1960 - | Victoria | Sports journalist
Wilson was the first woman to cover Australian Rules football full-time and became a role model for female journalists around the country. She began covering football in 1982 and became The Age’s chief football writer in 1999. Wilson’s focus on the business and politics of the football industry brought new transparency to the administration of the sport and often provoked severe criticism and sometimes vicious personal attacks. In 2010 she was presented with the Australian Sports Commission’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2013 she won two Walkley Awards, in March 2014 she was awarded Australia’s most coveted journalism prize, the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award, and in 2016 she won the Harry Gordon Australian Sports Journalist of the Year Award.
On the night Caroline Wilson won the 2014 Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award, Age editor Andrew Holden aptly summed up his colleague’s achievement.
“We are absolutely thrilled for Caro that she has won the Graham Perkin,” Holden said. “She has been a pioneer for women in sports journalism for many years but that doesn’t define her: she is simply one of Australia’s very best journalists”.
Since its inception in 1976, the Perkin Award has acknowledged the talents of some of Australia’s most gifted journalists. Les Carlyon, Paul Kelly, Michelle Grattan, Robert Haupt, Andrew Rule, Pamela Williams, Laurie Oakes, Neil Mitchell, Gary Hughes and John Silvester are among those bylines listed under the “winners” headline. It was fitting that Wilson – the first sports reporter to win the award – joins this distinguished ensemble.
Sport is her beat, and Wilson is greatly admired for her success in conquering the once all-male bastion of Australian football. But the Perkin judges’ decision, and her double victory at the 2013 Walkley Awards, remind us that Wilson’s achievements extend way beyond any footy field or gender debate. As her colleague and friend Mike Sheahan says: “If I was starting a newspaper from scratch now, she would be the first person I’d hire. Before anyone – before a politics reporter, before police rounds – I’d want Caro”.
Wilson is a highly accomplished news gatherer with few peers. Her intuition, her clear-headedness while identifying and dissecting key issues, her vast network of contacts, and her engaging storytelling style, make her one of the best. The Perkin Award judges might have described any number of Caroline Wilson stories when they reflected on her reporting of the 2013 Essendon drugs scandal. Wilson, they said, “kept true to a journalist’s greatest task, an obligation to readers to best inform of how events were unfolding and what the implications might be”.
Wilson was born in 1960, the first of three children to Julia and Ian Wilson. Like her mother and grandmother, Wilson attended Melbourne Girls Grammar School and her favourite subject was English.
The journalism bug bit at an early age. Wilson had met a few sports journalists through her father who was president of the Richmond Football Club from 1973-1985 “and they seemed to be very romantic characters with very exciting lives”.
Encouraged by an inspiring English teacher, the teenager gained confidence with her writing and, in 1978, she was hired as a copygirl at the Melbourne Herald.
Sports journalism was not on her radar until 1982, when the paper’s then sports editor, Ron Reed, offered her an opportunity to join his all-male department. That season, Wilson became only the second female journalist to cover an AFL season.
Two years later Wilson moved to London, joined the Herald and Weekly Times bureau, and covered a raft of news stories, including organised crime boss Robert Trimbole’s arrest in Ireland, Wimbledon, the British Open, the FA Cup and the British soccer riots. In late 1986 she returned to Flinders Street, rejoined the sport department, then in 1989 moved to the Sunday Age.
In a 1999 New Yorker piece on Washington journalist Bob Woodward, Nicholas Lemann concluded that “Woodward …. has invented a variation of the game in which, rather than just report the juicy facts and attribute them to sources, he presents his reportorial harvest in the form of scenes. In an omniscient voice, he offers an account of the meeting at which the deal went down as if he had been there, though he hadn’t”. Lemann added: “He can get in to see the person who’s stiffing the rest of the press, and then extract a dramatic step-by-step report of what really happened”.
While writing sport then, later, news features at The Sunday Age, Wilson honed her Woodward-esque storytelling skills. She flourished with the luxury of a weekly deadline. Her editors gave her the space to investigate the story-behind-the-story. And her pieces became must-reads. And when, in 1994, she joined 3AW as its afternoon radio presenter, her interviewing skills and cohesive analysis and commentary shone brightly.
Says former Fairfax editorial director Garry Linnell: “When the big story was breaking, they always came to Caro because they trusted her. She can be divisive. She’s a personality. But she also has steel in her, and she’s fearless, and she will write the hard comment piece that other specialist reporters won’t go near because they fear they are going to end a relationship with a source”.
It was Linnell who, as The Age’s sports editor in 1999, courted Wilson for the paper’s top football reporting role. “She’s tough, she’s relentless and she’s fair,” Linnell says. “And she hates being beaten. And if there’s a more competitive field in Australian journalism than covering the AFL, I’d love to see it”.
Wilson was less confident. “I was terrified by the responsibility, and terrified of missing big stories,” she reflects. “And I was frightened of making a fool of myself because my on-field knowledge might not have been as good as the other chief footy writers”.
But what she perceived as her biggest weakness – the woman who’d never played the game – became an advantage. “I honestly think being a woman when I first started out is why I asked the questions I did,” she says. “Women are more prepared to ask those questions about what makes people tick, how they feel – questions that are away from the normal kinds of questions a player or coach is asked. “Plus, although Dad only became president of Richmond in 1973, he’d been on the committee for most of my childhood. I knew what made footy clubs tick, and for that reason I didn’t feel so intimidated as some other people might feel.”
Like most hardworking feminists of her generation, Wilson doesn’t preach, or complain, or resort to playing the gender card. “Just do it,” is the Nike motto; it could be hers, also. She is one of a very small number of Australian female journalists to combine the role of wife and mother of three children with a full-time senior news round.
Throughout her career, she has remained a loving daughter, a best friend and professional support to her husband, Channel Seven journalist Brendan Donohoe, a devoted mother to Rose, Ned and Clementine, a keen home-maker and culinary whiz, and enthusiastically maintains her friendship groups. It is responsibility-overload, but Wilson continues to move from one commitment to the next, seldom missing a beat.
AFL journalist Samantha Lane is in awe of her friend’s daily juggle. She also greatly admires the way “through her writing and her commentary, Caro has made sure that sport transcends what happens on a field or in some kind of sporting club. She has been able to identify, describe, and personalise issues that arise in sport, and that are common to everyone who walks the face of the earth. I would say this is her greatest asset as a journo”.
Wilson has never dwelled on the stress she endured while covering the 2013 Essendon story. But her colleagues were concerned for her emotional and physical welfare. “With the death threats and the hideous level of venom in the community we were concerned for her personal safety at times,’’ says former Age daily sports editor, Janelle Ward. “Caro’s strength throughout that extended period, and her capacity to break and tell the hard stories generally, is extraordinary.”
Corrie Perkin is a journalist and bookseller. In 1981 she became the first female to cover an AFL season and was the first female to edit The Football Record. She and Caroline Wilson first met as RMIT journalism students in February 1979. They have been friends ever since.
Photo courtesy of Fairfax Media.
The Game: A Collection of the Best AFL Stories, edited by Dennis Cometti, 2012, Fairfax Books
Getting to know football’s first lady: Caroline Wilson, Kruti Joshi, Media Work