Michele A'Court & Jeremy Elwood: Is the modern TV newsroom ageist?

Queen of the screen Hilary Barry is the oldest woman in TV news in New Zealand.

Queen of the screen Hilary Barry is the oldest woman in TV news in New Zealand.


Husband-and-wife comedians and commentators Jeremy Elwood and Michele A'Court give their views. 


Here's a drinking game you can play and stay safely on the wagon: take a shot of tequila every time you see a woman over 50 fronting a local television programme.

Michele A'Court: "Male hosts are allowed to stay and age, while the lady-shaped space beside them is "refreshed" with a ...

Michele A'Court: "Male hosts are allowed to stay and age, while the lady-shaped space beside them is "refreshed" with a whole new younger person."

If you care about your liver, however, don't flip the gender – Mike Hosking, Simon Dallow, Jeremy Corbett, Paul Henry, and Peter Williams (all aged between 50 and 61) will have you in an alcoholic coma before you've put the kids to bed.

* We love you Hilary Barry
* Hilary Barry oldest woman in TV news
* Mike Hosking vs. Paul Henry


Don't get me wrong – one or two of them are adorable. What bothers me is that, as I age, women my age disappear from our screens. Somewhere in their 40s, female TV presenters become casual casualties of programme revampings - in the last three months alone we've lost Jeanette Thomas, Karen Olsen and Bernadine Oliver-Kerby – taking a combined 50 years of hosting, interviewing and reporting experience with them.

I'm not entirely suggesting someone in charge is checking birth certificates and showing ladies to the door. But it is a curious thing that male hosts are allowed to stay and age, while the lady-shaped space beside them is "refreshed" with a whole new younger person.

And it matters, this thing of being visible. Women over 50 – that delightful bulge in NZ's baby-boomer demographic – are a significant chunk of our viewing and consumer population. We watch stuff, we buy stuff, we've lived, and we've got a lot more living to do. We're also kind of stroppy.

Over two recent weekends, I was part of a show celebrating women in NZ's music industry – Shona Laing, Sharon O'Neill, Debbie Harwood, Annie Crummer and Margaret Urlich. Aged now between 50 and 63, they drew capacity crowds. Kids, teenagers, the middle-aged and the odd mobility scooter. It got frantic in the mosh pit. They're better than they ever were, and the crowds love them even more. For taking us back to a different time in our lives, sure, but also for showing us who we are now – what we sound like, what we look like and who we are going to be next.

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One of the women's magazines this week has Hilary Barry on the cover. At 46, the cover shouted, she is "the oldest woman on TV news". Inside they note that when Barry goes on holiday, they bring in Judy Bailey (sent home by TVNZ in her early 50s ten years ago) to fill in for her. Shots all round.Barry and Bailey share the same sparkle. If the end of world needed to be announced, I'd want one of them to do it.

We'll have to wait till 2020 to take that shot of tequila with Barry. Grab your lemon and salt, and stand by.  


There is a prevailing wisdom in broadcasting that viewers like to see themselves reflected back when they watch television. They want to see people on-screen who are either just like them, or just like they dream of being. 

This, in part, is the logic behind the tsunami of "reality" television currently on air, where "ordinary" people do either ordinary or occasionally extraordinary things, thus proving to the viewer that they too might have a chance at fame and fortune. 

I don't watch reality TV for the reason that I don't fit into this idea of a standard TV viewer – I'd much rather watch people better, brighter and more interesting than myself do things I have never imagined doing. That especially applies, for me, when I'm watching the news.

And I do watch the news – the 6pm broadcast is about the only thing I watch live on air. Despite the speed of the internet, TV and radio are still my go-to mediums for breaking news. 

If I want to know what's going on in Syria, I want to hear it from someone who is in Syria, not from a retweet of a "liked" status that someone posted from an Instagram account of someone who typed "Syria" into Wikipedia. I want to be informed by people who have more experience, knowledge and understanding of the issues than I do. And yes, that often means people who are older than me. 

Jeremy Elwood.

Jeremy Elwood.

In times of crisis, it's reassuring to hear someone who sounds like they've seen this type of thing before, and knows it seems terrible right now, but eventually you'll be ok. (I used to have the same idealised idea about politicians, but that's been undermined too many times for me to truly believe it anymore.) 

This applies not just to the correspondents on the ground, but also to the anchors behind the desks back home. It can be easy to overlook, when you're seeing them every night that news anchors are, usually, vastly experienced journalists in their own right, and their job is much more than introducing stories before handing over to the weather. 

They create the tone, context and, where appropriate, add gravitas to the piece. They can both humanise a story and provide an almost superhuman stability in the midst of chaos – I think of the legendary footage of Walter Cronkite announcing the death of President Kennedy, or more recently and closer to home, Hilary Barry's remarkable anchoring of the Christchurch earthquake coverage five years ago, as prime examples.

That is why, although obviously there is a need to bring new blood into the newsroom, it shouldn't be at the expense of experience. There is no use-by date on talent.

 - Stuff


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