Ita Buttrose is, as she says, experiencing something of a renaissance, in the wake of the ABC TV biopic Paper Giants.
‘A lot of the things I’ve done through Paper Giants are now back in the public arena,’ she told Jon Faine in an interview this morning. ‘It’s terrific, it’s lovely.’
Ita’s achievements are now known to a generation of young women who have never read the once-ubiquitous Australian Women’s Weekly, which she edited between 1975-1980 – and who see Cleo, the magazine she launched, as one of a shelful of women’s magazines with falling circulations, rather than a revolutionary new kind of publication.
When Ita was editor, the Women’s Weekly sold a million copies a week. The current circulation is half a million a month.
She couldn’t have chosen a better time to issue an updated version of her autobiography, A Passionate Life. And not just because of Paper Giants – at a time when old media models are collapsing, threatening to take iconic publications with them, we’re more curious than ever to look back on the way the media used to be.
Ever the pioneer, Ita is looking forward rather than back. She’s especially excited about the potential of tablet publishing now, and has even invested in it.
However, she does lament the fact that the strong media proprietors like Kerry Packer, who’d take risks like starting Cleo and or initiating the one-day test cricket series, are ‘all gone’ now, replaced by ‘committees’.
‘You have to take risks in your life,’ she said. ‘if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.’
‘I think they’re being precious,’ she said of the Fairfax journalists determined to make Gina Rinehart sign the editorial independence charter or refuse her a seat on the board. ‘I think they’re frightened of a powerful woman.’
‘If I was a Fairfax journalist, I’d consider myself lucky that anyone wanted to be involved in the company.’
She was particularly scathing about the Fairfax board’s actions in, ten years ago, buying a printing factory, despite all the evidence that broadsheets were due for extinction.
‘Journalists do not own the newspapers on which we work,’ she said. ‘They may think they do, but they don’t.’
Did Ita have any editorial interference from Kerry Packer? No. ‘You can’t make an editor do things.’
Ita is unimpressed with the level of public sniping that goes on these days, particularly the gleeful public criticism of women’s appearance.
‘When Sir Frank was alive, he used to say to us, “We don’t need to be unkind do we?” That was part of my training.’
She was particularly appalled by Germaine Greer’s comments about Julia Gillard’s clothes and figure on Q&A. ‘Tony Jones should hang his head in shame.’
And she was similarly disgusted by Barry Humphries and Miriram Margoyles’ comments about Gina Rinehart on a recent Q&A.
Barry Humphries: ‘I am not drawn to Gina. I mean, if I woke up in a motel with her on the next pillow I would … be very surprised. But then I don’t like her family very much either.’
Miriam Margolyes: ‘’It’s very difficult, isn’t it, because, poor woman, she is not a beauty and I am not a beauty either so I know what it’s like to be fat and ugly …’
‘When are people going to stop commenting on women and our personal attributes?’ Ita said. ‘Enough is enough. This is the 21st century.’
If she was host of Q&A, she says would have told those sniping guests to ‘pull their heads in’.
Asked about the leading role women’s magazines play in the sniping about women (and their appearance) that she derides, Ita says that magazines have changed a lot since her day.
‘They weren’t as celebrity focused, though we did cover them.’ When she was editing the Women’s Weekly, favourite covergirls were Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Princess Grace and Queen Elizabeth. But they weren’t always on the cover, and they were covered in a different way, with a focus on celebrating rather than denigrating them. Mickey Mouse was also a bestselling cover.
Asked if she still goes into newsagents to check out the publishing landscape, Ita said, ‘God yes. I’m a junkie. I’ll always go and see what they’re up to.’
Just for nostalgia’s sake, here are a few Australian Women’s Weekly covers from Ita’s day. she’s not lying – some of these are pretty different.
For a timely and informed discussion of the current media landscape, join Andrew Jaspan (editor of The Conversation and former editor of the Age), Paul Kelly (editor-at-large of the Australian) and host Sally Warhaft for The Fifth Estate: Media Meltdown next Tuesday 10 July at 6.15pm at the Wheeler Centre. Book now.
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