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Paving the way

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Throughout her long career, Caroline Jones AO has championed women’s rights in the media, and beyond. On screen she led the way in the 1960s as a reporter on This Day Tonight, then hit the headlines in 1972 when appointed as the first woman to host Four Corners. Other high-profile roles followed, including more than twenty years as the trusted anchor of Australian Story. But she’s also renowned for paving the way for other women in very practical ways, most notably through mentoring, scholarships in her name, and over the last decade as co-Patron of the Women in Media organisation. In this last story of our series commemorating 60 Years of Four Corners, Caroline looks back at those heady pioneering days when women were far from a fixture on Australian TV.

By Caroline Jones / 30 August 2021

Four Corners press pix for the new recruit.

After five exciting years on This Day Tonight (1968-72) I was invited to join Four Corners (1972-1981) as the first woman to anchor the program and, for a few years, still the only female reporter. It was such an unusual appointment that it became news. 

Second-wave feminism was just getting underway in Australia but it certainly hadn’t reached the gentleman of the press.  

Banner headline in the Melbourne Listener-In

“Girl will take over Four Corners.”  (I was 34 at the time).

“This week the ABC named a girl in her early thirties for one of its top on-camera jobs.”

The Melbourne Sun reported:

“Caroline Jones, the attractive ash-blonde who has landed the compere’s job on Four Corners, would be one of the few women in the world to get such a position. In US television, current affairs top jobs are basically reserved for the men. It’s something of a breakthrough for Women’s Lib in Australia,” – that was the current term for feminism.

I was dispatched on a one-day publicity trip to Melbourne. This produced a full front-page on the Listener-In, and showed my painful inexperience of being in the media spotlight. Incredibly, with hindsight, I allowed myself to be photographed sitting on a bar stool in a mini-skirt, applying lipstick, and answering questions from a reporter a lot smarter than I was.

“Caroline doesn’t know her vital statistics,” he wrote. “‘I’m just skinny,’ she said,” and the male reporter further observed, “she smells very feminine,” and ended with the punch line, “A lot of lady is Four Corners’ new lady.” While a columnist in the Sydney Daily Telegraph felt moved to confess “The Jones girl does not particularly appeal to me, as a sex symbol.” 

Well of course I was mortified, shocked by my own naivety. I wasn’t prepared to become a public figure; my pride was in being a reporter; I had no idea how to handle the media attention. I had to learn the hard way.

Thankfully, back at the ABC, my gender had not created quite the same fuss. But the new role was certainly exciting and a huge challenge.

Four Corners HQ was situated one floor above This Day Tonight in the old ABC building at Gore Hill in Sydney.  So it was like the voice of God calling from on high when the invitation came: 

‘Would you like to join Four Corners?’ 

Is the Pope a Catholic?  Of course there was only one reply. 

I took the lift to the fourth floor but while I was gaining altitude, I had not foreseen the psychological adjustment.   

It took only a day to realise that I had arrived among the grown-ups, and that the free-for-all downstairs was in my past. 

No more boisterous games of indoor cricket along the corridors while waiting for film to be processed.  Yes, film!  At TDT we had to go out in the morning and shoot the minimum of footage that could be turned around on the same day for the 7:30 pm deadline.  No more anxious hymn-singing from legendary TDT producer Ken Chown as he bustled from one stressful edit suite to the next, urging us to get on with it. No more breakneck racing along the linoleum corridors with the finished reel of product just in time to get it to air. Followed by adjournment to the 729 Club for much-needed refreshment and games of snooker. 

No, the atmosphere was much more sober upstairs, exhilarating in a new way. What an opportunity to do longer-form reports and to be part of the ‘first draft of history’ stories that Four Corners required, as the ABC’s flagship program. 

While I was ‘the first woman’ to anchor and to report, on 4Corners, I was by no means the only woman there. The program depended on the essential work of fact researchers, film researchers, archivists, script assistants and admin staff, not to mention make-up when required – all women, all highly capable, and all paid at a lower rate than their male counterparts. 

I was never pigeonholed as a specialist on women’s affairs, and I reported on matters ranging from the complexity of Papua New Guinea’s independence, including historic footage of the Mt Hagen show, a spectacular gathering of hundreds of PNG tribesmen performing traditional dance and song, shot by cameraman Ray Byrnes; to profiling the celebrated leader of the Builders Labourers Federation, Jack Mundey, at the time of the history-making Green Bans. And, at a time of increasing awareness of second-wave feminism, there was some appropriate and overdue attention paid to the subject.

In one 1973 report, I tried to assess the dollar value of a woman’s daily work in the home.  I interviewed an official of the Miscellaneous Workers Union. Perplexed by the variety of her work, for some curious reason he decided she might best come under the Watchmen, Caretakers and Lift Attendants’ State Award, earning a minimum hourly rate of $1.88, with the proviso that stove-cleaning would be more skilled and would attract $2.30 per hour. And there would be bigger money again if she cleaned the windows, basic rate $5 an hour. 

 Wherever he tried to categorise her work, even with penalties, she would be seriously underpaid.  A study in The Social Security Quarterly publication was in favour of a “weekly allowance of $20” but judged that “the whole matter is a union organiser’s nightmare”.  Has anything changed in half a century? Women’s work in the home is still not included in estimating the Gross National Product. 

That same year saw the gala opening of Sydney Opera House by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11.  Four Corners decided to broadcast live from the great occasion. Most unusually, the ABC decided to provide some much-needed wardrobe assistance – perhaps fearing that my home-grown efforts might prove to be an embarrassment?  Their fears were justified.  A full-length gown was obtained, for that evening only, and I sallied forth. 

At that time, the cult of celebrity had not reached the alarming proportions it enjoys today, where notoriety ranges from ‘celebrity commodity traders’ to ‘celebrity gangsters’. The usual greeting from members of the public in the street would range from “G’day Carolyn” to a disappointed “Didn’t you bring Bill (Peach) with you?” (in TDT times).

Having your head and shoulders on television carried no guarantee of instant recognition. On more than one occasion, I was greeted with enthusiasm as Anne Deveson. And Anne told me the same thing regularly happened to her.  We TV types were pretty interchangeable in the public mind, and were in no danger of taking ourselves too seriously. 

In fact, fame or ‘putting on airs’ was regarded with some suspicion, as I discovered one day when filming an item in central Sydney with the internationally celebrated Italian actress Claudia Cardinale.  On the completion of the shoot, we invited Ms Cardinale to have a drink with us at Sydney’s top hotel, The Australia.  But our entrance was barred by a liveried doorman who rejected Ms Cardinale’s director, fashionably attired in an elegant Italian polo shirt under his jacket. ‘No tie, no entry, mate’ was the rule. I’m sure the visitors had a good story to tell about Australia when they went home.

My nine years at Four Corners were a great privilege, and a profound learning experience, for which I am grateful. And of course I never miss watching the show today. 

To find out more about Caroline Jones’s time at Four Corners, and see footage from the period, click here. A video summary of her career can also be seen here

For more information about Women in Media, click here.

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