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Liz Hayes reveals “I never thought I would still be a woman in television at my age”

As Liz Hayes is nominated for a TV WEEK Silver Logie for Best News or Public Affairs Presenter, we republish our February 2021 cover story with one of the greats of television.

In the cut-throat world of TV news, it’s heartening to see that still at the top celebrating more than 40 years in our living rooms is Liz Hayes. On screen she can switch from ice queen interrogator to compassionate reporter, while her globe-trotting has ranged from war zones in Afghanistan to Hollywood. Certainly Liz’s talent, graft and versatility are in no doubt, but as she approaches the big 6-5, the frustrating truth is that she’s one of very few women whose career longevity matches her male peers. 

“I never thought I would still be a woman in television at my age. It’s a fickle business and when I started it was a novelty to have a woman,” Liz admits. “I always used to think by the time I’m 40 I’ll be out of a job, and then maybe I’ll make it to 50 and then if I’m still here at 60 that’s extraordinary and I made that. So I’m tootling along, wondering.”

Liz Hayes relaxes a couch in a photo by Alana Landsberry
Liz Hayes relaxes on The Weekly’s set. Photography by Alana Landsberry

Liz makes it sound accidental, but as she kicks off her shoes, pleased that The Weekly’s photo shoot is over – she confesses she’s uncomfortable when she’s the one in the spotlight – I realise this powerhouse of Nine’s  60 Minutes doesn’t see glass ceilings at all. Rather, she follows her nose and holds on to opportunities with the quiet prowl of a benign pussycat.

Liz hasn’t built a brand around her career, you won’t see her on a red carpet and there are none of the ball-breaker stereotypes to her politesse, which in person I can affirm is utterly genuine. She doesn’t even have a manager and negotiates contracts woman to man – yes, to date her CEOs have all been men!

She admits Sam Chisholm was “affronted that I would ask for a pay rise, but you know what, he gave it to me”.  And today she confesses she’s in the enviable position of being paid more than a lot of men in TV.

In a profession filled with show ponies, Liz is an anomaly. But as we settle in for an eye-opening trip down memory lane, I realise if there is a secret to Liz’s success, it lies in a country childhood that coincidentally prepared her for the blokey work environment she chose, and ideals instilled at a young age by her mum.

Who is Liz Hayes?

With four brothers, Liz says she definitely grew up in a boys’ club. “In cricket I was the stump. In the days when you played cowboys and Indians – that you should never do now – I was the Indian. I was a necessary part of the action and my brothers loved it. ‘Go on, fall down, we shot you. Now get back up. Run!’” Liz was the second eldest but it didn’t matter, the boys ruled the roost.

They lived on the family dairy farm on Oxley Island in Taree, NSW. “On Dad’s side it was a bit of a dynasty, there were a lot of them and they were shipwrights. They got the island for water reasons and set up on a dairy farm with subsistence living, but so they could also build their ships.”

Liz’s dad – Bryan Ryan – inherited the farm but it wasn’t his passion. “Dad was a sailor, a Commonwealth champion in his category. That was what gave him great joy. The cows were a necessary evil.” So, when as adults none of his offspring took on the farm, “he understood … Love a cow but not that much!” Liz smiles.

Liz’s mum’s family were “Irish Catholic stock” and her grandfather was a train driver. “They were hard-working regular country people,” she says. Patricia Ryan was a housewife “but she broke out,” chuckles Liz.

“She would have been a feminist if she thought she could have been, I have no doubt. Oh yes, she pushed back. She worked at the local jewellers and the chemist and they would get her to do radio as part of a sponsorship deal. She was the big personality, the entertainer and the heart and soul. I could see she was revelling in it. My mother should have been me. She had that in her.”

It was Liz’s mum who encouraged her only daughter to think beyond Taree. “She and I were very close because it was just her and me against the boys. I was her helper but we had a very strong bond and she is the one who said to me, ‘you don’t have to do anything that I’ve done, you can be your own person, you certainly don’t have to follow conventions. You can do whatever you want’.”

In the family dynamic Bryan was the stabiliser and Patricia the cultivator. “Mum was such a beautiful, loving person and very supportive and Dad was the rock. When it all went to hell, Dad would be, ‘it’s all good, it’s not the end of the world’. He was a good, good man, that person you knew would always be there, and he always was.”

There were house rules of course: church on Sunday and chores on the farm. “We had a fairly clear view of our manners and you were not to get above your station or to take yourself too seriously. My parents kept that up with me. If they thought I’d gone a bit wayward I was reminded – I am them and they are me,” says Liz.

“Maybe it was appropriate that my job was to be the first up in the house to bring the cows in and I always hated it because it was so cold early. Then I went on to the Today Show where I’d get up at some ungodly hour and I used to think, that’s probably what it was all about. Even then I still hated getting up in the morning so early.”

Liz Hayes is a country girl at heart. Photography by Alana Landsberry
Liz Hayes is a country girl at heart. Photography by Alana Landsberry

Liz says that while the country shaped her early years, “I couldn’t wait to get out and break free. It’s a bit like the church. The Catholic church for me was a place where I had to do things I didn’t want to.
I couldn’t think of any more sins to confess. As kids queueing up for confession, we’d look at each other and say, ‘what have you got?’”

There were nuns and priests in Liz’s family but today she’s not a believer and says her disillusionment with the church came around age 11. “My uncle was the priest on the other side of the confessional and when I went in with my sins, he let loose and said, ‘You were fighting with your brothers this morning’ at the top of his voice. A shame-faced me came out, but there was some part of me that thought, ‘No, you don’t do that’. That doesn’t seem very godly. Screaming at a child in the confessional.”

Liz’s exposure to the outside world came slowly. “I’d come from this little island of 50 farms. Then I went over to the Catholic high school and then to the public school because that’s what you had to do. By increments I was exposed to the rest of the world.”

Probably her biggest influence was television, which hit Liz’s home in the early 1960s. “Dad won two televisions from sailing and we kept one. I remember thinking, ‘oh my God, what is that thing in the corner?’ I think it was the Astor.” After school work and bringing in the cows, watching TV news opened her mind.

Getting started in journalism

On leaving school Liz landed a job with the forestry commission but when a cadetship at the Manning River Times came up, Liz answered the call. “I didn’t get it because I was told they wanted a sports writer and I couldn’t be going into the men’s sheds after the footy. So they got a bloke. It turned out he wasn’t a great speller and it came back to me: ‘Would you like this?’ I remember sighing. My mother said, ‘of course, take it,’ and Dad’s saying, ‘but you’ve got this lovely government job why would you leave’?”

As she would many times on the road ahead, Liz took the sexism in her stride and at the tender age of 17 seized the day. “My first day, I was sent to court. I had never stepped inside a court. My editor shouted as I was going out the door, ‘Don’t forget to bow’. That’s all he said. I was exposed to everything. I did the council chambers, police rounds, the country shows, the aquatic festival and a lot of car accidents. I loved it.

“Everyone’s got a story and I think that’s when I started to empathise in a way that I hadn’t done before with people who are trying to achieve something or need help. I started to hear human stories.”

Liz also learned the power of relationship-building in the office and on the job. The only other female journalist when she joined was the social writer. “There were other women in the front office selling ads. But out the back were the men – and me – dealing with the stories. The editor, the sub-editors, they were all men.”

She quickly rose up the ranks and at 21 married local builder Brian Hayes. He was originally from Sydney and when he was offered a job back in the city, Liz went too. “I remember sitting in an apartment in Hornsby thinking ‘I might write to Ita [Buttrose] at The Weekly’. And I did. She sent a telegram saying it was lovely for me to write but no, she had nothing.” The irony that today Liz is posing for the cover is not lost on her. “Life’s a funny business,” she smiles.

“I felt really out of place in Sydney at first and that’s when I started watching more TV, newsrooms particularly and thinking, I can do that.” Liz did get to do that when, after a brief stint in magazines, she moved to Channel 10, where news editor Tom Barnett offered her a job. “He said something like ‘nice pins’ with a big cheeky grin and a cigarette out the side of his mouth. But then he said, ‘would you like a job in the newsroom?’, and I said, ‘Would I? Yes!’… I always found it outrageous he said that, but it was the era. And at Channel 10 I learned the basics.”

The day Nine came calling

Liz was 25 when she got the call that cemented her career. It was from the news director of Channel Nine who invited her to lunch. “I remember we sat at this table in the Hilton Hotel restaurant and he said ‘Do you see who’s over there?’ I had no idea that it was some underworld crim. I thought I’d blown it totally, but he just said to me, ‘we’re looking for a female reporter’ and I got the job.”

Liz was one of two women in the news team. “I was frightened beyond belief but because I have four brothers, I think I knew how to wrangle men. I had enough country in me to be quiet and watch and try not to stand out – other than the fact that you’re the only other woman!”

Did Liz receive any more “nice pins” comments? “No, not really. But I can be a bit naive, so maybe I just didn’t take them that way. Of course, I was very aware of the boys’ club and its behaviour, but I learned how to avoid it or deal with it. Who were you going to call it out to?”

Today Liz says the culture has changed considerably and she wouldn’t hesitate in speaking up. “You stop and say that’s not good enough or that’s wrong and there is a process, which is a good thing.”

When she was moved to co-host for the Today Show it was again because the model was to have a female in the mix, but she wasn’t complaining. “That’s where I felt really at home, because I could be me. I didn’t know if being me would be okay but it turned out it was.” She stayed on the show for 10 years but never got used to being a household name and all that went with it. “I was not prepared and it was a serious balancing act for me. I’m not imbued with this extraordinary confidence. People think I might have it but I don’t have that massive self-belief. I just don’t.

When the Today Show turned 25 in 2007, past Liz and fellow former host George Negus returned to set to join Karl Stefanovic and Lisa Wilkinson. Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
When the Today Show turned 25 in 2007, past Liz and fellow former host George Negus returned to set to join Karl Stefanovic and Lisa Wilkinson. Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

“I’m really glad I’m not there in the environment we’re in now because I think social media is so nasty, cruel and in your face. If that was me starting out today as the person I was then, I wouldn’t have survived.”

There may not have been social media, but viewers did hit the Nine switchboard with all sorts of judgements. “Mini-skirts were the thing of the day and my skirts might have been a bit short,” she recalls.
“I learned to become self-conscious and that’s where my confidence really started to come away a little bit. It took me a while to put that away.” So much so that when the dream offer of a move to 60 Minutes came her way, Liz confesses she faltered, thinking ‘Can I do this? Am I good enough?’”

Her fears were unfounded, of course, and 15 years later she’s still headlining. Among her favourite shows have been interviewing the “totally charming” George Clooney but also the ‘people stories’. “Like Jeni Haynes. She has three dozen personalities and it’s all because she’s had to build an army of people in her head to deal with terrible things that happened to her while her father was abusing her. They’re the kinds of stories that stay with me. There’s no doubt that I’m emotional. I get caught in those stories.”

What happened to Liz Hayes’ dad?

In 2018 and 2019 Liz faced the traumatic deaths of both parents. “My mum had dementia. The great thing was she never forgot who we were, but dementia is bloody awful. One day Mum said, ‘that’s it, I’m not doing this anymore’ and she just stopped eating. I remember trying to get food into her but she had made the decision and said ‘please go away’. To see that fabulous human being die in front of you is terrible.

“Dad was amazing. That’s the rock.” As she talks of Bryan, Liz starts to tear up. It’s coming up for 16 months since a shocking hospital blunder caused his premature death. Liz was so horrified she launched a 60 Minutes investigation, which screened last year. For the first time Liz was telling her own story as she confronted the truth about her father’s last days. Her pain and anger were palpable and she’s now on a mission to expose the grave issues at the heart of our rural health system.

Liz’s dad shouldn’t have died and it haunts her. On August 22, 2019, Bryan developed pneumonia and was admitted to Manning Base Hospital. “The doctors told us that it was highly recoverable, and he did recover. But we became aware of mistakes over his admission to Emergency, where Dad was overdosed on some medications. Some days later when Dad was doing much better Dad’s doctor said, ‘I wouldn’t mind if your dad went to the private hospital, [because] I want to build him up before he goes home’. We were not thinking Dad was going to die.”

But more than a week later when Bryan suffered a catastrophic stroke, Liz uncovered another mistake, and this one was unforgivable. “On admission into The Mayo hospital, the doctor on duty didn’t transcribe Dad’s medication properly. The doctor omitted the most important one for atrial fibrillation. It wasn’t until I read the notes on the end of Dad’s bed the night of the stroke that I realised.” Bryan knew Liz and her partner, Ben, were there but he was unable to speak. “He could hear my voice … our eyes connected and I saw that fear,” she says sobbing.

Liz and her brothers rotated a 24-hour vigil by her father’s side. “I was at home when my brother called and said ‘I think you should come’. When I got there, Dad had just died.

“That’s when I started to pull it apart. I discovered there was only one doctor on duty at a 79-bed hospital. And that doctor went home in the early evening and you had to call them if there was a problem on the ward. Then I found out this is the norm … And there are so many places that don’t even have a doctor.”

Liz Hayes sitting on the ground against a building. PHotography by Alana Landsberry
Liz Hayes reflects on her life on television. Photography by Alana Landsberry.

What is Liz Hayes doing now?

In 2021 Liz is celebrating 40 years at Nine with a new gig to add to her portfolio – she’s host of Under Investigation. It’s billed as a studio show like no other. “The idea is that we take a subject – a crime or mystery – and peel it back in a round table approach. The energy comes from the room and the people we have in there,” explains Liz. In one episode former senior NSW homicide detective Gary Jubelin will join Liz to re-examine the murder of Janine Vaughan in Bathurst.

In another celebration on May 23, 2021 Liz will turn 65. “I don’t know what 65 is,” she laughs. “I’m interested to know at what point will I go, ‘gee, I’m old’. I really don’t feel old. But I’m pretty proud to have arrived.”

Joining her festivities will no doubt be her partner of close to 20 years, freelance TV soundman Ben Crane, and her close-knit family, which includes 12 nephews and nieces.

As for the rest of the year, on an average evening while watching TV you’ll find Liz working out – not in the gym but around the living room with her hula hoop. “I bought it some years ago and it sits in my lounge room and I just put myself through a few rounds most nights, through a couple of commercial breaks. I go both ways,” she boasts.

Does Ben join in? “He’s embarrassed. He’s like ‘oh my God. I have to move the furniture, here she comes!’”

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