Footy Classified‘s Caroline Wilson has a string of media accolades and awards having broken through several barriers ever since she was appointed Chief Football Writer at The Age at the end of 1998.
‘Caro’ as she affectionately nicknamed, has never shrinked from having an opinion or speaking her mind and such frankness has famously come at a price. But she remains optimistic there are signs of improvement in what has traditionally been a tight boys’ club.
“People are going to attack me because I may have strong opinions and sometimes I deserve pushback. But I notice it changing already in the younger blokes who work in the industry -journos, commentators, producer- are so different to the older ones. I see already times are changing,” she tells TV Tonight.
“I do think the industry is still tough on women.”
“I do think the industry is still tough on women. I don’t know why so many of the people laid off at FOX Footy, for example, have been women. I think ‘difficult women’ in the industry don’t tend to survive, ‘difficult men’ do. That is something that needs to change. But in the end I hope people will be able to look at my example and see how much it’s changed, not how bad it is.”
The daughter of Richmond Club president Ian Wilson 1974 – 85, ‘Caro’ initially wanted to be a scriptwriter or even a film critic. But it was her father’s work that ignited her passion for the game.
“I’d listen in on the meetings that used to happen in our dining room, where some pretty brutal decisions were made, and also seeing the role that the wives and partners played in clubs. I was aware of where the pulse actually pumped,” she continues.
“I don’t know if it was partly because I was a female, but sitting down and talking to footballers, administrators and other sportsmen…. I loved their stories.
“I started trying to talk more to the person behind the performance and less about the performance.
“I’m always interested in the people behind the decisions.”
“I’m always interested in the people behind the decisions. For example, at the moment, you know, what’s Gillon McLachlan actually going through as he’s he’s trying to save the AFL from bankruptcy or worse. Never has the game being so threatened. How are the club CEOs, players, coaches dealing with the fact that they might not have a game?”
Wilson became a newsbreaker in AFL, but even being given the plum role at the The Age ruffled feathers.
“A lot of people thought that was a bad move or a PR stunt, putting a woman in the role. Even though I was probably respected – I was a senior journo, I’d worked on radio- it was like I’d gone back to the beginning again,” she insists.
“‘She might write features, and know off-field, but she’s ever played the game… she doesn’t understand it.’ There was a lot of debate. Even some people in the my own footy department at The Age had doubts -and I had doubts too. The first few months it was really tough but stories over the next couple of years, changed that and I got their respect.”
“I just had no confidence at all about going onto television.”
It was sports producer David Barham who offered her a first role in television on Seven’s Talking Footy.
“I just had no confidence at all about going onto television. I found it so difficult, so nerve wracking,” she recalls.
“My stint lasted for 3 years, working with Bruce McAvaney who was incredibly generous. If I had a big story I had to be loyal to The Age and not break it on television. It’s changed now with online journalism. But it wasn’t like that in the early start of the 2000s.”
Other roles would include AFL 360 for Foxtel and ABC’s Offsiders (where she still makes occasional appearances). In 2007 she joined Nine’s Footy Classified, an idea that emerged under then Nine-CEO Eddie McGuire.
“The first incarnation of it was co-hosted by Garry Lyon and Craig Hutchison, with myself and Wayne Carey.
“They didn’t tell me Wayne Carey was coming on”
“They didn’t tell me Wayne Carey was coming on, and I’d written some fairly strong and critical articles about him. So that was a bit of a surprise when I went to do the promo shots and there Wayne!”
“We’ve (all) had our issues over the time and we’ve had different panelists but hopefully it’s always been provocative and will take you places you can’t normally go.
“People say ‘it’s contrived’, but I think we really do challenge each other and as a result, occasionally it’s uncomfortable TV. But hopefully, it’s always interesting.”
Indeed there are now two weekly editions of Footy Classified with Wilson alongside Ross Lyon, Sam McClure and Eddie McGuire -whom Wilson has openly criticised in her editorials. McGuire has also dished out plenty in return. How does she view their relationship?
“I’ve known him for a very, very long time and there have been times we’ve been friends, times we’ve been enemies, times I’ve written articles that he’s found entirely offensive or wrong. And there’s been times he’s said things about me that I’ve been horrified by,” she concedes.
“In the old Footy Show days there was a lot of bullying going on”
“In the old Footy Show days there was a lot of bullying going on, and a lot of nastiness. I don’t think they liked women with strong opinions, like me.
“Although there’s always been some really robust -and a times worse- disagreements between me and Ed, I guess there’s always been a respect. And even though he produces this show, there’s been times I’ve been really critical him on the show.
“There’s never been any interference or suggestion that I had to back off.”
“But to his credit there’s never been any interference or suggestion that I had to back off.”
It’s panel fireworks and opinions that have kept Footy Classified on air for 13 years, but Wilson reveals the on-air relationship with McGuire, as both host and Collingwood president, is not without its challenges, including during AFL‘s response to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I’ve struggled at times this year working with him because he’s got a very different style to me. I mean, everyone has a conflict, but obviously, Eddie’s got a very clear one, and I think his role is in part to help save football clubs, help create new avenues and be incredibly positive about them. And sometimes I think that becomes a bit of the old ‘motherhood’ statement. I find that a bit frustrating because I’m trying to get him to say something succinct, and maybe a bit more controversial,” she explains.
“In turn he would say to me, ‘I’m actually in a position of strength, because I know a lot of what’s going on, and at times, I can share that with everyone.’ So I think we’re learning to work with each other.
“There will always be arguments, and there will always be times he steps over the line. Famously there have been a few incidents of that in the past. But he would say there have been times I’ve been unfair on him or maybe haven’t respected the role he holds in the game.
“A mutual respect is probably the best way to frame our relationship.”
“The club was on its knees when he took over and the members absolutely love him. In the end I think a mutual respect is probably the best way to frame our relationship.”
McGuire is very aware of Wilson’s position on past indiscretions, some of which she describes as outright sexism. Viewers know her candour makes for great TV.
“But on the positive side, I’m a strong person. I’ve got a really strong group of friends and family. It’s never upset me to the degree I ever thought about giving it away.”
Footy Classified airs 10:20pm Mondays on Nine (1:35am Tues 9GEM Syd / Bris)
and 10:30pm Wednesday on Nine (1:30am Thu 9GEM Syd / Bris)