Ita Buttrose tells Australian Story how she soared to the top of Australian media landscape

From staring down the Federal Police to running Cleo and Women’s Weekly: How Ita Buttrose soared to top of Australia’s media landscape and why she will never retire

  • Trailblazing media icon Ita Buttrose appeared on Australian Story on Monday 
  • The 80-year-old recalled her career from helming Cleo to now the ABC  
  • Buttrose, who finishes as ABC chair in 2024, said she has more she wants to do  

Publishing icon Ita Buttrose has spoken about her storied career and the Australian media landscape she helped to shape and declared at 80: ‘There’s more I want to achieve’. 

Buttrose appeared on Australian Story on Monday reminiscing about her six decades at the forefront of journalism, which has seen her most recently step into the role of chair of the ABC. 

She took on the job with the national broadcaster as a ‘captain’s pick’ by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison – her name not having even been on the shortlist of suggested candidates – but almost immediately found herself in a showdown with Australian Federal Police.

ABC headquarters in Sydney were raided in June 2019 over the broadcaster’s Afghan Files reports two years earlier, which detailed allegations of war crimes by the nation’s elite special forces. 

Ita Buttrose (pictured) is currently the chair of the national broadcaster

Ita Buttrose (pictured) is currently the chair of the national broadcaster

The AFP was investigating if the reports constituted a threat to national security – even going so far to request journalists involved be fingerprinted – a move which many viewed as an attempt to intimidate the ABC.

‘I was shocked,’ Buttrose told the program.

‘What sort of a country are we where we send the federal police in to threaten and frighten the national broadcaster.’

Buttrose, then well into her 70s, didn’t back down, resolutely pushing back by challenging the raid in the federal court.

‘I know how important freedom of the press is and I will defend it to the utmost,’ she said at the time. 

While the court challenge was unsuccessful the validity of the raids sparked an ongoing debate, two parliamentary inquiries and a series of Ministerial Directives.

When Buttrose took the reigns of the ABC, the public broadcaster was at its ‘lowest ebb’. 

She took on the man's world of magazine and newspaper publishing in her early career (pictured)

She took on the man’s world of magazine and newspaper publishing in her early career (pictured)

The former managing director and chair has been removed months earlier in controversial circumstances and the ABC’s independence was increasingly being questioned. 

‘When I walked in the doors I remember there was just this gloom hanging over the place and I though ‘ohh this place is in a spot of bother’,’ Buttrose said.

Three years later, as the ABC celebrates it’s 90th year, it’s now as strong as ever – no small feat considering the immense competition available from global streaming platforms and thanks in part to the formidable presence of Buttrose. 

‘Do I look like I feel the frailty of age? I don’t think so’.

‘I think there’s some things I can’t or perhaps shouldn’t do. I’ve slowed down but I’m not going to retire.’

‘We all hear a drumbeat and mine is still beating quite strongly with things I want to do.’

‘I like working, I can’t envisage my life without working, maybe that’s because I’ve been doing it since I was 15 and it’s so much a part of my life that it is my life.’

The trailblazing icon said there is still more she wants to achieve and has no intention to retire

The trailblazing icon said there is still more she wants to achieve and has no intention to retire

Back in time: Cleo magazine's first edition was published in November 1972. Pictured above is the cover

Cleo magazine’s first edition was published in November 1972. Pictured above is the cover

Australian women's magazine Cleo closed its doors in 2016. Above is a more recent cover featuring Adele

Australian women’s magazine Cleo closed its doors in 2016. Above is a more recent cover featuring Adele

Buttrose dropped out of school at 15 and became a ‘copy girl’ at Women’s Weekly – then owned by Sir Frank Packer.

At 17 she was sent on tour to Queensland for the visit of Princess Alexandra, the Queen’s cousin.

And by 23 she had been appointed women’s editor of The Daily Telegraph.

She was later tapped by Sir Frank Packer to launch Cleo, his competitor to Cosmopolitan in the early 70s just as the women’s liberation movement was in full swing.

She was the first female editor of a major magazine in Australia and its balance of fashion and dating advice with racy centrefolds and controversial feminist topics saw it soon gain a large following.

‘When I started Cleo magazine, I guess we were breaking new ground,’ she said.

Buttrose  (pictured during the early 1970s) recalled being the founding editor of Cleo magazine, which featured nude centrefolds and articles about sex

Buttrose  (pictured during the early 1970s) recalled being the founding editor of Cleo magazine, which featured nude centrefolds and articles about sex

She went on be editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly and woman’s division publisher of Australian Consolidated Press until Packer rival Rupert Murdoch offered her the editor-in-chief job for The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph.

With the appointment she was again breaking new ground as the first female editor of a daily Australian newspaper.

More recently she took on the role of co-host with Studio 10 which she left after five years saying she wanted to do something fresh. 

Her tenure at the ABC comes to a close in 2024 and she hasn’t revealed hints of what she plans to do next but, judging by her drive, it won’t be her last high profile role.

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