‘DO IT AGAIN, I’LL SLAP YOU’: Robson’s shocking TV moment

Naomi Robson: “I don’t look in the rear-vision mirror.” (Pic: Emily Dephine for Stellar)
Naomi Robson: “I don’t look in the rear-vision mirror.” (Pic: Emily Dephine for Stellar)

AS A young and up-and-coming journalist in the early 1990s, Naomi Robson was only too happy to help out when her then-boss asked her to stay late one day and fill in for a colleague who had called in sick.

Eager to seize the opportunity, she readily agreed, but an hour later, it dawned on her: she was going to be reading the news, live on air.

Jennifer Keyte, the regular newsreader on Tonight Live With Steve Vizard - at the time one of the hottest shows on Australian screens - had fallen ill and Robson would be stepping into her shoes.

She'd only been working in TV for three weeks.

"At that stage I'd never even seen the program," Robson explains to Stellar. "I'd only filed two or three reports on air. I was still learning."

“Media attention can be a harsh spotlight.” (Pic: Emily Dephine for Stellar)
“Media attention can be a harsh spotlight.” (Pic: Emily Dephine for Stellar)

But Naomi Robson was never one to shy away from a challenge.

Swallowing hard, she read the headlines in front of the live audience - and promptly stumbled over her delivery. "I was mortified, but I just kept going. Then [host] Steve Vizard goes, 'Oh, you stumbled, why don't you do it again and see if you can get it right.' I got through the second time without stumbling and the crowd went wild." From that moment on, Robson was hooked on the high of live TV.

She steadily worked her way up the ranks, before hitting the big time in 1997 as host of Today Tonight (TT) in Melbourne. She was so popular, she took over the Sydney and Brisbane editions. By 2003, Robson and her team were dominating the coveted 6.30pm timeslot; she had a nightly audience of more than one million people across the three capital cities.

But it wasn't always smooth sailing. Long before social media and trolls became a fixture, Robson was often in the eye of a media storm: such as when, in 2006, she reported on Steve Irwin's death, dressed in khaki with a lizard on her shoulder.

Causing controversy when reporting on Steve Irwin’s death in 2006.
Causing controversy when reporting on Steve Irwin’s death in 2006.

She was also deported from Indonesia with her crew after trying to cover a story on a young orphan boy who was reportedly under threat of being eaten by a tribe of cannibals. And then there was that rumour about a make-up truck being at her disposal while she covered the Beaconsfield mine collapse (a claim that she has denied).

"Naomi really became a target in a way that no contemporary female television presenter is treated today," says Stephen Brook, the editor of The Australian's Media Diary. "Even without a social-media backlash, quite vicious things were said and written about her. Sometimes she was the author of her own misfortune because she attracted controversy, but I suspect it's a different climate now. She'd probably [still] attract a lot of criticism, but what was missing then was the defence of her.

"I think that would be a lot more powerful today. I think she'd have a tough time on Twitter, but the mainstream media would be more polite and I think that the attacks against her would be criticised as being sexist a lot more readily."

Today, though, the 54-year-old is philosophical about her time at the top - and the missteps she made along the way. "That glow of media attention can become a harsh spotlight pretty quickly. But I don't spend my life looking in the rear-vision mirror. When I finished TT in 2006, Twitter had literally just been launched. I look at [media] people now and what they have to encounter - I didn't have that. So I consider myself a little bit lucky."

Robson points to the pay-disparity dispute that exploded when Lisa Wilkinson defected from the Today show late last year. "Most people would agree, I believe, that it is only fair and reasonable that if two people do the same job and the same quality of work, irrespective of their gender or their age or whatever it might be, that they should be paid the same," she says.

"But television doesn't really work like that and we know this. It's not like there's a pay grade, but at the same time I believe when there is disparity it should be addressed.

"Lisa Wilkinson's case has highlighted this issue and I think it's going to put people on notice to a certain extent, and I think that's not such a bad thing. Change is long overdue - this is certainly one area where social media is driving that change."

She also considers herself lucky that she dodged unwanted advances during a time when sexual harassment was considered the norm in her industry. "From my point of view, if there is one young woman who feels that her job is under threat and feels that she has to do anything that compromises her as a result, I think that should be the bottom line," she tells Stellar. "It never happened to me, apart from one time when a producer slapped me on the backside. And I just turned around and said to him, 'You do that again, I will slap you so hard your teeth will rattle for a month.' He slapped me really hard on the backside. Not only was it demeaning and rude, and appalling in every way - but it hurt! So that's what I said and that never happened again."

Robson now runs a media-training business called Managing Your Message. (Pic: Emily Dephine for Stellar)
Robson now runs a media-training business called Managing Your Message. (Pic: Emily Dephine for Stellar)

Robson spent 10 years proving she wasn't one to be messed with as the anchor of Today Tonight and, after thinking long and hard about her future, she decided it was time for a new challenge. She joined the cast of Dancing With The Stars and began intensive dance training - but just two weeks out from going to air, her dancing partner, Csaba Szirmai, had a jet-ski accident and had to pull out of the competition.

Her new partner, Steven Grace, was as new to Dancing With The Stars as she was. "We both had to learn together," she recalls. "It was really tough - I think we lasted four weeks. It was an incredible experience."

When Robson wasn't tearing up the dance floor, she was planning a new move on television; she recorded a pilot for her very own Oprah-style talk show when the Seven Network was weighing up various options for daytime programming beyond Sunrise. "It was incredibly well received," she tells Stellar. "But by the time I got to do my pilot, they had already secured the sponsorship base for The Morning Show. You couldn't fracture that pool of advertising - there's a finite pool - particularly at that time. So it didn't go ahead. It was really unfortunate timing."

With Steven Grace on Dancing With The Stars in 2007.
With Steven Grace on Dancing With The Stars in 2007.

Robson wasn't going to let her dream of hosting her own chat show slip away, so after she left Seven she decided to produce the show herself - with a focus on relationships - and stream it via her website. ("It was a huge undertaking. It was a bit ahead of its time," she says.) At the same time that she was producing the talk show, Robson was approached by a number of people in the corporate world who wanted her advice on how to handle media engagements, shape their media messages or get assistance with managing public relations and communication. Robson decided to tap into this rising new market and launched a media-training business called Managing Your Message.

"After about 14 months, looking at the time and energy that was going into the online show and then the growing demand for the corporate training, it was clear that the latter was a better return on investment for me in time and energy. That's when I closed the website down and focused primarily on Managing Your Message," she says.

These days, Robson is set to take her media business to the next level with the launch of an online presentation skills training program.

Asked if she ever misses being in front of the camera, Robson replies, "What I really miss about TT and working in television is the camaraderie of that environment. When you're working towards that deadline every day, they become your family. We had a fantastic team of people working on TT - really clever, smart, fun people."

Would she ever return to TV? "I'm certainly open to doing some work on television or maybe radio as well. I have been offered things over the years but nothing I was really interested in doing. That's not to say that something won't come up in the future and I'd certainly be open to it."

Naomi Robson features in Stellar magazine.
Naomi Robson features in Stellar magazine.

For someone who hosted their own show about relationships, Robson is extremely private when it comes to her own personal life. In a culture of over-sharing on social media, she is "whatever is beyond an under-sharer", she laughs. "I can't tell you how much my friends harangue me for it. My intention this year is to be more prolific in that space. I don't have a lot of time to spend on it, but I'm putting my toe in the water and trying."

After some probing, Robson reveals that she is happily single. "I'm not in a relationship at the moment. But I'm very optimistic and positive about the future. The reason why I'm not with someone right now is that I haven't met the right person. And I don't think I'm alone in that regard. I'm really lucky; I've got a wonderful family that means the world to me, I'm really close to my mum and dad. I've got amazing friends. Look, I've never been defined by my relationships."

Right now, she's focusing on her relationship with her clients. "What's exciting for me is I'm able to provide people with skills and techniques, and insights to help them realise their potential, because so many people are terrified of presentations. It's so deeply rewarding to see these people make progress and improve their confidence. I feel immensely proud. I'm really lucky - I have so much fun."

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