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A Bonza Baird
15 / 11 / 2012
A Bonza Sheila is a regular section which pays tribute to a good woman. This month our Bonza Sheila is author, treat broadcaster and journalist Julia Baird. Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper asks her questions about her life so far. Thanks Julia!
1. You began your journalism career with a cadetship at the Sydney Morning Herald in 1998. By 2000 you were the Editor of the Opinion pages (until 2005). This fast elevation indicates a pretty strong ‘nose for news’. What attracted you to journalism?
Everything: story-telling, physician a search for truth, case the need to get the first draft of history right, the encompassing of all my favorite things (history, politics, literature, global affairs, all news), my madcap, clever colleagues, the adrenalin rush of a big story breaking, a shared belief in the importance of the fourth estate in a healthy, functioning democracy.
2. Your work as a journalist followed a PhD in History. Is this part of the appeal in covering current events and issues? Ie. That journalism is a form of covering ‘modern’ history?
Yes – the husband of the great Katherine Graham of the Washington Post – (a great inspiration; I used to have some of her favorite paintings hanging on my walls in my office in NYC), Phil, used to say often to staff that journalism was the first draft of history. This was something my editor at Newsweek took extremely seriously; we had to do it quickly, but we had to get it right. And we had to be conscious, always, of the human drives, motivations and failings shaping some of the great news stories; to think as historians about current events, in a way.
3. Your PhD in History from Sydney University focuses on female politicians and the press (awarded in 2001). You then wrote a book about this, entitled, ‘Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians’ (2004). In the book you research the experiences of and interview a number of high profile Australian female politicians, one being our current Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Was there anything that differentiated or stood out for you in researching Gillard for your book?
Yes: she was smart, articulate, and had learned from the mistakes of those who had gone before her, had flamed and burned. She was not going to campaign on personality, said she would shy from celebrity and seemed to me to have her head screwed on right. Of all the women I interviewed, she was definitely one of the most grounded and media-savvy.
4. You moved with your family to New York to work at Newsweek as columnist and then Deputy Editor, where you covered such topics like Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. What was the process or challenges in getting your head around and covering US domestic issues – did you feel you had an advantage or disadvantage in being ‘new’ to the scene?
There was a lot to learn –always – but my editor used to call me the Margaret Mead of American politics – they liked having an outsider’s view almost as much as they liked laughing at my accent.
5. Name (or list) some of the big differences in living in New York (and later Philadelphia, writing for Philadelphia Inquirer), compared to Australia.
NYC: the electricity, the intensity of the urban environment, the lack of horizon, the thrill of being in the centre of breaking stories, the access to extraordinary people to interview, every week, the expense of health and education, the delight of reading the New York Times every day, first, the convenience of the subway, plays on Broadway, lack of good beaches, brilliant restaurants but average cafes, diet soda flowing like fountains, the contagion of the fierce, constant debates about what a democracy is, the peace of central park in the middle of it all. Being in the thick of many things; it’s like licking your finger and sticking it in a socket.
6. You’ve written a book on female politicians’ experiences. You’ve been involved in campaigning for the ordination of women. And you’ve always been interested in writing about the experiences of women, most recently writing on the response from women to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s parliamentary speech on sexism. What drives this focus – on women’s experiences?
The intellectual debates about the liberation of women – which has taken centuries – are completely fascinating. How do you free half the population from unfounded, ridiculous and widely held views about its inferiority? It’s about both injustice, and a vast untangling of brain knots.
7. You’ve moved back to Sydney and you’re currently working on your second book – a biography of Queen Victoria, to be published by Random House, New York. What attracted you to Queen Victoria as a subject matter?
She was the greatest Queen the world had known; to date she has ruled the longest. She was the most powerful working mother in the world. But she is little understood because we are myopic about women and power – she is stereotyped as a stout, unamused, puritanical dame who grieved for her brilliant husband for decades and was unable to reign properly as a single woman. Not a woman who hated childbirth but adored her kids, who loved power but pretended not to, who was mad about sex, who fought for the crown while bullied as a child and bossed about ten prime ministers. She was formidable.
8. What advice would you give to your 20 year-old-self?
Write every day.
9. You have a young family, including a daughter. Any tips for ‘raising a feminist’?
Ask me in ten years! But for now, teach her to read, teach her to think for herself, praise her strengths, let her be.
10. You have a young family, and an ever-growing, successful writing career. Any work / life / family balance tips?
None of us have any answers to that question. You have to try to steer clear of the ever-ending, inane stream of articles directed only at women, on how we can’t do or have or be everything, and just love and work and fly as hard as you can, and brush yourself off daily when you hit trees, walls, various obstacles. Of course it’s tricky, but honestly, being able to both work and bring up children is a great joy.
11. Nominate a woman who inspires you and why.
Hillary Clinton for longevity, Eleanor Roosevelt for big-hearted persistence, Helen Garner for brilliant candour, Erika Feller for her work protecting asylum seekers, Maureen Dowd for consistently incisive, clever columns, the late Patricia Brennan for courage and oratory, P. D. James because she is still writing at 91, Stacy Schiff because her biographies are eye-wateringly good, Maya Angelou because she walks like she’s got oil wells pumping in her living room, Judith Wright for the way she wrote about trees, roads and precision. I could go on!
Many thanks Julia! We look forward to your upcoming book and will keep readers posted.
Julia Baird is an author, broadcaster and journalist, now based back in Sydney after working in New York and Philadelphia for Newsweek and the Philadelphia Inquirer (Julia’s Newsweek articles can be found here).
Prior to this Julia was Opinion Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, where she still contributes opinion pieces.
She is the author of ‘Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians’ (2004), and is currently writing her second book on Queen Victoria for Random House.
For more information, visit Julia’s website.