Breakfast wars according to Lisa Wilkinson: Was it actually like this?

Lisa Wilkinson's book is in large part a trudge through contract negotiations and image burnishment

Welcome to Unmade, mostly written on Wednesday afternoon at Sunshine, Lake Macquarie, ahead of a final 72 hours in Sydney, before winter in the UK.

Happy International Project Management Day. Not my strong point.

Wilkinson’s version

Everyone collects something. For me, it’s books. Books about the media in particular. The Murdochs fill a whole shelf, the Packers another half. Fairfax isn’t far behind.

If ever I’m passing through a new town, then my first stop is the local op shop. These days, with the exception of Dennis Merchant’s Media Man, which seems to be out of print (can anybody help me out?) I pretty much own everything on my wish list. So my happiest finds tend to be books I didn’t even know existed, or new stuff.

Which is all by way of offering context for thoughts on Lisa Wilkinson’s disappointing memoir, It Wasn't Meant to Be Like This, published by Harper Collins and out this week. It’s exactly the sort of book I usually love to read.

For somebody who has has such an interesting career, and remained near the top for so long, Wilkinson’s book is surprisingly flat. If I wasn’t writing this review, I’m not sure I’d have finished it.

Yet you can’t knock the professionalism. At nearly 500 pages, it’s long for a memoir. It’s comprehensive on covering her career pitstops, and plenty of famous folk get a cameo. She once checked in at a hotel next to Donald Trump. The influence of the production line behind her partner Peter FitzSimons’ prodigious output shows up in a solid structure.

And yet, when it comes to her professional life, she sure does find herself in a lot of contract negotiations. What perhaps hasn’t helped is that the extracts from her book released ahead of time focused on her acrimonious switch from Nine’s Today to Ten’s weekend edition of The Project. Her version of events was heavily contested, and it becomes hard not to read the entire book wondering where else her recollections might be at variance.

The reader will be informed that at various points in her career, Wilkinson has regretfully left good gigs to take a better, coincidentally higher paying job. She, being a loyal soldier, didn’t want to, but felt forced to by circumstances outside of her control. Repeatedly.

In particular, she reveals how unfortunate she’s been in details of her negotiations leaking to the press at the most inopportune moment, again through no fault of her own. Luckily, it often resulted in a lucrative deal.

There was the time she was highly loyal to Dolly magazIne, then published by Fairfax. But she decided she deserved “a decent pay rise”, and the one Fairfax offered her wasn’t enough. By an amazing coincidence, right at that moment, Kerry Packer’s ACP Magazines reached out to her, and she innocently called them back, of course never dreaming that they might be trying to poach her.

Even after accepting a followup lunch with Packer, she intended to say no to the editorship of Cleo, being the loyal servant what she was. But when Packer asked what she was earning, although of course she wasn’t interested, she lied about her salary anyway, claiming to be on more than she was. And in turn, Packer made her an even bigger offer.

And wouldn’t you know it, it all leaked to the papers, and she was forced to take the job.

As she tells it in the book, history repeated itself a second time in her career when she was loving her time hosting Seven’s Weekend Sunrise, and negotiating to join Larry Emdur as host of The Morning Show which was about to launch on the network.

She accepted lunch with the boss of Nine’s news and current affairs operation, never for a second dreaming that he might be trying to poach her. She innocently thought it was a catch up of distant mates.

Which does make me begin to wonder about how well developed her news sense actually is.

So she found herself with two competing offers. But of course, Wilkinson just wanted to do the job she would most enjoy.

So of course, she hired an agent to negotiate that on her behalf. Who wouldn’t?

And wouldn’t you know it? It leaked to the press again, just as the negotiations were at the pointy end. And on Logies night too.

Of course, that well timed leak (where could it have come from?) did her no harm when she took the Today Show gig next to Karl Stefanovic. For the first few years she was on a much bigger salary than him, although there wasn’t room to mention that in the book.

There is of course a fun chapter on Karl’s own Logies moment when he went on the air the next morning, worse for wear after partying with Lachlan Murdoch, according to Wilkinson. Was he drunk, or was it something stronger?

As Wilkinson puts it:

“‘Oh, babe, it’s been a huuuuge night!’ he snorted, smiling, clearly still high on the memory.”

“Snorted”? “High”? Whatever could she be hinting?

Eventually we get to what has already become the most notorious chapter, which was serialised in the News Corp tabloids a few weeks back.

After a friend leaked her the details of Stefanovic’s improved pay packet after he was nearly poached by Seven, she decided it was time to crusade against the gender pay gap by chasing a similar deal.

But new Nine boss Hugh Marks haggled, arguing that Stefanovic was also contributing to other shows, and had no outside commercial deals. Over the years, Wilkinson has been open to extra opportunities. Not that there’s anything wrong with that it it doesn’t get airtime in the book.

Wilkinson and her agent Nick Fordham looked for another offer from Ten’s The Project. No that she intended to be disloyal of course.

And wouldn’t you know it, as the negotiations reached their most delicate point, it leaked to the press. It was an article angled on the pay parity that Wilkinson was seeking from the network. However did that get out? It’s a mystery as deep as the source of Scott Morrison’s text chat with Emmanuel Macron.

Oddly, in her telling, Wilkinson forgets to mention this leak. Instead, she was puzzled to come into work and discover a strange atmosphere.

It was to be her last day on air with Nine telling her they did not intend to renew her contract. That part, seems to have been a genuine surprise. Nine never gave her a final “ take it or leave it” offer.

But her recollections of her final day seem to be at variance with those of the broadcast tapes. It’s played out in the press in recent days.

At the time of the departure, I admired the way she and her agent Nick Fordham played the PR game. They turned what could have been a narrative of a pampered professional not getting what she wanted into a principled battle over gender equality. Look - she’s been prepared to walk out to a lower paid gig on The Project, just to strike a blow for the sisterhood.

And that’s the main problem I have with the book. I’m all for people negotiating for what they’re worth. There was a time when I was first an editor that it took a while to dawn on me that I was getting well below market rate, so I asked for a rise. And I love Cindy Gallop’s advice to women in advertising: “Ask for the largest amount you can think of without bursting out laughing.”

But it falls flat in a book. It risks coming across as somebody attaching themselves to a movement like the push for pay parity that is convenient for them. That is most challenging for those without power or privilege, neither of which is a problem for Wilkinson.

As I reader, you don’t feel you’re getting the whole story. Which of course she’s entitled to choose not to offer. In which case, don’t write a book about it.

I wonder what the publication of this book will do to her relationship with her current employer Ten. In future negotiations,I wonder if there’ll be a fear of a leak at the critical moment.

Still, at least there is one enduring legacy. “I break up with Today” really was a great headline.

Time to let you go about your day.

Tomorrow I’ll be uploading the second chapter of the audio version of my book, Media Unmade, which is currently on sale in book stores and online. We’ll be getting into Lachlan Murdoch’s adventures at Ten and Nova.

Indeed, the next few days will be quite podcasty. I’ve got a couple more up my sleeve for the beginning of next week, while I relocate my writing base to the UK. Covering next week’s radio ratings will be my first major jet lag challenge.

Who needs an Aussie summer when they can have a Blighty winter?

As ever, I welcome your thoughts to, or via the comment button.

Have a great day.


Tim Burrowes

Proprietor - Unmade