It feels premature to label somebody a national treasure before they’re a pensioner and have fully earned the accolade. But if anyone can lay claim to that title early, it’s Lisa Wilkinson.
She’s always been wonderfully precocious: from the youngest ever Dolly editor aged just 21, to Cleo editor at 25 (even though she never wanted it.) A decade presenting Today ended this week with Wilkinson moving to Ten to present The Project.
Despite her undisputed professional qualities, Wilkinson represents something galling about the Australian media: its narrowness. A declining number of talking heads and hosts are given a monopoly across print and broadcast media outlets. It’s increasing polarisation and amplifying echo chambers.
Well-paid, veteran journalists are hoovering up airtime and coveted column inches at the expense of new voices, perspectives and roles at a time when jobs for journalists are dwindling. It’s only right Wilkinson challenged Nine over gender pay disparity. But at a reported $1.8 million a year ($200,000 less than Karl Stefanovic), it’s a salary most hard-up journalists will never reach.
It’s also only fair and right that experience and hard work are rewarded, and intelligent, sharp and warm professionals like Wilkinson are given an equal platform to men on panels and in columns. But Wilkinson epitomises a trend of celebrity culture in journalism, where a ‘name’ is often prioritised before writing skill, storytelling ability and persuasively articulated argument.
A few weeks before Wilkinson’s departure from Today, she and her co-hosts were guest editors of the nation’s top-selling paper, The Sunday Telegraph. Imagine if that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had been offered to cadet journalists, rather than established ‘stars’ for whom this was another task on a long to-do list?
In addition, Wilkinson is the Huffington Post’s Editor-at-Large and an occasional Q&A panelist. Her husband Peter FitzSimons has columns in the Sydney Morning Herald and Sun Herald. Between them, one ubiquitous family dominates Australia’s discourse.
This isn’t tall poppy syndrome; Wilkinson and FitzSimons are both talented, considered and empathetic in all their editorialising. But it’s narrow at the top: Wilkinson’s former co-host Sylvia Jeffreys recently married co-host Peter Stefanovic, brother to co-host Karl. Former co-host Ben Fordham’s brother, Nick Fordham, is Lisa Wilkinson’s manager who brokered the Ten deal. Other media power couples include the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson and Tony Jones.
It’s ironic that, as there’s a push to revise media ownership rules, devised to prevent monopolies and guarantee a diversity of media perspectives and agendas, a parallel monopoly exists where a handful of chosen ones are offered the sort of column space and airtime many can only dream of.
The same overexposure is happening with Waleed Aly. In addition to his ‘Something We Should Talk About’ slot on The Project, he also has a regular Fairfax column. That includes a recent piece he – a straight, married man – wrote about Macklemore’s NRL performance of Same Love, instead of gay Australian columnists unable to marry their partners. As writers, they could offer an important personal perspective. Their marginalised voices don’t get regular eight-minute slots on prime-time TV for their points of view.
Naomi Klein proposes a possible solution: fixed terms for pundits. Like US presidents, they’d have four years, and then re-apply for four more, competing against fresh commentators: “Prominent newspaper columnists have been interpreting – or misinterpreting – the world since before 24-hour news. Why do people who shape political opinion have jobs for life?”
A fallacy exists on both sides of the divide: the left fallacy is that those who argue for more diverse voices in the media, hoover up those opportunities for themselves, pulling up the ladder to enjoy their microcosmic elite of diversity.
The right fallacy comes from dominant voices like Miranda Devine and Andrew Bolt – both given ample column space and air time. They’ll claim conservative views are being silenced by political correctness and censorship, while spruiking those conservative views from an overly generous distribution of media platforms.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to promote views from the sensible centre. And we can do that by putting Australian journalism back into the hands of the many, not the few.