1952 - | Broadcaster
Geraldine Doogue is one of Australia’s most accomplished and versatile journalists, excelling in print, radio and television. At the ABC and Channel Ten, she presented and reported for national news and current affairs television programs. On ABC radio, as host of Life Matters and then Compass for 30 years, her soothing voice and sharp mind brought relevance and meaning to the challenging subjects of faith, spirituality, religion and ethics while never adopting a preaching approach.
Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive but to be young, and working in the media, was very heaven.
(with apologies to William Wordsworth)
The early 1980s. A time of big hair, long lunches, and boisterous behaviour. And, as it turned out, a consequential decade for Australia, as a new Labor government in1983 begins to re-imagine the country through a radically altered policy mix. The changes will boost national competitiveness, lift our ambition, but without overt damage to the nation’s social fabric.
It’s a remarkable period to look back on - a time of contested debates, but largely conducted with more reason than rancour, and helped in no small part by a group of senior journalists with the wit and gravitas to take the time to explain and analyse the way Australia is changing. Among them, Paul Kelly, Max Walsh, Laurie Oakes, Michelle Grattan, Kerry O’Brien and Peter Bowers.
At the centre of this hi-octane and largely blokey world is a young woman from the West who hosts ABC television’s signature current affairs program, Nationwide. From 1982 Geraldine Doogue inhabits the anchor chair in a way that few had since the early days of Michael Charlton and Bill Peach.
She’s credible without being flashy. Confident but not cocky. Above all, she has that rare quality, a lively warm personality that seems to leap across the camera lens. When it comes to big events such as party national conferences and election nights when she shares a desk with Canberra correspondent Richard Carleton, himself at the top of his game, the combined effect is electrifying. But essentially it’s Geraldine Doogue’s nightly Nationwide presence which provides the boost and cachet that ABC current affairs needs as it negotiates its own tricky transitions, both technical and editorial.
So where did she come from? She hadn’t been a TV field reporter or researcher, or even a radio reporter, the usual entry points for a television career.
She comes instead from the world of newspapers, having started as a cadet with the West Australian and later transitioning to a job with The Australian in London. Back in Perth, Doogue is sent to the Pilbara to report on the vast iron ore deposits being mined in that region. Four Corners is there as well, and short of appropriate talent, interviews Geraldine.
Not to trivialise it, but this is her Lana Turner moment (the 1940’s studio star was talent-spotted in a downtown Los Angeles milk bar.) Geraldine’s future is sealed once the tape is seen by east coast ABC executives.
Nearly four decades later, and in a vastly-changed media environment, Doogue continues to occupy a position of central importance in the national landscape. As Radio National’s Saturday Extra host, she still seeks to find the informed middle, to be inquiring rather than querulous. She considers the issues and angles that are less examined, or under-done, and, internationalist that she is, always keeps an eye on what’s happening beyond Australia’s borders.
In an industry that throws up its share of blazing comets, Doogue has managed to build and sustain a long career by focusing her journalistic talents within a defined orbit. She could be said to have pioneered, certainly in broadcasting, serious reporting and analysis of social affairs - the way we organise our lives and how we negotiate the pressures of modern living.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. She had some rough moments. The mockery, indeed the over-the-top derision she copped when the ABC changed format in the mid 1980s and merged prime time news and current affairs into The National, must have been hard to take. Not long after, she left the ABC and worked for the then Lowy-controlled Network Ten as a co-presenter of Eyewitness News with Steve Liebmann. During this time she also had her first taste of commercial radio while working for 2UE.
By 1990 Doogue was back at the ABC and immediately showed her reporting grit with her coverage of the first Gulf War. The political class in Canberra was less than impressed with the forensic questioning that flowed from this series of stories, but two Penguin Awards and a United Nations Peace Prize validated her approach.
It could be said that her mature journalistic phase really took off when she moved to Radio National and hosted the mid morning program Life Matters. In the 11 years she was in this role, the program expanded and evolved to the point where it was mandatory listening for social policy makers across the country. Doogue the journalist, the It anchor girl of the 1980s, was becoming Doogue the editorial leader.
And it showed in so many ways. The time taken to research and deeply question a range of experts on the complexities of Australian life, and at the same time, to show respect and equal acknowledgement for the stories of ordinary people. This is commonplace now, albeit an approach that is handled unevenly. But in the 1990s, it was ground-breaking.
In 2005 Doogue, still on Radio National, made the shift to Saturday mornings, and carved out a unique format for her Saturday Extra program. She said she wanted to create a broadcast version of a quality weekend newspaper. How prescient she was.
As newsrooms have shrunk and the papers with them, Doogue’s Saturday Extra format is as likely to take listeners through the detail of a royal commission, an examination of how the tectonic plates are shifting in regional and international affairs, the ways that widening inequality is shaking western orthodoxies, before moving on to the latest from writers, film-makers and trend setters. It’s the sort of mix that is perfect for Doogue’s broad interests.
For many years she also hosted ABC Television’s Compass, a program that considers inter-faith issues. Since 2001, she has made it her business to attempt to understand the pressures of modern Islam and to that end authored the book Tomorrow’s Islam published by Harper Collins in 2012.
Her second book, The Climb, was published in 2014, and examines women in leadership roles.
Maxine McKew is honorary Enterprise Professor at the Melbourne University Graduate School of Education. A multi award-winning journalist, she was anchor of the ABC’s 7.30 and Lateline programs. She won the seat on Bennelong for Labor in the 2007 federal election, defeating Prime Minister John Howard.
Geraldine Doogue in Jerusalem, for the filming of an ABC special
Courtesy of Fairfax
The Climb: Conversations with Australian Women in Power, Geraldine Doogue, Text Publishing, 2014
Tomorrow's Islam: The Power of Progress and Moderation Where Two Worlds Meet, Geraldine Doogue, Harper Collins Australia, 2012