A full summary of Caroline Jones’ astounding career is beyond the scope of this introduction, but the highlights include first female reporter on This Day Tonight, first female host of Four Corners, decades of service to the myriad stories of our continent in The Search For Meaning and Australian Story, and a patronage of Women in Media. Late last year, after two decades, Jones announced she was leaving Australian Story. We caught up with the icon of Antipodean journalism to find out what’s next.
You’ve spent so much of your career in search of meaning. What have you learned over that time?
One thing I’ve learned in a long career is that everyone has a story. In a just and humane society there should be a place for everybody’s story to be told, to be heard and to be respected for its differences, for its richness, for its setbacks and for what people have learned along the way. That really has been the centre of my work for many, many years.
I began in current affairs in my youth, where we were trained and encouraged to be more adversarial, and I found that very appropriate when interviewing elected officials or people with some sort of public responsibility. However, as time went on I became more interested in drawing out people’s stories at a more introspective level. I found that that didn’t work, and so I had an interesting time working with colleagues at the ABC, developing a program called The Search for Meaning, which was just the storytelling of people’s real-life experience.
Do you find people often approach you to share their life stories?
Yes, I do. Of course, I really do think that that is always a privilege, always, and I think that happens to me partly because I’ve become known as a journalist who does that sort of thing, but it’s also because I have learned to listen. That grew out of being a shy child, and not really having much to say, but still wanting to be part of everything. We all love to encounter a good listener, because that’s rather rare. You don’t often find someone who’s ready to put aside their own opinion and their own concerns, and just open up a space for you where you will feel safe to tell something of your own story, your own fears, your own turning points, your own difficulties.
Caroline Jones on This Day Tonight in 1970 (Image: National Archives of Australia)
What grabs you about a story?
Look, it’s almost anybody, to tell you the truth. I was on the train the other day, coming from the Blue Mountains, back down to Sydney. I love train travel. It’s quite a long journey and I had such pleasure in just looking at the people, seeing how they were with each other, if they were in groups, just observing the way people are. I’m an observer. I’m more introvert than extrovert in personality, and so it’s easy for me to watch and enjoy, and be fascinated by other people and, if I get the opportunity, to listen to them.
It must have been tough being an adversarial reporter as an introvert…
It was, it was, but if that’s the job you’re given, you just have to find the courage and get out there and do it, even if you’re sweating around your collar. Yes, it was hard for me.
Is there any advice you’d give your younger self?
Just keep on going. Remember that at some level everyone is vulnerable. Treat people in interviewing as you would like to be treated yourself. Even when you are trying to hold them to account in their public office, do it with respect and intelligent research. Always remember the dignity of the human person.
And now the big question: what’s next for you?
I’m not sure, but one of the reasons why I thought it was time for me to part from Australian Story after 20 wonderful years was that, at a certain age, you become – suddenly, in my case – aware that life actually doesn’t go on forever. You think, “Goodness me. I’m not too sure how many years I’ve got left.” Well, you know, I hope I’ll be here next week, but it comes to you that life is finite and you think, “Oh, my goodness, there are really quite a lot of things I’d love to do.” That was a major factor in my thinking it was time to step aside, perhaps, from a formal commitment to regular work.
I am interested in art and I have enrolled in a couple of classes in drawing and watercolour painting, which is something I have been looking forward to getting back to, and which has been neglected. I’m also very keen on dancing, and I was a dancer for many years, and I’d love to do some more dancing. There are books piled up that I would love to read. I really haven’t, since my early days, done a lot of travelling, and there are many parts of Australia I haven’t seen. That would be also on my wish list.
After so long in the same role, you must have mixed feelings about leaving.
It was very difficult to leave Australian Story, partly because I think it’s the most wonderful program on television – a valuable, worthwhile, meaningful program, as well as being entertaining and at times breaking news. It has helped us to get to know each other better as Australians. It has served a wonderful purpose from the early days, when it was founded by Deborah Fleming. I have loved being part of it for all that time, and I’m confident that it will go forward very effectively from here on.
I will miss it. I do miss the marvellous team I worked with. I will also miss the audience, because I’ve always had the sense, as an ABC person, of being a public servant, that is, a person in the service of the people, and it was fairly clear to me what my job was, which was to help draw out the stories of people. I have a feeling of deep regret at maybe disappointing the long-term loyal ABC viewers, who kind of get used to their veteran broadcasters, so that’s quite a strong feeling, and I hope that I will be forgiven for that. It had to happen sometime, but it’s painful.
It’s painful to make a big decision that is creating a big change in your life, and I know there will be advantages, and I know there will be regrets. I’m realistic about it, but it’s the right time to make a change, so it’s very mixed feelings. However, I know from experience of life there’s always another adventure ahead.
Will you keep watching?
Oh, I wouldn’t miss an episode of Australian Story for the world. I’ll always be an ABC person. I’ll always be part of Australian Story. The ABC’s been part of my life since I was a small child, sitting with the wireless in our living room, in a little country town. You know, that’s where the world was brought into our little weatherboard cottage, through the wireless, and especially through the ABC, which served the whole country. It’s been my education, it’s been my livelihood, it’s been my vocation, and I guess now I can move back into being a member of the audience and someone who treasures and believes in the value of public broadcasting as part of the large and loyal ABC audience.
What is your favourite memory of Caroline Jones on television?
Photography (feature image): Gemma Deavin