Helen McCabe: Why our laws are failing children

The Weekly's Editor-in-Chief, Helen McCabe, discusses her time at the helm of The Weekly and the challenges facing the media industry as she delivers the Andrew Olle Media Lecture.

The Australian Women’s Weekly Editor-In-Chief, Helen McCabe says laws in Australian states, particularly NSW, are protecting no one but the people who kill children.

Delivering the 2015 Andrew Olle Media Lecture in Sydney, Helen told an audience of her media peers that strict laws around identifying child victims of crime and their families were “doing much more harm than good”.

She also said there was a crisis of trust between the producers and consumers of Australian media which needed urgently to be addressed.

She used the prestigious address to reveal the machinations of celebrity media deals, in which managers and PR agents seek total control over the stories in which their charges appear.

In a wide-ranging lecture, Helen spoke passionately stopping domestic violence, the rise of the “non-celebrity celebrity”, the triumph of the older woman and the urgent reforms required in the area of family law.


Helen McCabe

Next month, it will be 20 years since Andrew Olle died.

It was Tuesday December 12, 1995.

I was on the family farm in South Australia, on leave from my role as a Channel Seven reporter in the Canberra press gallery.

It is baking hot on the Adelaide plains in December. The landscape is littered with tractors and chaser bins, as farmers race to finish harvest.

News of Andrew’s passing saturate the airwaves. Six thousand letters of sympathy poured into the ABC.

On this night, each year, we recall Andrew’s many qualities for he was much loved.

According to a friend, Andrew was elegant; elegant of mind and manner. He had dignity and poise, civility, and faith in people.

Let me acknowledge Annette and Nicolas, Nina and Sam.

I never met Andrew, which I think makes this task as daunting as it is humbling.

He possessed many traits, personally and professionally, that most of us will spend a lifetime striving to emulate.

There is, however, one thing I can safely say I share with Andrew: a life-long obsession with journalism.

Even as we face immense challenges, for me, this will always be the only game in town. At it’s simplest it is about telling stories.

In his distinguished career, there is one story Andrew told almost no one; his own. I thank Annette for letting me share it with you.

As is common among journalists, Andrew began life as an outsider. That perfect diction belied a miserable childhood.

It was a long way from the elite world he would eventually make his own.

Andrew was the child of a broken marriage; his father, a Major in the Army, was given custody. And Andrew was dispatched to boarding schools until the age of 12.

Many years later, Andrew told Janet Hawley: “I still remember great loneliness, particularly as a kid of eight or nine, pacing the school fence at weekends hoping my father would turn up to take me out for the day… and it rarely happening.”

This sense of abandonment led to years of personal turmoil.

His father remarried, inheriting three step children. Andrew struggled to fit in.

At 15, he quit school, jack-knifed a car into a petrol bowser, took part in a break and enter, survived another car crash and then swallowed a handful of pills.

He was detained in a home for juvenile offenders, appeared before the Children’s Court and was seeing a child psychiatrist, all by the age of 17.

A parole officer intervened, took him under his wing, and under that influence, Andrew went back to school, matriculated and won a university scholarship. And he met Annette, whom he married unfashionably young at 21.

As most journalists know, you don’t learn much from your triumphs; you learn much more from your mistakes.

The compassionate, considered, composed Andrew Olle embodies that truism as well as anybody.

Andrew Olle.

Tonight I am going to tell a few stories.

Mark Scott asked me to talk about reinventing the icon, The Australian Women’s Weekly. There are many attractions in that. And just as many perils.

There is an enduring magic about magazines. I still get asked if I throw my coat at my staff like Anna Wintour. And, of course, everyone wants to meet Ita!

Let me first allay any fears.

I will not say “content is king”; or that “this is the most exciting time to be in journalism”. Or that readers are “time poor”.

But in all seriousness I will assume that we are all online, trying new things, and facing significant commercial challenges.


When Andrew’s friend and colleague Mike Carlton heard I was speaking, he was not unreasonably grumpy.

He tweeted: “Thrilled that the Women’s Weekly’s Helen McCabe is giving this year’s Olle lecture. Twenty Hearty Winter Soups ! Chocolate Ganache ! Jesus !”

Alarmed, I emailed colleague Caroline Overington, “what’s a chocolate Granache?”

She responded: “To start with, it doesn’t have an ‘R’ in it, you idiot!”

Evidently, I’m more at ease with the front of the book than I am in the test kitchen.

Although I reject the idea that exclusives and agenda-setting journalism can’t sit alongside recipes or beauty tips.

Let’s face it, how is it any different to wrapping news around the form guide?

The Weekly is a product marketed to women – an audience that I believe is both misunderstood and underrepresented in some quarters.

And The Weekly is a monthly title (yes that still takes some explaining), which means we are slightly removed from the 24-hour news cycle.

And it is a business.

Everything I say tonight is unapologetically about selling more magazines.

When ACP’s chief executive, the late Ian Law, took a gamble on a News Ltd journo for the editorship of The Weekly, it was a brave decision. For both of us.

Up until that point, my experience had been in Canberra, as a foreign correspondent and on The Tele and The Australian.

What I knew about celebrities and cooking you could’ve fitted on the back of a coaster at the Evening Star – as any visitor to my home will attest.

Previous editors had built a formidable title that for 80+ years had been entwined with the lives of Australian women.

Not a lot was wrong, it was still the number one selling title.

ACP, now Bauer Media, has a sophisticated consumer research division. So, I immersed myself in their findings, I still do.

To anyone who has ever wondered how we choose a cover, let me assure you, it is not done on instinct alone.

Although the more research you do the more you understand that instinct is vital to unlocking a truly surprising cover or campaign.

Even so, I am always uneasy when I open the research. I fear my training, my “gut” if you like, will be proven wrong.

Readers are like voters. They are always right.

And bad research usually leads to someone from “upstairs” throwing the results on your desk and saying “Darlin’, they just want diets”.

Sorry to break it to the women in the audience but even in mags, it’s always a bloke upstairs. But that is a whole other speech.

The thing I set out to do was to elevate storytelling. And so I assembled a new generation of storytellers. And I have them to thank for what we’ve built over the six years.


In that time I’ve been thinking a lot about the crisis of trust in our profession and that is what I want to focus on tonight.

Just a few weeks ago, Australia’s most trusted journalist (as all the surveys show), Laurie Oakes, argued that a free press needs to be a “respected press”.

“If we are to safeguard the utmost freedom to report we need the public behind us. Most people assume we have that public support, but have we?” he asked.

Laurie concluded “the only way to guarantee it is to start winning back respect”.

He is dead right.

There is a crisis in this regard. An abundance of research supports it.

Besides, truthfully, we don’t really respect or trust each other. When we read stories quoting ‘senior sources’ we suspect they are really junior sources.

When we see a ‘drop’ in the weekend papers, we roll our eyes. We complain to each other about opinion disguised as news. We rip off each others’ exclusives, claiming them as our own. And we wince at the most vicious commentary.

So it follows that our audiences are sceptical.

Of course, there is a place for the combative editorial stance. And the provocative tabloid splash. But audiences are demanding more facts and a less adversarial approach.

The Weekly is a much-loved institution, but even we feel the anti-media backlash. In particular, this constant accusation of bias. Like the one Leigh Sales battles every night.

After a profile on Scott Morrison, one cranky reader wrote: “Dear Ms McCabe, I’ve seen enough of your work to conclude that you are just another News Ltd operative, intent on foisting your political agenda on your readership. Such a shame, as it really is a beautiful cover.”

I responded testily.

“Dear Margaret, you might recall I covered Paul Howes the union leader a few years ago. It is disappointing that coverage of a person or an issue is deemed to be tacit support. It is not”.


Of course the loudest claim of bias at The Weekly was about a cover.

The historic elevation of our first female Prime Minister was for me a natural fit for the nation’s largest women’s mag.

And she benefited from a beautiful cover, which coincidentally hit newsstands at the start of the 2010 election.

This was the first time I’d really noticed this trend, where the mere choice of a subject is seen as evidence of one’s voting intentions.

Even arguments, these days, about balance are treated with suspicion. Balance and bias are subjective. It is delicate.

And try as we might, we all get that balance wrong occasionally.

But if you have a reputation for fairness, you are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt when things do, inevitably, go wrong.

Regrettably, things went wrong for us during a second story about Ms Gillard just as Labor plotted to oust her.

She was affronted by the story, which, as requested by her office, depicted her knitting a kangaroo for Prince George.

This time she lost office the very same day the story hit the stands.

And later, in her memoir, she wrote that I treated her “shabbily”.

Were we trying to help her get elected with the cover? No.

Were we trying to bring her down with a knitting pattern of a kangaroo? Of course not.

They were stories.

Incidentally, I still have two stunt kangaroos, knitted especially for that ill-fated shoot. They’re in my office, as a constant reminder of how easily, and inadvertently, things can go wrong.

So let me elaborate on how and why trust is being eroded, and how we can restore it.


The boom in celebrity journalism has spawned a boom in celebrity agents, along with the lawyers, corporate affairs teams, marketing departments, PR advisers and press secretaries.

They play us off against each other, shopping around their clients’ products, announcements, movies, books, even significant life events. I’ve been told about engagements before the bride, and pregnancies before the grandparents.

Aside from cash, these negotiations revolve around copy and picture approval. In one case, a celebrity management company wanted The Weekly pulped, after their client gave an on-the-record interview she later regretted.

Celebrities want money AND a gushing story. But these agreements diminish us all.

Because our audiences now see straight through them.

It’s part of why a segment of the readership has lost interest in celebrity profiles. The proliferation of native advertising – i.e. product placement – poses the same threats.

They are all press releases in disguise, prepared, edited and commissioned by people with an agenda to push or product to sell.

It’s understandable but our audiences are alive to the sanitised, talent-approved version of events.

The ABC’s investigative reporter Sarah Ferguson recently highlighted the same corrosive practices in her line of work. Urging us to collectively push back against media departments proposing filming agreements that give them veto over content.

“In the past,” she lamented, “those relationships would have worked on trust. Now we have lengthy legal documents drafted by lawyers to manage our interaction.”

Look, cheque book journalism is a fact of life.

No-one begrudges victims of crime being remunerated for their ordeal. But there are pitfalls.

In another case, a weight loss company exploded when our coverage of a product challenged their silly assertions. The furious marketing boss rang breathlessly complaining, the perfectly accurate story was not covered as “pitched” or “agreed”.

This is sadly all too common.

As is now a cliché – “journalism is something, someone, somewhere doesn’t want printed, and all the rest is advertising”.

There are many serious side effects to the erosion of trust.


I mentioned Laurie Oakes’ speech this year. In 2011 he said that trust in journalism is “central to the operation of our democracy.”

He expanded on it in September, alarmed by new national security laws.

An alarm shared by top investigative reporter Ross Coulthart in an address on Press Freedom this year.

These laws are deeply worrying, and demand our attention.

Admittedly, I don’t spend a lot of time fussing about metadata. But I do operate in the space of family law.

And I am deeply concerned about domestic violence and crimes against children and the constant battle to tell these stories.

As I was writing this speech during a few days off last week I took a harrowing call.

A mother had watched as her 12-year-old mentally ill son was dragged out of the family home by his estranged father.

The distraught mother tried to shield her other children as her ex beat the child senseless in a park across the road. The father only stopped when he was tasered by police. He was out on bail within 24 hours.

We all know cases like these. But they take a toll on us at The Weekly because they are so common.

I recently interviewed nine prominent women and – unprompted – four of them admitted being victims of domestic violence.

Please do not doubt the statistics. It really is one in three women who are victims of family violence.

And my contention is that some legislation, and a culture of suppression orders designed to protect our children, is doing more harm than good.

It is a shameful fact that tens of thousands of kids are condemned to misery in this country.

Fifty thousand are in the foster system, many rotating through ten different homes.

But there is an intricate web of laws that makes many stories hard to tell, but none more so than in New South Wales.

As Caroline Overington said in a 2009 speech: “When a child dies in NSW, you can’t name the parents. You can’t name the siblings. You can’t use any photographs. You can’t give away the address. You can’t say anything that would identify the child… even if the child is dead.”

So if Luke Batty had died in NSW, we could not publish his name or photograph. We could not name Rosie Batty.

All the important work she has done over the past 12 months would have been done anonymously or, as is more likely, wouldn’t have been done at all.

Look, I don’t have the answers. And I am all for protecting children who are already victims, but the NSW laws, in particular, are crazy.

Pixelated faces and redacted names are significant barriers to storytelling.

I share Caroline’s conclusion: the only people these laws end up protecting are the people who kill children.

And yet when the media unites to fight for change, we lose.

To achieve change, we need the public onside. And to achieve that, they need to trust us.

So, what have we done, and what has worked?


There are two audiences in magazines. One will always be drawn to celebrities; for the escapism or the voyeurism. But there is another, desperately bored by celebrities, and increasingly agitating for different types of stories. This is what, for the want of a better term, I call the ‘non-celebrity celebrity’.

Women like Denise Morcombe the mother of murdered schoolboy Daniel Morcombe.

Women like Anna Bligh, who at the depths of her fight against cancer trusted us to show the world what chemotherapy looks like.

And of course the ultimate non-celebrity celebrity, Turia Pitt.

When the rescue helicopter landed to retrieve her, Turia had burns to 65% of her body.

Her surgeon later told us he hoped for her sake that she would not live; such were the extent of her injuries.

Today Turia is running marathons and faster than she ever has. It is estimated she has undergone more than 200 operations.

Hers is a triumphant story of the human spirit.

Globally commentators remarked on the significance of the cover in our largely superficial world. It was repeatedly called ‘brave’ almost in a Yes, Minister sort of way.

But I was worried; if it didn’t sell, it would forever be a cautionary tale for magazine editors, never to be repeated.

The readership was one of our best discounting the Royals, of course, and the sales were up.

I met Turia for lunch while the cover was still on the stands. She had undergone another two rounds of surgery since the shoot. She greeted me with a giant hug.

And her first words were “Geez, people are overthinking it”.

Today she is a bona fide celebrity, and I am proud that The Weekly helped fast-track that process.

It certainly changed our thinking. Forever.

That brings me back to Rosie, 2015 has been all about Rosie.

Before she became Australian of the Year, her life was like millions of others. She was raising a son in a small community as a single mum.

But that anonymity was lost when her son Luke was murdered by her ex-partner.

Rosie had tried about 15 times to get someone in authority to take her seriously. Child Protection closed the book on her case, declaring four months before Luke was murdered that his father was not a risk to him.

Rosie begged and begged.

She called police, she took out AVO’s, she went to court, Luke told his psychologists he feared for his mother’s safety.

I was there that January afternoon on the lawns of Parliament House when Rosie was named Australian of the Year. It was momentous.

And while we had done her story before we put Rosie on the cover.

A year earlier, we had tackled domestic violence with actor Rachael Taylor.

Rachael was allegedly bashed by her boyfriend in a hotel lobby in Rome.

He was the son of a famous TV family. She had never spoken publicly about it and had moved overseas.

He had spoken on multiple occasions, garnering sympathy for his significant mental health issues.

But we had never heard from her. Winning Rachael’s trust took years. We talked and we talked. This story had to be collaborative.

At the shoot, in New York, I noticed his name tattooed on her wrist.

She was ready to talk, but when I pointed to the inscription, her eyes filled with tears.

On her insistence I very reluctantly agreed not to mention his name in the coverage. Not in the story, not on the cover, nor on the TV ads. And tonight I will continue to respect her wishes.

The end result was a powerful first person piece.

Working with our team, Rachael was given the space to explain precisely why so many women feel trapped in violent relationships.

I am still proud of these stories.

But the sales figures on both Rosie and Rachael were disappointing.

Rachael was a celebrity, Rosie was not. They were a year apart and I didn’t see any link.

But then one afternoon, I took a call from Jules Allen, a foster mum on the NSW Central Coast who I knew was also a victim of domestic violence.

“How is Rosie selling?” she asked, and I told her.

“Do you have any idea why?”

I said no.

And then she told me why.

Some of you tonight might understand what I am about to say.

If they took home a magazine celebrating a woman who had triumphed over abuse, what do you think their tormentors would do?

As Jules said to me, “you just don’t want to give them another excuse to beat the shit out of you.”


Thanks to the likes of Rosie and Rachael, and the work of campaigners like Quentin Bryce, there is considerable momentum behind tackling this complex issue.

I am old enough to remember being on the midnight to dawn shift when an assault in a home could be dismissed as ‘just a domestic’. When neighbours didn’t ‘get involved’.

I urge you all to be vigilant, long after it is fashionable, to keep these stories central to your news-lists.

Key to remaking the icon has been remaking our news-list. Diversifying the range of women we tell stories about. Finding variety.

There is nothing wrong with diets, swimsuits, horoscopes. But the audience wants to be stretched.

A recent example was our publication last month of a list of Australia’s 50 most powerful women.

Gently introducing new heroes to our readers, has been deliberate in the evolution of the magazine.

But it has raised eyebrows.

Perhaps Catherine Livingstone, Jane Halton and Major General Simone Wilkie are better suited to The Australian.

So what did our research show?

Well, alongside Oprah, readers identified our Power List as the thing they most liked about that issue.

I don’t always get it right. But I have learned, when readers say they want more of something – in our case – women who have achieved something, they mean it.

Today, The Weekly shines a light on women who have achieved.

We have always tracked the giant shifts in women’s lives, and the evolution of their place in Australian society: going to war, going to work. Divorce, contraception, childcare.

And now, the most seismic change: when, how, and with whom, women form families.

The advent of fertility treatments at a time of female economic empowerment is giving rise to a quiet social revolution.

Egg donors, sperm donors, surrogates, gay parenthood. Technologies that are leaping ahead of confused legislative jurisdictions.


My final observation is some good news.

One of the consequences of women waiting longer to be mothers is that it is partly responsible for changing what it means to be old. Our best selling cover this year was Dame Judi Dench, at 80.

Our most surprising cover this year was 78-year old fashion icon, Maggie T.

Our riskiest cover ever was a naked, 50-year old Deborah Hutton.

You might think, ‘mmm well that is not so surprising. It’s The Weekly’.

And yes we have a older skew.

But we can’t get these results without interest right across our readership. This was not the accepted wisdom when I started six years ago.

There has never been an 80-year-old on the cover before now, and I guarantee you she won’t be the last.

Why are 40, 50, 60 and now 70 and even 80 (thank you Dame Judi) not what they used to be?

As I’ve said, we’re living longer and having children later, like Sonia Kruger at 49, Colette Dinnigan at 47 and Michelle Bridges at 44. But it is also about our increased wealth and our changing fashions.

More of us can afford botox and blow dries. There are more dress sizes on the racks. And the conventions around what a woman should wear, or look like, for their age, have disappeared.

And we can thank women in their 70’s, like Dame Quentin, like Ita, who are rewriting the rules.

Helen McCabe with Cate Blanchett at the 2015 Andrew Olle Media Lecture.

So in summary, reinventing The Weekly has been about using all of these levers to beat rivals to the stories we most want to tell.

Finding new heroes.

Being less judgmental, more generous, and as I said, more collaborative.

Taking our readers seriously. And giving them variety.

Building relationships, restoring trust and playing the long game.

Because celebrity agents, lawyers and spin merchants are less relevant if the people who are brave enough to tell their stories know we will treat them fairly. Respect and trust, of our readers and our subjects, has underpinned the longevity of The Weekly.

Trust applies equally whatever your platform, and is rewarded accordingly, even by algorithms.

But I don’t kid myself: The Weekly, like all mastheads, new and old, is facing its toughest challenge yet.

Twenty years must seem like an eternity for those who loved Andrew Olle.

As it turns out, it is also an eternity with respect to the pace of change in our industry.

I wonder what Andrew would have made of these challenges. I suspect he would have advised us to adhere to those qualities of journalism that make our profession a noble one. That we do not succumb to despair, that we encourage civility and that we remain ever a servant of the audience.

Thank you.

ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott’s Vote of Thanks

Ladies and Gentlemen. Another splendid night at the Andrew Olle Media Lecture.

For twenty years we have been here, raising money for cancer research and listening to industry leaders speak of our profession. And tonight we heard another fine address, from Helen.

As you pointed out Helen, your announcement as the Olle lecturer did create a bit of commentary – from what we might lovingly refer to – as the ‘Grumpy Old Man’ School of Australian journalism.

Reading those comments at the time … if only we knew then, the memorable phrase of Turia Pitt: “Geez, people are overthinking it.”

Because as you have demonstrated tonight – the issues you are wrestling with at The Weekly are so similar to those facing all of us in the media.

So many in this room understand the extent of the wicked problems presented through the startling transformations driven by technology, audience expectations and the changing media marketplace.

The impact of dazzling choice for fragmenting audiences and restless advertisers.

The responsibility of providing an iconic media brand safe passage through the storms; holding fiercely onto the audience connection.

How much heavier the burden for those like Helen entrusted to transform a much-loved icon, so it continues to be part of the life of millions of Australians each month.

Faced with some of these challenges when I started at the ABC, I felt I needed a five year plan to give the organisation clarity – and I scratched around on it for a while, before realising it was impossible.

Everything was changing so quickly. Had I sat down in 2006 and tried to develop a five year plan, I would have missed just a few things that we later came to see were important. Like the iphone and the ipad. And Twitter. And You Tube. And Facebook – all of which were invented or emerged as forces in that five year period.

Missing those features, my plan would have been like the observation that if it wasn’t for the 100 year war, it would have been a great century.

Who knows what lies ahead for media brands and organisations. How we can deal with current threats and emerging opportunities. All any of us can do is move purposefully in what we hope is the right direction – while trying to better understand what will drive audience support and loyalty.

All of us working in the media understand that our strategy demands choices – what we take with us from the past, what we need to reinvent … what we need to leave behind.

In this era at the Weekly, you still have recipes and the royals, now sitting alongside robust agenda-setting journalism.

Helen’s talk reminds us tonight that whilst much is uncertain, there are some things that are assured.

One of those things is the public’s unquenchable thirst for a great story, well-told. And not just to distract or entertain – to inform and educate as well.

What has been so interesting about your time at The Weekly has been your commitment to the traditions of great story-telling and journalism of consequence.

To use the power and impact of that remarkable brand to reach out and tell us of people we need to know, and to confront us with issues we need to understand.

In doing so, I suspect you have broken more stories and helped set more important public policy agendas than at any other time in the magazine’s history – hallmarks of great journalism no matter what the platform or the outlet. Hallmarks of a great editor. A crusading editor on the things that matter

You are taking this publishing icon and continuing to push it and reshape it – to rethink its potential and its importance.

Many in this room are from newspapers and broadcasters. Tonight you have given us insight into your world and your challenges. The reality of the marketplace. The tension between respecting your audiences wishes and leading them to new places.

And we emerge from tonight admirers of your tenacity and your passion, your courage and your commitment to telling important and compelling Australian stories.

Keep doing what you are doing, Helen McCabe, playing the long game. You are turning into a Paper Giant. The mini-series can’t be far away.

Thank you for delivering a wonderful Andrew Olle Media Lecture.

Related stories