Fired for not being ‘seductive’ enough, Jane Singleton looks back on her career
January is generally a big month for former ABC journalist Jane Singleton. Thirty-five Januaries ago, she began work as the first host of the national broadcaster’s nightly current affairs program — the hour-long 7.30 Report (now 7.30) – on her 39th birthday. The show aired a few weeks later on January 28, 1986.
She shares her January 13 birthdate with her once-nemesis, the late Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Queensland’s longest serving conservative premier, who refused to speak to her on television and ordered his Country Party cabinet to do likewise. Despite his public ban after a particularly bruising interview when she hosted ABC’s Nationwide in Brisbane, Sir Joh and Jane privately continued to wish each other happy birthday.
Lunch with Jane Singleton.Credit:Wolter Peeters
Both her children are born in January (son Tom, 36, an architect, lives in Berlin, and daughter Jess, 39, lives in Toormina near Coffs Harbour and works as a researcher trying to reduce incidence of rheumatic heart disease in the Indigenous population in the Northern Territory). Singleton, grandmother to Emmy, five, and Lucie, two, spent several years in the NT, working as a public servant from 2010, returning to Sydney in 2014.
This January, Singleton celebrated her 74th summer, split between her home in Glebe and her “Central Coast fibro” at Pearl Beach. She continued work on the treatment of a documentary/drama based on the book she has written thanks to a 2017 State Library of NSW Honorary Fellowship. What Katie Did is about Katie Langloh Parker, a 19th century white woman who recorded and preserved the legends and lives of Indigenous people in outback NSW.
Australian legendary tales, by K. Langloh Parker.
The first edition of Australian Legendary Tales: Folk-lore of the Noongahburrahs as Told to the Piccaninnies, published in 1896, includes more than 30 tales told to Langloh Parker in the Euahlayi language. She translated the stories into what The Sydney Morning Herald described at the time as the first work in Australian literature to compile the legends of a particular Aboriginal group.
Her work is valued today in academic circles as a language reference and for its cultural insights. Presenting them as folktales, “for the enjoyment of English children,” was one of many things that made her work controversial.
Singleton is no stranger to controversy herself.
We meet for lunch at Monte, a French restaurant in Leichhardt, to hear what drew her to the Langloh Parker story. But instead of Bangate Station around Lightning Ridge and Walgett where that story unfolds, we are in the boot of a car in Brazil, where Singleton is fleeing her job at the English language daily The Brazil Herald after running foul of the Brazilian government.
Appropriately she chooses a glass of Alamos Malbec, an Argentinian wine, for the South American chapter of her life, accompanied by Den Miso glazed Canadian scallops and potato foam for starters. I choose a twice-baked French goat cheese souffle in honour of Paul Keating’s quip about another politician of Singleton’s interviewing era, Andrew Peacock, and settle in for the story of the escape across the border into Uruguay.
Singleton spent a year hitchhiking around South America in the 1970s (“If my daughter had done it I’d have died,” she says now) before settling in Rio to write for the English publication as well as UK Financial Times and The Economist.
Jane Singleton in Leichhardt.Credit:Wolter Peeters
She arrived in Chile in September 1973, just days before “that terrible fracas” when Marxist Salvador Allende was killed. Although she’s run her own business, directed or chaired boards including the NRMA, the then Australian Consumers Council, the Australian National Gallery, international aid agency ChildFund, the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance and the Sydney Peace Foundation, journalism is the job she loves the most.
“Being a journalist was always really great fun,” she says, even when politicians banned her and she fell out with authority, including most of her bosses at the ABC and 2GB.
Singleton was born in Victoria in 1947. Her businesswoman mother and artist father divorced when she was three, and her mother took her only child to Stanley in northwestern Tasmania, to live with her grandmother, who went blind early in life. They then moved back to Melbourne (“South Yarra when it had hardware stores and wasn’t posh”), where her mother ran Heuston Fashion, a high-quality women’s wear label. It was successful enough to send young Jane to the prestigious St Catherine’s School in Toorak then onto the University of Melbourne studying arts on a Commonwealth scholarship.
The Singletons at home in Glebe. Jane and David Singleton with their daughter Jessica and son Thomas in 1986.Credit:Steven Holland
“My mother really wanted me to go to uni; her experience was that women needed work to support their family and being able to earn enough money to support a family was the most important thing for her.“
While still a university student, she went to China during the 1968 cultural revolution, along with fellow students Stephen Fitzgerald, who would become ambassador to China, and historian (now emeritus professor) Bob Reece, a chief cheerleader for Singleton’s interest in Langloh Parker because of his studies of Daisy Bates. Thanks to that China trip, she was banned from visiting many countries including the USA, which is how she ended up in South America for four years.
As one of the first female graduate cadets on The Age in 1969, the then Jane Stoney escaped Australia in the 1970s for adventure, returning fluent in Spanish with some great stories and a husband, David Singleton. They’d known each other in Australia and met again when he came to Brazil delivering sheep. He was the one driving the old Ford car she was in the boot of escaping Brazil “because female foreigners were prevented from owning cars”.
Jane Singleton on air at radio 2GB, December 9, 1987. Credit:Trevor James Robert Dallen.
They settled on a farm just out of Corowa, and Singleton joined ABC radio in Albury as one of the first female rural reporters. They moved to Longreach, where she was transferred with the ABC, before going to Brisbane, where she became Queensland compere for the ABC program Nationwide. Here, her tough “torpedo-style” interviewing upset Bjelke-Petersen but won her fans in viewers and ABC management. In 1984, she was brought to Sydney to present 702 Sydney’s (then known as Radio 2BL’s) City Extra, the influential 8.30am-to-noon slot.
Moving onto mains, she chooses the ravioli of slow-braised lamb neck (Monte’s signature chicken and leek pie for me) as we get into the meatier part of her life story. She gained further notoriety after cutting short a radio interview with prime minister Bob Hawke in 1985.
The Canberra press pack and cameras had descended on the radio studio, she was pregnant and Hawke was at the peak of his popularity. She took her usual tough line on a range of issues from the deficit to Hawke’s reputation as a “womaniser and boozer” until he sidestepped a question about party factionalism.
“When Hawke refused to answer the question I asked, I told him ‘this is a waste of taxpayers’ money, prime minister’,” Singleton says, and cut him off. The South African author Breyten Breytenbach, jailed for his opposition to apartheid, was also in the studio and the next guest on the show after Hawke, and witnessed the altercation.
“He told me ‘you will be put in prison for that’.”
She wasn’t jailed, but soon after she pre-empted ABC management by announcing on air that she had been “axed”. In 1986, she started as the inaugural 7.30 Report presenter but was sacked from ABC TV in November 1987 when her then boss told her she was “not seductive enough”. Pru Goward, the then 7.30 Report’s Canberra correspondent, had been dumped earlier that year too.
Den Miso Glazed Canadian Scallops at Monte.Credit:Wolter Peeters.
Singleton was snapped up by radio 2GB as their morning announcer but was sacked in 1988 only four months into a two-year contract. That saga came to a conclusion in the Commercial Division of the NSW Supreme Court, where she was awarded $251,000 in damages.
Not long after she became federal vice-president of the journalists’ union and ran her own public affairs company, campaigning for causes including victims of James Hardie’s asbestos products to those impacted by apartheid. She co-ordinated Nelson Mandela’s visit to Australia and was invited to his inauguration, where she met with Hawke again, who understood their differences were purely professional.
She thinks on the whole things have got easier for women in media today, from better access to childcare to more women in management. “Leigh Sales has been at the helm of 7.30 for a decade now; I lasted only two years … but in management Michelle Guthrie seems to have had a very mixed response.”
Her experience on boards has shown her the “blokey” culture still reigns in many Australian quarters, and #metoo only touched the surface. “It failed to get to the bottom of treatment of women like myself who are the main breadwinners in a family. When I lost my job, my family lost our income — that’s why women didn’t speak out for so long.”
Twice-baked French goat cheese souffle.Credit:Wolter Peeters.
Singleton divorced decades ago and now lives with German-born partner Charles Wyman, whom she met though the Sydney Peace Foundation.
Her self-published book (“I didn’t have the confidence to try a mainstream publisher as I never thought of myself as a writer”) came about when she realised her connection to the many Katie Langloh Parker books that had been in her home growing up. As a child, the legends had been read to her as bedtime stories.
Receipt for lunch with Jane Singleton.
“They terrified me … but like so many of my generation, that was about all I ever heard or read about Indigenous Australians,” she said. Langloh Parker had been a familiar name to her since childhood but until she started delving further, she had not realised they were related.
“Katie turned out to be my great-great aunt by marriage. Her husband, Langloh Parker, was my great-great uncle.“
This explains all the books around her childhood home. Singleton drove the 1400 kilometres to Bangate to meet the Indigenous descendants of the Euahlayi tribe, including film-maker Frances Claire Peters-Little, daughter of musician Jimmy Little. They assured her that while they may have taken exception to some of Langloh Parker’s description of Indigenous people, such as my “darkie friends” (considered patronising possibly even then), they were on the whole grateful she had recorded the language and the stories.
In retracing her steps, Singleton saw the parallels between her own life as a fellow farmer and the squatter’s wife she has written about whose natural curiosity lead her to tell tales of people whose language she took the time to learn to explain to a wider audience.
“In contrast to Daisy Bates, Katie Langloh Parker remains a little-known figure … but what a gal she was.”
What Katie Did is available at what-katie-did.com.
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