Without a free press democracy dies: Ita Buttrose at Andrew Olle Media Lecture

“A journalist’s skill-set is priceless. The world needs our attention to facts, our inquiring minds, our bullshit detectors,” said Ita Buttrose, speaking at tonight’s 25th Andrew Olle Media Lecture.

The ABC Chair recalled the ups and downs of her career in journalism, especially the sexism, and articulated the importance of free media.

“Australians will only rely upon the mainstream media as an essential part of our civic and democratic life if they can trust we are able to expose the spin and lies and misinformation, and deliver the facts and truth.   All the facts.  All the truth.

“With ‘fragile’ press freedom, democracy is at risk.  Without a free press, democracy dies… Public interest journalism must be protected and any attempt to muzzle media freedom  rejected vehemently. 

“As reporters without borders reminds us, two giant firms dominate the media landscape in Australia, making it one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. Social media is hugely influential.  While false information for political purposes is nothing new, today too many people take facebook or twitter as gospel. The social media business model favours fracturing people’s attention, cultivating division, and encouraging extremism for clicks and kicks…

“Clear positive opportunities to enhance press freedom must include reforms to protect whistle blowers; a commitment to ensure that national security is not used as an excuse to avoid disclosing uncomfortable truths; and reforms to defamation laws to protect journalists going about their vital work. And of course, one of the most important ways to protect press freedom is proper funding and certainty of funding for the ABC,” she told the packed Ivy Ballroom in Sydney.

During her speech Ita also recalled her own career, which saw her continually having to fight for her advancement at a time when media was dominated by men.

“In my early career I was allowed a fair bit of leeway, well, as long as I confined myself to the women’s pages and women’s magazines and didn’t overstep my allotted territory. But I did overstep.  I was always excited by the idea of trying new things. “I’d love to have a go at that”. Like the time I wrote to Sir Frank Packer when I was just 23, in 1965, asking to be considered for the role of women’s editor of the Sydney Daily and Sunday Telegraphs – which was unexpectedly vacant.

“Sir Frank was concerned that, as a young bride, I might soon become pregnant.  Having asked me if I was planning to have babies and reassured by my answer “not at the moment sir frank”, he gave me the job… and half the staff immediately quit in protest at a young woman in charge.  That was daunting but I had no intention of throwing in the towel. I just worked harder and longer…


“I thought it was time for another sign of equality and introduced the naked male centrefold to Australia. Women loved it.  Many of them pinned the centrefolds up in their lockers in their workplace.

“In truth, it was a very modest centrefold, but you’ve no idea how much trouble it used to get me into. Wherever I went in those days, men of all ages, shapes and sizes, would approach and ask me if they were Cleo centrefold material. I’m sure you can imagine my dilemma, managing those delicate egos… At Cleo we were reporting on a new world…there were few taboo topics of discussion. In fact, it wasn’t long before all of us working on the magazine became matter-of-fact in talking about subjects that once would have made us tongue-tied.


“In 1981, Rupert Murdoch poached me from Kerry Packer to be editor-in-chief of the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. He is a brilliant newspaperman and told me he wanted to make his newspapers less ‘blokey’ and more feminine. He made me an irresistible offer…

News Ltd was a tremendous cultural shock.  There I encountered a world of open sexism. I went from a company where women were encouraged and given opportunity to one where we were almost regarded as the enemy.

The first 12 months were tough. The classic exclusion tactics were used.  People conveniently forgot to tell me, so I was left out of meetings. I was hissed at when I walked through the open plan fourth floor, and lift doors were closed in my face. 

The only answer was sales. Sales is the name of the game. Twelve months after I had been appointed as editor-in-chief, for the first time in its history the Sunday Telegraph’s circulation grew to outsell its rival Sunday paper, The Sun-Herald.  It has never looked back.”


Ita has worked in radio, tv and publishing since she left school at age 15 and is now leading the national broadcaster as its Chair.

She opened her speech with a ‘Shout out’ to Vladimir Putin and Russia for sanctioning her and other ABC journalists for coverage of the war in Ukraine.

Lecture host Richard Glover warned, “Vlad, don’t take her on!”

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