Over the last two nights ABC television has presented a semi-fictional drama based on the advent of the woman’s magazine ‘Cleo’ in the Australian publishing market of the early 1970s. “Paper Giants” depicted in what many would consider to be a romanticized fashion the early career of Ita Buttrose and her tempestuous employers, the Packers (Sir Frank and Kerry). In itself an entertaining piece of TV, unlike the more lightweight brethren of the Australian TV drama world (i.e. commercial soap operas) this two-parter not only tried to keep the viewers focused for a tick over three hours on the episodes, it also tried to resonate historically plus give some kind of social insight into the various issues it portrayed (women’s rights, sexual discourse, the pressures of work on families, etc).
Overall, from my amateur, child of the 70s, male perspective I think “Paper Giants” was an enjoyable piece of television and yet marginally of value as an interpretation of the changes underpinning Australian society and history at that time (i.e. the pre-Fraser years). However some of the themes appeared to be historically muddied or too narrow in focus, relying too much on the self-appointed importance of ‘Cleo’. Also the underlying premise, that the beginnings of a woman’s magazine run by Ita Buttrose and the Packers could provide a unique and telling insight into Australia as it was then seems to me at best a problematic position.
Taking the last point first, is the story of the ACP’s radical answer to ‘Cosmopolitan’ a solid entry point for a TV drama to examine what Australia was like in the early 70s? In all honesty no, and this isn’t the fault of the show’s producers. At the risk of taking the higher and broader approach favoured by historians of yore the most telling way to understand what was happening in Australia to Australians before and during the events of the 1975 dismissal is through the story of Gough Whitlam and his federal Labor government of 1972-1975. “Paper Giants” attempted to reflect itself against Gough’s rise and fall, showing the younger staff on ‘Cleo’ firmly behind Whitlam’s spirit of the times if not his policies, whereas the character of Kerry Packer was seen as representative of much of the old conservative business establishment of the time, writing of the ALP government as economic wreckers. However the technique of using a ‘people’s level’ standpoint to look at grand sweeping social and historical changes can only go so far. Just as one wouldn’t use ‘War and Peace’ to understand Napoleon’s 1912 invasion of Russia or “The Sullivans” to understand World War Two, “Paper Giants” is more a series of vignettes about Whitlam-era Australia. To get a far more useful and telling insight through a TV drama on the times that were arguably the most tempestuous of the last 50 years of the twentieth century the first and best option always will be “The Dismissal”:
Portraying the differences in how young Australian women dressed, found out about sex toys or struggled to find a balance between work and family as was done in ‘Paper Giants” is arguably too superficial, too focused on trivial minutiae of day to day life, or even non-specific to the era. The gender wars, fashion, culinary trends and all those kinds of social issues are always in a state of flux, the difference being the actual things we wore, drank, listened to, watched, played with etc etc. On the other hand the political and social spirit of the Whitlam era is utterly unique and needs to be seen through the two most significant lenses of the time; Kerr’s sacking of the government in 1975 and end of the Vietnam War for Australia by 1973. Both of these issues have been dealt with very successfully by Kennedy-Miller mini-series from the 1980s, and it’s an unfortunate shame that “Paper Giants” can’t tread new steps in the footprints of these programs.
There are other stories about Australia from this era that could also be just as important and just as instructive as to how Australia progressed as a nation and as a society during the 70s which have as yet not been aired. I recall with tremendous clarity another story that perhaps was far more divisive and far more influential, even though it’s origins were hardly nationally important. When Kerry Packer decided that the TV coverage for test cricket in Australia should be his on the Nine Network, and the establishment failed to do what he wanted, the same larger than life media magnate effectively destroyed the establishment of the game internationally, creating the World Series Cricket circus which for 2 years divided loyalties and sparked bitter legal, even diplomatic conflicts. That would be a highly suitable subject for the same kind of production presented in the style of “Paper Giants”.
How about Jack Munday, the BLF and the Green Bans placed on the planned redevelopment of The Rocks in the early 70s? The boat people influx from South East Asia after the Vietnam War? The anti-Kerr protest movement post-1975, perhaps tied in with a postscript on the decline of Gough Whitlam to 1977? A mini-series showing how the single most important youth program on Australian TV grew (i.e. Molly Meldrum’s “Countdown”)? Or a docudrama based on the most controversial soap opera of its time, “Number 96”? Whether from high or low culture, national politics or sport; there are more interesting and arguably just as important stories from Australia’s seventies history that could and should be told on TV in the early 21st century.
The second problem facing “Paper Giants” is the historical veracity of the program and the associated historical significance of “Cleo” itself. There were without doubt some generic accuracies relating to parts of the story. Jack Thompson did pose semi-nude for “Cleo” and at the time he was shacked up with two sisters. Kerry Packer and his brother Clyde did struggle to deal with their father’s regime and it was true that Mike Willesee was almost the first centrefold for the magazine. However the whole significance of a racy publication that had a smaller circulation than its far more established and conservative stablemate ‘Women’s Weekly’ must be carefully weighted. How important was “Cleo” in depicting sexuality and nudity during the early 70s in Australia contrasted with more popular and arguably more important media as embodied in “Number 96”? For those who shaped Australian business and public policy magazines such as “The Bulletin” and “The National Review” were arguably just as crucial. Men still had access to the old “Australasian Post” which was perhaps just as significant in terms of readership and influencing Aussie male culture as “Cleo” was for women’s culture. Then there were local and imported books ranging from Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch” through to Alex Comfort’s “Joy Of Sex”. “Cleo hardly failed to inspire a culinary or fashion revolution in Australia, insofar as much of the impetus for these changes came from immigrants coming to this country or young Aussies coming back from overseas. Perhaps “Cleo” and the whole Packer/Buttrose collaboration as depicted in “Paper Giants” was most important historically because it was a symptom of the times, not a catalyst or causal agent. And of course journos and publishers are besotted with the idea of being the men and women who shape how society thinks (without understanding sometimes the consumer of the media can make their own mind up without guidance from a sensationalist magazine).
If one was to sit back and let “Paper Giants” do its first and primary job as a television show and entertain the viewer then I think there are far too few current Australian productions that can do what this docudrama did. It may have been 70s History-Lite or Women’s Rights Through Media 101, but it was a good story reasonably well told for an audience which may not have anywhere near the intimacy of knowledge of the subject nor the personal experience to pick huge holes in the narrative’s historicity. As a summation and reflection of a time when Australia changed more radically than it had for generations, tinted with rose colour mini-series glasses it’s was better than to be expected. However like almost all semi-fictional TV or movie adaptations of real events the underlying medium itself as well as the cribbed short cuts in terms of explaining the politics and society of the times means it fails to really inform as well as entertain. By taking its subject too seriously whilst dressing it up in both the fanciful and the vaguely historic it contorts our past for those who weren’t there in ways that aren’t always accurate.