A warrior and a worrier, the woman who broke the mould

IT WAS another time, another Age. A time of boisterous pub dinners before late-night copy deadlines on a newspaper that didn't go to bed until 3am and had a staff that liked to stay up later.

It was a time of heroic editors and hard-boiled reporters, of big stories and bigger egos, a time when the newsroom reeked of cigarette smoke and printers' ink and sang with the clatter of hot metal linotype machines and the shudder of the giant presses on the floors below.

We swam in the rivers of gold, when no one much sold a car, bought a house or found a job without a classified ad, and Saturday's Age broke the 300-page broadsheet barrier. We worked and played hard, and more than a few died early from an excess of one, the other or both.

It was an era when blokes were in charge and women needed to prove they were at least as good as the blokes - and take charge of the next round of beers. Some thought political correctness meant spelling the prime minister's name right.

Tim Colebatch might have been writing erudite commentary on the crisis in Bangladesh in his first days on the job, but many of the pimply teenager cadets who crowded the editorial floor would have struggled to know what erudite meant, let alone where Bangladesh was.

Then into this weird world stepped a figure who broke the mould. She had an honours degree in political science, she had been a tutor at Monash University and even in her mid-20s she had a gravitas about her that went with the formidable black bouffant and the heavy-rimmed glasses.

Michelle Grattan seemed to have been genetically engineered for political journalism and she soon had her one-way ticket to Canberra. But when editor Les Carlyon appointed her chief political correspondent in 1976 he faced significant opposition from other editorial executives who argued a woman could never make it in a top job in the national Press Gallery - and certainly not in the wake of men such as the fabled Allan Barnes.

What did they know. Now there are women in most of the top Gallery jobs.

A lifetime later, Michelle Grattan is still there, arguably the most influential political journalist of her generation with her reporting and commentary for The Age, with her daily spot on ABC radio with Fran Kelly and with the new national online audience for breaking news and views through Fairfax's National Times portal. She graduated to the age of digital journalism with skill and the enthusiasm of colleagues half her age, Twitter and all.

Along the way she has become one of the most highly decorated warriors of her craft. In 1988 she was named Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year. In 2004, she was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia (although I've never seen the rosette on her lapel - more a mark of modesty than indifference, I guess). In 2006, she won a Walkley Award for journalistic leadership. And in 2008 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Melbourne Press Club. For a couple of years in the early 1990s she was editor of The Canberra Times, the first woman to edit a metropolitan daily in Australia.

Her work ethic has always been impossibly intense. She arrives at Parliament House at 7am each day to prep for her slot with Fran Kelly. She rarely leaves before The Age's first edition goes to press at 8pm. Then she will worry the story late into the night with desk editors, colleagues and politicians unwise enough to leave their phones switched on. The cabbies and restaurateurs of Canberra are used to staying up late for Michelle.

Both friends and critics have long complained that she works too hard, does too much, but that is the way she is and how she has chosen to live her life. She has been accused of denying opportunities to younger colleagues; the oak under which nothing can grow.

Her intense approach often does suck all the oxygen around a big story, leaving little room for others. And most colleagues have a tale about Michelle surfing onto their patch when the politics allowed her to pull rank. Yet she has also mentored and mothered a procession of younger reporters - men and women - who became leading lights in the Canberra Gallery themselves. Her discreet generosity to friends in times of trouble is legendary.

Many sneer that she has no life beyond politics, but that's the ignorance of those who don't know her. Her other, perhaps greater, passion is the bush, her family farm near Jerilderie and her horses (''Cobber, don't tell them [the editors] I said that. I need to keep working to feed the horses!''). A decade ago, she retraced Charles Bean's 1909 journey through the wool country of western New South Wales and wrote a memorable book of her own, Back on the Wool Track.

Her professional success owes much to extraordinary stamina, sharp news judgment and analytical skills honed charting the rise and fall of seven prime ministers and covering innumerable election campaigns. A wry sense of humour, an innate scepticism and a keen radar for spin and bulldust has helped.

Readers, other journalists and even editors have at times faulted her for not taking a stick to politicians and policies as forcefully as they would like. But what can look like undue caution, even timidity, is mostly the product of a ferocious commitment to accuracy, balance and fairness. The dividend is that when she does take a stand it carries greater authority. Her method has earned a remarkable degree of trust and respect on both sides of politics.

Yesterday was Michelle Grattan's last day at The Age. After 43 years - give or take a couple of career breakouts - she has left our front page.

Bless you, Cobber. You have gone, but all you have done for The Age will not be forgotten.

Mark Baker is editor-at-large of The Age.

This story A warrior and a worrier, the woman who broke the mould first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.