1938 - | NSW | Reporter & broadcaster
Caroline Jones became the first female reporter in Australian television current affairs when she began working for This Day Tonight at the ABC in 1969. Later she became the first female presenter on Four Corners. Over a 50-year career, colleagues admired her calmness, dignity and determination to expose injustice and wrong-doing. Later she presented an ABC Radio National program, Search for Meaning, which explored the lives of many Australians. It became the inspiration for Australian Story, which Jones presented for many years. Towards the end of her career, Jones was patron of Women in Media and helped many young female journalists to get a start.
There is something in the way Caroline Jones speaks that makes you feel as if you’ve left turbulent seas and found solid ground. This doyen of Australian media found her way into the hearts of colleagues and her audience with kindness, intelligence and a skilful ability to ease anxieties and extract extraordinary stories.
When it was announced in 1996 that Jones would be part a new ABC television program called Australian Story, one headline declared “Return of a Tribal Elder”. But we all knew she wasn’t ‘returning’ because she had never left us.
There are a handful of figures in the media who can be said to be universally respected.
Very few manage to be both loved and respected in equal measure.
This shy girl from the bush drove to the ABC’s Sydney studios in 1969 filled with excitement and apprehension, never imagining the extraordinary career that would lie ahead. In short order, she became the first female reporter on This Day Tonight and then the first female anchor of Four Corners.
At TDT she was the only woman in a crowd that included Bill Peach, Mike Carlton, Richard Carleton and Ray Martin. Think of the television drama ‘Mad Men’ and you get a sense of how very different it must have been back then. Any woman fronting a camera in any serious role today owes a massive debt to Caroline Jones because she cleared the path. And she did it with steel in her graceful spine and a high standard that she maintains both privately and professionally.
While still anchoring Four Corners, she mastered the hair-raising challenges of Sydney morning radio, forging a memorable and witty on air partnership with Clive Robertson. Then she created something completely different, pioneering a new non-combative interview technique, described as confessional, on her program The Search for Meaning on Radio National.
Phillip Adams has described how disarming Jones could be – convincing her subjects to bare their souls even when, like Phillip, they didn’t believe they had such a thing. The merits of her approach weren’t embraced by all her peers and bosses at the time. But her methods have stood the test and been enthusiastically adopted by armies of imitators on the ABC and commercial TV.
The Search for Meaning became the precursor of another beloved program, Australian Story. Jones became the face of the show that regularly topped ratings and garnered every major award in the industry. She received a Logie for her early investigative work and also a Walkley for her outstanding contribution to journalism. She was made an officer of the Order of Australia and named a ‘Living Treasure’.
Jones has dedicated herself to reconciliation efforts in Australia. The ABC has created the Caroline Jones Indigenous Journalist traineeship, an annual paid placement for an aspiring indigenous journalist to join the national indigenous coverage team.
Tahmina Ansari, a Muslim woman from Afghanistan whose family came to Australia as refugees found her way into the ABC newsroom because of a friendship she struck up with Jones at a mutual friend’s birthday party.
Tahmina wanted to become a foreign correspondent, a dream she thought would remain beyond her reach. She confided that she sometimes struggled to fit in, culturally. Perhaps Caroline Jones recognised something of her own struggles half a century earlier. Jones took up Tahmina’s cause and encouraged her not to give up. When the budding ABC reporter was posted to Dubbo, Jones even visited with an armful of warm winter clothes.
Much of what Caroline Jones has achieved has been very public, in front of an admiring audience who would easily admit to be being soothed by her voice and entranced by her piercing eyes.
But there is so much more that has been done privately and she continues to invest in others not looking for accolades or recognition.
Jones travels from state to state to play an integral role in ‘Women in Media’ networking events and run the nationwide mentoring scheme. Her wisdom and charm has impressed admirers who have seen her turn recalcitrant newspaper executives into allies for the cause.
Jones herself would admit she once had a reputation for holding high suspicion of new technology and a seemingly unbreakable attachment to her trusty old typewriter. She could see no necessity for emails when her fax machine was perfectly fit for task. But sometime around the end of the noughties she proceeded to astonish her slack-jawed colleagues by suddenly acquiring a laptop and a Twitter handle and becoming the office expert on social media. She remains, as she says, ‘Australian Story’s number one fan’ tweeting up a storm every Monday night.
Caroline Jones in 1977. Courtesy of Fairfax
An Authentic Life, Caroline Jones, HarperCollins, 2003
'Caroline Jones: Through a Glass Darkly' (Interview), ABC Radio National, 2009