It is the early 1970s and a young Caroline Jones is about to join ABC TV’s Four Corners program in Sydney. A newspaper photographer asks her to perch on a high stool, in a mini skirt, and apply lipstick. She does and the photo is taken. This photograph, with headline, “Girl will take over Four Corners”, is how the first Australian woman to front an investigative flagship program is represented in the press. It is Caroline Jones’ first experience of life as a public figure.
Jones wishes she had a mentor in those days to guide her. “I don’t really understand how I could have been so naïve,” she tells the audience at Women in Media’s 26th event, held at Perth’s ABC studios. Now she is one of Australia’s most distinguished journalists, a national Living Treasure, and patron of the newly-formed national Women in Media.
More than 100 journalists, PR professionals, government and NGO representatives, academics and students come together to hear Caroline Jones speak about her impressive 50 years in the media. Corin Lamont, whose family founded Lamont’s Wine – a long-time WIM sponsor – notes the atmosphere in the room is particularly welcoming. “It’s a really good cause,” she says.
The evening is particularly significant. As WA media women celebrate Caroline Jones and her career, they also commemorate the rollout of WA’s successful Women in Media model to other states, and the establishment of the new national Women in Media network with the support of the MEAA.
WIM committee member and freelance journalist Victoria Laurie kicks off the evening with an inspirational introduction. She talks about the aims of the small group that set up WA WIM eight years ago, and the thrill of seeing it adopted by other states. “We hoped to inspire a certain solidarity among women in our industry and to advance the opportunities for women in journalism and media,” she says.
Laurie introduces Jones and WIM committee member and the ABC’s distinguished first State political reporter, Miriam Borthwick, who leads into a captivating conversation. Jones, a picture of femininity with a string of pearls around her neck, is a very gentle woman, but she also speaks with confidence.
Yet Jones says she bluffed her way through the beginnings of her career. She recalls her first interview with the then US Ambassador’s wife, saying it was “appalling”. “I think I asked her something really very gauche like, ‘What sort of man is the ambassador to live with?’.” she says. Talk about needing a mentor!”
Jones says she wasn’t ready to be a reporter at 17, when she applied for a cadetship at magazines and newspapers in Sydney. “I think I was a shy person, I was timid, I was still quite young for my age and, while I had some capacity for writing, I’m sure they could tell I didn’t have the grit or determination.”
It was another seven years before she got the opportunity to work in journalism. Jones was working in a full-time office job in the regional ABC station in Canberra when she was offered an additional part-time announcer/trainee role at the ABC. Jones marvels at the fact that her full-time employer, Jim Neilson, let her go to take advantage of the new part-time journalism opportunity.
“Why should anyone do that?” she asks. “It was a nuisance to him that I wasn’t there full time, but he gave me that chance and that was the beginning for me.”
During these years, and later at Four Corners, Jones grasped many opportunities that came her way but says she felt quite insecure about her ability as a journalist. Miriam Borthwick asks her about imposter syndrome, where people do not recognise their achievements, constantly doubt their skills and think they are not good enough. “This rang such a bell with me,” Jones says.
“I hope it doesn’t mean too much to any of you actually, especially the young ones, because I’d hate to think that you had this.”
(As one of the “young ones”, I confess it rings a bell with me too.) Apart from the lack of advice from others, Jones says her some of her self-doubt may have come from a lack of formal training.
“It was partly a lack of proper education – not having a university degree, and it was also that sense of never knowing whether I’d done enough preparation for an interview or a program.
“It was constantly chasing my tail and putting pressure on myself.”
The woman who led the way for female journalists, and who enjoyed working with her male colleagues, felt a serious lack of mentorship. There were no women around to advise or empathise, especially when big decisions had to be made. This was the case when she was offered a job with 60 Minutes while she was overseas.
“The phone rang one night at a ridiculous hour. It was Gerald Stone from Australia on the other end of the line,” Jones says.
“He said, ‘I’d like you to come join the team’. Well, I mean, it’s two o’clock in the morning, and I’m in the United States and I’m only just awake. I had no idea how to make that decision… I didn’t consult anyone; I didn’t discuss it with anyone.
“Anyhow, I decided to stay at the ABC and I probably missed out on a big adventure and a big salary and the star treatment that they give people at Channel 9. But that’s alright.” Jones says this with a smile, then speaks of another quandary faced by many women: career or family.
“I didn’t have a conversation about that with anyone. It’s weird isn’t it?” she says.
“There weren’t many other women doing the same sort of thing… [and] I wouldn’t have discussed it with men.”
Jones married and divorced in her twenties but, when the chance to marry again and have a family did come, she made the decision to pursue her career instead.
“Of course there’s sadness in that but I felt I’d been given so much that that was my job—to get on with it and to make the best of it.
“I didn’t think I could do it without compromising both professional life and family life.”
These days, she observes, there is more support for professional women, making it more possible to have both a family and a career. Jones really noticed this change when she joined Australian Story in 1996, and first worked for a female executive producer Deborah Fleming.
“I was really struck by her management style,” Jones says. It’s inclusive, it’s encouraging, it’s endlessly tolerant, it’s completely understanding of the fact that women actually have babies and need to have some time at home.
“That’s been a great experience in itself, as well as working on the program.”
A clear message from the evening’s discussion is that women need to continue to support each other and push for gender equality in the workplace. Now WIM has gone national, says Jones, we need more than ever to practise what we preach and mentor those making their way into the media.
“What I would have liked was someone to listen, someone to suggest options when I was facing a decision, someone to encourage, just someone with more experience than I had to share that experience with me,” Jones reflects.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take the reins and get the training to overcome any self-doubt you may have.
“You can’t wait like me until you’re 75.”
A consensus view on the night was that, with a national Women in Media network, no woman in media need wait any longer.
Carys Garland: In the final year of my Journalism degree at Curtin, I’m excited to see where my career will start. I am keen on magazines and print, but am open to other aspects of journalism like TV. I am eager to see other parts of the world, especially France as I have studied the language for several years.