Christine Hopton, OAM, has had three successful careers as a trailblazing journalist, television producer, and transformational community leader. In each case, her career has opened the door for other women to follow. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
When Christine Hopton, OAM, became a journalist in the mid-1970s, there were no computers, no mobile phones, and certainly no internet. Building a strong network of industry contacts was essential to uncover leads and verify facts for news stories.
As the first female journalist to do the police rounds for the prestigious Melbourne Age newspaper, Hopton knew she’d have to gain the respect of ‘boys in blue’ to succeed, starting with a key contact, the Head of the Armed Robbery Squad. But, when introduced to him at a police pub in Melbourne, Australia, he was unimpressed to find she was a woman. He looked her up and down, then dismissed her with a derisive “Bloody Sheila!” before returning to his beer.
Undeterred by the sexist attitude, Hopton worked hard to build a reputation for being thorough, keeping her word, and doing the right thing. By the time she moved on from the police rounds, she’d won the respect of the ornery Head of Armed Robbery, who, to her immense satisfaction, shook her hand and told her she’d done a great job.
Working her way up
When Hopton was a teenager, her father, Brian Morris, ran Rupert Murdoch’s publishing operations in Australia. Southdown Press was the stable for iconic magazines like New Idea and TV Week. In her school holidays, Hopton was a copy girl, literally running copy (written content) up and down the stairs, doing coffee runs and buying bacon and egg sandwiches. It lit a fire in her to become a journalist, and at 18, she was gratified to be offered a cadetship with the Melbourne Age, which she undertook while studying for a Diploma in Journalism at RMIT.
Despite working in what was then a male-dominated field, Hopton said she never felt discriminated against and believes it helped that the newspaper was a daily. As leads for stories arose, they were delegated to whichever journalist was available, male or female.
“If a story broke and you happened to be there, it’d be like, ‘Grab a photographer and off you go’,” she says.
That said, Hopton did experience sexual harassment during her career which, as was generally expected of women of her generation, she tried to laugh off or play down. There was no #MeToo movement then, and the consequences of such behaviour weren’t what they are today; so when Prime Minister Bob Hawke inappropriately touched her during an interview, it was brushed off as larrikinism.
However, as a journalist for a high-profile paper, Hopton’s focus was on doing an excellent job, and she was often at the forefront of major news stories. She recalls covering an attempted prison break-out by the notorious killer, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, found sitting on a prison roof with another inmate. Thinking outside the square, Hopton climbed into a cherry picker and shouted questions at the criminals from across the barbed wire until the prison authorities shut them down.
Jumping at new opportunities
When Rupert Murdoch later bought television station Channel 10, headquartered in Sydney, he sent Hopton’s father to run the station. Hopton’s boss offered her the chance to follow her parents north and work there for a year. She jumped at the opportunity, in a decision that changed her career trajectory.
After the 12 months were up, Hopton remained in Sydney and entered the world of television. She joined Channel 10, initially as a researcher and later as a producer for Good Morning Australia, a new breakfast TV program Murdoch was launching ahead of the competition. It was a fantastic learning opportunity for Hopton, mentored by the show’s two producers, including Peter Brennan, who later started Judge Judy in the USA.
“We were working in an area that had never been done before in Australia. It was almost like there were no rules – just do what you can so long as you get some ratings,” Hopton says, which included having a chimp named Wally host a show. “That was fun, and people talked about it.”
When operating in a fast-changing environment, leaders need to be able to think on their feet. “You’ve got to be able to make decisions quickly and to stand by your decisions,” Hopton says.
Hopton’s first leadership role was as a senior producer of Terry Willesee Tonight, an acclaimed current affairs program on Channel 7. She was responsible for all program elements, including the content, ensuring journalists were on the case, cutting the tape for the stories and talking to Terry from the control room.
There was no digital imagery then, and Hopton recalls a hair-raising day when an editor accidentally shattered the tape for the lead story just before they went live to air. With seconds to go, she reconfigured the entire program for the evening. It was a very high pressured job, but Hopton was all over it, earning the nickname ‘singlet Morris’ because she was on everyone’s backs.
As a result, the program was very successful, with exclusives including the first interview with the wrongly-convicted murderer Lindy Chamberlain, and news that then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s daughter was a drug addict.
Ensure you set clear and specific expectations for your team so they understand what is expected of them, then let them step up and take ownership. “Working as a team is really important,” Hopton says.
Juggling family and work
When Hopton was pregnant with the first of three daughters, she resigned from the show but was soon restless. Hopton and her architect husband Robert had moved to Avalon, in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, where she felt lonely and isolated and missed the challenge and camaraderie of her job. Her parents had also returned to Melbourne. So, Hopton hired a mothercraft nanny and returned to work, this time for Channel 9’s breakfast TV program, The Today Show.
When Hopton was pregnant with her second child, she was promoted to become Channel 9’s first female executive producer. She accepted the role on the proviso that she wouldn’t start at 4 am, working from home with her daughter and going in later in the day. “My daughter developed an aversion to newspapers because they were always spread across the floors from when I did my daily research,” she laughs, noting that the internet still wasn’t an option then.
As her career progressed, full-time nannies were a necessity. Hopton’s job was not 9 to 5. “I was lucky that I earned good money in television and we could afford a nanny. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible,” Hopton says.
Nonetheless, it reached a point where Hopton and her husband were both working very long hours. She recalls him saying, “This isn’t sustainable. One of us is going to have to give up something.”
Hopton felt the time was right to move away from the major networks. She became a freelancer for Showboat Productions, owned by a former colleague, helping to produce hit programs such as The Extraordinary, which broke into the US market. The role gave her more flexibility and she often filmed segments for shows at her own home, which her young daughters loved because the make-up artists would do up their faces.
Finding a new passion
After having their third daughter, Hopton took six months off work and tried her hand at non-media roles before working in PR for Surf Life Saving Northern Beaches. Her daughters were already part of their Nippers program, which teaches children swimming and surfing, and provides a pathway to surf life saving.
Their participation motivated Hopton and her husband to train to become volunteer life savers. Never one to do things by halves and always willing to try something new, Hopton soon found herself entering master’s racing board competitions and training for masters events, going on to win gold in international competitions.
By now, Hopton was heavily involved in the Avalon Beach Surf Life Saving Club and believed the leadership needed more support. When the opportunity arose to become deputy president, she took it and was voted in as the club’s first female president a year later.
Outstanding community leadership
Over the next eight years, Hopton’s volunteer role as president transformed her community. She was recognised as Pittwater Woman of the Year in 2014 and received an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in 2017 for her contribution to surf life saving. But it didn’t come easy. At first, the club was rife with political factions, which Hopton handled by gathering the groups in a room, letting them “blow off steam” before making them work together. “I was constantly putting out bushfires before they became infernos,” Hopton says. “That solved a lot of problems.”
The then treasurer was also sceptical about her capabilities, proclaiming that she wouldn’t last six months. He later grudgingly acknowledged that “she just keeps chipping away” until she reaches her goals.
However, Hopton’s most outstanding achievement was leading a small team in raising $1 million to rebuild the clubhouse, modernising the facilities and creating a resource for the community rather than members only. She and her supporters, including her husband, faced massive resistance to this move. One vexatious litigant took them to court seven times before they ultimately won in the Supreme Court.
When the new clubhouse eventually opened and membership doubled, it was a triumphant reflection of Hopton’s determination and strong leadership under adversity.
Giving other women a hand up
During this time, Hopton also became one of two independent female directors on the Surf Life Saving Australia board, which then consisted only of the male presidents of the state life saving clubs. “It really changed the dynamics of the board,” Hopton says, and made the club more approachable, with people coming up to her at the beach or surf competitions to share their views on what was needed.
She is proud that her work has inspired women to volunteer for leadership roles in other clubs, with Hopton a willing mentor. She also mentors the next generation of female leaders rising in Surf Life Saving Australia’s ranks, encouraging them to pursue new opportunities, much as she has done with her three daughters.
Having had a trailblazing career, Hopton, now semi-retired and working as a yoga teacher, is keen to see other women step up and run with opportunities when they arise. She has opened a door so others could follow, and it concerns her that, too often, women lack the self-confidence to do so.
“I always say to women, don’t live in your comfort zone all the time; just have a go. What have you got to lose?” she says.
Christine Hopton’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
© This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA.