Bare Boned: a study of women in television news

I felt like I’ve consumed a guilty pleasure as I finished the last page of “Boned”. On the back cover of the anonymous novel was the overblown claim to “blow the lid off the world of network television”. It didn’t do that, but landed a few telling blows. At its heart is the claim commercial television news and current affairs is a testosterone-soaked world where women are hired for sexiness and reach use-by date at 40. While the novel takes a broad brush with its two decade arc of the protagonist’s life story, it is too full of stock heroes and villains to ever move far beyond a thrash read.

The 2008 novel pitted feisty heroine and journalism degree graduate Kate Corish against the blokey culture at fictional Australian TV station “Channel Eight”. Corish overcomes sexism to rise to the top of the news and current affairs game but finds her career threatened as she approaches 40. Reviewing the novel for the Sydney Morning Herald, Tony Wilson says the best thing about the book was the title but the Corish character was too good to be true, “a gun foreign correspondent, better than any I remember from any of those 6.30pm current affairs shows”. The novel has aspects of a roman à clef. Many media, including News.com.au claimed the plotline was a thinly veiled rehash of the 2006 axing of Channel Nine’s Today show co-host Jessica Rowe.

Rowe’s sacking was mentioned in the extraordinary affidavit of Mark Llewellyn, head of Nine News who was asked to take a major pay cut in 2006 following the death of station owner Kerry Packer. The affidavit documented the events leading to his departure and popularised two colourful phrases. Firstly there was the “shit sandwich” Nine’s new CEO Eddie Maguire asked Llewellyn to “swallow” with a $350,000 pay cut. Then there was “boned” which meant sacked (but with sexual overtones). The phrase was apparently used by Maguire (though he denies it) when he asked Llewellyn: “What are we going to do with Jessica [Rowe]. When should we bone her?”

Boning has seeped into the lexicon. Earlier this year, a Channel Nine spokesperson denied Sydney newsreader Mark Ferguson was being sacked by saying “He’s not being boned. He’s on the payroll. There’s no blood on the floor.” It spread out into other industries. Last month, The Age suggested AFL team Collingwood’s coach Mick Malthouse might be boned “to use Eddie-speak” (a reference with a double edge as Maguire is also the Collingwood president).

Women mostly bore the brunt of “boning” as Jessica Rowe knows well. Tracey Spicer‘s career also bears resemblance to the fictional Corish. In 2006 Channel Ten sacked Spicer by email just weeks after returning from maternity leave after 14 years with the network. She claims to have met no-one like Corish in 20 years of television. Spicer says many women have survived in television despite being childless and single. She said the author is either a man who worked in TV rooms 20 years ago when “female newsreaders were hard-drinking players who gave as good as they got” or else it was a “doyenne of women’s magazines who’s decided to venture into that dreaded genre, chick lit.” She said the novel’s scenarios were out of date. “What 40-something television presenter devours coffee, cigarettes and Red Bull for breakfast?” asked Spicer “More like an egg white omelette, herbal-tea-for-my-complexion then Botox for brunch.”

There are several possible authors with substantial motivations for writing the “tell all” book. In April 2008, the Sydney Daily Telegraph said they included Nine News reporter Christine Spiteri and former Nine creative services director Mia Freedman. It also produced a larger suspect list that included Mark Llewellyn, former Nine news presenter Kellie Connolly, Tracey Spicer, former Ten Big Brother host Gretel Killeen, former Today Tonight host Naomi Robson and (most unlikely) former Nine CEO Eddie McGuire. Crikey favoured Killeen who has written a number of books, mostly for children and was dumped as Big Brother anchor in 2007 despite personal popularity.

Whoever it was, their novel raises useful questions about the role of women in television. The list of disgruntled sacked authors is also telling. Women have a difficult time being taken seriously in their media careers, behind and in front of the camera. A 1993 National Working Party on the Portrayal of Women in the Media study found women are most associated with human interest, leisure and crime issues and portrayed as victims, witnesses or random bystanders. Sixteen years later, women are still objects to be “boned” by men in authority. Even Spicer admits the novel has home truths. “Kate wasn’t fuckable any more,” she said. “And she knew only too well that was fatal for a woman in commercial television, no matter how impressive her resume.”

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