The iconic Ita Buttrose
With her signature lisp, blonde blow-dry and immaculate styling, media icon Ita Buttrose is known as much by her look as by her name and her achievements. We spoke to Ita (the same week she was inducted into the Australian Media Hall Fame) about her stellar career, her plans for 2018 and a topic Ita is passionate about – the issues facing our ageing population.
Media icon Ita Buttrose is a living legend. She has committed her life to shattering the corporate glass ceiling, progressing both her career and beloved field of journalism, and trail-blazing her way through the industry. And for decades she has been championing health and social issues along the way.
In November, Ita was inducted into The Australian Media Hall of Fame, alongside fellow inductees, late and living, Alan Jones, John Laws, Anne Summers, Richie Benaud and Ita’s old bosses Sir Frank Packer and Kerry Packer, among others. The media hall of fame celebrates how great journalism has enriched the nation. At each point through her 60 years in journalism (that’s right, 60 years!), Ita has done just that, making her position on the honour roll well-deserved.
Ita began her media career in the 1950s at 15 years old, making it to women’s editor of the Telegraph by 23. One of her most notable achievements was as the founding editor of the wildly successful and groundbreaking Cleo magazine, which Ita launched in 1972. (Her rocky, risk-taking journey in establishing women’s mag Cleo has been well-documented and celebrated through the 2011 TV mini-series Paper Giants: The birth of Cleo starring Asher Keddie as Ita.)
From Cleo, Ita became editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly, which at the time, per capita, was the largest magazine in the world. “The job I always wanted was the editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly, when it was a weekly. It was at the top, in the golden days when magazines were really big business,” recalls Ita. “It was the top job for women journalists in Australia; and it [the magazine] went to one in four homes – imagine, one in four homes! It was phenomenal… I absolutely loved it.”
Ita progressed to become editor-in-chief of both magazines, then headed ACP’s women’s division, before leaving Packer for Murdoch to become the first female editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph. Impressively, Ita’s career achievements are far too meaty to relay in just a few paragraphs, suffice to say she continues to be a regular influencer within Australian media. One of her most visible roles today is as a host on morning talk show Studio 10.
“I think some people have very strong ideas of older people – like when you go past 65 you’re going to crumble and fall apart! That’s just not true.”
– Ita Buttrose
“I was 11 when I decided I wanted to be a journalist and I’ve never regretted that decision,” shares Ita. “I think journalism has allowed me to become a graduate of the university of life. All the terrific things that have ever happened to me have been because of journalism. It’s been a full and rich life.”
It’s easy to forget Ita is herself in her ‘golden years’ at 75 years old (and turning 76 this January). With her enviable drive and determination she’s more active than some in their 20s. Her secret to career longevity and an active life? Curiosity.
“I think that’s fundamental for a journalist,” says Ita. “You’ve got to always be thinking, ‘Why is it? Why are they doing that? Why did he say that? Why did she say that? Why are they doing that?’ It’s important. You’re only here once so you’ve got to make the most of every moment you’ve got.”
That philosophy has directed Ita throughout her life. You’re only here once; you have just one shot so make it count. And it’s the reason why she keeps herself healthy – in both mind and body.
“I keep myself mentally alert and physically fit,” shares Ita, who admits she comes from good stock, with her parents being active and her father and many within his family living to, or past, 90. “I go walking just about every single day, even on early-morning days, I’ll take the dog out for 20 minutes before I go to Channel 10. I’ll walk again in the afternoon or the evening. I do pilates twice a week and do weights once a week. I watch what I eat and I try to get seven hours sleep every night.
“As long as you’re fit and well, I think you should keep working,” she offers. “I think the brain benefits from that exercise.”
But Ita realises it’s often not as simple as that, with discrimination against older people still occurring, especially in employment.
“I think some people have very strong ideas of older people – like, when you go past 65 you’re going to crumble and fall apart! That’s just not true. People over 65 for the most part are pretty healthy, and they enjoy life and they’re active,” she says.
“The government wants older Australians to keep working but the fact of the matter is, the Human Rights Commission released a survey about a year ago, which revealed that one in 10 Australian bosses will not hire people over 50. If you’re trying to encourage people over 60 and 70 to remain in the workforce, but you’ve got company bosses that won’t hire people over 50, you’ve got a bit of a problem here.
“We have to adjust. We have to realise that older workers are equally valuable to the workforce. It’s a myth that older people can’t learn new things; it’s nonsense. It’s a myth that older people can’t embrace technology; that’s rubbish. There’s plenty of evidence that shows an older workforce is an extremely reliable workforce. And we can’t afford to do without them,” points out Ita. “There’s a limit to the welfare pot, and the government needs the taxes. That’s why it’s really important for employers to think how they can use older workers more efficiently, perhaps through retraining them.
“I think journalism has allowed me to become a graduate of the university of life. All the terrific things that have ever happened to me have been because of journalism.”
– Ita Buttrose
“These are important issues for Australia to be facing, and we need very strong leadership to get the best results possible.”
Ita refers to a National Press Club address in October by Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt, who emphasised that the six million Australians aged between 50 and 75 are facing an extended life expectancy. And half those born today will live to be 100. Because of this, we need to prepare for a future where people work into their 70s and 80s.
“He suggested seniors need to take a gap year to consider what we’re going to do for the next 20 years,” recalls Ita. “I thought, ‘that’s great! I’d love to have a gap year’ – I haven’t had a gap year since I started work!”
Perhaps that’s because Ita is known to fill her portfolio with various roles and ambassadorships; many of which are associated with supporting older generations.
“I’ve been working in this field for a very long time,” recalls Ita. “My daughter [Kate] had a rare form of juvenile arthritis when she was a teenager, around 13, and that got me involved in Arthritis Australia, of which I ultimately became the president of in 2003. Arthritis usually affects older people in Australia, so that was my first introduction.”
Ita also became a patron of the Macular Degeneration Foundation, a condition that runs in Ita’s family on her father’s side with her father and four of his six siblings having macular degeneration. [Ita faces a 50% chance of getting macular degeneration like her father, so it’s important to put diet and exercise at front of mind.] “By nagging my Uncle Gerald, dad’s youngest brother, to come to Sydney to see a retina specialist, we saved his vision, which we couldn’t do with dad.”
Ita’s father Charlie also suffered vascular dementia, which led to Ita’s involvement with Alzheimer’s Australia, now Dementia Australia. “I think when you’ve had someone in your family very close to you who has had that dementia journey you understand the impact it has on the person and on the family. I think as a journalist I’ve been very fortunate that I have been able to write about these things, I am able to talk about these things and help raise awareness.”
With so many commitments, just how does Ita find the time though? “I do an audit of my commitments at the end of every year. And I’ll probably drop one or two things, but then I’ll probably pick up one or two things too; that’s the way it goes. You just have to audit your life and think, ‘Well, what else do I want to do? What will I have to let go of if I want to do that? What else am I interested in?’
“I like challenges,” she admits. “I climb a mountain, then I’m sitting on top of that mountain for a bit and I see another mountain and I think, oh I might go have a look…”
Looking to 2018, Ita says she will add a new project to her portfolio – another book. “I’ve been playing around with it this year (2017) and I feel the need to do it. I’ve written 11 books in all but only one fiction. I might try my hand at another fiction book.”
No doubt 2018 will be another busy year for the queen of Australian media. She promises she will slow down though. “When I’m dead!”
Studio 10 airs every Monday–Friday, 8.30am–12pm, with highlights aired Saturdays and Sundays.
Studio 10’s Christmas Day special will air Monday 25 December 2017, 8.30am–12pm.