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‘Benefits of being a difficult woman in a difficult world’

The bloke crossed the wide, open floor of The Age newspaper Christmas party — smart-arse smile, arms wide, that 2am sway. Chin up, chest out, he loomed over me.

“Well, we’ve taken a vote,” he said, his beer tilting slightly in its glass. “And we’ve decided that you’ve got the best tits in the place.”

One of the most important skills a journalist can ever learn is when to shut up.

You ask your question — and you stop.

You don’t go on to expand, explain or — heaven forbid — start speculating out of sheer nervousness or inexperience what the answer to your question might be.

You simply fire your best shot. And you wait.

Into that silence, an answer will come. My colleague may have been drunk, but he knew his stuff. I was pinned. He waited.

I’m afraid I can’t tell you what I said, or what I did. I have no idea.

There’s a fugitive memory of a half-laugh, a semi-scoff. Did I stride off? Did I throw back my head and laugh? Did I tell him to fuck off?

A part of me suspects I burst into tears, but we all know that if there’s one thing a working woman has steeled herself never to do in the workplace, it’s to cry in front of these guys. Never.

We save that for later.

I’m pretty sure I went on and had a great old time at this party and, least surprisingly of all, I’m absolutely sure I didn’t even mention that incident to my friends and work colleagues that night.

Why would I?

We have forgotten more harassment than we remember.

Virginia Trioli

Late last year — as the #MeToo movement gained momentum and became the first and central point of discussion every time two or more women came together — recollections of long-forgotten intrusions, humiliations and attacks flashed into our minds with shocking clarity.

How is it that we can forget a grabbed breast, a hand up a skirt, a shouted description of our fuckability?

How? The same way you forget the banal requirement of putting the bins out each week. And then bringing them back in.

Garbage in. Garbage out.

To this day, I find myself halfway through affable conversations with men who I suddenly remember I’m supposed to loathe.

“Oh God, that’s right! That’s the colleague who tried to hit on me under the guise of using my hotel bathroom to ‘change’ into his tuxedo for the Walkleys. How do I forget this stuff?”

“And this guy chatting amiably to me in my TV studio. He’s the one who once said to my section editor — when that editor was making a strong case for me to be given a pay increase — ‘are you fucking her or something?'”.

Fast forward a few years, and here I am back on TV after a year’s maternity leave, following the birth of my son.

“From best in show to best on sow,” Virginia Trioli quips.

I open the mail one morning and a hand-drawn sketch falls out.

It’s a crude version of me, with breasts hanging out, and this written underneath: “Put those saggy old breastfeeding tits away — that’s not what I want to see of a morning over my cereal!”

Well, it’s certainly what my 16-month-old boy wanted to see for breakfast as he watched me from home.

But seriously, what a story arc, what a journey these tits of mine have gone on. From best in show to best on sow.

Let’s hear it for the boobs.

As the psychologists say — we laugh to keep from crying.

Some of this stuff we manage to park. Some of it scars, frightens us and traumatises us forever.

And some of it has chased good women I know away from the profession I love forever.

I’ve been a journalist for 28 years.

I walked into this amazing world wanting little more than to find and tell stories that meant something — that moved people, that connected people, that changed conversations, understanding and maybe even policy.

Virginia Trioli

Stories that contained one — maybe just one — kernel of truth or meaning that might make sense of the life, the best life, we all hope to lead.

I’ve had some wonderful experiences along the way — journeys and assignments and investigations and clashes that were enlightening, exhilarating and, at their best, meant something real to someone out there.

That’s the only reason any of us are here.

And, like so many of you, I’ve been a working woman in an environment that has sometimes encouraged us to be our best selves, but too often has barely even tried to understand what we can offer and what we are capable of.

The contemporary media world can be so damn self-limiting, and so limiting of our potential that it makes me want to scream.

A world that is so reductive of us and our capabilities.

And a media world that is sometimes so obsessed with our looks and bodies — our powerful, capable, independent bodies — that it’s driven many of us nuts if it hasn’t driven us outright from the industry.

But I’m here to tell you today that it does not have to be that way.

Virginia Trioli with the delegates. Photo: Cavan Flynn

I’m here today because, last year, I fell in love with this little conference and I vowed I’d do anything I could to help those young and emerging members of our media community.

So today, most of my remarks are addressed to you.

It’s a difficult time in this difficult industry — and we’ll get to that.

But, if you can get in touch with the difficult woman inside you — the one who insists on her voice being heard, the one who refuses to bend to “the way we’ve always done it” before, who can identify what she was put here to do and asks for the help she might need to get it done, then one key difficulty melts away.

Then, you slip the shackles of someone else’s expectations of you and you firmly set the boundaries of what you expect for yourself.

Today, I want to talk about how to live and work an authentic life – the challenges, terrors and joys of that life and how you might get there today.

Our mission is more urgent than ever.

Now, we meet a time when the credibility, strength and standing of our profession has never before been under such sustained attack.

Virginia Trioli

Our once-unquestioned role of being the honest brokers who brought people together to meet in the middle — to engage in the contest of ideas and to test the veracity and purpose of their claims in the public arena — has been thoroughly shaken.

Those who have spent years now in this country fomenting fear and anxiety about institutions such as government, the courts, teachers — many professions — are seeing the payoff in a retreat from trust that is alarming in how quickly it has sectioned the country.

Poll-driven, visionless governments haven’t helped their cause by … well, you don’t need me to tell you why.

Globalisation hasn’t delivered its much-vaunted promises and the resulting anxiety and disenfranchisement have created a distrusting and alienated community.

The rise of social media has elevated any factoid or outright fiction to a level of untruth that is now nigh-impossible to refute.

And we in the media have not helped our own cause — with our opacity about sources and the compromising nature of some of our connections; by the miserly way in which we acknowledge (or don’t acknowledge) our errors; by a sometimes myopic and city-centric view of the life of this country; and by a lazy rush to secure a soundbite from those who might provoke clicks but also promote just the division that our analysts and columnists now bemoan.

As you sow…

None of that negates the mission we are here to discuss for these two days. It makes it much more urgent.

I began my career in a very different time to you, but the choices I faced are still quite similar.

You have to fight for the career you want.

I had the luxury of starting at a highly regarded, extremely popular broadsheet newspaper — The Age.

I worked for and with some of the best and brightest minds in modern journalism. I learned my craft from them, was inspired by them, made mistakes around them and tried harder for them.

I argued my way into the business section of The Age newspaper, because I knew I’d never be taken seriously as a reporter unless I had that skill.

I called the Leo Cussen Institute in Melbourne — the centre for practical legal training for barristers — and asked if there was a masterclass in cross-examination I could audit as it seemed to me that my weakest skill was interviewing and I needed to improve it.

They said sorry, but they couldn’t help.

So I studied the interviewers I admired — Paul Lyneham and Maxine McKew and Laurie Oakes and Jana Wendt and Ellen Fanning — and I tried to figure out their secrets.

Years later, I picked up the phone to a terrifying John Cameron, the head of news and current affairs at the ABC and asked if he’d consider me for Friday night Lateline.

He said yes, he would.

Every one of those moments was frightening but every one was necessary to force myself to be scared and to take the next step, the next challenge in my career.

But there are little gaps in between all these seemingly firm and bold choices — these declarations of desire and intent.

And these gaps, I’ve come to learn over the years, are paradoxically the slippage and the errors that ultimately make sense of our choices.

Because, much like the principles of building muscle mass — the way your body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibres after a workout by forming strong, new protein strands — your mistakes do not you weaken you, they build you up. They solidify you.

They give you emotional and mental muscle or at least they should because you have to own your mistakes. You have to claim them and allow that destruction-reconstruction process to take place. It’s incredibly empowering.

Mistakes do not weaken you, says Virginia Trioli. Photo: Cavan Flynn

The first time you learn that the world will not collapse on you when you acknowledge your error, your transgression, your poor judgement — that’s a stunning moment of achievement.

Rather than casting you down, there is something elevating about that acknowledgement.

I recently saw online a marvellous set of engraved notecards that I’m considering buying — if not for me, then for all the other brave women I have in my life.

The cards are engraved in an elegant script right at the bottom of the card, and in only a slightly passive-aggressive way they read: “… yours sincerely, the bigger person.”

An acknowledgement, an apology does actually make you the bigger person.

An occasional and pitiless self-scrutiny — asking yourself what went wrong, what is your part in it, and what do you need to fix — is one of the most strengthening exercises you can undertake.

If you don’t, you’ve taken the first step to being on the run.

Over 10 years on News Breakfast, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to stuff up and then apologise.

ABC News Breakfast presenters Michael Rowland and Virginia Trioli. Photo: ABC

I’ve thrown to the wrong grab. I’ve read the wrong line. I’ve walked in front of the camera. I’ve talked while I thought I wasn’t on camera. I’ve said things that are wrong and facts that are faulty.

And I’ve apologised for it all.

I’ve even — famously — called myself by the name of my co-host. But you know, I’m not apologising for that!

Seriously, this was back in the early days of News Breakfast when we were on air for three-and-a-half hours, five days a week, working with a skeleton staff and more errors in the copy than we had time to correct.

It wasn’t news presenting, it was a cross-country race over landmines.

I was so. Damn. Tired.

I would have read anything on that screen.

It’s a wonder I didn’t call myself Grant Denyer.

And there was another morning — and a much more notorious incident involving me and Barnaby Joyce that has been harder to live down.

And boy, did I apologise for that.

I apologised to Mr Joyce, to my team, the ABC, and to the entire country in a live broadcast that was one of the most frightening moments of my career. That apology wasn’t enough for many people, and my mistake became a big political stick with which to beat me and the ABC.

Virginia Trioli

I can tell you there was absolutely nothing political or biased about that moment.


There is actually a much more personal, deeply personal explanation for that morning. An explanation — it’s not an excuse, it’s not a justification.

But on the eve of the 10th anniversary of ABC News Breakfast in just a few weeks time, I’m finally willing to share a state of mind I found myself in.

That morning — I was jubilant.

I was high as a kite. I remember now the exuberance and hilarity with which I strode through the door of the office at 4am.

I’d just returned from a week’s leave during which I underwent what felt like my 100th IVF procedure and 85th embryo transfer — at least that’s how the numbers felt to me.

We finally had an embryo that looked like it stood a chance. It was transferred and I returned to work, technically pregnant and over the moon.

As is the way of these things — and particularly with women on TV — of course, no-one knew a thing about it. I’d made sure of that.

The high jinks in the studio that day, all generated by me, were funny, silly, and incredibly risky.

You just don’t play up like that in a live studio. Let me tell you now.

That moment in the interview with Barnaby Joyce. Photo: ABC

When we replayed an interview with the then-senator, Joyce, that I’d done earlier that morning — an interview characterised by tortured language and some confusing concepts from him — I twirled my finger by my head for the amusement of no-one in particular.

The camera cut back to me earlier than expected and I was caught.

I think my heart stopped dead for a full five seconds.

And a part of me will never recover from the horror and shock of what I’d done.

I stumbled through the rest of the broadcast in a daze.

Once off air, I spoke to my EP, and then I rang Senator Joyce to apologise. He had not seen the incident and dismissed it lightly — graciously accepting my apology. Later in the day he even joked to the media about how maybe he was a bit crazy.

But by then the story was off and running.

The oceans of social media outrage were boiling, and the waves of abuse were pounding me.

I turned off all social media and spent the rest of the morning in frantic discussions with the head of news and current affairs and the MD of the ABC.

We knew how this looked. An ABC presenter sending up a Coalition member at a time when the broadcaster was under sustained attack for perceived bias.

It was dreadful.

After hours of this, I finally made it home.

I remember walking in the front door. My husband was there, working from home.

My bag slid from my shoulder and I stood in the middle of a room that seemed to have telescoped out to leave me alone and small at the centre of a vast and empty space — and I told my husband that I thought I’d just killed a 20-year career in journalism.

Virginia Trioli

And I cried.

Two days later, I began to bleed.

Now — it is of course highly probable that this tiny precious embryo was never going to take — so many of them don’t.

But to this day — and for all time — I will always believe that it was my own silliness, and all the drama that followed, that stole away one more hope for a child.

Let me pause here and emphasise one thing — the most important thing of all.

Barnaby Joyce may have been the one who copped it from me that morning but it could have been anyone that day.

It was certainly going to be someone.

For anyone who thought or still thinks that was a moment of left/right ridicule let me set you straight.

If you think that, then you can know nothing of the abysmal lows and the ecstatic highs that make up the IVF rollercoaster and the emotions that go with it.

It was foolish. It was unprofessional. But it was not bias.

Anyone who caught my attention that day was going to get snagged on the hook of my happiness.

Except, of course, the one who was really caught out was me.

Virginia Trioli received a standing ovation. Photo: Cavan Flynn

And finally — given everything Barnaby Joyce himself has gone through in the intervening years — it’s a strange and sad coincidence that it should be the possibility of a baby and the arrival of a baby that connects our histories.

At a certain point in this working life, you realise that there really is no place to hide.

You either own — completely own who you are, the nature and personality of your journalism and your understanding of what you are here to do — or I think you fade away.

When I started on radio in Melbourne in 2001, the legendary Jon Faine gave me two pieces of advice.

He told me that daily flow radio “was a marathon, not a sprint”, and he said that on air I had to be myself — not some persona, not some projection, but relentlessly myself.

The listeners would find me out in a trice if I was not.

Owning your mistakes is part of that. But before you even get to that — something I would urge you, implore you all to do — is to listen to that voice inside that knows exactly what it is that you really want to do, but is being drowned out by the white noise of what you think you ought to be doing.

This is very important.

When I started on Sydney radio, 60 Minutes came calling.

It was then one of the most prestigious and important current affairs programs in the country.

One of my idols Jana Wendt became a star there, some of the best journalists and producers in the country had made it their home.

I sat down in a Double Bay cafe with legendary and notorious executive producer John Westacott — all aflutter with pride that he had even picked up the phone to call me.

All went swimmingly right up to the point when he said: “And if you work with us, your head won’t be on your own pillow for 95 per cent of the year. You’ll be somewhere else.”

That was the job.

I smiled, thanked him, and told him that our conversation could go no further because I really liked my husband, I liked his company and I didn’t want to be away from him for all that time.

I’ll never forget the look on John Westacott’s face.

He thought I was completely mad.

It had taken me a long, long time to figure out what I was here to do — and what I was not going to do — and to learn how to push aside other’s expectations for me and their constructions of me; to understand what made me feel fulfilled, and happy and connected in journalism.

Virginia Trioli

And so it made turning down a plum like 60 Minutes the easiest thing in the world.

You can and should seek advice from people you trust and regard highly to help you improve in this business. But you can only listen to yourself to figure out what kind of journalist you want to be.

You have to live an authentic working life — and that won’t look like anybody else’s.

You have to find a way of bringing not only your best self to work, but all of yourself, all of your qualities and capabilities.

And this is where I want to deliberately and very carefully point out something that not only the blokes and the bosses might be missing — but that we are clearly missing too.

The other day, I sat down for a chat with a colleague who has an extraordinary CV. She has worked for one of the most important overseas news organisations, has worked within the ABC on our most important programs.

She was talking through what she wanted to do next, and I suggested that she send our head of news an email saying that the next time he was in town, she wanted to buy him a cup of coffee and take him through some great new projects she had in mind.

This gifted, competent, credentialed woman turned to me and said: “Oh! Do you reckon I could do that? He wouldn’t mind?”

Do I reckon she could do that?

Do you reckon the blokes have been doing this — and many, many other far more forward things — for far, far longer?

When did we decide that we had to mute our voices, quiet our requests, dial down our demands in the workplace?

Now, I’m not going to characterise all men as bolshie demanding egotists and all women as timid. I know that’s not true.

But I also know that when it comes to asking for what we want, we more often than not take a backward step.

And I’m here to urge you to do your homework, do your prep, pull out that “save your arse file” I mentioned last year and step forward.

And as part of that homework, take the time to sit with yourself and identify all of the qualities you have to offer.

The Caroline Jones Women in Media Young Journalists Award recipient Emily Jane Smith with Virginia Trioli and Caroline Jones. Photo: Cavan Flynn

That little statistic about how women will only go for a job if they meet all the listed criteria, whereas men will apply even if they only meet a handful, has become something of a cliche.

But, like all good cliches, it persists because it contains a truth.

Women — all of us — persistently underrate our abilities.

But if there is one key difference between the male and the female brain I’ve observed over the years and that I’m prepared to inexpertly sign on to, it’s the fundamentally contingent nature of female planning and thinking.

I am in awe of the organisational, planning, strategy and execution capacity of all the women I know.

Let me explain.

I don’t know a woman who does not have — right now — three different options running through her mind for how the rest of her day is going to pan out.

There’s plan A — which oh-so-rarely works out.

Then there are plans B-through-D.

All of them are under constant consideration and reconfiguration; all of them are amended and re-sorted according to the prevailing conditions of her day.

The plans take into account work to be completed, emails to send and work plans to be sorted for the next morning; traffic to deal with; school collection time and after-school sport — uniforms for which were packed earlier — but there’s a spare set in the boot as well; roadworks to be avoided; dinner defrosting on the bench and a left-turn rather than a right-turn up ahead because then you’ll be on the correct side of the road for a quick pitstop at the newsagent for the Petersham ribbon you need to finish that last bit of the Book Week costume you started last night.

If you think you don’t have the organisational and executive function skills required for any job you tick even three of the boxes for — you are wrong.

That little scenario I just described? That’s the whole game right there.

To represent yourself properly within your own working life, you need to take stock every now and again of what you do well and what you could better — your very own performance appraisal if you like.

If one thing has stood me in good stead over the last 28 years, it has been a deliberate decision to periodically sit down and take inventory of what I’m doing well, what I need to improve, where the gaps in my skill set and knowledge base are and how I need to fill them.

Virginia Trioli

I’d urge you to do it too.

If it helps, find someone you know, admire and trust and who knows your work well and ask them to do this exercise with you.

Never be afraid of self-scrutiny.

Don’t wait for someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart to point out your shortcomings — get there first and do something about them.

I’m not usually one for Insta-spiration, but I saw a great note pinned to the principal’s door at my kid’s school the other day.

It read: “Choose your attitude.”

It almost came as something of a shock to realise — emotional storm front that I can be — that I’m actually in charge of the attitude that I live with and that I bring with me.

And I realised with an inward wince that I’ve not always been my best self in this regard.

I can, on my bad days, slouch into work at crap o’clock in a dark mood, bringing gloom and thunder with me when everyone’s task is already so damn hard.

A general apology here to anyone who’s had to deal with my crap attitudes…

But that sign was a great reminder and one I happily pass on to you. You have to choose your attitude — and choose a good one — because otherwise circumstances will choose it for you.

I have been so damn lucky to have worked — and to keep working — at some of the best news organisations, and in some of the best news teams, you can find in this country.

But so have many others.

And if your attitude isn’t set right, if it isn’t one of enthusiasm, gratitude, calm focus and uncynical optimism, then it wouldn’t matter if you were working with Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate — the experience would be miserable for you and for all those you work with.

Virginia Trioli recommends keeping a ‘save your arse’ file. Photo: Cavan Flynn

Why do I do what I do?

Well, on my worst days — when I’m tearfully tired, when the news is just miserable, or the politics repetitively dispiriting — that’s a hard question to answer.

At its heart, I believe my job is to make connections — to be a conduit between ideas and reality, to bring competing ideas together and to synthesise complex information into something meaningful. And every day, our viewers, listeners and readers remind us why that matters.

They send us emails, texts and tweets. They sit down and write us letters. Even the mean ones.

And they tell us with such moving directness about why what we do matters to them. About when we get it wrong. And about how we can get better.

When I left an eight-year Drive radio shift in Melbourne to move to Sydney radio, I wept like a child at leaving the amazing community of listeners we had created.

Sometime after I arrived in Sydney, this letter arrived. It was from Val McIntyre in Inverloch, South Gippsland. She wrote, among other lovely things:

I retired to South Gippsland from Melbourne 10 years ago and have always relied on my much-loved 774 as a special part of my life, for different personalities and for keeping me in touch with our world and local issues.

But from that first afternoon when you were introduced to Drive you became such a special and important part of my day.

When you announced you were leaving, like hundreds of other listeners I was shattered, and on that very last day when people of all ages were phoning in and sending messages, I was truly shocked to find myself sobbing my ageing heart out.

Virginia, you weren’t only admired and loved for your gutsy and wonderful professionalism, you are loved because you are a rare and real human being — plus so often out of the blue you had this great sense of humour.

So often I would find myself with mental pictures falling about laughing — and I mean really laughing! You were loved by so many Melburnians and missed so very much.

Sydney doesn’t deserve your classy self. How I wish you back and to listen to your laugh.

Virginia, I wish you real happiness and success always.

Sincerely, Val McIntyre.

I wrote back to Val and thanked her at the time. But it’s a letter I often unfold and read again when I feel I’m losing connection with the audience, when I need to remind myself what I’m here to do.

I looked Val up online while preparing this talk and discovered that she died last year and was buried in Leongatha. She was survived by one daughter.

I rang the funeral home there and asked if my number might be given to her daughter and just a couple of hours later Emma rang me.

She told me that her mother just loved ABC radio and listened to my show all the time. I told her of this precious letter and she wept to hear her mother’s distinctive, affectionate voice again.

Virginia Trioli

She told me her mother wasn’t one of those crazy constant letter writers. I assured her that I could tell that.

We said goodbye and I promised her a copy of this faded, crumbling letter.

We really only have threads — threads of experience, threads that bind and that connect us.

Human history — our hopes, fears and traumas — are just a blink of time on this planet of 4.5 billion years.

So to me, this one connection, this one relationship that gave this one person joy and laughter and insight and tears is enough for me.

It’s the reason I’m here.

It’s what I do.

Virginia Trioli delivered this keynote address at the 2018 Women in Media National Conference at Bond University.


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