Listen to legendary Australian editor and feminist icon Ita Buttrose in conversation with AM Director Kim McKay.
From copy girl to editor at the age of 23, Ita Buttrose’s boundary-pushing career at The Telegraph, Cleo, The Australian Women’s Weekly and The Sunday Telegraph won her status as a feminist icon. The legendary media trailblazer, businesswoman, best-selling author and 2013 Australian of the Year continues her active leadership role as a committed community and welfare contributor.
This installment of Lunchtime Lecture Series took place at 1pm, Tuesday 21 August in the Hallstrom Theatre at the Australian Museum.
Sue Saxon: Good afternoon. My name is Sue Saxon, and I'm a creative producer here at the Australian Museum. I'd like to welcome you to the museum and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present, and those to come in the future.
And welcome to you all on this wonderful first adventure in the Australian Museum Lunchtime Lecture series: Australians Shaping the Nation. Over six fascinating Tuesdays we'll hear from inspiring, iconic Australians who feature in the 200 Treasures at the Australian Museum exhibition in our award-winning Westpac Long Gallery.
I hope you'll take the opportunity to explore the riches of this stimulating exhibition each time you visit.
To introduce our very special guest today, Ita Buttrose, please welcome Kim McKay, Director and CEO of the Australian Museum, and one of the speakers in this series. Kim.
Kim McKay: Thank you so much, Sue, and I should thank Sue for all the work she's put in to organise this wonderful lecture series. And thank you to all of you for coming today, and being part of the series, because I know it's going to be uplifting and inspiring on so many levels. I also want to thank Ross Steele, who's a great supporter of the museum, who came to me and said, 'You know, Kim, I think you should do some lunchtime lecture series. We do them at night here and they are always sold out and we have always an array of amazing people. But we haven't tried it out at lunchtime.' So thank you for being part of that first group.
I too would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we're gathered on today, and I do that because the Australian Museum is the custodian of one of the most significant Indigenous collections in the nation, some of which is housed here on site and some of which is housed up at Castle Hill at the museum's Discovery Centre, our off-site storage facility.
And as Sue mentioned, we have many inspiring Aboriginal leaders here at the museum and many young people who are really forging new pathways there, and so I pay my respects to elders past, present and those wonderful emerging young leaders who work here at the museum too.
Now when we decided to restore the Long Gallery, the nation's first museum gallery, originally constructed in 1850—now known as the Westpac Long Gallery due to their magnificent support—it was appropriate to feature the Museum's Treasures in there. And so of course we looked at our collection first up. We have now, based on a new count, over 21 million objects and specimens in the collection. It's the largest collection in the southern hemisphere and it's I think ranked 35th in the world.
But we are the fifth oldest natural history and science museum. Of course our collections now are the scientific specimens we hold and also the incredible cultural collections that we hold here. So in one way or another those objects or specimens that are included in the Treasures reflect who we are as Australians.
And then we started thinking, well what about the people whose courage, whose audacity, ingenuity and fearlessness have inspired us and forged modern Australia?
On this list of our 100 people who've shaped Australia you'll find more Indigenous people than you would normally find on a list like this.
And certainly you'll find many more women than you would normally find on a list like this. That's not by accident. (It's great being in charge!)
Now, our committee who decided on those 100 people had some very interesting debates about who should be on the list. And as it says in the introduction by ANU history professor Patty O'Brien, 'Some of the people will seem very familiar, while for others you will know their achievements or benefit from them, but perhaps not know their names. There are athletes, politicians, writers and performers, doctors, and explorers; entrepreneurs, media moguls, aviators, agriculturalists, activists and architects. There are researchers who have transformed the lives of millions by their medical discoveries, as well as novelists, poets, painters, photographers, an outlaw—and even a saint.'
Now we decided to have this lecture series to hear first-hand from some of those people featured in the gallery. And I think it's very appropriate that we're kicking off today with the wonderful Ita Buttrose. A woman who has certainly helped shape my Australia growing up. I want to thank Ita for making the time to join us today, and also, as I mentioned, Ross for bringing the idea to us.
And thank you, again, to all of you. So I'm going to introduce Ita now and then I'm going to be in conversation with her. And when that's done we're going to open it up to the floor so that you can have the opportunity to have your own conversation with Ita and ask some questions. So now, to Ita.
Ita Buttrose has had a long and distinguished media career, starting as a 15-year-old copy girl on the Australian Women's Weekly, and becoming its editor when she was just 33.
She was the first woman to ever edit a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia, as editor-in-chief of the Dailyand Sunday Telegraphs. She was also the first female director of News Limited. She later became editor-in-chief of the Sun Herald.
Ita was inducted into the Media Hall of Fame last year. In 2011 her early career was the subject of the highly acclaimed ABC mini-series, Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo. (Don't we all remember that!) She was Cleo's founding editor. Ita recently completed five years as co-host of Studio 10on Network Ten, and she's recently joined the Nine Network as well, so we'll be seeing even more of her I hope.
In 2013 Ita Buttrose was named Australian of the Year. In 2014 Sydney's Macquarie University conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters on Ita in recognition of her contribution to the arts. And in 2015 the University of Wollongong conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters for her contribution to mental health and ageing.
So ladies and gentlemen, it's my great honour to ask Ita Buttrose to join me up here in conversation today.
Well Ita, we're going to just begin at the beginning, because I know you started work as a copy girl at age 15, but just going a back a bit before that, when did you realise that you had this level of curiousness as a young woman, a young girl?
Ita Buttrose: I suppose it was always with me, but certainly by the time I was 11, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. And that was my sole goal.
Kim McKay: Why was that?
Ita Buttrose: I liked writing, I think, I liked writing. And of course I followed in my father's footsteps. He was a journalist, he was an editor, he was an author. And I used to think my parents' friends were absolutely fascinating. They seemed to be people who knew how to enjoy life. They were interested in everything, they had opinions. And I guess I started reading newspapers when I was around about that age. And I've been reading the newspapers ever since. I just love it.
Kim McKay: Do you read them online now, or in the hard print?
Ita Buttrose: I read them online and I read them on newsprint. I think online is fine, but you don't get all the material that you get when you have them in print. So I flip between—it depends what I'm doing. If I've got to travel I tend to look at it online, but invariably you'll find an old-fashioned newsprint copy tucked under my arm. I really enjoy reading them.
Kim McKay: There's something about the texture, isn't there, and quality…
Ita Buttrose: There's something about the ink. Certainly with magazines, the ink. I do think the ink is better than Chanel No. 5.
Kim McKay: You had quite a stable early family life at that time, and you grew up in Sydney?
Ita Buttrose: I was born in Sydney and then towards the end of the second world war, and my father who'd been a war correspondent with the Sydney Morning Herald, he didn't meet me until I was six months old, because he was reporting on the war in Java, up in Indonesia. And just towards the end of the war Dad was seconded and went overseas to work for the government, for the News and Information Bureau in California. And Mum followed with—I only had two brothers then—we all followed in the ship. The Pacific war was still raging. Non-stop we sailed across to America. And then when the war did finally end, Dad worked in New York for a media mogul called Ezra Norton.
And that's where I started my schooling. So six years of my life were spent in America and then we came back to Australia, because Mum and Dad wanted us children to grow up here in Australia.
Kim McKay: Do you remember much about those early days in the United States?
Ita Buttrose: Oh, bits and pieces. I can remember the Easter Parade and I can remember some of the stores. I can remember the snow. I can remember a bit of school. Yeah, bits and pieces.
Kim McKay: Did that have a lasting influence on you?
Ita Buttrose: Well, when I was grown up and I was married and we were going to America, I did get a call from the American Consulate wanting to know—because I'd lived there for six years apparently I could have been an American citizen—did I want to take out American citizenship papers. And being young, I was about 21 or something, I said, 'No. Why would I want to do that? I'm Australian.'
Kim McKay: Jump forward a few years then to when you became that copy girl on the Daily Telegraph.Was it the Telegraph or the Weekly?
Ita Buttrose: TheWomen's Weekly.
Kim McKay: The Women's Weeklyfirst. And then of course your meteoric rise on to being the editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraphand the Sunday Telegraph. Like anybody who achieves, it's not always smooth sailing. There's ups and downs along the way. At the same time this was happening to you there was a zeitgeist happening around the world. The role of women was changing post-WW2, obviously.
Ita Buttrose: Well, it certainly changed during the war, when women went out to work for the first time because the guys were away fighting. And they enjoyed earning money.
Kim McKay: But at the time you started at the Weeklythere weren't too many women leading organisations.
Ita Buttrose: No, but there was at the Women's Weekly. And that was the great thing. It was run by women. The editor that was there when I joined was a wonderful woman called Esme Fenston, and she was the editor for 22 years.
And Kerry Packer told me once that it never occurred to him to think that women weren't capable and talented, because he had grown up seeing women run the Women's Weekly, and it was Women's Weeklywhich Sir Frank started during the great depression. It was the Women's Weeklythat created the Packer fortune. They became wealthy because of the Women's Weekly. So it was a great company, as a woman, to work for. Because we were encouraged to aim for the top because that's where we belonged, as far as they were concerned.
Kim McKay: So in those times…all right, so you had women role models within the media, but what about outside the media too, some of the feminists of the time, Gloria Steinem or…
Ita Buttrose: Gloria Steinem…well, it was fine as long as you stayed on the women's pages. That's where you were safe, you know, the women's magazines. It was when you ventured to go outside into newspapers after a job that was traditionally done by men that you found opposition. But Gloria Steinem I discovered when I was running Cleo, so that's the '70s. And there was Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. There was a heap of them.
Kim McKay: Germaine Greer…
Ita Buttrose: Well, Germaine Greer came to town, and she was speaking at a little Italian restaurant in George Street. And so many of us turned up. They'd moved all the tables and chairs out so we were sitting on the floor. There were bottles of wine around the room if you wanted to have a drink. And Germaine spoke and we all cheered, this was really great stuff. And some woman got so excited she grabbed a wine bottle and slurped the red wine, and that was so daring, we all clapped again. It was something women just didn't do. It was so wonderful. It was a wonderful time because you started to explore and you started to ask questions and you really started to question where you were in your life and what you wanted out of your life.
By the time I got to CleoI was married and I certainly wanted to be married and I certainly wanted to have children.
But I also wanted to 'be something'. I wanted to do more with my life. And I think it wasn't until I was starting Cleothat you realised that you can go a lot further than you thought when you started. Because when I started I never envisaged the type of career I've had.
Kim McKay: So did you have goals back then?
Ita Buttrose: When I first started? No, not really. I just wanted to be a journalist and write and that was fine. But by the time I'd made my way to Cleo, certainly by the time I accepted the role at Cleo, I had really determined that what I did want to be was editor of the Women's Weekly. That was always my goal. Because most of the people who worked on the magazine, the women, were friends of my parents. And I knew a lot of them—respectfully, you know, 'Mrs Shelton-Smith', none of this first name nonsense. And they were held up as deities almost, women to emulate. And I learned a lot from them, and I hope I did emulate some of them, because they were fantastic.
Kim McKay: Well, I can't call you 'Ms Buttrose', because you are one of those few people in society who is just known by her first name.
Ita Buttrose: Yeah, that's right, and I accept that. But in the beginning I was 'Ms Buttrose'.
Kim McKay: Now, I recently read Tina Brown's Vanity Fair Diaries. I don't know if you've read that yet.
Ita Buttrose: No, I haven't, but I've got it.
Kim McKay: Might be good to take on your holidays with you. I couldn't help as I was reading it drawing parallels between you and Tina Brown. She of course was very young when she went to work for Si Newhouse, the powerful media mogul in New York who owned Conde Nast. And she had to navigate his peccadillos.
Sometimes his temper, sometimes his strategies, which were never clear. And she describes every different meeting she went to with him as being one where she wasn't quite sure how it was going to end. And of course that was the world that you went into.
Ita Buttrose: Well, we wouldn't be in journalism, we wouldn't be in this type of business if we weren't temperamental people, if we weren't creative people. We actually feel stimulated by some of the emotions that we evoke in the things that we write and say. But also in the business in which we work. It is a quite emotional business sometimes, reporting. And you wouldn't expect the business to be run by calm, boring people. It's just not that way.
Sure, some people are volatile. But that's part and parcel of why we do what we do. And certainly I never saw Sir Frank lose his block, but I've read all the reports. But he was very respectful to women, he was very old-school, and he was very respectful to women all the time. Very courteous, very polite.
Kerry Packer was always almost pretty courteous in our presence, but certainly he had a short fuse. We were all aware of that, and you just steered clear. And we used to ring each other up and say, 'He's back. I've just seen him, and he's really not happy.' And we'd all…the five key executives in the company would try and keep out of his way until he… Because he didn't sleep very well, so he used to take Mogadons, which were really hefty sleeping pills, and then he'd come to work and tell us that the Mogadons hadn't worked. That was really a terrible sign, because you knew you were going to have a really awful day, because he had a Mogadon hangover. He didn't drink or any of those sorts of things, but God, he liked his Mogadons.
Kim McKay: But he really backed you with Cleo, didn't he?
Ita Buttrose: Well, Sir Frank gave me the gig, and then he didn't really understand how women were changing. He didn't really understand the progressive woman that we said Cleowas for. So he turned the project over to Kerry, thinking he could handle this new, emerging woman and this new reader, the new marketplace, the female marketplace was changing, and we had to be across it if we were going to continue to be successful publishers, so he gave it to Kerry. And as it turned out it was Kerry's first big success.
Kim McKay: I remember being in high school when the first issue of Cleocame out and we all went and bought our copies to see the centrefold, Jack Thompson.
Ita Buttrose: It wasn't easy finding anyone to be the centrefold in the first instance. Australian men are full of bravado, but when you put them on the spot they run a mile. And they'd sort of come up to me at parties and say, 'Hey, Ita, I'd like to be a centrefold.' And I'd say, 'Yeah, fine. What's your number?' I could never get the number.
Anyway we thought we were never going to get the centrefold and finally someone, one of the youngest girls, Julie Clark, who ended up marrying Richard Neville, it was Julie who suggested why don't we try Jack Thompson. And so we tried Jack and to our delight he said yes. So the day dawned for the photograph, which was to have been on Bondi Beach. And the art director and the photographer go down to beach to meet Jack and he doesn't front. And we were very close to deadline. There was no time for delay and the boys knew that they'd be in terrible strife and I would kill them if they came back without a centrefold. So they go round to Jack's place—he was living in Paddington—and he'd been out the night before and he hadn't got up. He had a hangover. He was in bed. So they had to get him out of bed and he was in no fit state to travel and definitely in no fit state to go to Bondi Beach.
And so Andrew, thinking Oh my God, what am I going to do? He goes to some art shop and finds a book of paintings, and there he finds one of Titian's paintings of Venus lying on the lounge. And so they never disturbed Jack, they just put him on the lounge and that's how centrefold history was made.
And we weren't going to have more than one, so we're planning the second issue and Kerry comes breezing into the office and says, 'What are you doing?' And I said, 'Planning the next issue, having a story conference.' And he said, 'Who's the next centrefold?' and we all went 'Huh? We're not having…' 'Oh no, you've got to keep it going,' he said. 'Everyone loves it. You've got to keep going.' So that's how the centrefold began and that's how it continued.
Kim McKay: So while there might have been women working in editing a magazine like Cleo and the Women's Weekly, the media industry though is still male dominated. The advertising side of it was pretty male dominated as well. Do you have any recollections that have stayed with you about how that might have impacted you at the time, as you were asserting your authority as the editor of Cleo?
Ita Buttrose: Well, I grew up with three brothers (my parents had another one) and to a man they used to say that I owe any success I have to them. That they taught me how to be competitive, they taught me how to speak bloke and they taught me how to understand the workings of the male mind. I'm not sure that's possible, but never mind. But certainly they taught me to be competitive. I think when you grow up with boys you have a different attitude towards men. I think you feel more comfortable. You certainly understand their humour, and as I said, it was only when I put my hand up for jobs traditionally done by men that I realised that maybe I wasn't welcome.
And I don't think that impacted on me at all. I just thought—obstacle, I'll have to find a way around this. I had no intention of not going on. And I have never thought that gender should stop any of us, whether you're a male or a female, achieving whatever your dreams are. And you're entitled to have a go.
Kim McKay: Were they paying you equitably in those days?
Ita Buttrose: I was very well paid. No doubt about it.
Kim McKay: So there was no…
Ita Buttrose: I don't know what the men earned, and we never talked about it. But I was quite happy with what I earned. And when I had my son, when I had my second child—our first child was born in London—when I had our second child the Packers gave me a Karitane nurse, and when my son didn't need that anymore they gave me a live-in housekeeper. So that was a pretty good package. I'm certainly not complaining. And they gave me a car and they gave me a driver, because I didn't know how to drive. I didn't learn to drive until I was 40. Don't ask me why, I have no idea. But if you're going to give me a car and a driver I'm probably not going to learn to drive. But I had a very good package. Certainly very happy.
Kim McKay: So you were obviously working very hard even though you were given this level of support, but it did put a strain on the family through those years, didn't it?
Ita Buttrose: You mean my marriage failed?
Kim McKay: Yes.
Ita Buttrose: Well, lots of marriages fail, though not necessarily because the woman works. So, you know, it takes two to tango. And two to break it up.
Kim McKay: Indeed. So by this time your star had risen so much, to the extent where you were just known as 'Ita'. How did that play with you, because there's a level of fame that goes with that that maybe professionally you weren't…
Ita Buttrose: I used to think I was anonymous and I'd put a scarf on my head and I'd wear sunnies and I'd go out and then I'd open my mouth and they'd say, 'Hello Ita!' You think, Oh, why do I bother?
But look, in the beginning you don't realise what's happening, and then there's a point where you realise that you've lost your anonymity, and you lose it for ever, really. And sometimes when I go overseas and nobody says hello to me, it feels really odd. But I think if you're going to be well known, Australia's a really nice country in which to be well known because people are very friendly and they don't intrude. And they can see if you're having an outing with your kids or something like that. They don't say anything, they don't come in and say, 'Say something…' They respect your privacy to a certain degree.
I don't think I've really found it difficult to live with. My friends are really weird, because sometimes when I'm walking down the street I don't notice anymore if people turn and look, because you have to get on with your life. But my friends say, 'Did you notice that person looking at you?' And I say, 'Honestly no, I didn't. I didn't notice.' So other people notice. But Australians have always made me feel very special, so I feel quite comfortable.
Kim McKay: So when Jimmy Barnes and Cold Chisel released their iconic song 'Ita Told Me So', did you know that was going to happen?
Ita Buttrose: Didn't have a clue. Did not have a clue. They didn't let it out, they just released the song on their album Eastand it hit the airwaves and, I mean, my children thought it was fantastic—much better than anything else I would have ever done. And Jimmy told me—I interviewed Jimmy when he wrote his book, just recently, Working Class Boy, and he said…you know, we were talking about it, and I'd learned a little bit prior to that that they used to watch me presenting the Women's Weeklycommercials every night on television—every week on television—and we had a very big buy.
We had Nine, Seven, Ten, we really spent a lot of money promoting the magazine. And the boys used to watch me, and they were inspired, Don Woods was inspired to write the song from watching me present the Women's Weekly's commercials. And I always thought it was amazing, that an editor flogging a magazine, you know, this week in the Weekly, cup-cakes, children's birthday cake—whatever the hell I was promoting—and that inspired them to write this song. I thought it was amazing.
Kim McKay: Well, you were in our living rooms every night.
Ita Buttrose: I think they say that in the song. Jimmy also suggested that they were more interested in what else I had to offer.
Kim McKay: He wouldn't be game enough to…
Ita Buttrose: Oh yes he was game enough.
Kim McKay: So in 1981 you became editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraphand the Sunday Telegraph. You went from one major media Australian family to another, to the Murdoch family and to working for Rupert Murdoch. What was that transition like?
Ita Buttrose: It was huge. Because you went from a company where women were encouraged to one where we were regarded as the enemy. So it was quite a big culture shock. But if we're talking about shaping the nation, just to go back to that, what it gives you, when you run magazines like Cleoand the Women's Weeklyand the papers (I'll get to them in a minute), but with the Women's Weeklyone of the things I did there that I always thought was one of the better things I ever did was do something called 'Voice of the Australian Woman'. Because I was very concerned that laws were made in Australia with no input from women. There were no women in the House of Representatives, for instance, when I started Cleo in '72.
So we were under-represented in every upper echelon of decision-making in this country. And I thought it was time we asked women what they thought about things. And so I did this huge survey, lots of questions. We got about 30,000 responses, and 10,000 people wrote letters back, 'Dear Ita,' telling us their point of view. And it was a really significant piece of research, because it showed you what women were thinking about all sorts of issues. About issues that we talk today about, race and incest and sexual abuse, which were never talked about back then. And conscription and travelling and ambition and religion, all sorts of things.
And you can continue that on, so when you go to something like News Limited, and I used to write a column in all of Rupert's Sunday newspapers across Australia, which gives you about 4 million readers every week, you're able then to put things out there for people to think about. And one of the things I did there was…I was very concerned that we had no idea about Australia's nutrition, about our eating habits.
We knew nothing about what we were doing to ourselves in relationship to food and our bodies. And so I started a campaign in the papers about we needed to know, it was time we did a survey. The last time we'd done a survey in this country was during the war. And so here we were in the 1980s and we still didn't know. There was a lovely guy who was the health minister then, Jim Carlton. And he was the federal health minister, and I bumped into him somewhere and he said, 'Ita, for God's sake stop writing about that diet nutrition survey you want. I go to Sydney and there you are. I go to Perth and there it is.' He said, 'You're haunting me. We'll do it, we'll do it.' And they did it. Now, that's some of the things you can do, because that's a good move, and that's some of the good things you can do when you're running big publishing ventures like I've been able to run.
So when you have that ability to do that, it's something you have to handle with great responsibility. You have to be really aware of what you have at your fingertips. And you have to use it wisely.
Kim McKay: Do you think today's editors are as aware?
Ita Buttrose: Some. With respect, in a profession that I absolutely love, I don't think the standards are as good as they could be. I certainly think the women's media is not as good as it once was. It used to be highly respected, it used to be…it used to run stories that were true and accurate and now it doesn't. It's really let itself down. I think the newspapers are really trying. I think the Herald, which dipped and then has come back again and it's now into the Nine Network. But I could see evidence of really people trying at the Herald.I find stories in there now that I don't find in other newspapers. I think, What's the Heraldgot? And I think, Now that's not in any other newspaper. That's a really interesting read.
And that's the challenge, I think, that we have, if we want newspapers to survive. We've got to put stories in there that you're not going to find anywhere else. You're not going to get them on television first, and you're not going to get them on radio first, you're going have to go to the print and find it. That's how you survive in this business with all these changes that are going on.
Kim McKay: Do you have a favourite online site that you go to for news?
Ita Buttrose: New York Timesas a rule.
Kim McKay: There's an example of a newspaper along with the Washington Postthat because of the Trump situation has experienced a huge boost in circulation over the last couple of years.
Ita Buttrose: Well there is no doubt the American media is strongly biased against Trump. And we can all have very strong views about Trump, and we probably all do.
But at the end of the day, if you're a newspaper, you're supposed to be without bias. You're supposed to just print the facts. And sometimes if you look at what is going on in America, and I'm not an economist, but you can see that there are huge improvements going on in America in terms of employment, the stock market, you know, the confidence. So on the one hand while we look at some things that Trump's doing and think, Oh my God! On the other you have to look and think, well some of those things are positive. And I think the reporting has to reflect that.
Kim McKay: So was there ever a time, say, when you were working for Rupert Murdoch that you took…you were on Mahogany Row, I'm assuming.
Ita Buttrose: Yes. Mahogany Row is what they called the wing where executives sat.
Kim McKay: And were you ever called in and reprimanded for a stance that you'd taken?
Ita Buttrose: Only when I upset Channel 10 once.
Kim McKay: An advertiser…
Ita Buttrose: No, Channel 10 was in the Murdoch group then, and they had Mash, the TV series about the army and the Americans in Korea. Vietnam. And they were getting to some umpteenth episode and we ran a great big piece on it in the Daily Telegraphto promote the series. And the Ten people felt that we'd given too much away. So they whinged to Rupert and I got 'Naughty! Naughty!' And you just think, oh well, but that's all right. That's the way it is.
Kim McKay: So what I'm hearing from you and what I've seen is this resilience that you've had through your career. You know, dealing with the likes of Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch and Sir Frank, and other influential people in society who you're doing business with, you need a certain amount of resilience internally, don't you? How do you foster that, or was it always just there?
Ita Buttrose: I think it's always been in me, somehow. I think it's always been in me, but it goes back to my belief that I'm entitled to do what I want to do. I'm entitled to have this career that I wanted. And I'm prepared to fight for what I believe in, and I'm prepared to argue with Sir Frank, or with Kerry, or with Rupert, if I think their point of view is incorrect, and I think where I'm going is right.
And usually if you argue with confidence, and sensibly, you can sometimes persuade them to see your point of view, and you go on doing what you've got to do. But when you work for those big organisations, it's not my organisation, it's theirs. And you have to understand that, and sometimes the boss will overrule you. Now if you work for a big corporation, sometimes you have to accept that.
Kim McKay: So somewhere in your DNA, if there is a bit of our DNA strand that maybe lives around that, did that ever entice you to think about politics as a career? Ita for PM? Maybe that's not such a bad idea.
Ita Buttrose: I was asked many times, I was asked several times to go into politics. The first time I was still a very young mother and I said, 'Do you guys provide mortgages?' And they said, 'No, you'd have to move suburbs and change children's schools.' And I thought, no, it's not for me. And then I got more offers and then I thought, look, Canberra looks great and it would be wonderful, but I didn't really have children to leave them and go to Canberra. You know, my children mean the world to me and I wasn't going to leave them.
And that's what I would have had to have done. I can see how politicians lead their lives, and that's fine, that's their choice. But it wasn't my choice. And then, you know, I don't think it's my calling. I think my calling is what I do, and I like the freedom that what I do gives me. I don't have to compromise my values and my principles, and it seems to me that a lot of politicians do.
Kim McKay: Well, that brings me to now. You've won so many awards and accolades for what you've done through your career, but in recent years you've taken on a number of causes that you feel quite passionate about, which have propelled you in a whole new direction as well.
Ita Buttrose: I've always had causes, actually. But I suppose the ones I have now are perhaps a little more prominent. But my mother had my brothers and I doing good deeds from a very early age. I used to sell Legacy buttons on Elizabeth Street and I'd hold the coin collecting device at the Bondi Pavilion for the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and I manned the fete stalls at the Spastics Centre, which is now the Cerebral Palsy Association. It's the way I was brought up, and I've always had causes somewhere along the way that I've been helping. But in more recent times most of mine have been to do with health. And I suppose the biggest health one started in the '80s when I became chair of the National Advisory Committee on AIDS, just when the virus first came, when we didn't know much about it.
I hardly knew a thing about HIV and AIDS when I started, and neither did anyone else in the government. Neal Blewett was in the Health Ministry, he said to me—he found a note in his filing cabinet that said, Oh yes, there's a virus called AIDS (they called it AIDS then) and it seems to affect gay men. And that's what he found in his file. Well, as we know, it was a lot more than that.
And so that was the beginning of a high profile, I suppose, in health. Not that I expected a high profile, because I didn't really realise where that was going to take us all.
Neal Blewett rang me late one night when I was editor-in-chief of the Telegraphs and I thought he was ringing about a story or something he wanted in the paper, or something we'd done that he was unhappy about. But no, it wasn't. They were looking for someone to chair this committee that Australians would trust, because there were so many important messages to get out there about how you did and didn't get AIDS.
And then it just sort of went on. My daughter had a very rare form of juvenile arthritis, and arthritis people got to hear about it and they got me and so I started doing work for Arthritis Australia. It was then called the Rheumatism Council and I think Eric Lewis, who was a politician in this state was then involved in that.
And then I've done a lot of breast cancer work. Again, because we wanted to get women checking their breasts. And when I was running the Weekly, one of the radiographers came to me and said, 'Look, they're having a lot of difficulty in getting Italian women in particular, out in Liverpool, to go and get their breasts checked for breast cancer. And he said, 'Can you help?' And I said, 'Well, I'll tell you what I'll do,' I said, 'I'll run one page in English about it all and then the next page I'll do it in Italian.' And I said, 'We'll try that.' Because a lot of migrant women read the Weeklyto find out about the Australian way of life, so that's why he came to me.
And it worked a treat. But then I got a letter of complaint from the guy who'd advertised toys opposite the Italian page. And he wanted a make-good. He wanted a free ad to replace this. And so I wrote back to him and I said, 'Look, okay, do you think that Italian parents don't buy their children toys?
But look.' I said, 'I'll give you a make-good, but I will be publishing your letter.' That was the end of that. So it's interesting how it goes.
But in later times, dementia, clearly, Alzheimer's Australia has taken up a lot of my time. It's now Dementia Australia. That's because Dad had vascular dementia. And I think when you've had these health conditions in your family—he also had macular degeneration, which is why I work for the Macular Disease Foundation—you understand them so well. You understand them better. And you can understand how people feel. And dementia is a huge health problem in Australia. It's got to be one of the biggest public health problems of the 21st century.
Kim McKay: Lending your celebrity to those causes is incredibly important, and I know you do that quite judiciously. We see sometimes celebrities lend their name to charities and causes that doesn't quite ring true. So it's very important, isn't it, that you have that passion, or that experience, to want to get behind something.
Ita Buttrose: Well, they're such huge health issues that I feel if you can help get some of these very important messages across, that's a good thing. And because my business is communication, it helps. And it certainly helped when I was Australian of the Year to talk about dementia, because every time I was asked to make a speech—and I think I made at least 100 that year—I mentioned dementia. It didn't matter where I went, I managed to get that in there. And it does help raise awareness. And I don't want a health job out of it. I don't want a promotion out of it, I don't want anything out of it. I just want to be able to help people who are affected by the disease and whose family worry about them all the time.
Kim McKay: So before we go to questions from the audience, being Australian of the Year does carry with it a great opportunity, doesn't it, to talk to people right across Australia. It's odd, because not many countries have an award equivalent. What did it mean to you when you found out you were going to be Australian of the Year?
Ita Buttrose: Well, it's very humbling. You're very conscious it's a great honour. You're very conscious of the fact that you're following in the footsteps of many distinguished Australians. I really think it's one of the greatest honours your country can pay you. And I wished my parents had been alive so they could have seen it.
Kim McKay: Well, we're thrilled and delighted that you were Australian of the Year, and in fact you still are in so many respects. I think it's an honour that you carry with you forever.
So with that we're going to open it up to questions. I know we've got some microphones there. Are you happy to take a few questions, Ita?
Ita Buttrose: Sure.
Kim McKay: Terrific, thank you. Who'd like to ask Ita a question?
Audience member 1: Hello, Ita. My name is Jenny. Thank you, that was fascinating. I work with children, I do a mentor project, and I work with children on what are your dreams, how are you going to go about achieving them, and help them to hold on to those dreams and keep following through on them. So my question is what advice, what would be your top tip you would give to youth, teenagers, on keeping in touch with that dream?
Ita Buttrose: Top six tips for teenagers?
Audience member 1: No, your top tip that you would give. What would be the one thing?
Ita Buttrose: Nobody dreams your dream. Nobody. It's yours. Nobody dreams it.
And all too often we allow people to talk us out of our dreams, and yet deep inside of us we know that there is something we want to do. And it's much better to have tried to do it. It doesn't matter if it doesn't even work. But if you try and do it it's fine.
Audience member 2: Hello Ita. You've worked so broadly in so many different areas, always as a communicator, what would you say, if you can think of something off the top of your head, that you're most proud of in your work?
Ita Buttrose: In my work? Oh, Gosh. I don't know, there've been so many. Look the biggest and proudest professional moment in my life had to be running the Weekly. That was what I wanted. And a lot of you would remember when it was a weekly. And some of you probably don't remember when it was a weekly, you probably think of it as a monthly. But when it was a weekly it was really without…there was nothing that could touch it. It was one of the mightiest magazines of them all. And you know it sold around about, on average, about 860,000 copies a week. Sometimes it sold more than 900,000. Now it's selling around 200,000 a month. It went into one in four homes. Nobody ever said no to it. It was fantastic.
It was a privilege to edit it, and I think most of us who edited it…I'm sure the current batch do too, but when it was a weekly and you could see what you could do with it, governments would come to us and ask us to translate the pension into people-talk. Pension advice, because that's how they did it then.
We were the first magazine to write about the Heart Foundation. To write about health. All of these issues that were very important to people, and we put it into people-talk. We took the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo out and we did it so people could understand what was happening.
And it was a fun thing to be able to edit the Weekly. You could change the cover. You've no idea what you could do with it, production-wise. You could work six weeks ahead, on six issues at a time. You could change the cover three times in the run. So you'd go to the smaller states, you could bring it back for Victoria, change the cover if you wanted if there was a new story brewing. You could bring it back to New South Wales and change the cover again. You changed the black and white pages six times for the various states. And you could ask this magazine all sorts of things and you could do it. And it was such a fantastic thing to be able to do. I loved it.
Audience member 3: You spoke about important surveys in your career that you launched. Thinking now, what would be a survey you would like to do now?
Ita Buttrose: I'd probably like to go back and ask women what they're thinking about certain things now. I think it's always time to review it. We ran something similar to Voice of the Australian Women in ITA. We did it more from the perspective of older women. And I think it would be rather interesting to do that now, because when I look at some of the issues that we have, it concerns me the high mental health rate that we have now in our country.
I chair a thing called the Australian Mental Health Prize, and that's set up to try and find people who are working in the mental health field doing remarkable work, and it's done with the establishment of the University of New South Wales Psychiatry Department. And I'd like to get my head across that, because I want to know why more women than men get mental health issues. It's still a high rate for men.
I want to know why one in seven children in this country have mental health problems. So is this something new? Have we gone wrong somewhere? Is there something missing? So I'd like to explore that. I think there are a lot of issues like that. I'd like to know why we seem to have more children on the autism spectrum—why is that?
And I'm really dying to know why so many kids can't eat peanut butter. I mean my mother would have been out of her mind if she couldn't have given us peanut butter sandwiches when I was a kid. You could only ever have other kids over if they would have peanut butter sandwiches. That's all you were ever going to get. And now you wouldn't dream of giving anyone peanut butter. So there are lots of issues.
I'd like to know what women think about the state of the world at this point in time. Where do they think our priorities ought to be? So I would be looking at that. I'd like to hear the female point of view, because while we are better placed than we once were, there's still room for improvement, and I think our voice still needs to be heard.
Audience member 4: My daughter was subscribing to Cleoand then she got the last one when it was discontinued. And I was just wondering how you felt about Cleostopping publication, personally?
Ita Buttrose: Well, you know, magazines do stop. That's the sad fact of life. I remember reading somebody saying Cleohad really lost its place, but you see I don't accept that. What I think happened to Cleo was that it didn't really understand the marketplace anymore. So the marketplace had changed and there are lots of ways that younger people get their information, and I accept that. But there are lots of issues affecting younger women that are not covered, that are not covered online, that are not covered by social media, that you could do in a magazine like Cleo.
So you'd have to bring it back and re-vamp it. And in the same way that we looked at what did we think women wanted back in the days when we started in '72, you'd be looking and saying, okay, what does the younger demographic want in their readership at this point of the 21st century? And if you read the marketplace right, whatever you're selling, it will work. But if you don't understand the marketplace then things don't work.
Audience member 5: I was just actually fascinated to hear when you said how much support services the Packers gave you regarding your career, providing a housekeeper and a Karitane nurse, etc. Did you find that enabled you to continue your career at the level that you were at, and do you believe it's important or is one of the things that perhaps women can't advance as well in careers because they do have the family commitments that they actually have to do with the job and not have the help that the Packers fantastically gave you.
Ita Buttrose: Well, I do often say when I'm speaking to corporate women, that they should ask for a nanny package. And I said. 'I'm sure your company will say, "We can't do it." But the fact of the matter is, companies can do it. If they want to keep you there and they want to make the workplace friendly.' And I suggest to them, give up a bit of your package and opt for the nanny package, because at this point of your life, that's going to make it a lot easier.
I think you can still work without the nanny package, but the thing is, it's harder. And I think younger parents seem so time-stressed—I mean, aren't we all—but they seem so time-stressed because they're so busy making sure their children have every attribute and skill that's going—there's so many extra-curricular activities that children have, which I think are far too many—that they don't allow themselves any time to enjoy their parenting or to enjoy their housework.
We used to have a saying at the Weekly, 'A tidy house is a sign of a wasted mind.' So you shouldn't really fuss too much about whether the house is tidy or not. It's really having some 'me' time and some special time with your children. But I think the family-friendly workplaces that we talk about, some of them are family-friendly but not enough are.
There's a lot of lip-service still paid to that. Women are still made to feel guilty, and I'm sure men are too, if they take time off to go early (early! Leave on time) to go home because the kids have to be picked up after day-care or whatever it is. So I think we're really too tough, and I think the workplace needs to understand that as long as we employ young men and women there will be a point in their time when they have to have free time to be with their families. And corporately we need to be able to address that in the workplace, and make it easier for young parents, and not as tough as it is for most of them, for many of them.
Audience member 6: I've just recently gone back to studying journalism, or started studying journalism, and one of the things is that we are taught at university to tell truth, about ethics, about how to write an article well; but it doesn't seem to be happening in our newspapers, and I was wondering what you thought the disconnect might be.
Ita Buttrose: To have ethics? Well there is a journalists' code of ethics that we're meant to observe. And I think a lot of us do try to observe them. I think social media has made general media a little bit sloppy in its approach. And there seems to be a careless disregard for facts. Now as long as the public accept this, you're going to continue to get it. And the only way the media will ever know is if the public says, 'Look, that's unacceptable. I don't like that. I'm not going to buy your paper, I'm not going to buy your magazine.' People power is the way you change things if you want to change things, but people have to exercise it, and a lot of the time people are too indifferent to do that.
For instance, just a case in point: I did become patron of the Jodi Lee Bowel Cancer Foundation last month.
And one of the things they've asked me to keep raising is that 90% of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated if caught early. But fewer than 40% are, because Australians say they're too busy to take the free test that is sent to them by the government when they turn 50. Now really. What is the matter with us all? It's a free test. It's no big deal. And yet we're too busy to do it, and so people are dying unnecessarily from bowel cancer—80 a week—who don't have to. If we don't care, if we don't make the time for things that we don't like, or things that we feel could be improved, nothing will change. So if you think a newspaper or a magazine is not behaving in an ethical way, it's up to the public to let them know. 'I won't buy your product.' There's no sales—if you don't have any sales, you haven't got a business.
Kim McKay: I think that's a very good note on which to end today. Ita, I think we can all take that lesson with us, that if we don't do it, nothing will change. That we've got to make the difference we want to see in our society, and you've been a beacon of that for a very long time, and I certainly hope you'll continue doing that on these causes, the health causes you support, but so many other social issues as well. We're so privileged to have had you.
Ita Buttrose: Thank you very much.
Lunctime Lecture Series: Australians Shaping the Nation is a series of talks with six distinguished Australians who are shaping the nation across science, sport and the arts running from 21 August to 25 September 2018.