Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Better to blend in than be tempting target

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I'm not quite Germaine Greer (pictured), who in her 50s decided gardening was better than casual sex, but at 45, perhaps not far off. Photo / Derek Flynn
I'm not quite Germaine Greer (pictured), who in her 50s decided gardening was better than casual sex, but at 45, perhaps not far off. Photo / Derek Flynn

I've been reading my kids a book called Maude by Lauren Child, but I think it might make a cautionary tale for journalists.

Maude's family are all fabulously eccentric - her mother wears a hat with a real peacock perched on it, her father's waxed moustache is so twirly it attracts butterflies, her brother tapdances everywhere he goes, and so on. But everyone feels sorry for Maude because she is so inconspicuous that she just disappears into the background.

For her birthday Maude asks for a goldfish but her unique family can't bear to get her something so banal, so they buy her a tiger instead. All is fine until they're so busy being fabulous they forget to feed it. The eccentrics shriek and scream and come to a sticky end. "Yum, yum," says the tiger. But quiet Maude just stands completely still and is invisible. "Sometimes, just sometimes, not being noticeable is the very best talent of all."

When I started out as a reporter we were taught the very best in our profession were ciphers, like Maude. They blended in anywhere: that's how they got the big stories. Lacking any sophistication, and unaware that it is frequently much more powerful to be in the background than grabbing headlines, I thought this sounded boring.

As a young female journalist I was probably sadly before my time in shamelessly trying to schmooze my way to notoriety of any kind like an overpainted attention-seeking goose. Back then, how I would have loved to have been in Andrea Vance's position, the famous Fairfax journalist who brought down a Cabinet minister. How glorious to be feted for your special powers of turning a powerful man to mush, leading him to say he "made errors of judgment" while in your thrall.

Whether their relationship was romantic or not scarcely seems to matter. Although it does seem disingenuous for Vance to now play the victim. Whatever the background, Vance still exhibited a degree of influence - for that week anyway she was more powerful than any politician - that made her the envy of her colleagues.

Especially those who are a little too dangerously in love with the romantic image of their profession - they are the noble crusader, the Katharine Hepburn wisecracker, the reincarnation of Martha Gellhorn. Even if these days being a female reporter is more like being an "It" girl than a hack.

You have to be good at putting on the different personas that are expected of you, whether that be vampish, coquettish or as "enchantingly nasty" as Rita Skeeter. Most often young female journalists still seem to be cast in these starring roles by older tweedy men. It is in the classic tradition of Pygmalion - anyone remember Maddie in House of Cards?

I wonder how many female reporters in the parliamentary Press Gallery have unresolved "daddy issues". (Oh I know they will all deny this strenuously, they are tough, independent and staunch. I'd have said the same, too.) I just can't help thinking it would be progress if female journalists were writing their own parts rather than continuing to play the role of temptress to male politicians.

Personally, I can't think of anything I'd less like to do these days. I'm not quite Germaine Greer, who in her 50s decided gardening was better than casual sex, but at 45, perhaps not far off.

Female reporters are like prima ballerinas or elite gymnasts; with a few notable exceptions (Kim Hill, Fran O'Sullivan, Susan Wood) for most of us our career is over and our waistlines are expanding by the time we're 30. But the tweedy old men can blithely carry on with a new retinue of young proteges.

These days the female journalist I most admire does not resemble Andrea Vance with her high-profile "scoops". Janet Malcolm (aged 70-something) is most famous for her quote: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

Malcolm has what Slate writer Alice Gregory calls "terrifying neutrality - like a teacher who is capable of handling even her most despised pupils no differently than the ones she secretly adores". But I can't imagine Malcolm flirting on Twitter or wearing disco pants.

- NZ Herald

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