Iconic journalist, convert told the stories of life

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ABC journalist Caroline won the admiration and respect of the nation. Photo: Gemma Deavin, ABC
ABC journalist Caroline won the admiration and respect of the nation. Photo: Gemma Deavin, ABC

By Noel James Debien

Broadcaster Caroline Jones has gone to God, and her own story is important too. She became part of our tribe as an adult, and that was her very considered choice. The church provided her with a new family, as well as a generous culture which altered her life. Hers is truly a story of Catholic renewal.

She contributed so very much to broader Australian life through media, through her personal struggles, and through her faithfulness.

She was originally from Murrurundi in country NSW. As she has written, the deaths of her mother and father caused her immense suffering: “I was unprepared for the intensity of my reaction to my father’s illness and the extent to which it disabled me. I did not anticipate that the experience would deprive me of peace and call everything into question” She had no brothers and sisters and was struck deeply that she had become an orphan.

“Her Catholicism was in no way part of the culture wars … Caroline’s faith was personal and deeply felt”.

But instead of being defeated by grief, it sparked a calling within her to recognise the importance of Easter and the Paschal mystery. “Without that Easter Story I’d find life random, chaotic, meaningless, terrifying.”

She seems well to have known St Ignatius’s notion of ‘spiritual desolation’.

The story of Jesus, his teaching, his painful suffering and death, and his glorious resurrection gave her genuine ‘consolation’ – of the most Ignatian sort. It underpinned her life’s work.

OK, that may sound unexpected for an ABC star, as she was so often in the media (media sometimes perceived as an enemy of the church). However, it is a fact that for journalist Caroline Jones, the Paschal mystery was her foundation. So many obituaries have been written about her, and so much said. But this obituary is a Christian edition of her life well lived.

Caroline Jones was well respected for her decades of work as an ABC radio broadcaster. Photo: Gemma Deavin.

Sure she was famous, and like most of us, she was no perfect Catholic. But she regarded the church as her family.

Father Paul Coleman SJ had received her into the Catholic church at North Sydney parish in 1985, and he remained her mentor until his own death in 2017. Her worshipping community of St Joseph’s Neutral Bay (Sydney) was integral to her life, and she was involved in the coordination and collaborative leadership of that distinctive community.

Sister Clare Koch RSC from St Joseph’s said: “The faith became alive for Caroline within this community and its commitment to outreach. During the drought we looked after Dunedoo. We supported the settlement of Afghan families in Western Sydney. Our community was committed to helping Ukraine. Caroline was involved in all of that. No matter how big or small the project or initiative, she gave her enthusiastic and full commitment”.

I had the privilege of worshipping at Mass with Caroline at Neutral Bay last year, along with her friend and fellow ABC broadcaster Geraldine Doogue – who offered invaluable counsel for this obituary.

“The ABC’s Search for Meaning was a deeply influential program. She was a journalist who genuinely appreciated and understood the nuances of religion within our Australian culture.”

I recall going over to Caroline, who I hadn’t seen for years. As she was helping with morning tea, I naively introduced myself again (thinking she might not recognise me after so long). She instantly said, “please Noel, I know exactly who you are”. And she smiled with genuine warmth and amusement. I blushed. She seems never to have missed a trick. Not even regarding us lesser mortals.

Back then, Geraldine was following their mutual friend Fr Michael Kelly SJ for an ABC TV Compass program. Fr Michael recently wrote about Caroline’s passing: “Her Catholicism was in no way part of the culture wars … Caroline’s faith was personal and deeply felt”.

She did not take sides in Catholic internal disputes. Caroline was a fervent member of the church Catholic and universal, with 1.3 billion members.

In Australia, Caroline Jones was well ahead of the pack in grasping the relationship between religion and media, all for the public good. Photo: Gemma Deavin, ABC

That huge church involves various factions, various faults, and various blessings. But in the end, it is one. I recall Vatican II specialist reporter and raconteur Robert Blair Kaiser once pitching the church to me as “Well here comes everybody!” Caroline would have well understood that.

Complementing her acclaimed news and current affairs work, Caroline’s media focus on spirituality and religion informed our nation.

The ABC’s Search for Meaning was a deeply influential program. She was a journalist who genuinely appreciated and understood the nuances of religion within our Australian culture.

While she experienced the personal struggles of belief, she also appreciated keenly the universal principles of religion. She was neither afraid of, nor confused by them. She did not avoid their sometimes-pernicious complexities like many journalists do.

“In Australia, Caroline Jones was well ahead of the pack in grasping the relationship between religion and media, all for the public good.”

Instead, she stepped forward to ensure that it was discussed competently on a national platform. She did this with confidence, kindness, and deep knowledge. She listened.

Carefully. Caroline was much more than her skilful words. She was a mentor and supporter for women in media and beyond. When Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021, she got behind a charity for widows and orphans, “Mahboba’s Promise”

Caroline was direct and personal in her fundraising for them, making it possible for Afghan orphans to reach safety in Australia. She visited the children frequently.

Caroline Jones was host of the flagship ABC current affairs program, Four Corners. Photo: Gemma Deavin, ABC

Nothing was beneath her, even if it came to making representations to the local council over garbage collection. The charity’s founder, Mahboba Rawi, told me “When they arrived in Australia, I became mother to these many children. They called Caroline “Bibi” (grandmother). She was family to us. We are so very sad”.

The day after her death, Caroline had planned to take the children to the zoo – but sadly, that could not happen. Yet Caroline’s good deeds follow her.

The Vatican II document Inter Mirifica (on the Means of Social Communications) hoped for the rise of journalists like Caroline. It (rather bravely) directed that it ought to happen.

While Caroline might have found Inter Mirifica’s gendered language less than perfectly attractive, her body of work reflects the Vatican Council’s invitation to “all men of good will, especially those who control the media, to use them solely for the good of humanity, for its fate becomes more and more dependent on their right use”.

“Her impact wasn’t limited to expertly contextualising religion in general reporting. It expanded through her specialised religious reporting. She led the way.”

The Bishops of Vatican Council II had considered the real-world effects of hideous past propaganda, and anticipated future media influence.

In Australia, Caroline Jones was well ahead of the pack in grasping the relationship between religion and media, all for the public good.

Her impact wasn’t limited to expertly contextualising religion in general reporting. It expanded through her specialised religious reporting. She led the way. Her death is a great loss for our nation, and for our Church. May she rest in peace and rise with Christ in glory.

Noel James Debien is a Senior Specialist Producer, ABC TV Compass