Why Juanita Phillips is quitting the ABC after two decades on the network

My kids set fire to the house just once, and luckily I wasn’t at work that day.

As I ran towards the flames with a blanket and saucepan of water, I thought: ‘If this doesn’t work, I need to get them out of the house, and where the hell is my daughter?’

She was hiding under her doona, hoping the fire would go out by itself.

How time flies. That house has long since been bulldozed for a McMansion. My little firebug is now 18 and studying for the HSC.

My son has flown the nest. My partner recently started a new job, helping Australia’s economy transition to clean energy.

And the ABC is undergoing the biggest transformation in its history, moving from traditional broadcasting to the great unknown, the ever-evolving digital future.

Change is in the air, so it seems the right time to take the next big step in my own life.

After 21 years presenting the 7pm news, I have decided to leave the ABC and take a break for a while.

It’s my choice, and I’m excited to start the next phase of my life. My final bulletin will be on September 10.

It’s been an honour to serve the people of NSW in this role, and I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to our 7pm viewers.

I’ve spoken to thousands of them over the years and I know that they love and value the ABC (although they don’t hold back if they’re displeased about something).

Some tell me that hearing the Majestic Fanfare is one of their earliest childhood memories and that the 7pm news is part of that lifelong link they have with the ABC.

It’s a privilege to have played a small part in something so important in people’s daily lives, and I appreciate the warmth and support I’ve received from them over the years.

At the public broadcaster, I’ve been lucky to work alongside the best people in the business.

Putting live television to air is a huge team effort , and I couldn’t do my job without the skill and support of my colleagues: producers, editors, directors, studio crew, auto-cue operators and makeup artists, to name a few.

It’s been an extraordinary time in history to be in the news business.

If I had to sum up the last 21 years in five words, they would be: terrorism, Trump, COVID, climate and equality.

Those are the chapter headings of the defining stories of our time.

I thank the frontline ABC journalists who risk their lives and mental health to tell them – in particular, the foreign correspondents who put themselves in harm’s way, the investigative reporters who courageously hold the powerful to account, and the general reporters who slog it out in the field during natural disasters.

I get to do the easy part: presenting their hard work from the comfort of a studio.

Nonetheless, telling people bad, scary news five nights a week does leave its mark.

For starters, it’s made me a very anxious mother – I know everything that can possibly go wrong, from freak accidents to existential threats to humanity.

People often ask if reading the news upsets me. Sometimes it does, especially those stories which reveal the worst of human nature, and the suffering it causes.

There are some stories I cannot watch as they go to air, and my ability to tune them out is diminishing. It’s one part of the job I’ll be relieved to walk away from.

But there’s so much I will miss. The camaraderie of the makeup room. The electricity of the newsroom when a big story breaks. The stillness of the darkened studio before the lights come up. The countdown to showtime: ‘On air in 5, 4, 3 …’.

Hearing the calm voice of the director in my ear-piece and knowing it will all be fine, because I’m in good hands.

I have no immediate plans, and that feels great. I’ve spent the last 42 years – my entire adult life – working full-time in newsrooms, here and overseas.

The past 20 years, I’ve also been managing a family home and raising kids, mostly as a sole parent. The prospect of freedom is exhilarating.

It’s been a long road, and so much has changed. When I started as an 18-year-old cadet journalist in Brisbane in 1982, we used manual typewriters and took notes with shorthand.

Newspapers ruled the media landscape, flush with money from the ‘rivers of gold’ from classified advertising.

Reporters smoked and drank in the newsroom , and there was plenty of what would these days be considered verbal abuse and sexual harassment.

People generally had three sources of news: the morning newspaper, ABC radio, and their evening TV bulletin of choice.

When a middle-aged media figure called Rupert Murdoch bought the newspaper I worked for, he introduced computers.

The new machines caused journalists so much aggravation that we were paid a ‘disability allowance’ to compensate for it. That was the first big tech disruption I was part of, but certainly not the last.

Fast forward 40 years, and the digital revolution has changed the industry almost beyond recognition.

People get their news from so many sources that traditional media is struggling to survive.

Artificial intelligence and misinformation loom as an existential threat to journalism. The smoky, blokey newsrooms of the past have been replaced by a young, diverse, tech-savvy workforce.

I’m grateful for all the opportunities I was given along the way. From newspapers, I went into television, which took me to Sydney and then on to London.

On my second shift at the BBC, Princess Diana died in a car crash. A week later, I anchored part of the coverage of her funeral, broadcasting to a global audience of hundreds of millions.

From there, I went to CNN, the original 24-hour news channel.

On the last day of 1999, as the clock ticked towards the new millennium with the global threat posed by the Y2K bug, I helped anchor one of the biggest live news events of the 20th century – 24 hours of non-stop rolling coverage from every corner of the earth, using bulky satellite phones the size of a suitcase.

These days you could do the same thing with a smartphone and social media, but back then it was considered a miracle of modern technology.

Broadcasting from CNN’s gigantic main studio in Atlanta, Georgia, I was thrilled just to be a part of it.

Journalism has given me life experiences beyond my wildest dreams. But my biggest achievement is simply this: I’m still here. I’m still on air, presenting a prime time news bulletin as I approach my 60th birthday.

I’m proud to have survived this long. TV news is a tough business for women once they have children, and especially as they age.

I’ve seen too many talented women discarded during my decades in the industry, and I’m acutely aware how fortunate I am to be choosing the time of my departure.

(The latest Women in Media survey found almost a third of women were considering leaving their job, citing bias, discrimination and a gender pay gap greater than the national average.

‘The departure of women from media is a loss society cannot afford,’ the organisation said.)

As for what comes next: honestly, I have no idea. I do know this – I won’t be training for a marathon or studying for a PhD. And I solemnly promise not to start a podcast.

My life goals these days are much more mundane. I’m looking forward to being home at night for dinner. Having Sundays free. Being able to attend my Thursday night book club without taking annual leave.

After a lifetime of working strange, unsociable hours, I’m ready for a bit of normality.

Being more available for friends and family is now my priority. I assumed that life would slow down as my kids grew up. Turns out it’s the opposite!

We gather people as we move through life, and by the time you get to my age, it’s quite a crowd. There’s always something big going on – divorce, death, troubled teens, ailing elders, health crises. It’s breaking news on the home front every other day.

There’s a lot to celebrate too. My magnificent mum turns 97 this year and I want to spend all the time I can with her.

And after a bit of down time, who knows? I’ve worked my whole life and I feel I still have something to contribute. So, keep the camera rolling. As a wise friend said to me recently: ‘Sometimes women our age just need a year off.’

I’ll be sad to leave. But as I reach the end of this particular road, what I mainly feel is profound gratitude for the opportunity to travel it.

News is mostly bad. But this job has taught me there is also beauty and goodness in the world: kind people, wonders of nature, feats of bravery and sacrifice. I’ve borne witness to that too. How lucky I’ve been.

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