Interview with the iconic Ita Buttrose

Ita Buttrose has been a household name for more years than she probably cares to remember.

Not that she lets a little thing like age faze her. In fact, one gets the impression that not much fazes Buttrose. She has been there, done that.

Take her chat with Weekender, for example. It is 10.30am and she has already appeared on the Today show, spoken to Crikey about her first husband Alasdair Macdonald’s defamation case against the ABC’s Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, and worked on a speech to present at a scientific meeting.

Buttrose is not familiar with the concept of idle. It doesn’t sit well with her.

‘‘I’m 70 and I haven’t slowed down. I don’t want to,’’ she says.

‘‘You’ve got to live every day, and I don’t think age is something that necessarily slows you down if you’re in good health. You are less likely to be at risk of dementia if you’re active and keep your brain active, too.’’

Dementia is a subject close to Buttrose’s heart, and she was elected national president of Alzheimer’s Australia in March last year.

Her father, Charles, had vascular dementia and she knows only too well how cruel a disease it can be for sufferers and their families.

‘‘He kept having these little strokes. Dad’s doctor said it was like he was short-circuiting, and we thought that was quite a good way to put it,’’ she says.

‘‘It was tough, and we had to get carers. I tell you, it’s 24-7. You try to make life as good for them as you possibly can, and it’s a big responsibility. And it’s hard to watch someone you love change. It’s really hard.’’

Buttrose falls just short of a rant when she speaks about dementia and its prevalence, such is her enthusiasm. Frustrated by ignorance surrounding the disease, which she says many people still mistakenly think is a normal part of ageing, she shows genuine compassion for families coping with dementia – including this writer’s own family who have been shocked by a recent diagnosis.

‘‘We’ve been so active lately, pressuring the government to tackle dementia, to recognise the threat that it represents,’’ Buttrose says.

‘‘The government is now going to talk to all the health ministers to declare dementia a national health priority. And so it ought to be. It’s long overdue.’’

Buttrose is so committed to the cause that she knocked back the opportunity to challenge Clover Moore as lord mayor of Sydney.

She was serious about it, too.

‘‘I did give it some thought, and I was researched [as a candidate] and came up very well,’’ Buttrose says.

‘‘But this all came about last year and it coincided with me being appointed national president. If I was going to run for the lord mayorship I would have had to stop most of my other activities, including my Alzheimer’s activities, and I had to weigh it up.

‘‘I’d made a commitment to the board that I would be president and my term of office is three years, and we were just about to start our Fight Dementia campaign, and I thought ‘No, I can’t do this’. I thought that people with dementia and Alzheimer’s Australia needed me more, if I can put it that way, than the people of Sydney.

‘‘I simply can’t stop now, I’ve committed myself to this cause and I am going to see it through.’’

In three years’ time, maybe?

‘‘Who knows what would have happened by then, there might be other doors opening,’’ she laughs.

Buttrose is a woman in demand. Her Twitter account reportedly had 2000 followers within three hours of her signing up in August 2011. (She uses Twitter to promote her causes, tweeting in recent months: ‘‘Older workers know the importance of bottom line results. Their knowledge and skills will make bosses wonder why they didn’t hire them sooner’’ and ‘‘All surveys show that older workers are more experienced and also more polite, more patient and punctual than their younger colleagues.’’)

She is informed, opinionated but polite, and chooses her battles. She is direct and makes her point, but any hint of abruptness is tempered by the warmth of her tone, her sense of humour and her oft-heard laugh.

As a young girl, Buttrose never dreamed she would be where she is today: the mother of two is a businesswoman, journalist, author, media personality, advocate, speaker and consultant.

She was founding editor of Cleo at the age of 30; has been editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly and editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph; a board member at Australian Consolidated Press, News Ltd Australia, Channel Ten and Prudential Corporation; and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1988 for services to the community.

She received an OBE for services to journalism in 1979 and the Centenary Medal in 2003 for business leadership.

‘‘When I started work it wasn’t envisaged that girls would have the kind of career I’ve had, nor was it expected that we would remain in the workforce,’’ Buttrose says.

‘‘Getting a job was something girls did before they got married and had children, and then they quit and went home and became housewives and mothers.

‘‘I became a housewife and a mother too, but I kept working.’’

Times were changing in Australia in the 1970s and Buttrose was right in the thick of it.

‘‘Big changes in women’s liberation were taking place, particularly among middle-class women. They realised that it was OK to work,’’ she says.

‘‘You could combine roles.’’

That doesn’t mean, however, that working in a male-dominated industry was easy. Doors were slowly opening for women but entrenched attitudes were hard to change.

‘‘When I worked in newspapers and magazines it was a good age of print,’’ Buttrose says, with a hint of nostalgia in her voice.

‘‘It was a lot of fun working for the Packers, actually.

‘‘It was a company with a great sense of humour.

‘‘Of course, when I fell pregnant with my son Ben, the timing wasn’t so good. We had the launch of Cleo.

‘‘In those days they seemed to think pregnancy was some kind of illness. They really had some bizarre ideas. They assumed we would be sick, and wouldn’t be of any use at work. And of course you’re not sick, you’re just having a baby.

‘‘Back then, men were only just beginning to be allowed into the birth room.

‘‘I worked through the pregnancy and I guess I was a role model in that regard, making it easier for other women who wanted to stay working and be pregnant.’’

Paper Giants, a two-part telemovie, screened last year on ABC TV. It concentrated on the rise of groundbreaking women’s magazine Cleo, but was very much about Buttrose herself.

‘‘It’s very weird seeing someone play you on the screen. And I remember thinking ‘Gosh, I think I do walk like that’. And she [actress Asher Keddie] did a lot of my mannerisms very well,’’ Buttrose says.

‘‘But what I like most about Paper Giants is the Cleo story conferences, when we all sat around coming up with ideas.

‘‘That was pretty close to how it was, and I think it really captured that era, the ’70s, where our lives were changing and men and women were working more closely together.

‘‘To be working on a magazine like Cleo with members of the opposite sex, it was a learning experience for all of us.

‘‘Our stories were often about issues men and women didn’t discuss in private life, and to be discussing them in a professional way broke new ground for all of us.

‘‘And the sense that we were doing something pretty special – and it is only when we look back do we realise how special – I think the show captured that very well.’’

She describes the ’70s as ‘‘an exciting time’’.

‘‘Women suddenly realised that, in a sense, there was nothing we couldn’t do if we set our minds to it.

‘‘We were questioning. Women’s liberation was alive and really taking off, and women started to think about people’s behaviour, men in particular. And men started to think about us, too, in a different way. They started to think before they spoke.’’

Despite being an inspiration to many women, Buttrose didn’t have female role models to look up to.

‘‘When I was younger all my mentors were men, because there were no women at my level, absolutely none,’’ Buttrose says.

‘‘So in many respects I was a pioneer.

‘‘There was Sir Frank [Packer], and Sir Peter Abeles and there was my dad, and my first husband. They were all influential. It was only much later that women started to scale the corporate ladder and suddenly I wasn’t quite so lonely any more.’’

Buttrose made her mark in a man’s world. She learnt the ropes watching her father, who was an editor and author.

‘‘I grew up in this environment, I knew a lot about the business by watching Dad, I knew how easy it was to lose your job,’’ she says.

‘‘As an editor, Dad was working for a bloke called Ezra Norton, who was a media mogul in those days. He owned quite a few newspapers. ‘‘Anyway, one day the paper was late and Mr Norton was on the prowl. He said ‘Why is the paper late?’ and blankety blankety blank, and Dad said ‘Well I’ll tell you, Mr Norton, why the paper was late – we don’t have enough sub-editors’. And Mr Norton turned around and looked at Dad and said ‘Really, Buttrose? Well, you can become a sub-editor’. So he demoted my father from editor to sub-editor just like that.

‘‘It was a real shock. Mum and Dad were talking at the dinner table and we kids were listening, thinking ‘Gosh, what does this all mean?’

‘‘So I’ve known all my life what a tough business it is, and how you can be riding high one day and pffft, the next day you’re not quite so high.

‘‘Dad left and got another job working for Sir Frank, and Mr Norton didn’t want that to happen, but that was that.

‘‘I also had three brothers and they reckon, as only your brothers can, that I owe it all to them, that they taught me how to be competitive. And maybe they’re right.

‘‘So I’ve grown up with men, I’ve never been frightened of them in any professional way. I know they’re tough and I know that when I dared to venture outside of the women’s pages that I wasn’t always made welcome, but I never thought I wasn’t entitled to be there.’’

People continue to be fascinated by Buttrose’s working and personal relationship with Kerry Packer. The dynamic between the pair certainly made for interesting television.

‘‘The perception of Kerry is that he was hard. Sure, he was tough and Sir Frank was tough, yeah, the Packers are tough businessmen,’’ she says.

‘‘But they all had terrific senses of humour and were also quite soft men in the sense that if you went to see Kerry to say that someone on staff was having health problems, or was in financial difficulty, more often than not he would come to their rescue.

‘‘And it was always done very quietly, with no hoo-ha.

‘‘When The Weekly was doing a story on cot death with some researchers at Sydney University, and they’d run out of money and had been very close to some kind of major discovery, I went to see Kerry and gave him the facts. He gave $50,000 to cot-death research.

‘‘You see, there was this other side to him and you read about it every now and then but few people have any idea how generous he was to so many.’’

A byproduct of Paper Giants has been the threatened court action from Buttrose’s first husband, Macdonald, who claimed the ABC portrayed him as a ‘‘selfish, irresponsible and pitiably weak man’’.

‘‘I can’t tell you much about that because I really wasn’t involved,’’ Buttrose says.

‘‘I wasn’t sued, nor was I involved in the case. It was between my husband and the ABC. And I don’t even know the terms of settlement, although obviously it included an apology because we’ve all seen it.

‘‘I’ve never discussed the case with my husband, we don’t really see a lot of each other these days, now that the children are adults. It was different when they were little, of course.’’

Buttrose has twice been voted Australia’s most admired woman and, unsurprisingly, has an opinion on one of Australia’s most criticised women, Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She says she is disappointed but not at all surprised that women in positions of power continue to be targets.

‘‘There’s been all sorts of comments about her hair colour, her clothes, her body shape, and I think they are uncalled for and unnecessary,’’ Buttrose says.

‘‘She’s certainly copped a lot of personal flak.

‘‘People are rarely so personal about men in that office, and although people used to say things about John Howard’s eyebrows, it wasn’t personal in the sense that I feel the comments about the Prime Minister have been.

‘‘Lindsay Tanner wrote a book when he left politics, and somewhere in that book he said that the Prime Minister dyed her hair to attract attention, or to stand out in the room.

‘‘Gee whizz, of course we all colour our hair to look better or make an impression or something. Why even say it? I mean, how many women in Australia get their hair dyed, for God’s sake? Millions of us.

‘‘They do it with women all the time, especially women on television. I remember Jane Singleton telling me she’d done a fantastic story on the ABC, and someone wrote in and said they didn’t like her earrings. Who gives a hoot?

‘‘I think it’s fine to criticise a prime minister, male or female, for political matters. But personal matters, like our Prime Minister has been subjected to? No. I think she has copped a very raw deal in that regard. It shouldn’t happen and we should be over all this by now.’’

Buttrose is flattered people still seek her opinion but can’t put her finger on the secret of her enduring appeal.

‘‘That’s hard for me to answer but I think people recognise that what you see is what you get with me, and that I try to stick by my principles and my values and I try to be honest,’’ Buttrose says.

‘‘I try to speak honestly and openly and passionately.

‘‘When I was on This Is Your Life Packer said, now let me think, he congratulated me for all that I’d done to achieve women’s rights, and advance the course of feminism, without losing my feminity, something like that.

‘‘That I’d achieved a lot without being aggressive. Well, you know, not all feminists are aggressive, that’s a myth.’’

Buttrose finished off with a word or two of encouragement, said with sincerity.

‘‘Thank you it was lovely to talk to you. And if you need any more help, please feel free to call me any time. I mean it, you have my number.’’

In the words of Cold Chisel, ‘‘how could I not believe, when Ita tells me to’’. She hasn’t given us any reason not to so far.

Ita Buttrose will host a Hunter Community College presentation Living Life – What’s Age Got To Do With It? at the Hunter Theatre Broadmeadow this Wednesday, June 6, at 7pm. Tickets are $49, from huntercc.com.au or 49529115.

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