Media: Reflections on Ita Buttrose
By Ellen-Maree Elliot
So said Ita Buttrose in Australian Story: Ita Tells Me So, the two-part episode about the (once again) famous doyenne of Australian media. Her rediscovery was spurred by the April premiere of the critically acclaimed Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, but validated by a life and personality that is truly engaging.
The ABC two-part miniseries about the launch of Cleo captured the public’s attention and imagination. For some, it served as a reminder of the woman they used to admire and respect; for others, it was an introduction to a woman with whom they were unfamiliar.
Back in the day, mind you, everyone knew who Ita was. Thanks to Kerry Packer (who liked her as much as the cricket), and Ita's will of steel, the mid-70s and early 80s were Ita's Golden Era. She became the Bradman of magazines. "You only had to say 'Ita'. No one ever said, 'Ita who?'” Jennifer Bouda, her best friend, told Australian Story.
In her autobiography, A Passionate Life, Buttrose wrote about how her life changed in the 70s. She’d given birth to her second child, Ben, founded Cleo, became a director at ACP and succeeded in securing her “dream job” of editing The Australian Women’s Weekly.
“I became a household name through the commercials I made [for the Weekly] and in the middle of it all, the top group of the day, Cold Chisel, wrote a song about me. When my children were old enough to have a good idea of what I did for a living, it was the Cold Chisel song that impressed them most.”
Dr Sue Joseph, from the University of Technology Sydney (who did her cadetship at the Weekly when Buttrose was Publisher) says the commercials were the start of Buttrose’s public life.
“When she started advertising the Weekly, she became a face, she was in people’s living rooms, and it was a family affair. She did become part of everybody’s family. They thought what she said was gospel,” she says.
Buttrose edited the Weekly for the second half of the 70s, when the magazine was in trouble, though she was regarded as too young a newcomer to the magazine. Not editorship material.
“But what they didn’t know, and I did, was that if the Weekly didn’t change, it wouldn’t survive,” she wrote. “It was not only crunch time for the Weekly, but for Ita Buttrose, too... But I kept telling myself: ‘You can do it, Ita’.”
Buttrose’s confidence was part of why people are drawn to her.
“I think its probably because she wasn’t perfect, but she had an incredible confidence and she presented incredibly confidently,” she says. “She had kids and she wrote about them in her columns for the Weekly. She had her famous lisp. She was highly professional, highly meticulous. She was extraordinary to work with because everyone just lifted their game.”
Dr Joseph did her cadetship from 1978 to 1981. She can still remember the day Buttrose handed in her resignation to move to Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited.
“I just remember – and I’m not sure if this is an urban myth or not – I just remember the word went round the newsroom that she’d got locked out of the building,” she says.
Buttrose became the first woman Editor-in-Chief of the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs.
“She was definitely in the vanguard of proving how capable women were and are. She didn’t talk about it, she just did it, and I think that’s why people respected her,” Dr Joseph says.
During the 80s, Buttrose moved from News Limited to Fairfax and left both. She also chaired the National Advisory Committee on AIDS (NACAIDS). When her work with NACAIDS finished, Buttrose approached a man, who preferred to remain anonymous, with an idea. ‘Charlie’ financially backed the magazine ITA (tagline: “For The Woman Who Wasn’t Born Yesterday”). Buttrose had read the slogan in a new American magazine for the older women.
“I loved it and also thought it a terrific way to describe our market in Australia. So I used it, too. I don’t have a problem with knocking off good ideas,” she wrote.
The magazine closed in 1994. On Australian Story, Buttrose said she thought the magazine was ahead of its time. Then... poof! Buttrose was no longer everywhere. She hadn’t stopped doing things, but nobody knew what those things were.
“Everyone who's successful has made some errors along the way. And really it's how you pick yourself up from those things and keep on going on that is crucial to your success,” Buttrose said on Australian Story.
In 2011, Paper Giants aired and Buttrose was elected the President of Alzheimer’s Australia. Julian Buttrose, her brother, was also interviewed on Australian Story. He seemed quite amused with his sister’s ‘rebirth’.
“There's Ita everywhere, there's Ita here, Ita there, Ita over there. And Ita said to me, she said, they've found me again,” he said.
But Dr Joseph says no-one seems more amused than Ita Buttrose herself. “It’s almost like she doesn’t need the celebrity. She’s almost. like, ‘Oh well, here they come again, here’s round two’."
Buttrose passes on the best piece of advice she ever received in A Passionate Life.
“When I was sixteen, a journalist friend of my father’s told me to save ten shillings (about $1) from my pay packet every week and to continue to do so throughout my working life. It is a matter of some regret to me that I ignored his words of wisdom,” she wrote.
Through her Australian Story, she passed on some other advice: “I've never forgotten my dad's advice about always watching out for opportunities. And I never say never, either. You know, because you don't know. Life has a habit of taking you by surprise.”
Ellen-Maree @ Girl With a Satchel