‘Babes’ bite back: there’s no glamour in TV news

This article was first published in 2013. as a commentary responding to retired scribe Geoffrey Barker lambasting 'perky, blonde reporters' for dumbing down television journalism. Not surprisingly, the ‘news babes’ in his sights were unimpressed, not to mention insulted and angry. 

Seven News reporter Kate Osborn was prompted to go beyond the stereotype, to show the day-to-day life of a female TV reporter is neither easy, nor glamorous. In reality, it’s tough, draining, and often downright dangerous.

Breasts. Curls. Teeth. Make-up. Chatter.

Having been a commercial television reporter for the past twelve years, I was surprised recently to learn, via an article published in the Fairfax press, that these were the only attributes required to perform my job. I felt dudded. All that time, I’d been relying on my brain and determination to get by, when, apparently, I’d have been better served by investing in a push-up bra.

It’s fair to say that article had my knickers in a twist. Of course, I was disgusted by the misogynistic tone and sexist generalisations. But it made me wonder further: was there so little understanding of what we do as television reporters – and as female television reporters, more specifically – that a person employed in the same industry could have no idea about what our job actually entails?

Yes, there’s make-up. We do colour our hair. And, it’s true, we have breasts. But without guts, and smarts, no young woman can survive in this business. Being a television reporter is a tough gig for anyone, man or woman. Being female just adds another degree of difficulty. When I asked colleagues to come up with examples of ‘non-glamorous’ events in their careers, they came up with a laundry list. Sexism. Sexual assaults. Physical assaults. Death threats. Twitter abuse. Raw emotions. Grief. What would be considered crimes or bullying in any other workplace, we’ve come to accept as part of the job.

The premise of Geoffrey Barker’s article was that if you are pretty, you are dumb. If you’re pretty and blonde, that’s even worse. Be thankful you’re wearing heels, because you wouldn’t be able to tie shoelaces. He’s not alone in his prejudice. Sometimes it’s found in our own newsrooms.

When Seven News health reporter Karen O’Sullivan was hired, along with another female reporter, by Channel Ten in 1992, the chief of staff put out a memo informing colleagues that “two new scrubbers” were joining the team.

Things haven’t necessarily changed with the times. Years later, a newly-recruited reporter was told that with so many young blondes on staff, it’d be wise for her to find a way to “differentiate herself” from the others. She doubts male colleagues received the same pep talk.

A producer at one network was told point-blank when she was given a job on a public affairs show that she was being hired “for her tits.” When she left, a colleague announced to the room that he’d always wanted to “put his face” in those tits. One news reporter remembers her chief of staff telling her she’d “make a great stripper,” while another was told by a manager she needed to “be a bitch” to get ahead.

There’s no end to the inappropriate comments made by the general public as well. As a radio sports reporter, then a Sky News reporter, Loretta Johns received more than her fair share. An occasion covering a World Cup soccer broadcast stands out.

“I was standing in Fed Square, in the freezing cold, at some crazy hour in the morning, feeling very unsafe. While trying to vox-pop the mostly drunk soccer fans, I was receiving all sorts of offers and propositions about what they would like to do with me and my breasts.”

Sometimes they’re not just propositions.

One reporter, who can’t be named, was molested while covering post-Grand Final celebrations. In the thick of a crowd of drunken louts, one reached around and grabbed her groin. In a reflex reaction, she delivered her own swift justice and moved on, mortified, but with a job to do. It’s an example of how dangerous it is for people like Mr Barker to perpetuate the stereotype of ‘news babes’ as pieces of meat.

There are plenty of us who’ve been subjected to physical assaults, and not just female reporters, but male reporters as well. Former Seven News reporter Alicia Grabowski thought she was going to die when people mourning the deaths of teenagers in a crash at Mill Park rained full beer bottles on her car’s windscreen, while it was trapped on the side of the road. She also endured having a gangland figure try to punch her in the face, then chase her down the street threatening to kill her, after being sent to knock on the door for an interview.

Karen O’Sullivan recently found herself under verbal attack when she visited the family of a young father, who had drowned trying to save his daughter and niece, for a pre-arranged interview. Those grieving relatives were forced to escort her and her cameraman to their car after an outraged neighbour took it upon himself to hurl abuse. “We hope you die in your sleep!” was one of his more hateful efforts.

Death threats are not uncommon. Anastasia Salamastrakis experienced one early in her career while working at WIN TV in Mildura. It came from the mother of an escaped prisoner.

“She told me in no uncertain terms that if I put her son on TV that night, he would organise to have me killed. We ran the story, but I took the threat seriously and, rather than drive home in my marked WIN TV car, I organised to get a lift to a friend’s place and slept there that night.”

One young reporter feared for her safety when she was sent to cover the opening of the duck shooting season, and was put up by her employer at the local pub. She said it wasn’t the mold and unwashed sheets that bothered her, but, alarmingly, the door lock was broken, and dozens of drunken men were just metres away at the bar. She didn’t sleep a wink.

The same woman says she often asks her cameraman to film her knocking on doors “just in case I get stabbed.” She recalls being sent to the home of a bikie who had posted a photo online of his baby holding a handgun.

“It was a huge relief when no one was home,” she said.

I was once on the receiving end of threats from a co-worker that made such an impression I remember every word.

“I’m Irish,” he told me, “and the IRA gets their man.”

He made it very clear he was going to get me, that he knew someone in every newsroom in the country and I would never have a career. Some time later, I covered Victoria’s first workplace bulling prosecution. Those offences seemed like child’s play after what I’d experienced.

Courts are a hotbed of tensions, and the reporters on the courthouse steps often bear the brunt of inflamed tempers. Nine News crime reporter Laura Turner remembers covering a Supreme Court murder sentence when she was working for WIN TV.

“I had a family member tear the block-mounted microphone out of my hands and beat me over the head with it.”

A former court round colleague of mine had a can of Coke thrown at her by the husband of a woman accused of killing her babies. Another had a gangland boss, now deceased, threaten her in court in full view of journalists and lawyers. I once had the mother of a young thug berate me for covering a bail application by her son, who was part of a gang of thugs who had bashed a man unconscious. An outburst such as that wasn’t unusual to me. But, I was surprised when, the next day, I was standing outside another court, covering another case, and the same woman stormed up to me to have another go.

There’s no end to the verbal abuse in the court precinct. Barely a day goes by when we’re not subjected to a barrage of profanities and put-downs, by people who’ve either committed crimes, or are close to an offender. You learn to deflect it, even if you keep the comebacks to yourself.

“How do you sleep at night?” Quite well, actually. I haven’t killed anyone.

“Pack of dogs!” Dogs are lovely animals. I bet you have one at home.

I was once informed by a paedophile’s father that his son would be waiting inside the court building until the cameras outside had gone. “It’s ok, it takes a while to get rid of parasites,” he said. We were parasites? None of us were protecting a child molester.

Away from court, many of us have had eggs hurled in our direction or, even worse, been spat upon. Seven News reporter Christie Cooper remembers an incident when she was working in Launceston, filming the arrest of young burglars.

“As they were being practically carried out past us to the divisional van, two of them started spitting at the camera. Being right next to the cameraman with a microphone, I felt a giant blob of spit land on my face.”

And then there are people who aren’t abusive but just want to be idiots. There wouldn’t be a television reporter working today who hasn’t been harassed by obnoxious, and often drunk, people during a live cross or piece-to-camera. They’re generally people who, when sober, will cross a road to avoid being vox-popped, but get a few drinks into them, and they’re desperate to get their heads on the telly.

One reporter cites the example a recent live cross, at a crime scene where someone had died, which saw a bystander ‘barking’ at her as she was about to go to air.

“These people are weirdos,” she says, “and clearly have nothing better to do with their weekends. But there aren’t any other industries I can think of where you’d be subjected to this bull***t while you’re trying to do your job.”

Doing this job doesn’t just require physical toughness. Mental and emotional strength is just as vital.

Loretta Johns recalls once, as a regional TV reporter, covering the aftermath of a fatal crash in a small community.

“As I knocked on the door of the mother’s house in one of those dreaded ‘death knocks,’ the young man’s father arrived. I was there as these now-separated parents grieved together, seeing each other for the first time since their son was killed the night before. It was awful. And I still had to get some grabs.”

One reporter had to draw on all her inner strength when she was sent to the Royal Children’s Hospital for a story on premature babies. Just days earlier, she had buried her nephew, who’d died in that very ward. Even more appalling was the fact that when she asked for the day off to attend the funeral, her boss suggested she could still work in the morning, since the service wasn’t until the afternoon.

But, if there was ever an illustration of how television reporting is more about heart than hair, it comes from reporter Mia Greves. In 2006, she contacted the family of a Muslim boy who had drowned while saving his sister at a suburban beach. His parents were keen to share their story in the hope it would encourage migrant families to teach their children to swim, and invited her to the nine-year-old’s funeral at the Coburg mosque.

“However,” Greves says, “they wanted me to ‘meet’ their beautiful son first.”

“I was given a scarf and led into a room inside the mosque with the elderly grandmothers, aunts, relatives wailing and heaving over a little boy in an open casket on the a table. I’ll never forget it. His dark hair and closed eyes, with black eyelashes.”

“It was one of the most amazing and distressing stories I have ever done… and one that needed to be told.”

To say that female television reporters deal only in fluff is an insult to that boy, and to the people who feature in every other story we tell. Anyone who says we care only about our hair and make-up hasn’t been to the scene of a big story, and seen us standing for hours in the icy rain or searing heat, trying to get a shot or an interview. They haven’t seen us sitting in a gutter writing a script, or working the phone so hard calling contacts that it goes flat. Things as essential as buying lunch or even going to the toilet go out the window when you’re covering a breaking story. Former Nine News reporter Rachael Rollo remembers staking out a prison at Castlemaine at 3am to get a shot of a prisoner being released. She and her cameraman took it turns weeing behind a bush. She pulled another all-nighter when she was five months pregnant, waiting for Tony Mokbel’s then-girlfriend to arrive from Athens. Having had no sleep, her chief of staff called the next morning insisting she come in to cover a doorstop with Julia Gillard at a primary school.

In highlighting the more challenging aspects, I’m not saying our job is more difficult than other professions. Far from it. Nor am I asking for sympathy. For every negative – danger, prejudice, discomfort – there are enough positives to keep us here, to prevent us jumping the fence to PR.

Says Johns: “I have loved it and feel privileged to have been part of an industry that has intimate access to interesting people and places.”

It would just be nice if it was acknowledged that for female television reporters, under the glossy hair, there’s a brain, and beneath the make-up, there’s a thick skin.

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