Sunday, March 01, 2009

Bare Boned: a study of women in television news

Feeling like I’ve just consumed a guilty pleasure, I finished the last page of the book “Boned” today. On the back of the anonymously-penned novel was the overblown claim to ‘blow the lid off the world of network television”. It didn’t quite do that, but did land a few telling blows. At the heart of the book is the claim that commercial television news and current affairs is a testosterone soaked world where women are hired for their sexiness and have a use-by date when they turn 40. While the novel takes a broad brush with its two decade arc of the protagonist’s life story, it is too full of stock heroes and villains to ever move far beyond a thrash read. Yet I found it no less enjoyable and important a read for that.

The 2008 novel pitted the feisty heroine and journalism degree graduate Kate Corish against the blokey culture at fictional Australian TV station “Channel Eight”. Corish overcomes the sexism of her bosses to rise to the top of the news and current affairs game but finds her career is threatened as she approaches her 40th birthday. Reviewing the novel for the Sydney Morning Herald Tony Wilson says the best thing about the book was the title but that the Corish character was too good to be true, “a gun foreign correspondent, better than any I remember from any of those 6.30pm current affairs shows”. But the novel has aspects of a roman à clef. Many media, including claimed the plotline was a thinly veiled rehash of the 2006 axing of Channel Nine’s Today show co-host Jessica Rowe.

Rowe’s axing was mentioned in the extraordinary affidavit (pdf) of Mark Llewellyn, the then head of Nine News who was asked to take a major pay cut in 2006 following the death of former station owner Kerry Packer. The affidavit documented the events leading to his departure from the network and popularised two colourful phrases into the language. Firstly there was the “shit sandwich” Nine’s new CEO Eddie Maguire asked Llewellyn to ‘swallow’ with a $350,000 pay cut. Then there was the colourful gerund “boned” which meant sacked (but with sexual overtones). The phrase was apparently used by Maguire (though he denies it) when he asked Llewellyn: “What are we going to do with Jessica [Rowe]. When should we bone her?”

Ever since then, the concept of boning has seeped into the lexicon. Earlier this year, a Channel Nine spokesperson denied that Sydney’s newsreader Mark Ferguson was being sacked by saying “He’s not being boned. He’s on the payroll. There’s no blood on the floor.” It has also spread out from the media into other industries. Last month, The Age suggested that AFL team Collingwood’s coach Mick Malthouse might be boned “to use Eddie-speak” (a reference has a double edge as Maguire is also the Collingwood president).

But it was women who mostly bore the brunt of "boning" as Jessica Rowe knows only too well. The career of Tracey Spicer also bears some resemblances to the fictional Corish. In 2006 Channel Ten sacked her by email just weeks after returning from maternity leave after 14 years with the network. Nevertheless she claims to have met no-one remotely like Corish in her 20 years of television. Spicer says that many women have survived in television despite being childless and single. She claims the author is either a man who worked in TV rooms 20 years ago when “female newsreaders were hard-drinking players who gave as good as they got” or else it was a “doyenne of women's magazines who's decided to venture into that dreaded genre, chick lit.” Either way, she claims the scenarios outlined by the novel are out of date. “What 40-something television presenter devours coffee, cigarettes and Red Bull for breakfast?” asked Spicer “More like an egg white omelette, herbal-tea- for-my-complexion then Botox for brunch.”

Besides the two candidates mentioned by Spicer, there are several other possible authors all with substantial motivations for writing the ‘tell all’ book. In April 2008, the Sydney Daily Telegraph said the leading contenders included Jessica Rowe, sacked Nine News reporter Christine Spiteri and former Nine creative services director Mia Freedman. However it also produced a larger suspect list that include the affidavit writer Mark Llewellyn, former Nine news presenter Kellie Connolly, former Ten newsreader Tracey Spicer, former Ten Big Brother host Gretel Killeen, former Today Tonight host Naomi Robson and (surely the most unlikely) former Nine CEO Eddie McGuire. Crikey favoured Killeen who has authored a number of books, mostly for children and was dumped as Big Brother anchor in 2007 despite much personal popularity.

Whoever it was, the novel raises useful questions about the role of women in television. The list of disgruntled sacked possible authors is also telling and shows many women have a difficult time in being taken seriously in their media careers. This applies both behind and in front of the camera. A 1993 National Working Party on the Portrayal of Women in the Media study found women are most associated with human interest, leisure and crime issues and are portrayed mostly as victims, witnesses or random bystanders. It is arguable that not much has change in the last 16 years. Women are still objects to be “boned” by men in authority. Even the critical Spicer admits the novel has some home truths. "Kate wasn't fuckable any more,” she said. “And she knew only too well that was fatal for a woman in commercial television, no matter how impressive her resume.”


Tim Burrowes - Mumbrella said...

I suspect Boned's author may be able to resist the temptation to reveal their true identity for one reason only: it wasn't very good.


Tim - Mumbrella

Derek Barry said...

Maybe not very good as fiction Tim, but I think has a lot of relevance as fact.

Sarcasmo said...

Let's keep one thing in context... if you got the job for 10 years earning mega-bucks because you are ***able, then there's nothing wrong with being "boned" once you cease to be.