The Creative Conversation #6 - Jennifer Byrne (Best Of)

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On falling in love with journalism

So it was just what do you do to fill in a year, oh well, I’m really good at English, so someone suggested I apply for this cadetship. [...] (And) for reasons I will go to my grave not really understanding, Grahem Perkin, legendary, he was like Perry White in the Superman books, he was just an amazing guy, and he took five people, there were hundreds and hundreds, and even back then it wasn’t easy back then, and so he took me on, and to this day I cannot explain why. But that’s what happened. I was going to do a year, and I deferred my law degree, which is what I was going to do, and I don’t know, I just fell into, I discovered the thing that had you spent all your life searching for the thing that would best suit you. The answer would have been: to become a print journalist. And there you go, I just found it.

It was a really heavy drinking, heavy smoking, late night environment, it was full of men, there were women then, and they did have equal pay, even then, this is the early 70s. But I found that absolutely incredible, it was like being in a movie. I was sixteen years old, and I felt like I'd walked into a movie set. So I fell in love with just the whole atmosphere and the excitement of it. It was like one of those old front page type, you know, people yelling, there was still hot type, the smell of the printers, it was just wildly exciting to me. And also, I was a very curious person, and I loved the fact that you had an excuse to go out there and ask questions, and having always been told ‘that's enough,’ you know, or ‘be quiet’ or ‘don’t ask any more questions’ it was great, I loved it. So I didn’t have quite a high minded: ‘I’ve been called to this.’ I just thought ‘what fabulous fun.’ And it was a particularly golden age at The Age. So it was just the thrilling nature of it. And you’ve got to remember the context, the Watergate burglary had just been blown away by Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward, this was the year Gough Whitlam came to power, life was exciting, and you were at the centre of it. 

On her career development and following your interest

And I will be honest – it was not always convenient to me, but I was approached to do a number of things, just like writing the introduction to a book called 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, for instance, and I didn’t have time, and my mate said, ‘Well you’ve got other things to do more relevant,’ and I thought no. Because I want to be the person they come to. I didn’t know I wanted to have a book show. I didn’t plan it. But I thought, I’m going to put myself in harm’s way. And when I look back at it, you know, when I left 60 Minutes for radio, yes they came to me, but if I really think about it, had I not put out the signal to friends, to people in the industry, yes I had, I decided to leave 60s, it was fabulous, it was seven years, it was enough. And so it’s that old thing, serendipity. I don’t know – I’m a bit more cunning than I think! But my recollection is, these things have just happened.

It’s also following your interest. Because if you want an interesting life, if you want an interesting range of jobs, because I think it’s really important not to just have one job – I mean, I’d love to say I was a genius, and I knew, I knew the print industry was in trouble! – it wasn’t that. But I knew that after ten years it was time to learn something new. You can’t just get good at something and squat down and do it over and over. So if a challenge comes, the more nervous you feel, the more seriously you should take it. Because it means you’re going to learn something. You’re not promising to go in at the very top. But it’s really important to say yes to the random things, the incidental things, cos out of things will come people who open the pathway to you. At the very least if it doesn’t do anything for your career, it keeps your mind active, you remind yourself. You know, I went up to the total solar eclipse, late last year. Now, it was nothing to do with work, I wasn’t writing about it, I just thought, that’s an experience I wanna have. And I know somewhere somehow, that will be quite useful. So all this stuff is incredibly thrilling, I mean I love it. I love the fact that I have these ridiculous passions for cosmology or water life or rare books or whatever. Its keeps your life vibrant, and that’s when people are going to come to you, they want your energy, they want your enthusiasm. And they know, that each time you change your job, you’re going to have to learn.

On making the change to hosting The Book Show

People think that you aren’t still a journalist, that you’ve become something else. It’s just a name change. I’ll never not be a journalist. I will die a journalist! And probably underneath my skin I was born a journalist. Because of the fact that it’s suited me so well from day one. And I just thought: what a blast. 

On her preparation for interviews

I prepare enormously. That is my process. I immerse – here, which is a fantastic thing about crossing the corridor from News Caf, is that I get a really big research brief, which I work with the researcher to – I’ll say I’m particularly interested in this, or whatever, and she does a fantastic job. And I just basically work and work and work. And I go on the net, and I go on Youtube, and I talk to people and I ring up their sister, if they’re around, I find that is the absolutely, I know that sounds so obvious, but you would be amazed how many people, their idea for preparing for an interview is just to say, well I’ll wing it. The day you wing it, the day you die. Absolutely as much as you can do. I would have rung up people, you know, if I was doing it for a big thing. You just work and work and work and work. And invariably, the interview follows a different path. But I absolutely believe, with every fibre of my being, the day you don’t do that work is the day you’re going to need it. 

I remember what Sam Chisholm used to say, which I thought was a great bit of advice too: ‘When your mouth is open, your ears are shut.’ And I thought that was excellent advice. So you listen. You prepare and you listen. And then it’s really easy.

On learning from her mentors

Robert (Hawke) was an incredible personal mentor, and he used to give me incredible advice like: ‘When you have a child, don’t buy a dog before they’re seven, because otherwise they could die when they’re in their late teens, and that’s a very vulnerable time for a kid.’ Brilliant advice!

On feminism

Look, feminism next to journalism is one of the most important things in my life. I was passionate, and I remain passionate. And it grieves me sadly that is seems an archaic term almost nowadays. I totally believe in it. I have a different way, probably, than some would. I haven’t been a great believer in quota system, to take an obvious example, but I’m beginning to think when it comes to women on boards...maybe! Look, I think gender is important, and what I learned very early being in a very male newsroom, though having equal pay, was just deal with your job. And I went through a phase, I was mentioning it to you, when a lot of young women used to write to me when they were – this was in the 60 Minutes days – and want you to answer these various assignments they had, all of which resolutely dedicated to insisting that women never had a chance, you were hampered from the beginning, and I used to write to them painstakingly and say to them ‘Look, don’t make excuses for your failure now. If you find it’s held you back, fine: reflect on it, we’ll talk about it. But I’ve got to say, that was not my experience, and I would really advise you to not focus on gender as a blockage until it becomes a blockage. You are at this stage still learning about media, maybe you should spend a bit more time on your essays!’ And people get really cross with me. But I think it is really relevant, but I also think there are huge advantages to being a woman and I really hope it will stop being in people’s minds as a problem because I don’t think it’s a problem for journalists, and that’s the only field I know about. 

I think it’s important to cling to the theory (of feminism). Cling resolutely. Never be deterred from knowing that women are as good as men. Always. Always. And you get hopeless women and hopeless men, and brilliant ones of both. But it is no drawback ever to be a woman. It is a mighty thing to be a woman. 

On her advice to careerists

On work things, I know it’s such an obvious thing to say, but however hard you think you’ve got to work, do it twice as hard. Just work. Work, work, work, work and you will prosper, in my opinion.

Never be afraid to fail because to stay static is for me a form of early warning of failure because you’re not challenging yourself, and you’ve got to challenge yourself.  That was wait I said [to 60 Minutes] when they said ‘But you’ve just learnt it, you’ve just got it, this is the wrong time, this is the perfect time!’ And I said, ‘I know. That’s why I’ve got to go. I know how to do it now. I’ve learnt how to do it. And my job isn’t to continue the same thing, my job is to live life.’

Never be afraid to ask. People want to tell you. I wish I had – no, I was going to say I wish I had helped more but the thing is, people have to make their own path, I understand, but sometimes it’s really smart to attach yourself to someone who’s really good and just hang out with them. 

Absolutely say yes. In the slightest doubt, say yes. Because as my father used to say to me, it’s not the things you say that you do that don’t work that you regret, it’s the things you never tried. And I really believe that. You’ve got to say yes, as a default position.

Follow your passion. Do what you love. It’s hard to do because we don’t know which one’s going to pay off. 

Don’t be linear! 

On getting into work early

I truly believe that getting into work early was the best thing ever that could have happened. You know, I did not have happy teenage years, I hated school, I was fine, I mean I got through, but I hated school, I hated being locked up, I hated being in a boarding school, I hated being a conformist, you know, I wanted to be – I wanted to chase a life. And I wanted to be grown up. And I found myself in this extraordinary world, which was even wilder and richer and better than I could dream about when I was in my dormitory at boarding school. 

On who she most admires

I really admire Quentin Bryce. For her originality of thought, the dedication that she brings to her job, she works so hard at her job. Because she has had children and never complained about how hard it must have been to do all things. She’s retained her family connection, she loves her broader family, she’s still with her husband who’s a great guy. Because she’s run a life that I look at and I think that is rich and rewarding, and you will do something interesting after being Governor General, too. You will stay interesting and interested. I really admire her.