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Fighting words: Kerry-Anne Walsh on 'The Stalking of Julia Gillard'

By Sheena McKenzie, for CNN
updated 9:21 AM EST, Fri December 13, 2013
Australian actor Rachel Griffiths (pictured right) is set to play former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a new drama, based on a book by political journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh.
Australian actor Rachel Griffiths (pictured right) is set to play former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a new drama, based on a book by political journalist Kerry-Anne Walsh.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meet Kerry-Anne Walsh, the straight-talking Aussie political journalist
  • Wrote book on former PM Julia Gillard's treatment by the media
  • Now set to be turned into screen drama, starring Rachel Griffiths
  • Walsh worked in Canberra press gallery 25 years, before quitting in 2009

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

(CNN) -- Kerry-Anne Walsh doesn't mince her words. Australian politics is too "blokey," traditional media is "dying," and the press gallery "is a beast that feeds on itself."

"I think it's got me into a lot of trouble," the former political journalist says of her straight-talking style. "But I think it's something that's needed more. There's too much spin in the media. I'm so allergic to spin."

For 25 years Walsh was one of Australia's best known political commentators, working for Sydney newspaper the Sun-Herald, national magazine The Bulletin, and public broadcaster the ABC, among many others.

She saw five prime ministers come and go in half a lifetime "living and breathing" the Canberra press gallery.

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Then Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, came to power and Walsh got so hacked off she left and wrote a book about it.

It wasn't Gillard, as much as her treatment by the media that infuriated Walsh. "She was mercilessly and relentlessly lampooned for her hair, clothes, accent, her arse, even the way she walks and talks," she says in book "The Stalking of Julia Gillard."

Screen star

Now the controversial account -- which became one of the country's top-selling nonfiction books and provoked a backlash from some former colleagues -- is set to hit our screens, with Golden Globe-winning actor and fellow Aussie Rachel Griffiths playing Gillard.

Walsh is pleased with the decision to cast Griffith, perhaps best known internationally for her role in HBO series "Six Feet Under," saying both women possess "the same calm demeanor."

Producer Richard Keddie -- the man behind other Labor bio-dramas "Hawke" and "Curtin" -- will oversee the project, expected to be released in 2015. Though it's still undecided if it will take the form of a TV drama or feature film.

Power play

Gillard came to power in 2010, replacing fellow Labor leader Kevin Rudd. Three years later, the party voted Rudd back in.

"The book is a fairly 'in-your-face' account of Gillard's leadership," says Walsh. "It focuses on how she was undermined by Rudd's forces and the role the media played in it."

Why did she feel compelled to write it?

"Because I got angry. Not just because of what was happening to her, but because I had given a quarter of a century of my life to trying to report as accurately and fairly as I could, and I was bloody appalled by the mind-set about her leadership," says Walsh, who left the press gallery in 2009.

"There were very few people in the media who were prepared to divert from the pack and scrutinize in an objective fashion -- which as journalists is what we've been told to do on a daily basis."

Did the fact Gillard was a woman affect how she was portrayed by the media?

"It had something to do with it," says Walsh, speaking by phone from her home in Canberra, not far from the country's Parliament House.

"I do believe we in Australia have a deeply ingrained... how do I say this? We're just not ready for women in positions of power."

Kevin Rudd's leadership battle with Julia Gillard spurred Walsh's book.
Cole Bennetts/Getty Images/File

Young ambition

Walsh grew up in Sydney, one of six children in an Irish-Catholic home, with a father who was involved in the Democratic Labor Party throughout the 1960s.

Politics had always been a topic around the dinner table. But when Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was dramatically dismissed by the Governor-General in 1975 -- the only time in Australia's history this had ever happened -- it became a passion.

"You'd have to have had your head under a rock not to be interested one way or another," says Walsh, who dreamed of being a journalist for as long as she can remember.

The book is a fairly 'in-your-face' account of Gillard's leadership
Kerry-Anne Walsh

"I went for a cadetship at what was then the Daily Mirror. And I was told by this bloke who was blowing cigarette smoke all over me that 'We don't take convent girls,' because I had come from a school run by nuns,'" she said.

After that, Walsh says she "just sort of winged my through," working as a copywriter, then for a trade union paper, before landing her first job at the Daily Telegraph, and becoming a familiar face in the Canberra press gallery.

Life's work

"Parliament house is a little city in itself, with around 3,000 people working there," said Walsh.

"It's a wild card on any given day -- you never know how politicians are going to be reacting to certain policies or events. So you have to be basically on-call 24/7. It becomes your life. Even now I can't get out of the habit of staying up until all the current affairs shows are done and making sure you're fully across everything."

Walsh spent 25 years working in the Canberra press gallery.
Torsten Blackwood/Getty Images/File

Today, the mother of a 23-year-old son, who describes her age as "not yet 60," still contributes the odd political commentary, volunteers with aboriginal-support groups, and is "plotting her next book."

It's perhaps fitting that her two dogs are called Les and Darcy -- after 19th century Australian boxer Les Darcy. She laughs when I point out the similarities with her own fighting words.

"I know the book did hit a lot of nerves," she says.

"But I do hope it contributes to discussion about the way politicians and the media are responsible to the public. If it's done that, then well and good. I'll be bloody pleased."

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