1942 - | NSW | Editor
Ita Buttrose was a spectacularly successful and admired journalist who shaped the conversation of Australian women during a long career in newspapers, magazines, television and radio. She left school at 15 to become a copy girl at the Australian Women’s Weekly, then switched to the Packer family’s Daily Telegraph where she became women’s editor. She launched Cleo, an edgy magazine that gave women sexual advice and male nude centrefolds. In 1981 she became the first female editor-in-chief of an Australian metropolitan daily newspaper when Rupert Murdoch appointed her to the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph. Ita Buttrose has been a formidable worker for several charities.
ITA Buttrose is the most celebrated female journalist in Australian history. She is the only one to be awarded this country’s highest honour – Australian of the Year. Equally impressive - some would say more so - is the fact she is the only journalist to have a rock band (Cold Chisel) name a song after her.
Every night when I get home I settle down to prime time limbo When all the boys are gathered around Shouting Ita's on TV
She has blazed a trail from newspapers to magazines to television. She's written books, speeches, launched eponymous products and received every award imaginable. Success and Ita are synonymous.
Ask anyone who they think of when they hear the name Ita and they think only of Ita Clare Buttrose.
Born in Potts Point, Sydney in 1942, Buttrose says she caught the journalism bug at the age of 11. Her father, Charles Oswald, was also a journalist whose career included a stint as editor of Sydney’s Daily Mirror from 1951-54.
At only 15, Buttrose left Dover Heights Home Science High School having secured a job as a copygirl at the Packer family’s flagship magazine The Australian Women’s Weekly. It was the magazine she would go on to edit (1975-1980) and which would make her a publishing icon by her thirties.
I believe, I believe, at the end of the day Her magazine'll get me through
Like many journalists, she had plenty of twists in her career. Buttrose moved from Australian Consolidated Press to The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph women’s pages as a cadet and achieved her first by-line by the age of 17.
At 21, she married architect Alasdair Macdonald and the couple travelled and worked abroad before Buttrose returned to become women’s editor on The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, then also owned by Sir Frank Packer. The couple had two children, Kate and Ben, before they separated in 1976. Buttrose married Peter Sawyer in 1979 and they divorced in 1980.
If there is a recurring theme in Buttrose’s celebrated journalistic career it is sex: the reporting of it, the feminisation of it and everything in between. The immaculately groomed Ita was equal parts sex symbol and sex expert.
In 2011 at 69, the legend of Ita was introduced to a new generation of Australians with the broadcast of the two-part television miniseries Paper Giants. She was played by Asher Keddie, who won accolades for the portrayal, including her perfect Ita lisp.
The hit ABC series told the story of Cleo magazine, the sexually progressive magazine for smart young women. In a riotous celebration of 70s fashion, it told the tale of how 30-year-old Ita was backed by the 35-year-old Kerry Packer, a young businessman living in the shadow of his father.
Cleo was launched in 1972, a time when the country was experiencing rapid change under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The magazine was an instant success with 105,000 copies sold in two days – a sellout. There were articles on sex toys, fantasies and orgasms, lesbianism and contraception.
"We wrote about sex as if we had discovered it,” Buttrose recalled. Cleo was also the first Australian women's magazine to feature nude male centrefolds, with the ruggedly handsome Jack Thomson appearing in the first issue.
The success of Cleo earned Buttrose the dream job of editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly and she was soon elevated to editor-in-chief of both publications, a role she held from 1976 to 1978 when she was again promoted by Kerry Packer to publisher of the women’s division.
In 1981, Buttrose left ACP join Rupert Murdoch as editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph - the first woman to edit a metropolitan daily newspaper. She was later appointed to the board of News Limited.
In the mid-1980s eighties, when the AIDs epidemic struck and a terrible fear gripped the nation, Buttrose stepped out of publishing and became the public face of sex education. It was a brave stand and one that won her a legion of fans in the gay and lesbian community.
After leaving News Limited, she formed a publishing company and in 1981, with money from an anonymous backer, published ITA, a decade or so before Oprah Winfrey's O magazine. Buttrose has written or co-produced nine books including A Passionate Life and a Guide to Australian Etiquette.
After years of trailblazing in the publishing industry, she largely dedicated her life to public service.
Her numerous voluntary posts have included chairing of the National Breast Cancer Centre’s Advisory Network, serving as director of the Prostate Cancer Foundation and, in 2011, National President of Alzheimer’s Australia.
Buttrose has been recognised with an AO for her services the community, an OBE for her service to journalism and a Centenary Medal for business leadership.
In a 2011, she appeared on the September cover of The Australian Women’s Weekly 36 years after she first edited it. In the cover story, she gave a small insight into the thinking that framed her extraordinary success.
She recalled a morning when she opened her then 17-year-old son’s bedroom door to find a girl in his bed. “I said to the girl, 'What do I say?’ She said, 'How about good morning?'"
Buttrose suspected her son hadn’t told the poor girl who his mother was. "Anyway, etiquette prevailed. It's not what happened in my day, but it's not my day anymore. It's a different day."
Ita Buttrose in 2006. Courtesy of Fairfax.
Ita Buttrose in 2016. Courtesy of Fairfax.
'Australian media legend Ita Buttrose on her remarkable career - and it's not over yet', Megan Doherty, Canberra Times, 28 August 2016.
'Australian of the Year 2013', Australian of the Year Awards website