August 25, 2007
The Canberra Times

SBS bosses wrong-footed as Mary moves to sink the slipper

Not even Dorothy’s red slippers, with their three clicks to Kansas, could see Mary Kostakidis walk back into SBS. Not now.

Instead, the pathway of principle has her heeling into court. Along the way she’ll find it’s a path that’s already well trodden – with mostly unsatisfactory results. Cases are settled; payouts are made; and nothing much changes.

Perhaps Mary should slip on some jackboots.

On a dull news night at A Current Affair, when the show was lacklustre and the stories serviceable but not exciting, there was a favourite saying around the office in the early ’90s; “Jana’s wearing great shoes”. Jana Wendt was the program’s presenter and, at that time, the most powerful and influential woman on television. As a reporter on the show and a recent immigrant from the ABC, it took me a while to work out the shoe reference. Sure Jana was wearing nice shoes on the rare nights when the ratings dipped. But she always wore nice shoes. I soon understood that the ”shoes” were a metaphor for glamour over content. In other words, when all else failed at least Jana looked fabulous. The Nine Network no doubt thought it had struck gold with a journalist like Jana Wendt. She was the full ”adornment” package: sex appeal along with a calm and dignified intelligence and credibility. Not to mention a solid commitment to quality journalism.

And if that sounds like someone in the news now, well, the parallels are plentiful. But back to Jana. On the day Jana “stormed off the set” and “refused” to return to work, and was then said to be “on sick leave”, the hounds couldn’t stop barking. The queen of TV was quickly vilified as an impetuous dummy- spitter. From “Sexiest Woman in Australia”, Jana became a right royal prima donna princess – and that was the nicest descriptor.

The hounding was because Jana had objected to a program segment about topless barmaids and a competition to find the largest breasts. Jana claimed it was gratuitous and offensive. And she was right. But that didn’t stop her being branded a “difficult” woman, prone to temperamental tantrums.

At the time, I was impressed, if not a little alarmed by Jana’s walk-out. After all, this was a network that pumped testosterone down the corridors and into the water fountains. There was no place for what were considered such female displays of sensibility. I’d already learnt that after my own very meek agitation about sex-role stereotyping at the network. I was rewarded with the gift of a large, black rubber penis, left anonymously on my desk.

Eventually Jana returned to work and the presenter’s chair, after long negotiations about editorial content, and a change in her role to include some editorial input. But it didn’t last long. She soon left. Only to later join Channel 7 and have an even bigger fallout over editorial content and “dumbing-down”, which ended up in court. This time Jana was isolated from many of her colleagues, and vilified in the media as a self-serving “ice-queen”: albeit a richer one, after the million-dollar-plus payout.

Many years ago, my own objection to being positioned as a side-kick to a bloke during the piloting of a commercial program also ended up in court, after a ceremonial axing. But for me the path-to-principle quickly became too expensive. I agreed to settle with a shut-up clause.

The details of Mary Kostakidis’s case against SBS are of course confidential. But the fact that she has hired the prominent QC Julian Burnside, and reportedly plans to sue SBS indicates she’s serious. But is she serious about simply getting out of the network, with the payment owed to her? Or is she serious about changing a culture of commercialism that has pervaded SBS, and the alleged “dumbing down” that appears to be worrying her?

Whatever the reason for going to court, the case of Mary Kostakidis nevertheless marks an interesting watershed in the Australian media. Unlike those women before her who have walked out ”in-principle”, Kostakidis hasn’t been demonised as a delinquent and “difficult” prima donna or an ice queen. Rather she’s been celebrated as heroic and dignified. While her old boss says she’s the ”heart” of SBS, internet bloggers insist she is the ”soul” of it and are rallying to her cause.

Since news of Kostakidis’s departure was made public, the internet has been brimming with accolades about her. By week’s end there were seven different Mary Kostakidis support groups set up on Facebook. And an i-petition demanding Kostakidis is reinstated is doing the rounds in email boxes. The Save Our SBS website was so heavily inundated with messages of support that by late in the week it was buckling under the weight, suggesting people post their blogs about Kostakidis elsewhere.

The very few snide comments, attempting to reduce Kostakidis to the proverbial ”difficult” woman stereotype, have popped up mostly from unattributed sources on Crikey’s website. And then there’s been a few from large-girthed old walruses, like advertising guru Harold Mitchell. He referred to Kostakidis as ”having firmly left her dummy behind”. Which is a bit rich coming from a man whose job is to sell advertising to TV networks like SBS. Mitchell’s parting shot, “the queen is dead, long live the queen” could very well come back to bite him – through his very thick hide.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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