1923 - 2006 | NSW | Foreign correspondent
Few people are more responsible for the correction of gender imbalance in the Australian Press than Margaret Jones. During a 33-year career at the Sydney Morning Herald, she was an outstanding foreign correspondent. She was the Sydney Morning Herald’s first correspondent in Washington in 1966, then was posted to London in 1969. In 1973, she was appointed the first Beijing correspondent for the Herald since the end of World War II. As literary editor of the Herald, she led the successful campaign to allow women full membership of the Sydney Journalists Club. She served on the Australian Press Council from 1988 to 1998.
When Margaret Jones wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1953 asking for a job, she said: “As you may see by my signature, I am a woman, and I know that even yet, a certain amount of prejudice still exists against women in journalism.”
It was not the first time the tenacious reporter from Rockhampton had tried to break into the tough world of Sydney newspapers. In the conservative 1950s, women in journalism were mostly relegated to the women’s pages. At the SMH, these were run by Connie Robertson. As Jones described it, “the formidable Connie Robertson presided over a stable of bright girls who spent their time, kitted out in hats and gloves, reporting lunchtime gatherings of society women, fashion parades and other trivialities”. The idea of becoming one of Robertson’s ‘girls’ had no appeal; Jones was intent on becoming a general reporter.
From childhood, Jones knew she wanted to be a journalist. Born in 1923, she was the youngest of six children. Her father was the secretary on the Rockhampton Harbour Board for 40 years, while her mother was a housewife. After an education at the local Catholic secondary school, followed by teacher’s college in Brisbane, Jones joined the public service at the behest of her parents. It wasn’t long before she asserted her own wishes and moved to Mackay, taking a job as proofreader on the Mercury newspaper. From there she found employment, first as a stringer but later permanently, at the ABC. But regional Australia had little to offer a woman of Jones’ talent and ambition. Like many young people of her day, she set her sights on Sydney, with the ultimate aim of working overseas.
Journalism work in Sydney was not easy to come by. Unable to secure a position at the SMH when she first applied, she joined the Daily Mirror as a sub-editor, eventually becoming a feature writer. But she still wanted to be a reporter for the SMH, which she considered to be the best newspaper in the country. “What I had not realised,” she said,“was that the more elevated the paper, the more likely it was to discriminate on the grounds of sex. Country papers didn’t, tabloids didn’t – at least in the lower ranks – but broadsheets were another matter.”
Jones’s forthright 1953 job application to the SMH succeeded and she was offered a job the following year under John Douglas Pringle’s editorship, but on the women’s section. She declined: “I said I would not, and I meant it, so they put me on supplements where presumably I could do no harm.” There she was given odd jobs, theatre and book reviews and the inaugural ‘Dog of the Week’ column.
Realising there was little future for her at the paper, she resigned, travelling to London in 1956 in search of better opportunities. Fairfax, unwilling to employ her as a full reporter at home, would not take her stories from England. She made her way by freelancing for magazines. After five years, she returned to Sydney, but conservatism regarding women’s employment had reasserted itself strongly at the SMH after Pringle’s departure for England, and it refused to re-employ Jones. She was offered her choice of the two Fairfax tabloids instead, the Sun or the Sun-Herald. She chose the latter and became one of its regular feature writers.
Still Jones aspired to work as a general reporter on the SMH. As fate would have it, Pringle was lured back to Australia in the late 1960s to work for Fairfax, eventually returning to the SMH. He set about modernising the paper. Chief among his reforms was the hiring of women journalists. It was the opportunity Margaret Jones needed. She negotiated to move to the SMH and report from New York in 1967. There, she worked alongside the rock music journalist Lillian Roxon.
A year later, Jones was sent to open a bureau in Washington. Jones was 43, had been in journalism for more than 20 years, but regarded that posting as her first “really good break”. She regularly filed major stories out of Washington, including Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the escalation of the Vietnam War and the 1967 Glassboro Summit. Yet there was a serious impediment to her reporting: her exclusion from the Washington-based National Press Club which did not, at the time, admit women members, even as associates. It was a serious issue because visiting heads of state, politicians and business leaders spoke at the club and the lunchtime speeches were widely reported. Jones was put at a disadvantage, along with her American counterparts. Partly motivated by her Washington experience, Jones later joined the group who campaigned successfully in 1972 for women to have full membership of the Sydney Journalists’ Club.
In 1969, Jones was posted to London where she reported on the Beatles, Harold Wilson and the Irish Republican Army. But it was her reporting from China that would cement Jones’ name.
Following Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s normalisation of relations with China, there was an official exchange of journalists in 1973 (three from each country). Jones was chosen and sent by Fairfax to open a Peking bureau. It was a difficult posting in a country still in the grip of the Cultural Revolutuon. Jones had no knowledge of Mandarin and all foreign journalists were prohibited from talking to ordinary Chinese. She was forced to rely for information on Xinhua, the official news agency, supplemented by the two national newspapers, Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily) and Guangming Ribao (Enlightenment Daily), both tightly controlled by the Communist Party.
From Peking, Jones travelled extensively, visiting North Korea, Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. Her work and travels informed the novels she would write, The Confucius Enigma (1979), a thriller based on her experiences in China, and The Smiling Buddha (1985), set in Cambodia. In 1976, while Jones was working as literary editor for the SMH, she made a case for press freedom based on her experiences in China in the Paton-Wilkie-Deamer Newspaper Address. She was the first woman to give the prestigious address, sponsored by the NSW branch of the Australian Journalists’ Association and the Sydney Journalists’ Club
In 1980, Jones returned to London as European correspondent for the SMH, which resulted in her non-fiction book Thatcher’s Kingdom: A View of Britain in the Eighties (1984), a skilfully written account of the impact of the economic changes wrought by Thatcher’s policies. She retired in 1987, but remained active, serving on the Australian Press Council from 1988 to 1998, the Independent Complaints Review Panel set up to hear complaints about the ABC and as Vice-President and member of Sydney PEN, chairing the Writers in Prison Committee. She was also an involved member of the Australian Republican Movement, the Sydney Institute, the Mitchell Library’s Library Society, and the DH Lawrence Society.
Margaret Jones died in 2013, having enjoyed a stellar career in journalism once given the opportunity. She used her abilities, strength and persistence to become an exceptional print journalist, tackling sexism in the industry head-on, and opening the way for other women to fulfil their ambitions and reach their potential as journalists.
Dr Willa McDonald is Senior Lecturer in Media at Macquarie University where she teaches and researches creative non-fiction writing and literary journalism. A former journalist, she is currently researching the history of Australian literary journalism from the early days of the colony.
Margaret Jones with Lillian Roxon and Don Riseborough, 1965. Courtesy of Fairfax.
'Personal Reflections', Margaret Jones, Media International Australia (incorporating Culture and Policy), 99, May 2001, 59-66.
'A trailblazer for women journalists', Gavin Souter & Tony Stephens, smh.com.au, 3 August 2006