Brutal at times”, “very brave”, “a woman with an overrated opinion of herself” and “one of the most powerful journalists in the country”. The labels people have given Gwen Gill are not all complimentary, but her fans and critics seem to agree – what she writes counts.
Gill started her career at the Sunday Times more than 35 years ago as a secretary. She has since worked as a TV critic, features editor, consumer journalist, social columnist and recently took up blogging. To Craig Jacobs, who shares Gill’s column in the Sunday Times, she has been a mentor. “When I first came to South Africa ten years ago, I did not know anyone and she showed me how things were done. The woman has a razor-sharp mind and a photographic memory. I have never seen her with a notebook in her hand at functions and she remembers everything.”
He says Gill taught him to be “completely honest and truthful”. “(To) give the readers a view of what they have not seen. Her column is more than a column, it is a reflection of how society has changed. It is a recording of history and it taps into society. “She is probably one of the most powerful journalists in the country and she is incredibly funny. She might appear too dry and too honest to some people but she is one of the most connected people in South Africa,” he says.
Gillian Anstey, readers’ editor of Times Online, still remembers the advice Gill gave her when she had to do her first story: All you need is seven questions and you are set. “I have carried that advice with me throughout,” she says. Comments Andrew Gill, Gwen’s son and Avusa Group Executive responsible for business development: “I grew up around the Sunday Times and I was filing pictures for them when I was 12 years old, so it is not surprising that I ended up in the same industry. She has been fearless about anything she has ever done and she is no one’s spokesperson.
“She has broken new ground and has been at the forefront of innovating South African journalism. She is ahead of the game.” In a recent interview with TheMediaOnline, sister website to The Media magazine, Gill said a one-one-meeting with Nelson Mandela was a recent highlight in her journalism career. “We talked about grandchildren, the Millennium Eve party on Robben Island, winning Consumer Columnist of the Year Award (around 1993), being appointed features editor of the Sunday Times when I’d only been a journalist for three years, and meeting fabulous people.
“Ask me who they are and I’d say my best ever is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oprah (I’ve interviewed her twice), Shane Warne (I know why women fall for him!), meeting the Queen and Prince Philip.”
Gill said the best event she had covered had to be the bi-annual Fancourt Ball in George. “Fancourt owner, Sabine Plattner, throws the ball to raise funds for local family and child welfare which run into millions. Edith Venter (her recent wedding at Thorneybush would also rank among the great bases) and designer Gert van der Merwe have both done wonders organising the ball over the years… “A posh magazine for UK millionaires once voted it the fifth best social occasion worldwide, mostly because of what I wrote about it.” She is not equally pleased with the state of consumer journalism in South Africa. “(It is) utterly dire.
“I have no idea why consumer journalism is no longer sexy – there was a time, 15 or so years ago, when people bought papers or turned on the telly just to read or watch the late Isabel Jones, Pat Sidley, June Bearzi and Yours Truly.”
Source: “Gossiping with Gwen Gill”, Bronwyn Nielsen/Carte Blanche. With additional reporting by Florence Modikwe.
- This profile first appeared in The Media magazine (August 2008).