'I believe, I believe': Ita Buttrose's brilliant career

The 77-year-old has succeeded at the highest levels of Australian media. Her new role at the ABC will open up a whole new battlefield for her

Since leaving school at 15 to join the Australian Women’s Weekly as a copygirl, there is little Ita Buttrose has not done in the media.

Now 77, Buttrose has traversed the newspaper, magazine, television, publishing, business and radio landscapes for more than six decades. Accepting the offer to be appointed the ABC chair shows she has no intention of slowing down.

The former Australian of the year founded the groundbreaking women’s magazine Cleo, edited the most popular magazine in the country in the Australian Women’s Weekly, and became the first woman to edit a major Australian metropolitan newspaper when she was appointed editor-in-chief of News Corp’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph in the 1980s.

She introduced male centrefolds at Cleo in the 1970s, alongside frank advice about sex for young women. For a time the Weekly under her editorship became the highest selling magazine in the the world per capita.

In recent years she has appeared on morning television – clashing backstage with a co-host, Denise Drysdale, over a bowl of brussels sprouts – and as a royal weddings correspondent. Her surprise appointment as ABC chair breaks a 37-year drought since another woman had the top job; Dame Leonie Kramer became its first female chair in 1982.

While Buttrose edited the Weekly she appeared regularly in primetime TV commercials, telling readers with her trademark lisp what they could expect in the nation’s most popular magazine. She always appeared impeccably groomed and effortlessly glamorous.

Cold Chisel wrote a hit song about her in 1980, based on those mesmerising TV ads. “Ita’s tongue never touches her lips,” Jimmy Barnes sang.

Every week, in every home
She got wholesome news for the family.
I believe, I believe, in what she says
Yes I do.
I believe, I believe, at the end of the day
Her magazine’ll get me through.

In later years Buttrose published an eponymous magazine for women over 50, and another one devoted to pets. She became an advocate for older Australians who have Alzheimer’s and was named Australian of the year in 2013.

The media executive Anita Jacoby, who worked with Buttrose in the 1980s when she was at the Weekly, and again as an advocate for people with Alzheimer’s, has only praise for her.

“Ita Buttrose is all class,” Jacoby told Guardian Australia. “She’s extremely capable, intelligent and a great role model for all Australians. Her choice as the new ABC chair is inspired.”

Ita Buttrose’s wisdom: never lose your curiosity | Wisdom of Ages

Buttrose’s rise to the top at Australian Consolidated Press, where she had to manage Kerry Packer’s infamously demanding personality, gave her a reputation as a tough operator. That period gave rise to the 2011 ABC miniseries Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, in which Asher Keddie played a 30-year-old Buttrose. The biopic rated through the roof, spawning a sequel, Magazine Wars, and inspiring Channel Nine’s Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War.

Buttrose succeeded at the highest levels of Australian media, and in the most blokey of cultures, at a time when women were largely shut out.

But the ABC role will open up a whole new battlefield for her. With public broadcasting supporters already objecting to her appointment – because she was not on the shortlist of recommendations given to the government – her journey may not be smooth.

Contributor

Amanda Meade

The GuardianTramp

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