Caroline Jones: “Everyone loves a Story.”
Exclusive: TV Tonight talks to an icon of Australian TV, from her childhood to her 50+ years at ABC.
EXCLUSIVE: Caroline Jones recalls a recent, happenstance meeting at the Sydney Writers’ Festival with none other than Jana Wendt. For any onlooker, it must have been a surreal moment, as two iconic female television journalists came face to face.
“This beautiful woman came to stand beside me and there she was. We may have met before, but not to have a conversation as we did that day. And of course, we remarked that my declining to join 60 Minutes in a way opened the door for her to say yes a little later,” Jones says.
Decades earlier, Gerald Stone had invited Jones to leave the ABC to become the first female presenter for 60 Minutes.
“A question in the middle of the night in a hotel room in New York, when I was on a United States broadcasting study tour. It was a phone call at 1:30 a.m.” she recalls.
“I said ‘I will think about it, thank you very much.’ But at that time I was with Four Corners. I suppose I was also doing ABC Current Affairs radio every morning. I thought, ‘Well this is pretty good, I think I better stay.’ Isn’t it interesting? A lot of the crossroads that your life presents could’ve been very different. ”
Indeed. Over her 52 year career, Jones has never worked with any other broadcaster other than the ABC. She was the first woman reporter on This Day Tonight, from 1968-72, and the first woman to anchor Four Corners, from 1972-81. She has been with Australian Story for all of its 19 years -remarkably, still a ratings drawcard every Monday night. Jones first joined ABC at 26 years of age in Canberra, in 1963.
“I have always worked with the ABC on and off over all these years. What a privilege,” she declares.
“My generation didn’t have as an ideal, the pursuit of variety and constant change which I think is prevalent today. It was more about finding a career and an opportunity if it opens up before you and do your best to stay there.”
“I thought I had ink in my veins”
Jones grew up in a household of women, growing up in Murrurundi, NSW while her father was off to war.
“My grandfather Ashley Pountney, the son of a convict made good in Australia, was the editor of some of the first newspapers in north-west New South Wales. So I thought I had ink in my veins and I did have a sense that I would love to be in journalism, but it would take a while to get there.
“Graham Chisholm was the one who gave me my first job at the ABC. Bruce Buchanan invited me to This Day Tonight and Alan Martin invited me to Four Corners.”
Her first assignment was to interview the wife of a new American ambassador with an old Stellavox recorder, a task she concedes she was terrible at. But working within ABC Canberra armed her with plenty of skills for life.
“When you start in a regional centre I think it puts you at a great advantage because you have to do a bit of everything. You’re typing scripts, you are probably doing some makeup for the weatherman, you’re certainly making cups of tea for the politicians who’ve come over from Parliament House to be interviewed by somebody much more important than you. And you are given your first chance of interviewing on radio and television,” she says.
“But I think the breadth of experience that you can gain, probably still today in a regional centre, is of great benefit.”
Australian Story, was developed partially from her own radio programme, and has become a beacon of success for the ABC.
“Deb Fleming, the executive producer of Australian Story, says that the two inspirations for Australian Story which began in 1996 that wonderful documentary program of A Big Country and the radio program that I had conducted on ABC Radio National for eight years, The Search for Meaning, which was storytelling by a great variety of the country men and women from across the country.”
The show is renowned for profiling individuals, both famous and non-famous, through their own words. Frequently the subjects are about rising above adversity, regularly moving a fervent audience.
“Our feedback from the public is viewers appreciate having the subject tell his or her own story rather than having a reporter mediating it. I think Deb Fleming’s judgment was very wise in that regard. So we have no narration only by the subject or those others associated with the story and it’s kind of a relief,” says Jones.
With such acclaim, Australian Story is also well-regarded by profile Australians looking to make a statement, or even making news. Jones recalls those featuring Hazel Hawke.
“She was generous enough when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease to agree to do a program with us. How generous. At that time when we were being warned of what has now become something of an epidemic of dementia population,” she continues.
“It was illuminating a matter of great public interest with a particular moving personal story. And that’s good work.”
“You hold the relationship very carefully in your hands”
Viewers also love episodes which update on previous editions, such as Gayle Shann, a young Queenslander dealing with injuries from a farming accident, but whose husband, Mac, showed enormous devotion.
“People tell you ‘I can’t remember their name, but what was that story about the young couple where we saw the young husband putting makeup very gently and lovingly on his wife’s face, because she doesn’t have the use of her arms at all?’” Jones recalls.
“People remember him saying ‘I took my marriage vows seriously in sickness and in health for better or worse, and I meant them.’ Lovely.”
Within the Australian Story unit, potential stories can be followed for years. The show’s commitment to storytelling has won it a rare trust, including keeping confidence on stories it is constantly nurturing.
“Like a racehorse, you have to build up a trustworthy form guide so that people know what they are going to be in for if they say ‘Yes’ to being the subject of Australian Story,” says Jones.
“Let’s say someone has been the subject or the victim of a plane crash but can’t talk about it for years. But you stay in touch, you hold the relationship very carefully in your hands and then eventually the person might be ready to tell you that quite extraordinary story.”
But amongst the successes, there have also been criticisms, that sympathetic stories can overlook balance. On occasions, Media Watch has taken aim at the show, which still falls under ABC’s News & Current Affairs division.
One episode on convicted Bali 9 trafficker Scott Rush was criticised for leaving out key background information.
“The criticism of our program was, ‘Why did you not tell the whole story?’ Our defence and our argument -which we are very settled and happy was- that when you have a young Australian in the country where one possible outcome is the death penalty, you err on the side of caution. No story is worth risking someone’s life,” she defends.
“We certainly copped it. You’re in the business of journalism you tell the whole story. Ok on this occasion we chose not to.
“You try to be right but maybe sometimes well…. every programme is open to criticism and that’s fair.”
As Australian Story heads towards its 20th anniversary in 2016, Jones shows no signs of slowing down.
Already bestowed with an Order of Australia and named a National Living Treasure, she is also the National Patron of Women in Media.
For Australian Story she is presenter and remains pro-active as the show’s own social media voice. “I’m the Twitter bug!” she laughs.
With a 50+ year career, she displays remarkable versatility and a lifelong commitment to that ink, metaphorically in her veins.
“I think everyone loves a story. People enjoy the revelation of many aspects of the human condition, because we see people going through the most difficult passages of life and coming through them,” she says.
“That is very fascinating to watch and I suppose very encouraging to watch.
“So I just look forward to continuing,” she assures.
“I just think ‘How could I be so fortunate?’ I’m very happy to be a part of it all.
“I think it will go on forever, in one form or another. Storytelling has always been part of human history.”
Australian Story airs 8pm Mondays on ABC.