Ita Buttrose once reflected that power is fleeting. But at the ripe old age of 77, the grande dame of Australian media has been confirmed as the new chair of the ABC board.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the appointment on Thursday, despite her not being included on a shortlist of recommendations for the position given to the government.
Ms Buttrose will replace Justin Milne, who left the ABC six months ago after clashing with former managing director Michelle Guthrie.
The 2013 Australian of the Year was not even on the shortlist of [male] candidates collated by the expensive headhunters tasked with finding a replacement for former managing director Justin Milne.
The ABC acting managing director David Anderson had confirmed the appointment to The New Daily on Wednesday night.
“Her leadership of the ABC, a highly valued and trusted cultural institution, is welcomed,” he said.
Kirstin Ferguson, the ABC acting chair, who did not ask to be considered for the role, also welcomed the announcement.
“Ita Buttrose is one of the greats of Australian media – and an iconic, widely admired Australian,” she said.
“She will bring valuable experience to the ABC board and I look forward to working with her.”
Buttrose was also not checked by the headhunters, according to ABC insiders. When you’re known nationally by your first name, perhaps it’s not necessary?
Seriously? Is the government really going to ignore the selection panel's advice AGAIN and appoint Ita Buttrose to ABC Chair, when she's not even on the short list? https://t.co/V8MtK5EUig
— Paul Barry (@TheRealPBarry) February 24, 2019
Ita Buttrose may well be 'an extraordinary Australian' as Scott Morrison suggests, but the manner of her appointment (outside independent panel nominations) will undermine her ability to stand up to threats to the ABC's independence and integrity. #abc https://t.co/HZZnXbzHEw
— Tim Storer (@storertim) February 25, 2019
But her crisp assessment of the failings of the former managing director, Michelle Guthrie, who was sacked from the job, and the chairman who quit in the furore that followed, clearly appealed to Cabinet.
“If I look at the board, and I look at Michelle Guthrie’s CV, I don’t see anybody there with a lot of media experience,” she told ABC’s The Drum last year.
“And I think that is a failing of the board – they’re very well credentialled, don’t get me wrong.
“When you come into an organisation like the ABC, which is very set in its ways, with some very high-profile and high-ego-driven people who have a very set point of view on what they want to do, they don’t like change,” she said.
The five-year role will see her steer the ABC board until she is 83 years old.
The biggest argument against her getting the plum gig, whispered by her detractors, is that she is simply too old.
“I mean really, we all love Ita but what’s her last claim to fame? Studio 10? Beauty and the Beast? She’s clearly past her prime,” observed one senior media figure.
Last year, that gig with Studio 10 erupted into the celebrated “brussels sprout incident” which saw allegations that the brassica oleracea flew during a taping after Denise ‘Ding Dong’ Drysdale enjoyed a “couple of champagnes”.
Buttrose was reportedly tearful after being pelted with a brussels sprout, but didn’t want to make a fuss about it.
But the PM and Cabinet clearly had different ideas to ‘Ding Dong’.
Indeed, they tossed the shortlist of candidates prepared by government headhunters at the expense of $160,000.
Her media pedigree is impeccable. Her father was a journalist, war correspondent and newspaper editor.
The end of her parents’ 25-year marriage even became fodder for the afternoon tabloids when she was barely out of her teens.
“They had a wonderful time with my parents’ divorce. By that time I was a cadet. You were allowed to report on these things. The only way you could get a divorce was to commit adultery, which my father did,” she said.
“The girls used to hide the newspapers from us so I wouldn’t see them.
“They were volatile people. They were essentially creative people. So when they lost their block, they lost their blocks.”
In a career littered with female firsts, Buttrose was founding editor of Cleo magazine and the first woman to edit a major Australian metropolitan newspaper.
Speculation has swirled for years over her “chemistry” with the late Kerry Packer.
Former ACP managing director Trevor Kennedy once told the ABC’s Australian Story that Packer and Buttrose were “in love”.
“Obviously there was a bit of electricity uh … in the Ita-Kerry relationship … I think they were drawn by their mutual success. They were physically attracted to each other – they enjoyed each other,” he said.
“Do I think they were in love? Yes, I think they were in love. They were hugely attracted to each other.”
Broadcaster Lisa Wilkinson was more demure, conceding: “They had an incredible personal chemistry”.
But power and influence does not last forever.
“Whatever influence you have, it’s only for a small amount of time,” Buttrose once said.
“When Sir Frank [Packer] sold the Daily and Sunday Telegraph to Rupert Murdoch in 1972, I lost my position as women’s editor. Suddenly the phones stopped ringing. All the people who said they were my friends, I didn’t hear from them.
“I was only in my 20s, and that was a sobering lesson to learn: How fleeting everything is, and how easily it can be taken away from you. So you never take yourself too seriously. You never think you’re too important.”
But there was more to come, with Ita emerging as the founding editor of Cleo.
However, as Buttrose explained, getting men to pose nude in the 1970s was not as easy as it looked.
“Everyone kept saying ‘No!’,” she said.
“One of our younger reporters had the idea of Jack [Thompson]. On the morning of the shoot Jack had a hangover. The art director found him at home, in bed, and in no condition to go to the beach. Jack told me years later it was the best thing he ever did. After Cleo, he was seen as a romantic lead.”
Later, she was asked to edit The Sunday Telegraph for News Ltd.
“Rupert Murdoch rang and asked me to lunch. I met with him. Maybe I was interested in television? They dangled all sorts of things. And then he threw in the offer to and to go to London and cover the royal wedding of Princess Diana for Ten.
“It was just such a fantastic offer. And while I loved editing the Weekly, I got to the point where I thought ‘What else can I do?’ ”
Turns out, also have a go at running the ABC board, in her late 70s.