JOHN TULLOH. The female revolution at ABC News.

Sep 12, 2017

‘But the women (foreign correspondents) were (likelier than men) to be more thoughtful in looking at the wider context or human side of stories. In short, they were inclined to be nosier and would go the extra mile to pin down or dig deeper into an aspect of a story’.

A story in Sydney’s Sun-Herald recently gave the impression of some  astonishment as well as approval that female GPs for the first time outnumber their male colleagues. ‘We’ve come a long way since the organisation (the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners) began as a men’s club’, observed its chief executive (a woman).

The same could be said of ABC News, especially in television. Not too long ago, it was more of a men’s club where most women were confined to the sidelines. The majority were researchers, production assistants, admin types and secretaries. Not now, though.   Apart from the ABC having its first female managing director, Michelle Guthrie, the following television programs are run by women: Four Corners, 7.30, Foreign Correspondent, News Breakfast, Offsiders, Lateline, the non-television newscasts included in the ABC News Channel and Australian Story. In several cases, the deputies are also women.

The bureau chiefs of three major overseas bureaux are women – Jakarta, London and Washington. Five of the nine domestic news editors are women. Longer-form radio current affairs programs are presented by women, such as Eleanor Hall, Fran Kelly, Kim Landers, Sabra Lane and Elizabeth Jackson.

The latest ABC figures show that women represent 52.5% of the overall workforce and have overhauled men in content production. I recall during my time at the ABC that two-thirds of applicants for news cadet positions were women. In Sydney at least, they seem to dominate the reporting in radio and television news bulletins. Many of them are young and some are very good.

It is clear that once what was men’s business at the ABC is now increasingly women’s business.  As the 1979 feminist song says, ‘We’ve come a long way, baby’. It was about then that women in television news, too often relegated to ‘weather girls’, slowly began substantive journalistic roles in television with Caroline Jones of Four Corners helping to lead the way.

I have had the privilege of working with some outstanding female television correspondents. Jill Colgan (Japan, Moscow and Afghanistan), Jane Hutcheon (Beijing, Mideast and Europe), Sally Neighbour (Hongkong and Beijing and now in charge of Four Corners), Leigh Sales (Washington/Guantanamo Bay), the intrepid Sally Sara (Africa and elsewhere) and Dominique Schwartz (everywhere for Foreign Correspondent and later Mideast), Deborah Snow (Moscow), the formidable video-journalist Ginny Stein (SEAsia and Africa) and the ever-inquiring Debbie Whitmont (Mideast) come to mind.

They were just as good as many of their male colleagues except there was a noticeable difference. The men tended to be more competitive and even aggressive about their reporting. Because they had deeper voices and a more marked physical stature, they had more of a ‘presence’ on camera. But the women were likely to be more thoughtful in looking at the wider context or human side of stories. In short, they were inclined to be nosier and would go the extra mile to pin down or dig deeper into an aspect of a story. Jane Hutcheon and Sally Neighbour demonstrated this when they were based in China, where the watchful eyes of the Beijing regime are everywhere.

As a viewer remarked when Neighbour was an investigative reporter for Four Corners, ‘You might as well give up if you know she’s on your tail’. Now it is Neighbour’s protege, Caro Meldrum-Hanna with her steely stare, just as it was with her predecessor, Sarah Ferguson. It is no surprise that two other top news sleuths are women who’ve done time at the ABC: Kate McClymont of Fairfax Media and Pamela Williams of the Australian.

Women reporters tend to be inquisitive, determined to pry further and be more tenacious in getting to the bottom of anything that’s suspect or smelly. Most researchers are women. ABC presenters like Ferguson and Sales as well as Emma Alberici and Virginia Trioli are not intimidated when it comes to asking forceful, penetrating questions. Tough questions from a woman can be more unsettling and effective in gleaning the truth, especially if the interviewee is a man.

The acclaimed PBS NewsHour in the US is run by a woman and presented by the veteran Judy Woodruff. The program is thriving – a 38% audience increase in three years. Woodruff noted the formula was ‘digging deep, asking questions maybe others aren’t asking, making stories relevant to everyone watching’. Could that be due to the female touch?

The increasing presence of women at ABC News in particular is likely to continue. It’s because of the ABC’s multi-faceted demands with radio, television and on-line demands seven days a week. The old adage has it that women can handle several problems at once whereas a man can deal with only one. As a distinguished retired former ABC foreign correspondent muttered to me recently, ‘I tell you, I’m glad I’m not working now’. He could not cope.

It may be that women journalists are out to show that they can compete with any man in what for decades was a male-dominated profession. ‘They work very hard and push themselves to achieve’, said a former ABC news manager. Despite the ABC trend, the journalists’ union, the MEAA, says the balance between male and female media members has changed little over 10 years except women at 50.77% are now in the majority.

However, video-journalism aside, you will still be hard-pressed to find a woman’s name among the regular camera crew credits. That part of the television news industry is still very much a bloke’s world.

 FOOTNOTE. The ABC has no more vehement critic than Rupert Murdoch. ‘For better or worse (News Corp) is a reflection of my thinking, my character and my values’, is a quote attributed to him in Rod Tiffen’s book ‘Rupert Murdoch: A Reassessment’. Unsurprisingly, his national masthead, the Australian, thrives on any adverse story about the ABC. Its heavy daily reporting hitters are still mostly men in keeping with their master’s culture. But the ABC and the paper share a valuable asset – top foreign correspondents who happen to be women, such as Zoe Daniel, Samantha Hawley and Lisa Millar for the ABC and Amanda Hodge and Jacquelin Magnay for the Australian. They certainly have come a long way.

 John Tulloh spent 19 years at the ABC in a 40-year foreign news career.    

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