“It turned out that what he did every Friday was mark every horse in every race in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, according to the weather, the weight, the jockey, the lustre, the times.

“It took him four hours and I threw the whole lot in the bin on my first day.

He kept a close eye on the PM’s form too and after the first, unsuccessful, leadership tilt by Paul Keating, Cassidy decided to call it quits.

“Clearly it was going to continue, and I didn’t want to be there when it all came unstuck,” he says.

“I went to see Hawke and told him of my view that Keating would eventually get the numbers and he ought to think about this from the point of view of his own legacy, that maybe it would be better if he did, having won the challenge then from a position of strength, retire and give Paul Keating a go.

“That did not go down at all well. So, I took the decision to go.”

How to return to journalism?

Ewart had landed a job as the ABC’s Washington correspondent and Cassidy followed her to the US.

Ewart laughs as she recalls a women’s magazine wrote an article headlined “PM’s minder quits for love”, which Cassidy didn’t find at all amusing.

In the US, he set about rebuilding his journalism career.

“There are other things you can do in journalism and I was resigned to that.

“When I got to the US I started freelancing and eventually got a semi-permanent position with The Australian and covered things like the Waco fire, the rise of Bill Clinton and his presidency.

“Channel Ten approached me and I returned to host a social discussion program and eventually offers came to go back into political reporting.”

Integrity is everything to Cassidy and it helps explain how he managed to rejuvenate his journalism career.

“Barrie is probably one of the few who have made the transition from media to press secretary and back to media again,” says author, political commentator and Insiders panellist George Megalogenis.

“So, he would let you know when you got something wrong, according to him, but he’d also let you know if you were on the money.

“I don’t have any memory of him spinning me, but I do have a memory of him bollocking me!”

“Barrie has personal values in the way he reports politics I’ve always admired,” Morris says.

“Just after the Howard government was elected, a very senior new minister walked into our [7.30 Report] office and said to Barrie something like, ‘let me take you to lunch, I have something juicy to tell you’.

“Barrie responded, ‘if you have something to tell me, you can do it here in front of my producer’.

“The minister went on his way to find a more compliant journalist in the press gallery.”

Cassidy says he’s always simply tried to play with a straight bat.

“You need to take calls from politicians, give them the time to put their arguments, explain their policy positions,” he says.

And after four decades watching politics up close, what are the stories that stand out?

“Obviously the biggest stories are elections and leadership challenges and there’ve been plenty of those. Often young journalists think older journalists are going to get all nostalgic and talk about 1975 all over again — I wasn’t there in ’75,” he says.

“There’s been nothing like that in the time that I’ve been covering politics, the last eight or nine years have been extraordinary and let’s hope exceptional and not typical.”

A mentor to many and a champion of women

Behind the scenes, colleagues hail Cassidy’s editorial leadership and willingness to guide younger journalists and other staff.

He’s championed the work of editor Huw Parkinson, whose video mash-ups of politicians in movies and TV shows have attracted worldwide attention and won Parkinson a Walkley award.

“What has always set Barrie apart from other journalists for me is his quiet generosity and lack of ego behind the scenes,” former Insiders executive producer Kellie Mayo says.

“He’s without equal in the way he shares knowledge with his peers and fosters talent.”

He’s been a great supporter of women in particular, says Mayo, who’s gone on to a senior executive role running the ABC’s Asia Pacific newsroom and rattles off a list of female colleagues Cassidy has guided and supported.

“His advocacy for talented women in the ABC has helped many progress from working as a producer with him to eventually holding senior editorial leadership and reporting roles in the organisation.

“Our previous director of news, Kate Torney, was Barrie’s first executive producer at Insiders, our current director of news, Gaven Morris, was one of Barrie’s producers at The 7.30 Report and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the next person to lead ABC News has had some association with Barrie during their career.”

Staying at the top of his game at Insiders has required a huge amount of time and dedication — “like any federal political reporting it’s a seven-day-a-week exercise and you can never really walk away from it”.

And while Cassidy has never minded hard work, he does like variety and the time feels right to try his hand at something new.

“I’ll continue to contribute to the ABC — hopefully in a substantial way — but only recently I’ve come to the view that while I’m at Insiders I’ll never really know precisely what that contribution might be.

“And so, I want to find out — and do other things before I run out of motivation and energy.”