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Jill Emberson - a fighter for social justice until the end

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Jill Emberson was a hugely talented ABC journalist/broadcaster, and a tenacious fighter for social justice. She was particularly drawn to stories and issues relating to the Pacific, women, Indigenous and First Nations people.  

As she fought her own gruelling four-year battle with ovarian cancer, it came as no surprise to those who knew Jill that she became a fearless advocate for raising both awareness and funding resources for research into the disease, in the hope that no other woman would have to face what she was going through.   

By Vivien Altman

Featured Image: Jill interviewing in Newcastle, 2014

Sadly, Jill died last week, aged 60, in Newcastle where she’d worked for nearly a decade as a journalist and mornings presenter for local ABC Radio.  

A consummate professional and great communicator, Jill was always extremely curious. What she had in spades was an incisive mind and intellect that could grapple with a complex story, as well as buckets of emotional intelligence. She was a social justice warrior with a love for people and their stories. 

When Jill was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in early 2016, it came as a complete shock to her, her family and friends. She was facing ‘the silent killer’, but was determined to beat it – in her own words, “surgery, chemo, nail it, get back to work”.

What she soon learnt was that only 45 percent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are still alive at the end of five years, with no reliable early detection test, and for several decades there had been inadequate research into treatment. Most women (80 percent) are diagnosed when the disease has progressed to a late stage, and their prognosis is grim.  

The more Jill learnt, the angrier she got.

She underwent relentless rounds of chemo, surgery, radiation. But the chemo stopped working, and immunotherapy trials didn’t suit her type of cancer.  Nine months after first being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Jill relapsed and it was clear that her illness was terminal. 

After two years of painful and exhausting treatment to extend her life, she went back to work in 2018 to create the deeply personal podcast ‘Still Jill’ about her own struggle against the cancer that was decimating her body. Too weak to go into the office, she’d worked in her living room with ABC producer Liz Keen to produce this compelling work for which she was awarded the Documentary and Storytelling Australian Podcast Prize 2019.  

She later shared her struggle living with ovarian cancer in a powerful ABC Australian Story program broadcast earlier this year, produced by journalist and close friend Amanda Collinge.

Jill was the face of the cause, her image splashed over the ovarian cancer billboards. She was chuffed, though it was also a confronting reminder of the deadly reality and particularly hard for her mother, Liz.

Jill left no stone unturned in her unstinting lobbying of politicians, the medical establishment, other cancer sufferers and anyone else who could help.

She spoke at the Canberra Press Club in 2018, and in February this year she returned to the national capital to continue lobbying for more research funding.

“… it’s a cancer that’s a bit hidden in the shadows of the big pink marketing machine for breast cancer, so I think I’ve been able to make a difference to that.”

Named as Newcastle’s Citizen of the Year in 2019 for her contribution to journalism and advocacy, Jill founded the Pink Meets Teal campaign combining the forces of well-funded breast cancer researchers and survivors with their ‘poorer’ ovarian cancer cousins. She fought for ‘funding fairness’ and was a great source of comfort and inspiration to many women and families impacted by this deadly disease. 

In September this year the Federal Government delivered a landmark $20 million for ovarian cancer research, in addition to $15 million granted earlier in 2019 for gynaecological cancer clinical trials.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt recently paid tribute to Jill’s role.

“Jill Emberson has been a driving force for better research for ovarian cancer,” Mr Hunt said 

“She’s been a passionate, powerful spokesperson, and by telling her story she’s been able to help people around Australia.”

Director of Marketing and Communications at Ovarian Cancer Australia, Josy Shaw, said Jill had done more than anyone to lift awareness of what is the deadliest of all women’s cancers.

“Her advocacy work has given them so much hope,” she said.

Jill Emberson always seemed destined to make a difference.

I first met her in 1981 when she was studying Communications at UTS with a group of students determined to make careers in journalism.  We were pioneers at Sydney community radio 2SER, committed to serious storytelling and cutting-edge journalism. 

At that time I shared a house in Leichhardt with two other SER workmates, Cassi Plate and Geoff Adlide, both of whom went on to work at the ABC. Jill became a regular feature at our place as romance blossomed between her and Geoff. I recall many conversations about journalism and social issues, as well as our personal dramas, and the frequent visitors such as Penny O’Donnell who had recently moved up from Melbourne, the indefatigable Amanda Collinge and the mischievous and talented writer Sasha Soldatow, and later Liz Jackson and Martin Butler arrived from London and moved in. We were all ABC tragics, irreverent, and we took ourselves very seriously.

Amanda, Penny and Liz also worked at 2SER, along with Geoff Parish, Sharon Davis, Peter McElvoy, Sue Spencer, Virginia Madsen, and Chris Nash, just to name a few, all working on either the Breakfast Program or the weekly current affairs program, Razor’s Edge.  

Most of the SER team went on to smash boundaries at ABC’s then Double J and later Triple J, where Jill worked, initially in the newsroom and then as mornings presenter with Stuart Matchett. 

Jill was also a great lover of music and promoted many local musicians. 

From Triple J, she was head-hunted by the prominent TV executive producer Peter Manning to work on the ABC science program, Quantum.  

Jill was a staunch defender of independent public interest journalism, both nationally and internationally. She always stood out with her talent, effervescent personality and great beauty, but she could also be very self-deprecating, and had bouts of self-doubt.  

Jill sometimes wore a frangipani in her hair and she had a collection of beautiful art from the Pacific (as well as Indigenous works). Her father was Tongan, so she understood the ‘other’. There were tough times growing up in a divided family, but it was she who reconciled first and worked extra hard to bring her Anglo Australian and Pacific families together

Educated at a Catholic girl’s school, Jill straddled diverse worlds with incredible ease. She kept up her school friendships with a standout group of women, among then Monica Attard and Louise Gleeson, all educated at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield, in Sydney’s inner west.  

From an early age she had the makings of a great communicator, broadcaster and journalist.

Her warmth and empathy gave her the ability to interview people from all walks of life – from political leaders to those unaccustomed to the spotlight – with the right questions and an appropriate sensibility.  

Jill fell in love with a French film-maker in the late 1980s and went to live in Paris, where she became fluent in French. After this, she was based in New Caledonia with the Pacific Women’s Resource Bureau, as the communications manager working with Pacific women to make radio. She also connected with the Kanak Independence Movement in New Caledonia in the 1980s, and with family, friends and colleagues exiled to Australia after the Fiji Coup in 1987. 

She later worked for Greenpeace as their communications specialist.  Her versatility and talent were also recognised by Mark Bouris, founder of Wizard Home Loans, where she worked for a couple of years.

The light in Jill’s life was her daughter Malia, who she absolutely adored and of whom she was immensely proud.

After some years as a single mother, her life changed quite dramatically when she met Ken Lambert, a Newcastle GP. They fell in love and went on to have an enduring, loving relationship, marrying in September 2018.  

For the nearly 40 years of our friendship we shared a love of ideas, a passion for journalism and storytelling, discussions about the ocean (Jill’s balm) and our dislike for the puritanism of the Anglo world that we shared so much with. We were feisty feminists but liked men, and we scoffed at the Anglo-ness of the media long before it became fashionable to do so.  We liked to exchange recipes such as my mother’s special potato salad, and Jill’s Lemon Cake which she brought me when my mother died.  What I loved about Jill was that she was a great source of both professional advice and emotional support, but had no hesitation calling me out if I was being annoying or on the wrong track.

When Jill moved to Newcastle more than a decade ago, she returned to her first love, radio, and became the mornings presenter on Newcastle ABC 1233 local radio for seven years. Despite the very early morning start, she was in her element and established herself as a much-loved fixture in the region. The limitations of daily local radio, and her love of Indigenous stories, led her to branch out and make a podcast called ‘Meet the Mob’ in which she interviewed Indigenous people in the Hunter, and she followed this with a radio series called ‘Hooked on Heroin’ about the heroin crisis in the area, for which she was a Walkley finalist.

Jill was tremendously courageous, no-bullshit person. She brought people together, her last big birthday bash at Coogee this year was testament to that.  She had a wicked side with a great sense of humour and loved to enjoy herself even as things got grim.  

Her life force and energy, as her body was failing, were there till the end. She knew exactly what she wanted at the end of her life and made sure it would happen.

She had set her sights on sharing Malia’s post-graduate law graduation event in 2020 and had already bought her dress.

One of the last things she said to me just a few days before she died was, “I need to fight” –  that was Jill to a tee.

A private funeral for Jill Emberson will be held this week. Her life will be celebrated at a public memorial service in Newcastle on Thursday 23 January

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