1944- | VIC, ACT | Reporter, Canberra Bureau chief
Grattan became The Age's first female Canberra Bureau Chief in 1976 and in 1993 was the first female editor of a daily metropolitan newspaper (The Canberra Times). She also worked for The Financial Review and Sydney Morning Herald. Trusted by her readers and sources, Grattan won the respect of politicians from all sides for what some rivals called a "fetish for accuracy" , which saw her waking cabinet ministers and backbenchers at all hours to confirm a fact or quote. Her tireless commitment changed the work practices of the Canberra gallery and she inspired a generation of female journalists to report federal politics.
Michelle Grattan was unaware of it, but her elevation to the post of chief political correspondent for The Age in 1976 provoked strong opposition within the paper. Some executives and senior staff were convinced that a woman could not succeed in the dog-eat-dog environment of the Canberra Press Gallery. She proved them dead wrong, as the combative Tony Abbott confirmed just months before becoming Prime Minister 37 years later. “Michelle,” he told Parliament, “is the toughest journalist you will ever encounter.”
For Les Carlyon, the editor who made the appointment, the clinching factor was Grattan’s professionalism during the political crisis surrounding the sacking of the Whitlam Government by Governor-General Sir John Kerr the year before. “As a member of the Canberra Bureau she kept a clear head through the fevered period of the dismissal and the events that followed,” he says. “There was a great sanity and sureness about her. I knew that she was safe and she was honest. And it turned out that she was much more than that.”
Grattan, born in Kew on June 30, 1944, and educated at Ruyton Girls’ School in the same Melbourne suburb, was a tutor at Monash University when she decided she would prefer journalism to academia. Discussions with an uncle, Ron Younger, a journalist with the Herald and Weekly Times group before joining the Information Department in Canberra, had aroused her interest. Job applications to both The Age and The Australian were knocked back, but fortunately she had two well-placed supporters. Peter Cole Adams, a leader writer at The Age attending university part-time, was in Grattan’s first-year politics tutorial. She had given one of his essays a B plus mark, with a note saying: “This would have been an A but the style is too journalistic.” Associate editor Creighton Burns, a former academic, had lectured her at Melbourne University where she gained an Arts degree with honours in politics. They got her an interview with the fabled Graham Perkin which led, in 1970, to employment as a D grade reporter. Within a year she was in Canberra, learning the ropes from the distinguished political journalist Allan Barnes.
In a 1995 Walter Murdoch memorial lecture, Grattan lamented that “for many of its practitioners, journalism has become a job, or a profession, rather than a way of life”. From the beginning it was a way of life for Grattan. Her work ethic is astonishing. She is always there at the start and finish of a story, no matter what hour of the day or night. In her newspaper reporting days she was notorious for phoning news editors and sub-editors right up to the final edition to alter copy, add new information or find out what rival papers were reporting. When the phone rang on the back bench at The Age at 1.30am, the cry would go up: “There’s Michelle.”
There was often a similar though less cheerful reaction in the homes of Ministers, MPs and advisers when phone calls interrupted their evening or jolted them awake in the wee small hours. They knew it was likely to be Grattan to check facts, confirm quotes or dig for extra information. In 2004, when she was awarded the Order of Australia, the then prime minister, John Howard, joked: “Many of us think Michelle should belong to the ‘late night’ Division of the Order”. But, while there was grumbling, there was also respect. Howard went on to praise Grattan’s “ferocious checking of detail”. A later prime minister, Julia Gillard, spoke in Parliament of her “old-fashioned devotion to accuracy” and “relentless focus on the facts”. The National Party’s Barnaby Joyce wrote in a newspaper column: “If Michelle said you said it, you said it.”
As a consequence of her late-night work habits, taxi drivers sometimes witnessed a strange spectacle. Grattan has always kept horses. When grass was scarce, usually in winter, she would divert the cab taking her home from Parliament House to a paddock on the outskirts of Canberra. There, with a bucket of feed in her hand, the doyenne of the Press Gallery would stand in the cold and the mist and call to her hungry equine charges until they came galloping out of the dark.
The love of horses reflects an interest in rural Australia that sometimes competes with politics for her attention. She retraced Charles Bean’s 1909 journey through the wool country of western NSW and, like him, wrote a memorable book about the people and places she encountered. For sentimental reasons, she also bought back several hundred acres – including the farmhouse – of a property in the Riverina that her parents had once owned.
Grattan has defined first-rate journalism as “the kind that tells people what they would not otherwise know, tweaks the tails of the power wielders, turns over rocks to stir the dark life beneath”. She has done her share of tail-tweaking and rock-turning, but her strength lies much more in covering issues and events comprehensively, fairly and clearly. Her commentary, too, is balanced. Politicians know that when they speak to Grattan, she will not take what they say out of context. Critics might pine for more aggression; what she has provided instead over the years is credibility. It is an approach that has seen her honoured by her peers – the Graham Perkin Journalist of the Year Award in 1988, a Walkley Award for journalistic leadership in 2006, and a Melbourne Press Club lifetime achievement award in 2007.
Grattan left The Age in 1993, effectively driven out by the turbulence that followed the takeover of Fairfax by Canadian Conrad Black. She’d heard there was a vacancy at the helm of The Canberra Times, approached owner Kerry Stokes, and became the first female editor of a metropolitan daily newspaper. But it lasted only two years. Grattan aimed for a paper that would be nationally-noticed and comparable in quality with the Sydney and Melbourne metros. Management took the view that she was ignoring local issues. She was dismissed, rejecting an offered monetary settlement because, she told staff privately, “I didn’t want to salve their consciences”. Grattan was deeply hurt by the experience.
There followed a brief return to The Age, a period writing for The Australian Financial Review, and three years as chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald before she landed at The Age once more in 2002. The Age was always Grattan’s spiritual home, so when she walked out again at the beginning of 2013 – an election year – it prompted speeches in Parliament from the nation’s leaders.
The catalyst for her departure this time was a decision by the powers-that-be in Fairfax that there should be one chief political correspondent reporting across all the company’s mastheads. As The Age’s political editor, she would be restricted, essentially, to comment and analysis. “I believe very strongly in the diversity of voices covering politics,” Grattan told a news conference, announcing she would become associate editor and political correspondent for the not-for-profit news and information website The Conversation. Veteran she may be, but she now has a leading role in the online world that is journalism’s future.
Laurie Oakes is a Media Hall of Famer, Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year in 2010 and political editor for the Nine Network. He has been reporting politics in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1969.
Grattan with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Courtesy of Fairfax.
Reconciliation, Michelle Grattan (Ed), Bookman Press, 2000.
Australian Prime Ministers, Michelle Grattan (Ed), New Holland, 2008.
Back on the Wool Track, Michelle Grattan, Vintage, 2004.