What it’s like to see myself played on TV.. Well, almost, says AMANDA PLATELL whose own story of scoops and sexism in 80s Australia is uncannily like the plot of hit BBC drama, The Newsreader
The scene is pure drama. A ballsy, brunette journalist on an 80s Australian TV news show is humiliated on air by her older male colleague who steals the main story of the day — about the collapse of the Thatcher government — from under her nose.
She’s left seething, but smiles professionally, as the silver-haired lead presenter, a former Vietnam war correspondent — and loathsome sexist — wades in and puts her firmly in her place. A place that, for professional women of that era, was most definitely not an easy place to be.
When, off-air, the female confronts her treacherous co-host, he smirks, telling her to leave the important stories to him.
Later, when she storms into her boss’s office screaming about the injustice, he shouts back and sacks her on the spot, yelling as she storms back out that she’s ‘a nobody’ and that he could find 100 women to replace her ‘in a heartbeat’.
Left: Anna Torv and Sam Reid star in surprise BBC hit Aussie TV series The Newsreader. Right: Amanda Platell strikes a pose in a similar outfit
The scene is from the surprise BBC hit, Aussie TV series The Newsreader. And while it is a fictional account of a young journalist working on a TV station, so much of it is startlingly familiar to me.
I concede that with our bouffant brunette hair and power suits, there are many physical similarities between me and the main character, Helen Norville, as these pictures show.
Our faces share a symmetry and an expression that can sometimes seem a bit scary, when provoked. And, of course, we are both Australian.
No wonder so many of my friends and colleagues who have been watching this series have declared: ‘OMG, you are absolutely Helen!’
Yet I must stress that I was never a door- slammer, screamer or ball-breaker like her and spent most of my early career smiling because I loved my job on the Perth Daily News so much.
However, like a lot of women viewers howling in outrage at the plotlines, I identify with so much of what Helen endures in this hugely entertaining show.
Demeaned, overlooked, under- estimated and treated as little more than administrative help or arm candy, such was life back in the late 1970s and early 1980s — not just for female journalists but professional women in all fields, from politics to medicine.
It was a tough time for a generation of working women crashing into male-dominated spaces
The problem was not endemic to Australia either. It was just as bad in the UK when I arrived on these shores in 1985 — only here I also had class snobbery to contend with, as male colleagues constantly made fun of my accent and humble origins.
It was a tough time for the first post-feminist generation of working women crash landing into a male-dominated foreign land.
Perhaps it’s fair to say much of The Newsreader’s appeal is this reawakening of memories for women of a certain age.
I did once ‘do a Helen’, albeit with much less dramatic overtones. As a 21-year-old cub reporter, I remember being called into the boss’s office to find him holding a letter I’d shakingly written asking if I could be taken off the fashion round and given a real news brief.
He screwed up the letter and threw it in my face, laughing, and ordered me back to work on the beauty desk. I could hear the male executives outside the open door in hysterics, too.
I did the only thing that working women of my generation could do: I straightened my shoulder pads — ah yes, I had those, too — picked myself up and vowed I’d prove the blokes wrong.
It’s no surprise many of Platell’s friends have told her she’s just like Helen (Anna Torv pictured in character on the hit show)
With graft and determination, most of us eventually got our big break.
In the TV series, Helen’s comes when the Space Shuttle Challenger explodes, killing everyone on board including the first civilian passenger, teacher Christa McAuliffe.
She’s urgently called in to work to cover the breaking story while her pompous co-presenter Geoff Walters is still asleep and finally gets the chance to prove herself.
Unsurprisingly, Geoff does not take this well and Helen’s soon back ‘in her box’, covering the opening of Melbourne Zoo’s new butterfly enclosure, struggling to be taken seriously.
My own break came because I refused to give up after being sent back to the girlie ghetto.
Finally, my boss relented saying: ‘If you want to play with the big boys, prove you’re up to it.’
I was given Wanneroo Council to cover, an hour’s drive on dirt roads, after I’d worked my regular 6am to 3pm shift. There was a proud moment with my first front page splash, the pinnacle of any journalist’s career: ‘Wanneroo A$1 million Gravel Pit Scandal’, by Mandy Platell. Still the men sniggered, saying I’d just got lucky, it was a one-off, and I’d be back covering cookery in no time.
Several more front pages later, I asked for a pay rise, to which my boss responded: ‘You’re good, but you’re not that f***ing good. Get out of my office.’
But he did insist I change my name from ‘Mandy’ to ‘Amanda’ for my byline, as he didn’t want the readers thinking he had ‘a bloody girl’ making his headlines. Honestly, this really happened.
Tell younger working women, however, and they look at you incredulously, as we must have done hearing our grandparents retelling stories from the battlegrounds of World Wars I and II.
Back in the 1980s, I had one friend with a first-class law degree who spent the first three years of her career typing up male lawyers’ notes and making coffee; one of her chores was to send flowers to her boss’s mistress every week.
Another with a degree in international banking was offered a job as a PA — and made to feel grateful for it. It’s hard to imagine now, but whether you were highly qualified in law, politics, medicine, teaching or science, it was a completely male-dominated world and, like Helen’s pompous co-presenter, they patronised us.
In that red-blooded male world, there was an underlying belief that we couldn’t really hack it, that we weren’t in it for a career, that it was ‘just a little job’ before we got married and had kids.
How we proved them wrong, as so many of us went off to have marriages, careers and families. Yet some of the comparisons my friends make between Helen and me disturb me: I never collapsed in tears when things went wrong, probably as crying wasn’t encouraged in the Platell household.
My dad brought me up as an equal to my brothers and would say ‘only girls cry’ (I’m not sure he’d pass the snowflake sniff test these days). But as a journalist himself, he knew how tough that world would be for me.
Learning that I’d got my dream job, my mum broke down sobbing: ‘Oh Mandy, you’ll end up smoking, drinking and divorced.’
She was right on all counts, but didn’t know the sheer joy I’d have along the way, both personal and professional, and she ended up being hugely proud of me.
Unlike Helen, I never took an overdose of pills, as she does in a cry for help after she was sacked — I preferred a bottle of Aussie oaked Chardonnay after a tough day — but like her, I quickly learned to power dress.
Our designer clothes were our armour, a survival tactic more impenetrable than any bullet-proof flak jacket the men may have donned in Vietnam.
With their boring business suits, our glamorous clothes gave us an edge over the men, the soft, colourful fabrics concealing a core of steel. Even then, we knew women had something extra to offer, not least an instinct for news which was different from men’s. With a quick brain, an absence of arrogance, an ability to tell stories, typing at speed and hard graft, we knew we could succeed.
I didn’t need Helen’s tantrums, but I sure had her determination. With glamour came the inevitable predators, older men in positions of power trying to hit on their younger employees, promising a leg up the career ladder for a leg over. We’ve all been there.
Worse still, male colleagues whispering behind our backs that we’d only got the job because we were sleeping with the boss. I never slept with any boss, although, like Helen and her love interest, Dale, I did once have a fling with a younger colleague after my marriage ended: a divinely languid work-experience chap a decade my junior; so I can honestly say I only ever slept my way to the bottom of the career ladder.
But Helen and I both got our pay rise and promotion in the end: for me, it was running the prized Sydney bureau.
More importantly, through knockbacks and sheer slog, which I mostly loved, I earned the respect of the men.
But why should we have had to work harder and better to get their approval? I fear that in some workplaces today things haven’t changed as much as we’d all hoped they would.
To the younger eyes of today’s millennials, this testosterone-fuelled world must sound like an unmitigated nightmare.
Workplaces where men outnumbered women ten, even 20, to one and where all the bosses were men. A world where the top jobs and career acceleration were for the lads and girlie career backwaters were for the ladies.
You had to have some grit to climb though all that, but climb we did and thank goodness.
Sometimes, looking back, I wonder how I managed to get up at 5am and work through the night, only to return to the office at dawn the next day. Or how I didn’t get crushed by the constant taunts of ‘you’re only a girl’ or ‘leave it to the men’.
And that I found the time for a most wonderful relationship with the first love of my life, Mark, a fellow journalist my own age.
Like Helen, who also falls in love and we discover her hidden compassion and passion, it didn’t matter how busy we were, how defeated we felt, how tough the men thought we were — we always found time for a little tenderness and love.
No spoilers here on how Helen and Dale end up . . . just know that it’s worth waiting for.
Although I must add that Helen prides herself on something I can relate to, being ‘relentless and loyal’, two qualities I hope others think I share with her.
And her fearlessness — which is not to be confused with courage — believing I could do anything, which in my case turned out to be a wholly misguided belief, as the multiple sackings throughout my turbulent career have proved.
I was taught that it doesn’t matter where you come from — if you have gumption you can do anything, or at least fail having a damned good try.
That’s what I recognise of myself in Helen and perhaps other people do, too. It doesn’t matter how many times we get knocked down, it’s the getting back up again that matters — and the shoulder pads soften the fall.
Yet despite all the aggravation, the 80s were the happiest, most carefree time of my life. I was paid a pittance, lived in a tiny shared house, drove a beat-up old Renault, made most of my own clothes except the padded jackets and loved life in a way you can only do when you’re young. I can honestly say that youth was not wasted on me.
I survived, dare I say thrived, as Helen does. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, although I wouldn’t wish that male-dominated world, where we had to prove ourselves again and again, on any young woman today.
Yes, now I can see the similarities. Helen and I started out in the 80s when the workplace was a more unkind arena for women. Whatever the risks, we had to be audacious — and we were.
I think we can both be proud of one thing: that we left the world a fairer place for the Helens and Mandys who came after us.
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