Pictures by Damien Pleming
Fleeing Iran for Australia as a child, Rita Panahi knew only two words of English. Her family was penniless. Today, she's an opinion columnist and controversial critic of Islam, a single mum with a real estate portfolio. But are her views as mainstream as she thinks?
Suddenly, it seemed, Rita Panahi was everywhere: on TV panel shows, talkback radio and in News Corp newspapers, full of right-wing opinions – like Andrew Bolt, yet very unlike him.
Her Twitter account, which she uses to tangle with her critics and attack "leftie lemmings", has this quote from British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill in the space where most people say something about themselves: "The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is."
It captures two things about Panahi. She sees herself as a woman of integrity and of truth. And, like so many commentators from both the left and the right in these opinionated times, there is a strong sense of incipient persecution – of a courageous truth-teller under attack.
Tweeting pictures from her Tehran childhood, when she wore a hijab and chanted anti-American slogans at school, hints at major change. How did that little girl grow up to be Rita Panahi, Australian public figure?
It is surprising that she is being interviewed at all for this profile, given that she claims her colleagues have warned her the result will be biased, nasty, distorted and an example of exactly the kind of left-wing stupidity she so often attacks.
To Panahi, radical Islam and Western values cannot peacefully co-exist and Australia is the least racist of nations.
Nevertheless she has agreed to co-operate and be interviewed, once in print and once for video. She first meets me in the cafe on the ground floor of the Herald Sun building. In person, Panahi belies her belligerent style. She is likeable – physically small, obviously fit and full of barely-suppressed energy. We talk for over an hour and she is frank, considerate, apparently trusting, sometimes vulnerable. She is clearly tough, but at one point she cries. She says she doesn't trust me – and yet she is trusting.
Towards the end of the interview, she asks why I think it is that most journalists are left-wing. It doesn't seem to be a rhetorical question.
Even at the Herald Sun, she says, a paper which reflects middle Melbourne, which she "adores" and has worked very hard indeed at breaking into, most of her colleagues are to the left of her – and she sees herself as mainstream. Why should this be?
Perhaps, I suggest, those in occupations that deal with ideas and are dominated by the white middle class are more likely to consider radical change. Whereas those like her, who bear the patina of hard knocks, are more inclined to conservatism, valuing the security of what is already there.
She listens with a care that might surprise her readers. As the most recent recruit to the stable of News Corp right-wing columnists, Panahi is not normally open-minded about those on the left. Read her work and you come away with the impression that she regards those with whom she disagrees as mad, sad, stupid or bad – sometimes all four.
Anyone with an IQ above room temperature, to coin a favourite Panahism, would surely see that Islam has a problem, that women should be banned from wearing the burqa, that radical Islam and Western values cannot peacefully co-exist and that Australia is the most accepting and least racist of nations.
To Panahi, anyone who is not a "wing-nut" would know that a good deal of university education is of dubious value and that while gender equality is an admirable aim, feminists are hypocritical nut jobs who don't care for truly marginalised women but instead make a fuss about trivia and harmless jokes.
Those who protested against the East West link, in Melbourne's suburbs during the last Victorian election, she sees as a "ratbag gang of unionists, unwashed hippies, NIMBY greenies, bellicose socialists, confused pensioners and progress-hating layabouts".
Giving money to beggars is "akin to voting for the Greens – it only encourages them, and prevents them from doing something useful with their lives".
And in Panahi's view, Tony Abbott lost popular support partly because of his inability to communicate, but mostly because of a vehement media campaign by left wing journalists.
Was his downfall evidence that the majority of Australians are less right-wing than she might think? Not at all: "I think the centre is a lot more to the right than most people in the media would like it to be," she says.
It's the left-wing commentators, the feminists who write for Fairfax's Daily Life – and the "nut jobs" who deride her on social media – who are the controversial ones, on the fringe. As for herself: "I am, for the most part, reflecting mainstream Australian values."
The Herald Sun's national political editor, Ellen Whinnett, counts Panahi as a friend.
"I don't always agree with her opinions, but we have great discussions and arguments about politics,” says Whinnett. “She's a really interesting person and I admire the way she deals with the abuse she receives on social media, and the fact that she remains relentlessly positive and upbeat. Plus we share a deep love of the mighty Hawthorn Football Club."
Another colleague says, "She is a great, ballsy, brave woman. She'll take anything on. It's very hard not to be fond of Rita."
Not everyone would agree. Her strong views and take-no-prisoners style has begun to attract the same kind of heat – and vehement social media abuse – that is usually visited on her older colleague, Andrew Bolt.
But whereas Bolt had a standard journalistic training before he became an opinion writer, Panahi seems to have come from nowhere, springing fully formed on to the national stage as the main female right-wing voice on Australia's largest circulation daily newspaper.
She is increasingly part of debates that matter. She was, for example, on the opposing team to Stan Grant in a debate on racism that went viral in early 2016 over Grant’s speech. Panahi spoke immediately after Grant and said she was moved by his address. But she still asserted that it was wrong to characterise Australia as racist.
She protests that she is not particularly interesting and not worth the attention of a profile. One of her colleagues and long-time friends doubts the modesty is genuine: "She would love it. It would thrill her. And that would outweigh the caution."
It's very hard not to be fond of Rita."
Panahi is well remembered at the Herald Sun for the way she courted the senior people on the paper when she was still an occasional contributor. One Christmas season, she went around distributing gifts of expensive alcohol and chocolate.
She represents, some suggest, the next generation of conservative opinion writers – Bolt's heir and successor. Yet she is very different from Bolt.
"I'm not your plastic conservative,” Panahi says. “I'm someone who's ethnic, a migrant to this country, an atheist. I'm a single mum, I'm not some privileged, middle-aged white man who would normally have character traits ascribed to conservatives.
"But I do have an issue with people who haven't got my life experience patronising me with their opinions. You know, privileged, middle-aged, middle income white people, who were born and bred here, telling me my views on racism and a cohesive Australian society are wrong."
In January this year, she clashed on live television with Sunrise host Andrew O'Keefe, in an exchange about Islam and terrorism that went viral.
“We need to start discussing intelligently the issues we have with the Muslim community,” Panahi said. O'Keefe bit back: “Every time a fundamentalist Christian in the United States bombs an abortion clinic or bombs a synagogue, do we hold all the Christians in the world accountable for that?”
Panahi responded: “Andrew, that’s such a nonsensical argument... We’ve got to stop doing what you just did and pretending like Islam is like any other religion, as far as being behind incidences of terror.”
For these views, she claims a particular authority. Panahi comes from the heart of the modern conflict between western traditions and radical Islam. She and her family were refugees from the Iranian revolution of 1979, in which the western allied Shah of Iran was overthrown by the repressive theocracy of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
That was the first time the western world was shaken by the power of radical Islamic resurgence and its hatred of the west. This was the revolution that redrew the map of global alliances. We are still roiling in the aftermath, and Rita Panahi as an influential critic of Islam is one of the legacies.
Rita Panahi was born in 1976 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, while her Iranian father was studying at the local university to become an agricultural engineer. Her mother was a midwife. When Rita was still an infant, the family returned to Iran. Her first memories were of an idyllic life on the Iranian coast.
By 1979, the family had moved to Tehran. Panahi was still little more than a toddler, but she remembers the mounting fear when the Shah was overthrown and the Ayatollah came to power. Panahi's mother had worked in a senior midwifery position at a hospital that bore the name of the Royal Family and was patronised by them. This put the family on the line. Photos of Panahi’s mother with relatives of the Shah had to be burned or hidden.
"People were being imprisoned,” Panahi says. “People were being killed. And people fairly close to us; they were in our family."
Her parents, she says, were not particularly political. They are what she describes as "relaxed" Muslims. Nevertheless, the family was targeted.
"My uncle was arrested and considered an enemy of the state and my cousin had been shot. That was enough for you to be under suspicion... I remember not being able to go home certain nights because there were raids being done and they thought that would come for us."
Meanwhile she was made to feel the weight of being female. One of her keenest childhood memories is of having had a head injury, which caused her hair to be shaved. Suddenly, people thought she was a boy. This meant freedom.
"I absolutely loved it. For as long as I could, I kept asking my parents to shave my hair and they humoured me for a few months. I think it was just the sense of freedom where you didn't have to have the hijab and you could play with the boys."
These memories have given her a strong contempt for those who, as she puts it, "appease" strict Islam. In October this year, she wrote about her childhood as part of a column decrying the fact that Muslim children attending a Melbourne school had been excused from singing the national anthem because they were observing Muharram – a month of mourning for Muhammad's grandson.
"When I was a little girl in Tehran," she wrote, "we would line up in neat rows, dressed in our dehumanising Muslim garb, and chant “death to America” over and over again before commencing our classes.
“It was a little tricky for me, given I was American-born, and even at the age of six loathed the hijab and all it represented, but it was what the school required and I stood there and silently mouthed the words."
How foolish and wrong, she argued, that Muslim children should now reject a joyful act such as singing the national anthem of their adopted country.
she was a boy.
This meant freedom.
Her family arrived in Australia in 1984, without money or assets, choosing Melbourne because her uncle was already here. They were accepted as refugees and welcomed in a way for which Pahani remains grateful. For the first few months, they camped out in the back of the uncle’s chicken shop in the Melbourne suburbs.
Rita, who spoke only two words of English, was sent to the local primary school.
"I remember just being absolutely bewildered, because you had no idea what anybody was saying,” she says. “But the lucky thing is, I was eight and English is a very easy language to learn... I think I learnt it mainly on television."
Her mother quickly found work as a midwife. Her father was not able to find work as an agricultural scientist, but did many jobs, including driving taxis. By the time Panahi was in high school, the family was established and paying off a house – evidence, she says, that Australia is a welcoming country of opportunity.
"Even as a child of 10 or 11, I knew that if I worked hard, or even worked at all, I was going to have a level of financial security, have independence, and I wouldn't have to go and marry some dickhead that I couldn't stand,” Panahi says.
“Because that's what you have to do in some countries. Women don't have the option of working and supporting themselves and choosing to be single, like I am.”
"That's why this desperation by the left to somehow paint Australia as this deeply racist, xenophobic backwater, well, I find it really bewildering."
In her column, Panahi has argued in favour of stopping the boats, attacked the "self-loathing shame junkies" who "hyperventilate with rage" over government policies, and strongly supported Australia's humanitarian intake through regular means.
Nevertheless, she is proud that Australia takes its share of refugees, pleased that the intake from Syria was recently increased: “We are the most welcoming of countries.” The offshore detention camps are, she says, an uncomfortable necessity to deter desperate people from attempting the dangerous sea voyage.
"I may be a member of the Iranian community, but I’m first and foremost an Australian and am proud that our country is one of the few that offers resettlement for refugees from around the world," she says.
Straight from school, Panahi began to work in banking while studying a Bachelor of Business Finance at Monash University. She was a fan of the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, and joined Young Labor, working as a campaign volunteer in the 1996 election.
"God. This is a shameful walk down my past," she comments.
What was it that drew her to the left? Again, she quotes Winston Churchill: “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” But she also says that she was drawn by Keating's personal magnetism.
Panahi does not talk about political ideas at depth. It seems to be people and life experience that drives her. When Keating lost the 1996 election, her move to the right began.
Meanwhile, she was having a spectacular career. At 21, she was working for Colonial Mutual in personal banking, writing home loans and organising term deposits. She became the youngest branch manager the company had ever had, supervising people twice her age.
When Colonial Mutual was taken over by the Commonwealth, she moved into corporate banking. By now, her degree studies seemed irrelevant – of little practical use – and she dropped out without graduating. She has written in recent times that many university degrees are useless, saddling students with debt and giving them false hope. She sees little point in such education.
In her late 20s, she was headhunted by the National Australia Bank, but by now she had concluded that something was missing. She was getting bored: "I couldn't imagine doing this for the next 10, 20, 30 years".
She wanted a larger life. She had begun to mix with journalists, and she liked it.
The Rita Panahi byline first appeared in March 2003, when the News Corporation free commuter paper, mX, announced a new weekly column as part of its coverage of the AFL football season. "Ripper Rita" the paper announced, would provide "a fresh female perspective on our great game".
Panahi's role was to rate the "hotness" of AFL footballers. In her first weeks, she constructed a "perve factor ladder". Hawthorn won and Carlton got the wooden spoon. Her column continued throughout the season, with a mix of commentary on the appearance of players, football gossip and satirical advice on how to get an invitation to the Brownlow.
"For those among you who are not naturally blessed with generous bosoms, it is imperative to address this vital weakness. Footballers may not be the sharpest knives in the draw but they have X-ray vision when it comes to cleavage, thus padding will not work. The solution: implants. If you have the operation now, the scars should be gone by Brownlow time."
The column was revived the following season. By now, Panahi was becoming well known among sports journalists and in the social whirl that surrounded the AFL. She turned up to everything. By 2007, she was a regular on SEN, a radio station specialising in sports news and talk.
At the age of 31, Panahi left her secure banking career and became a mother. Her decision to become a parent was a deliberate one and she is a single mother by choice. She is guarded about aspects of her private life and relationships, and will not discuss them in public.
Today, those who know Panahi puzzle at her apparent wealth. Her house on the Mornington Peninsula is more than handsome. She takes regular, expensive overseas holidays and is generous to her friends. A title search reveals she owns a substantial portfolio of investment properties.
"Her wealth is a bit of a mystery," says one friend.
Panahi has a standard explanation: "I had worked hard since I was 18 years old and I invested well.”
In one of her columns, she gave some insight into how she achieved this financial independence, having arrived in the country with nothing. "Wogs", she wrote, were good with real estate. Families clubbed together to pool resources and pay off mortgages:
live by the philosophy that
you bite off more than
you can chew and then
chew like hell."
"Wogs, in my experience, are also more likely to live by the philosophy that you bite off more than you can chew and then chew like hell. None of this 'your mortgage payments shouldn't exceed 30 per cent of your net income' nonsense."
Watever the method, in her early 30s, on her own and with a baby, she was able to effectively retire and concentrate on motherhood and her pitch for a journalistic career. Meanwhile, feeling her lack of tertiary qualifications was unfinished business, she enrolled in and completed a Master of Business Administration from Swinburne University. She is glad to have the qualification, but it hasn't altered her scepticism about university degrees.
Her first column for the Herald Sun appeared in September 2007, when her son was a newborn. It was, she says, a "mummy blogger type piece" – a fierce advocacy for breastfeeding. The tagline at the foot of the article, and the ones that followed, described her as a "social commentator", which at this stage of her career was, to put it mildly, a stretch.
The Panahi belligerent style was already evident:
"The endless rationalising by feminists of why women do not breastfeed is more to do with a political agenda than providing real answers. The unpalatable truth they do not want to acknowledge is that despite society being supportive of breastfeeding, many smart, educated women simply choose convenience over giving their child the optimal start in life. It's not chauvinistic male attitudes, but female prerogative that is behind Australia's poor breastfeeding record."
This, she says, is one of the few issues on which she has softened her attitude. As a new mother, she was obsessive about doing everything right by her child.
"I was so pedantic with diet,” Panahi says. “When he was off breastfeeding, everything was homemade. Pure and organic. Now I'm a lot more relaxed, feed him all sorts of junk. Back then, I was a lot more conscientious."
By 2008, she was a regular contributor, but still not on staff – and "paid a pittance" for her freelance pieces. She wrote on everything from fast food (parents should just say no) to slow walkers who clog up the aisles in the shops. These were, she said, to be added to her "ever-expanding list of pests, irritants and inconsiderate muppets" together with "smokers, hoons and men who spit in public".
She commented on films and football, and, controversially, on the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. The parents, she wrote:
"… should be charged with neglect for leaving a four-year-old girl and twin two-year-olds alone and unprotected in a hotel room for up to 30 minutes at a time. Any decent parent can tell you a lot can go terribly wrong in that time, even without an intruder."
Sympathy for them was misplaced and a symptom of "bleeding heart syndrome", she wrote.
By now, the paper was describing Panahi as a "Melbourne writer". She was gradually broadening her range into politics and social affairs. When the right-wing talkback radio station MTR launched in 2010, Panahi was a regular.
She wrote against a 40km/h speed limit in the Melbourne CBD ("a harebrained scheme") and that she thought racism in the AFL was overstated, but that action was needed to combat homophobia.
"Elite professional sportsmen from a host of other sports have revealed they are gay. It is a stain on the AFL that no player has ever felt empowered to do the same."
Panahi argued in favour of bans on smoking – an exception to her opposition to the "nanny state". Feminists were attacked for staging "slut walks" instead of campaigning against genital mutilation. One of her early controversies concerned an attack on teachers threatening industrial action:
"Why, one wonders, do presumably intelligent people study for four years to enter a profession where they find the pay so unacceptable? It's akin to buying a house near an airport, then complaining about aircraft noise... Perhaps we'd attract better quality candidates if existing teachers didn't carry on like a pack of insufferable moaners."
Last year, after a solid seven years of contributing columns and courting the editors of the Herald Sun, Panahi was finally taken on staff.
She had begun, she says, to bring news stories to the paper ("I know a lot of people in this town"), but her main value, she agrees, is as a columnist.
Panahi's social media presence gives the impression of her life being an open book. She tweets pictures of her son, talks about her beloved Mornington Peninsula, posts pictures of her meals and talks about her love of the beach, the local surf lifesaving club and her frequent travels, most recently a cruise around the islands of Indonesia.
Yet those who work with her sense a strong reserve behind the apparent openness, even a loneliness. She has been kind and generous to friends, but some feel she has dropped them when they have outlived their usefulness. To her colleagues, she seems either to not have many friends other than those in the media and sporting world, or to keep the two strictly separate.
She and her parents were hit hard by the death of her only brother a few years ago, after years of struggle with a degenerative condition.
Asked to name those who have mentored her, Panahi makes broad, general statements about the editors and writers at the Herald Sun. She names nobody in particular. The critics with whom she tangles on Twitter speculate about Panahi's rise as some deep News Corporation plot. The truth is more remarkable: she has done it on her own.
Colleague and friend Ellen Whinnett describes Panahi, 39, as "our leading conservative female voice", saying she "articulates a view that I think a number of our readers would agree with”.
“She's also got really great insights into sport, popular culture,” Whinnett says. “She's a single mum juggling parenting and work, and she's an American Iranian Aussie, so I think she's highly representative of Melbourne, Victoria, and of our readership."
Panahi is not always predictable. Along with the standard fare of News Corp columnists – ABC and Fairfax bashing, and boasting about the home team – she is, on some issues, surprisingly socially progressive. She has argued in favour of women who can support their children choosing single motherhood, as she has.
She hates homophobia. She comments on films, on dress standards, on popular television. On climate change, she is not explicitly a denier, but describes many celebrity campaigners for reduced carbon emissions as hysterical hypocrites. Terrorism, she has suggested, is a more pressing concern for most Australians.
On more trivial matters, she once argued for a ban on swimsuits more than 200 metres from the beach. But, increasingly, her defining riff is to defend her adopted country against allegations of racism, while arguing against tolerance for Islam.
People on the inside at the Herald Sun say Panahi has become the go-to woman when the editors want an extreme view expressed.
"She never flinches from controversy," says one of her colleagues. She'll write things over which others would hesitate. And her colleagues remark that she almost never turns down an opportunity for exposure. Panahi is everywhere – on Radio 3AW, on Sky News, on Sunrise.
Rita Panahi claims she is quite prepared to attack "my own side" when the situation calls for it. Asked for an example, she mentions her criticism of former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop's famous helicopter ride.
Her writing is lively, often bellicose and sometimes witty, strong on assertion and short on argument. She articulates a view, rather than convinces. She does not canvass ideas, so much as assert positions. If she has a wider range as a writer, and can engage with nuance and complexity, is yet to be seen. But it could happen. Her talent is impossible to doubt.
One of her friends says: "She is full tilt at making it. I think she figured out at some stage that making it wasn't just about money.
"It's about influence and profile. She is heading for the top."