Getting to know football’s first lady: Caroline Wilson

Multi-award winning journalist Caroline Wilson discusses handling controversies

For anyone who follows the game of AFL, there is a high chance of coming across the name Caroline Wilson. She is the chief football writer for The Age. In her long career in media, she has established herself as a force to be reckoned with in both the game and the media industry.

Wilson is a pioneer for women covering AFL. She became the first female full-time reporter to cover the game in 1999, when she was appointed The Age’s chief football writer. She told Mediaweek that contrary to what one may think, it was easier then for her to work as a sports journalist than it is for female reporters today.

“I think I had it easier than anyone because I was a bit of novelty. Therefore, I was treated with a lot of generosity. There were a lot of people happy to help me, mentor me and give me advice when I started out. The first chief football writer I worked under was Mike Sheahan, who recently retired from that position at another paper [Herald Sun].

“A lot of the electronic media networks have a long way to go [when it comes to hiring female sports journalists].”

Apart from her work at The Age, Wilson’s week is spent running from one place to another fulfilling her other media commitments in TV and radio.

Wilson contributes to 3AW’s pre-game program every Saturday and appears on Sportsday on Tuesday nights with hosts Gerard Healy and Dwayne Russell.

“I love that show, although there are some nights in the middle of winter when I am charging off to the studio and it’s freezing cold so it’d be nicer to go home. But I love talking about sports with those two. We have some robust arguments but they have always treated me with great respect even when they disagree with me.”

Wilson revealed that while she’s cut down on her commitments in radio in the past few years, she will continue to appear in the Saturday and Tuesday slots after having recently re-signed her contract with the station.

Besides writing and debating about footy in newspapers, online and radio, Wilson is also a contributor on ABC’s Offsiders and is a regular panellist on Nine’s Monday night show Footy Classified. She was one of the two founding panellists on the show, alongside the very busy Craig Hutchison, recently profiled by Mediaweek. The duo share an argumentative relationship on screen, often calling each other out. This, Wilson said, makes the show good viewing for AFL fans.

“It’s our 11th year this year, which is amazing. It’s gone by with a blink of an eye. It’s given me a bigger profile from a certain audience,” she acknowledged. “It’s a bit harder to go to the footy now and sit there with my mum or my daughters and watch the game – not harder, but without being recognised by someone, which is usually nice.

Footy Classified is a very provocative show. Over the years, in some cases, it’s celebrated the conflict. That’s good though – you don’t want four people on a panel all agreeing with each other. I am really proud of some of the work we did on the Essendon drug scandal. We covered a lot of ground and were the frontrunners. We were very thorough in our opinions, which were divided on the panel. That reflected the wider football community and that is probably why our ratings were so high that year.”

To add to Hutchison’s already packed schedule, he took on the additional responsibility of co-hosting Nine’s weekly The AFL Footy Show.

“He is the most over-stretched and most over-worked person I know in the industry,” Wilson said. [Laughs]. “Sometimes he drives me absolutely nuts. That’s the nature of the beast. For all the people who say that they don’t like me on the show or say to me that they don’t like him on the show, they are still watching the show. Ultimately, he is a very good news breaker and has a very good mouth for a good issue. When he is being serious about footy and genuinely identifying issues in the game, he is one of the best there is.”

Wilson has left no stone unturned when it comes to covering AFL on different media. Asked about which is her platform of choice, Wilson said: “The one I love the most and closest to my heart is newspapers. The Age has been going through some tough times in recent years with the staff cuts etc but I still think that we are enormously influential.

“When I write a provocative column in The Age, it has more impact than anything.”

At the end of last month, Wilson added a new trophy to what would already be a full cabinet of awards when she won The Harry Gordon Australian Sports Journalist of the Year award at the 2016 Quill Awards.

Having already secured the top honours in sports journalism and AFL, Wilson said that when her name is announced for an award she is still as excited as she was when she received her first.

“I am always thrilled,” she said. “People always love winning awards. People who say they don’t are lying.”

Eddie McGuire and the ice pool comment

Wilson became the target of Triple M Melbourne breakfast co-host Eddie McGuire about mid-2016. McGuire said he’d pay $20,000 for someone to hold Wilson under ice water, and $50,000 if she stayed under. The incident was widely covered by news outlets, radio shows and TV programs. Numerous opinion pieces were also written about the incident. Heavyweights from the media industry and AFL like Jessica Rowe, Adam Goodes and AFL chief Gillon McLachlan stood by Wilson.

“The whole issue was overwhelming because it was only identified a few days after the comments had been made on Triple M. It was distracting me for a while from doing my job,” Wilson said. “The last time there was a so-called gender scandal involving me and Sam Newman, people were bit more divided. But this time it was interesting how hard the football and the wider community came down on those comments.”

Through the scandal, Wilson said she didn’t want to be portrayed as the victim. Having led a “fortunate” life, in her own words, she thought it was important for her to write about the ordeal truthfully. In her column on The Age website about the situation, Wilson wrote: “No journalist or commentator, male or female, should have to put up with personal attacks…It took me back to the old days of The Footy Show when the former host and Collingwood president [McGuire] would line me up in an occasionally vile and foul-mouthed way and enlist his colleagues in a series of sexist gang tackles.”

Wilson commented to Mediaweek: “A couple of people told me that I was being a bit of a princess but most people have been pretty happy with the way I handled it and I don’t think I was over the top. I said it how it was.”

AFL Media

In recent years many sporting bodies like AFL, NRL and Cricket Australia have invested in establishing an editorial team for the game. This effectively creates competition between news outlets like The Age and other sporting programs.

Asked about her opinion on this development, Wilson said: “Instinctively I don’t like it because I don’t care what you say, there are going to be times when your independence is challenged. There are some really good people writing for AFL Media [the sporting body’s editorial team] like Peter Ryan and Damien Barrett.

“The former AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick thought AFL Media would be a good thing because people want to read about hamstring injuries and actual football and not so much about scandals and political stories. I completely disagree with that. There is room for both.”

The social media virgin

Type in Caroline Wilson on Twitter and you’ll find an account under her name with more than 12,000 followers. But that’s not really her. It’s a parody account made under her name.

Wilson is not on Twitter or Facebook. She has resisted the temptation to get caught up with the hype of social media.

According to her, this has saved her a lot of negativity. “I don’t want to invite the self-obsession that some journos get caught up in,” she said.

Asked if she was aware of the Caroline Wilson parody account, she told Mediaweek: “I know. There have been a couple. I have shut down a couple of them. I’ve just given up now.

“Occasionally people will come up to me and say, ‘Whoa, girl, what was that you were saying?’ and I will have to explain to them that it wasn’t me.

“The person [who runs the parody account] seems to have an intimate knowledge of what is going at The Age sometimes so that is a bit of concern.”

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