When Tony Abbott announced his Cabinet last month journalists rightly lambasted our new Prime Minister for the lack of senior women in his team (one woman, 18 men) but what happens if you turn the question around and ask: who runs the newspapers, radio stations, TV channels and websites that responded with such outrage to the man-heavy cabinet?
Who runs The Age? The ABC? The Herald-Sun? The Australian? The Conversation? The Sydney Morning Herald? The Drum? The Daily Telegraph? The Courier Mail? The West Australian? Who runs AAP, Australia’s hidden media power player?
Leaving aside women’s magazines and websites headed by gutsy, entrepreneurial women – including Mia Freeman’s Mamamia, Wendy Harmer’s Hoopla, Anne Summers’ Anne Summers Reports and Catherine Deveny’s Welcome to the World of Catherine site – the maleness of the Australian media is staggering.
The Guardian Australia is the only high-profile news site run by a woman and the two senior political journalists are women too. Please tell me if I have missed anyone else here.
But The Guardian Australia only employs 22 journalists. It is a bonsai compared with the Fairfax and News Limited gums.
At The Age, my former workplace, there are only three women in the 19 senior roles listed in the Who’s Who box on the letters to the editor page: Duska Sulicich edits of The Sunday Age, Margaret Easterbrook edits The Age’s Saturday paper and Sushi Das co-edits the opinion pages (with Paul Austin). The editor in chief is Andrew Holden.
Fairfax’s executive team comprises eight men and two women while three women are on News Corp’s 16-member international executive team.
Less high profile is Australian Associated Press (AAP), a powerful commodity trader funded by Australia’s major newspaper publishers. AAP employs 200 or so journalists produce about 2100 news stories a day for thousands of subscribers, including government departments, betting agencies, gyms and news companies. The seven-member leadership team includes one woman.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that women are also leaving Australia’s shrinking newsrooms in disproportionate numbers. I know of many highly experienced women journalists have taken redundancy in the past two years, depleting further the numbers of women in senior writing or editing roles.
Karen Kissane, Katherine Kizilos, Gay Alcorn, Jo Chandler, Julie Szego, Gabrielle Cosolovich, Frances Atkinson, Jane Willson, Nicola Brady, Caroline Milburn and Jo Roberts are among the outstanding senior journalists to have left The Age and, in some cases, journalism as well.
My first mentor in newspapers was Sue Fea, who ran the Queenstown bureau of The Southland Times, one of the daily newspapers that Fairfax owns in New Zealand. A few weeks ago, I called head office in Invercargill to get Sue’s contact details. I wanted to send her a copy of my book, Stop Press: The Last Days of Newspapers to say thanks for her expert guidance back in 1987. In some respects, Sue had her work cut out with me. I can be stubborn and I am often blunt but on my first day at work I also managed to do something so silly that I was in contempt of court. I tell the story in Stop Press.
I did not get through to Sue because she had been made redundant four weeks earlier as part of the latest Fairfax purge across the ditch – a restructuring that has seen feature writers and photographers lose their jobs. Sue had been at the Southland Times for 25 years. Before that, she had worked in radio and had covered, among other things, the 1981 Springbok tour.
Last week I got a lovely email from Sue, thanking me for the book. “I miss my job heaps,” she wrote. She has set up her own company, Sue Fea Media, and is writing press releases.
I called The Illawarra Mercury to let them know my book was coming out. I asked after an amazing senior woman journalist I had met while worked as an outsourced subeditor for Fairfax Editorial Services in Wellington. The woman had worked for The Merc for 28 years. “Oh, she has taken a package,” I was told.
Beyond the brutal banality of mathematics (Cabinet: 18 men, 1 woman say) there are deeper questions about how women may or may not shape the content, tone and style of print, radio or digital journalism.
Surely it is no coincidence that special interest men’s stuff in newspapers has so far survived the internet revolution but special interest women’s stuff has not? The Age still has daily sport and business sections but The Age no longer has a daily dairy and gossip page, something I used to enjoy and I suspect some men did too. Back in the 1990s, it was a man who wrote it: the renegade diarist Bob Millington. (Yes, I am generalising here! I read the business section and stories about women’s sport).
The serious twice-weekly fashion pages of that decade are long gone as is ‘Accent’, the oft-maligned feminism pages that used to run on Wednesday and Friday. Children’s pages are another relic and so too are the exquisite weekly columns written by Adele Hulse (under the pen name Sharon Gray). Hulse wrote these pieces for more than 20 years and was one of Australia’s longest-serving columnists.
I have been looking through old copies of The Age from 1993 and 1994, as part of research I am doing on a creative fellowship at the State Library of Victoria. What has stuck me is the vigour and radicalism of so much of the writing, not just women’s but men’s too.
Here’s a sample Accent intro from 1993: “There is one thing I would like to do with the judges responsible for recent comments about trauma in rape. I would like to make each of them a girl for one day. A 16-year-old girl…”
Accent story topics included: personal essays from a man and a woman on body size; women’s rights in India; a new Australian feminist history; infertility; women’s art; a Bosnian refugee explains how she survived mass rape; World War I widows; women’s erotica; the African National Congress’s fight against sexism; a Turkish woman’s first person account (translated from Turkish) of surviving domestic violence plus a sidebar on how women’s refuges did not cater for women from non-English speaking backgrounds.
And this sort of content was not confined to the Accent pages. The late Pamela Bone often wrote the lead opinion piece and these articles pulsed with the thrill of the unpredictable. On 16 May 1993, Bone wrote about becoming a grandmother. Her piece was a letter addressed to the newborn baby. She apologises to the infant because “a few hours ago I was sitting in the waiting room and hearing your mother’s moans from across the hall, I said to myself ‘I don’t care about this bloody baby. All I want is for the pain my daughter is going through to stop’.”
Women did not need specialist websites quite so much 20 years ago when these sorts of stories – and the women who wrote them – had more of a voice in the mainstream media.