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How Leigh Sales made it to the top of Australian news

Image: ABC

Image: ABC

Leigh Sales is a towering figure in Australian journalism, and after almost 12 years as the anchor of ABC’s flagship current affairs program, 7.30, she’s decided it’s time for something new.  

Now transitioning to the next stage of her career, Leigh’s ready to generously share her own career regrets, for the benefit of the next generation of journalists.

In this episode of Journo, Nick Bryant sits down with Leigh Sales for a wide-ranging exit interview with rare insights into Leigh’s working process, her rigorous interview preparation and how her grandmother’s words have kept her focused when the critics take aim.

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Transcript

Leigh Sales
Anchoring 7.30 has been the most amazing job and I’ll never stop being grateful for the opportunities it’s given me all the incredible people that I’ve interviewed. 

Nick Bryant
Leigh Sales is a towering figure in Australian journalism, and has been the presenter of ABC’s flagship news program 7.30 for almost 12 years. 

Leigh Sales
It was so long ago that Donald Trump was just a guy with a bad orange hairdo hosting the apprentice.  

Nick Bryant
She has built her reputation on her forensic cross examination of Prime Ministers. 

Leigh Sales
And joining me now in our Sydney studio is the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Good to have you Prime Minister. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard also agreed to a separate interview today, Prime Minister welcome to the program.

Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister
Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

Leigh Sales
Are you a dead man walking? 

Nick Bryant
But she says much at home interviewing global celebrities and sporting superstars such as the cricketer, Shane Warne. 

Leigh Sales
Shane, it’s lovely to meet you. 

Shane Warne, cricketer
Yes, nice to be back.

Nick Bryant
She’s an award-winning author, a one time wedding singer, and the co-host of a hugely popular podcast. 

Annabel Crab, journalist
Leigh Sales is operating songs spreadsheet, it’s just like, she’s got a wild look in her eyes. 

Nick Bryant
As she relinquishes the anchors chair at 7.30. She’s agreed to sit for an exit interview, a wide ranging conversation. That’s also a chat between mates. 

Leigh Sales
Leigh Sales, ABC News, Washington. 

Nick Bryant
Full disclosure. We’ve known each other since we were both Washington correspondents 20 years ago. And a lot has happened since.

I’m Nick Bryant. And this is Journo, a podcast and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Leigh, I must admit, when I was prepping for this interview, I was reminded of your famed preparation, they say to you start prepping for interviews sometimes before the interviews are even booked. 

Leigh Sales
Do you know what at the moment on my desk, I’ve got two files for people that I fear might die while I’m live on air and that I might have to be able to improvise about. One is Rupert Murdoch. And the other one is the Queen. So I have done a bit of interview prep for those things, even though they haven’t occurred yet. Like imagine, you know, if the Queen died and you’re in the middle of a broadcast, like how you’d have to try to switch gears and make sure you hit the right note off the top of your head. So because there are a lot of things in news that you can’t control, I like to control the things I can control. 

Nick Bryant
How would Leigh Sales prep for an interview with Leigh Sales? 

Leigh Sales
I think the first thing that I would think is, okay, this person has been interviewed a lot, what can I talk to them about that they would be interested in talking about that maybe they haven’t had to talk about a lot. And also you’ve come to this with a big, big head start, which is you know me, so you haven’t had to build rapport. And that’s always the biggest challenge. When you’re interviewing somebody you don’t know and you’re walking in, you’re trying to warm them up and make them have rapport. But because we are../ in the prep for me for this, the only prep I did was when I parked a car, I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve known Nick now for nearly 20 years”, because you were with the BBC in Washington when I was there for the ABC. And you know that helps you a lot in the interview because the rapport is already established. And so then as we’re already doing, then we’re just having a nice chat. 

Nick Bryant
I want to talk to you about the art of interviewing and the preparation involved. I mean, let’s give you a scenario, you find out that you’ve got to interview the Prime Minister of Australia later in the week, let’s say later in the week rather than on the day, because that’s very different. That would be very concertina. But how do you approach it? 

Leigh Sales
Later in the week is fantastic. Because that’s a luxury to have time, you know, time is the key thing. So normally, with the Prime Minister and the opposition leader, I have a running file that I keep. And so anytime there’s an issue, I don’t do any really serious prep at the time, but I just might dump something into the file. So what I might dump into the file might be some paragraphs cut and pasted from a story that might say, for example, Anthony Albanese is going to be facing a big challenge in the energy sector. And he’s promised that he’s going to have, you know, more renewables online by the end of the year. And so I’ll just throw that into the file. 

Or if I’m watching something, and I have a thought that comes into my head, like, “Gee, I mean, does he actually know anything about foreign policy, I can’t think that he’s actually got any real foreign policy experience”, I’ll just tap that into the file as a potential to follow up later. And so then, if I had a few days of notice that I was going to have the Prime Minister, I’d go and get that file. I’d asked my producer to get me transcripts of other recent interviews and press conferences they’d done. And then I’d start going through that and picking out what topics I think might be fruitful to concentrate on in the interview.  

Once I’ve identified the topics, then I start whittling it down to questions. Once I’ve got questions, I think about where might the interview go? If I asked this question, how might they respond? And what facts might, or data might I need to arm myself with? So that when they inevitably say “Well Leigh, that’s your opinion”, I should go, “Well, actually, let me read to you from page 15 of the Budget Papers, blah, blah, blah.” 

So I’ve done all of that stuff. And then once I have all of that research material, and I’ve got the draft of the questions, I approach the questions like I approach if I’m writing a story or even a book, which is I edit them to be as sharp and concise as possible. And I take out any extraneous words, I put them into the active voice, and I try to make them as crisp as I can. And I also think about the structure of the interview. And I think, what is this interview actually about at its core? And questions that don’t back, you know, the kind of theme of the interview where they don’t quite fit, tend to get dropped so that there’s a clear kind of core to the interview.  

Nick Bryant
And when you’re prepping, what is the goal of the interview? Is it to get a headline on the front pages the next day? Is it to produce some political theater to produce great TV?  

Leigh Sales
It can be all of those things. And if you can get all of those things into one interview, you’ve really killed it. It depends a lot on the interviewee. I had an interview with the Reserve Bank, Governor Phillip Lowe, that is very, very rare to get him for an interview.

Audio from interview with Reserve Bank Governor Phillip Lowe
Governor, welcome to the program.

Thanks, Leigh. It’s great to be with you.

These your first public remarks since the 50 basis point rise, I wanted to immediately ask therefore why did the Reserve Bank go so hard? It was a little bit unexpected.

Leigh Sales
I’m thinking, “Okay, why is he doing this? Why does he want to do this?” Now he must feel he has something to say. So if you think he has something to say, then you try to give space. And for someone who’s rarely heard from you want to give quite a bit of space. Then you’re also thinking, you know, what are the questions that the average person at home wants to hear the Reserve Bank Governor answer for? So for an interview like that, it’s more a, I guess a thing like, well, let’s just see what this guy’s got to say, how’s he explaining what’s going on? 

Phillip Lowe
Well, I think, Leigh, that Australians need to be prepared for higher interest rates 

Leigh Sales
For somebody in power, like, say, the prime minister or state premier, someone who runs a nursing home, it might be more of an accountability kind of interview. So it might have more of a degree of conflict or confrontation in it. And then you might also be thinking that you do want a bit of theater. So say with a politician, you might ask a really difficult, tricky question off the top. Like I know, for example, in their recent last interview that Scott Morrison did with 7.30, in the election campaign, I asked him something like, “if you lose on Saturday, who are you going to blame?” 

Audio from interview with former Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
If you lose the election, who would you blame

Well, I would always accept the result of an election, because I trust my fellow Australians. 

Leigh Sales
And that was just appointed to the, I don’t hold a hose, you know, kind of thing. And it was more I knew that, of course, he wasn’t going to react. But perhaps the look on his face when I asked the question might provide a bit of theatre and a bit of entertainment or make someone home laugh or whatever. So you are definitely looking for those moments of theater. And of course, if it’s somebody like Shane Warne, or Tom Hanks or a celebrity that it’s all kind of entertainment.

Audio from interviews with actor Tom Hanks and cricketer Shane Warne
Leigh Sales: Tom Hanks, lovely to have you with us. When you’re playing a person who did actually exist in reality, what kind of obligation, if any, do you feel that you have to them? 

Tom Hanks: That’s a real interesting question.   

Leigh Sales: Shane. It’s lovely to meet you.

Shane Warne: Yes, nice to be met.

Leigh Sales: I’ve watched a lot of archive of you preparing for the interview. And one of the things that’s massively entertaining is often when you take a wicket very frequently, you see the batsman turn around and look at the stumps because they can’t believe that they are.

Shane Warne: know, I was lucky enough to bamboozle a few.

Leigh Sales
And what you’re hoping for, is the viewer feels like they’re watching a genuinely engaging conversation between two human beings.   

Nick Bryant
I think over the past sort of 10 or 15 years, you know, politics has become excessively oppositional. And do you think that political interviewing has become excessively adversarial?  

Leigh Sales
I’ve thought a lot about this. What I think definitely has changed is that facts are contested in a way that they never used to be contested. I can say something and the politician will go “well, that’s your opinion, Leigh,” or, “that’s just wrong”. And it’s demonstrably provable fact. And so if you’re not addressing reasonable questions head on, you’re not persuading anyone at home that they should vote for you. As they say, in Australia with the recent election result. I do wonder how much of that is to do with the fact that the way politicians communicate in public doesn’t connect with people, there’s a lack of authenticity? Because if every question you asked me now I wasn’t genuinely engaging with, it rapidly becomes a really boring conversation. And so I think that there’s a craving out there in the public for authenticity. I think it’s a reaction against, say things like Instagram, where celebrities have these heavily curated kind of public profiles. It’s why people think slip-ups and mistakes are interesting, because it’s that craving for authenticity that people are looking for.

Audio from 7.30 interviews
Prime Minister, thank you for your time tonight. Hope to see you again in the campaign. Thanks very much. Julia Gillard, thank you very much for joining us. Thank you, Prime Minister, thank you very much for making time to speak to us on this very busy day. Thank you, Leigh. 

Nick Bryant
We’ve spoken about how to prep for an interview with the Prime Minister, there’s also an aftermath and it’s an ugly aftermath. And I know you don’t want to talk in great depth about this, but you have been the target of some vicious online abuse. 

Leigh Sales
In the past two years, police have put two protective violence orders on me in relation to threats from random, you know, people. And they’ve been a couple of others where police have recommended particular courses of action. And, you know, while I can’t say “Oh, well, that person was abusing me on Twitter because of you know, such and such an interview”, the reality is that when you create this fantasy world online, where I’m some evil person who’s out to bring down, you know, particular political leaders or whatever, people who are perhaps vulnerable or suggestible see that, they think it’s true, and then they can act on it in real life. And definitely, in my career, there’s been an uptick in real life threatened violence against me in the past couple of years. 

Nick Bryant
I mean, people listening to that would be alarmed, you know, the police getting involved. 

Leigh Sales
Oh, it’s yeah, it’s, I won’t go into the details of because I don’t want to encourage people, but I mean, it really genuinely threatening behaviour.  

Nick Bryant
Yeah, that’s just off the scale. And I wonder, you know, how do we, how do we change that? I mean, is it the big, the responsibility of the tech? 

Leigh Sales
I mean, it’s really, it’s, it’s a very, very problematic question. I mean, I’ve chosen to kind of get off Twitter, because partly, I was just using it less. And then I also just felt like, you know what, I actually don’t think this is helping my journalism, because I don’t believe this is representative of what community attitudes are. And just the kind of negative impact I think it can have on people’s mental health is really bad. So I think there is a degree to which you have to just try to remove yourself from harm. And I do think as well that journalists can really undermine their own credibility by getting involved in rows on Twitter with complete randoms. 

Nick Bryant
Leigh, when I was prepping for this, I did send you a note asking you to sort of think of some of your favorite interviews and I thought you were going to say, Paul McCartney, I thought you were going to say, Elton John. 

Leigh Sales
They are all favourites.

Audio from 7.30 interviews
Sir Elton John: A lot to people and to gay people out there who want to fight for it. I’m on your side. 

Leigh Sales: I have never interviewed someone of whom I’m a bigger fan than you. Thank you for all of those songs. And for making time to speak to us. It’s just been so unbelievably thrilling. 

Nick Bryant
Yeah, but you said Mathew Low. Tell us tell us who Mathew Low is, and why that was so important.  

Leigh Sales
The famous people you do, obviously ones like McCartney, you know, you remember and they’re very, very special and stuff. But to be honest, because you have a parade of famous people come through, they don’t always make a lasting impression. And to be honest, I don’t even remember, every famous person I’ve ever interviewed. The ones that make a really lasting impression on me are people that are regular people to whom something unimaginable has happened. And it’s dropped to them into the news in a big way. And then they have to kind of deal with that. And so often I meet people in that circumstance, and I feel just completely humbled and overwhelmed by, and kind of encouraged, by how they’re able to go on. And so Mathew Low was a man whose wife Cindy was one of the victims of the Dreamworld roller coaster accident that horrible incident a few years ago, where that flume ride malfunctioned, and they were just having a beautiful day at Dreamworld with their two kids. And she was killed, you know, with the family there. And so then there was an inquest into it. And so Mathew decided he wanted to do an interview, because, you know, he wanted people to understand safety things, you know, have to be taken care of, he didn’t want anyone else, anyone else to go through it. And it was just, he was just a really nice, gentle, ordinary dude, who had had the most horrific thing bowled up to him. And he was handling it as best he could, being a single dad to his two kids and shepherding them through this thing. And those people, I think, often just really stick with me, just the grace, you know, with those people in the kind of, I don’t know, just the randomness of life and how things can change, you know, suddenly. 

Audio from 7.30 interview with Mathew Low
It’s a massive hole that’s left when Cindy left. And I didn’t, didn’t know how to how to do it, to start with. So it was really just focusing on each day. And, and spending as much time with the kids as possible. 

Nick Bryant
It’s a lovely interview. It’s a very emotional interview. I thought you started it beautifully. You just asked him to tell us about Cindy. 

Leigh Sales
Yeah. And I think often people, people in a circumstance like Mathew’s often have a lot of different reasons why they might want to do an interview. And that’s one of the things before we roll, I’ll, you know, not even on the day, I’ll ask them, “Why do you want to do this interview?” 

And sometimes they’ll say, “Because I want people to think of my loved one as more than, you know, the victim of x,y,z”. Sometimes they want to see change affected so the same people don’t you know, other people don’t go through the same thing they’ve gone through. Sometimes they don’t want the person’s death to be in vain. There’s, like, a whole lot of reasons people might give. And so if the person tells me what they’re hoping to get from it, I’ll make sure that the questions are asked in such a way that they feel that they get to make that point. Because what I want at the end of that interview is for them to leave and feel better. Like they feel like they’ve achieved something by doing that interview. And so, if their goal is to do x,y,z, and I asked questions that allow them to do that, then, you know, a highly traumatised person comes out of that process. And they haven’t had further harm done to them. It’s been in some way helpful. And so, with Matthew, I knew that he wanted to, you know, have the focus on Dreamworld’s conduct. But I also knew that he wanted to talk about, you know, his wife, and he wanted to his kids obviously, would say that interview and he wanted them to think of their mum, as their mum,

Mathew Low
She was a really amazing person, one of those people that if you ever met her, you’d feel instantly comfortable with it. 

Nick Bryant
Unfortunately, in our business, sometimes our professional highs come during other people’s personal lows. And, you know, that causes a lot of angst, I think sometimes because you worry if you interview these people, and there are tears, which we know makes great television, you’re worried that you’re going to be exploitive, but my experience is actually a lot of people find that process, really cathartic.  

Leigh Sales
Particularly if you’re very transparent with them about, like I, in those kinds of interviews, I’m like, say a political interview. I’ll talk to them a lot about the kinds of things I’m going to ask I’ll say to them, “I can’t tell you everything I’ll ask because what I asked depends on what you say. But roughly, I’m going to ask about this”. And I’ll often assure people that, like, say in the case of Matthew, even though he was, you know, right there for the accident itself, he doesn’t need to be asked about that on camera. Nobody needs to know the actual, we can imagine how horrific that would have been in that moment to be there. That’s a job for the coroner to look at what happened in those moments. Nobody needs to see Mathew Low have to go into that. And so, in his case, I assured him that, while we might set up like, you know, it was a lovely day at Dreamworld that I was not going to ask him specifically, what did you see. And then we kind of moved to, you know, this terrible accident happened. And then you know, in the days after, blah, blah, blah. So I tried to be very transparent with people about where I’m going to lead them. And I think, if you’re transparent like that, what happens is, people feel that they trust you. And so, then they tend to just tell you things in the interview. And then it allows you to sometimes go to places if you follow where they lead, that if you’re a bit less sensitive, you might not get there. So, say for example, thinking of a woman whose mother had died of COVID, in one of the nursing homes when they didn’t have infection control happening very well. And we did an interview and I think, in the middle of it, I asked her something like, and I prefaced it by saying, if this question steps over the line, you don’t have to answer it. So you’re in control of the interview.

Audio from 7.30 interview
You don’t have to answer this question. And I hope it doesn’t seem in delicate. Do you know who was with her in her final moments and what happened for her then? 

Interviewee
From what we can gather, from what they have told us and the nurse that was helping with the FaceTime, she said, “were with Mum all afternoon. We did her nails, we brushed her hair, and we fixed her up nicely. And we will with her. They said at times they were praying with Mum and they had her rosary beads with her. And so they really took a lot of care for Mum.” 

Leigh Sales
I think if you’re less transparent and you just bowl that up to somebody in the middle of an interview out of nowhere, and they haven’t led you to that, they’re not going to answer and they’re going to feel then exploited. So, the key thing, I think, is to allow the other party to feel like they’re driving it. And if they drive it into really sensitive stuff, and they drive it into tears, then they’re still the one driving it. 

Nick Bryant
You’re a naturally empathetic person. But I wonder if your experience of trauma, which you document in this wonderful award-winning book, ‘Any Ordinary Day’, the trauma of the birth of your second child and other things in your life that were happening at the same time. I wonder if that sort of changed your approach, it’s made you even more empathetic. 

Leigh Sales
Definitely, massively. I mean, I think the older and the longer you’ve been on the planet, the more you realise how easily your position could be exchanged with somebody else’s. And so that I think is the beginning of empathy; that you understand that you can be the person that these things happen to. And so that I think once you understand that, it’s much easier to feel that you can kind of connect with people and relate to people who are experiencing trauma. 

Because you think even things like say, disability access. If we all genuinely understood the fact that we could walk out of this room and be hit by a car in the street and be in a wheelchair, there would be no places that wouldn’t have proper disability access, because we think about it all the time. It’s the fact that we think that we’re exceptional that that can’t happen to us, right. And I mean, again, it’s a key thing for journalism, the ability to imagine yourself in somebody else’s shoes.  

That’s why I think, say with the polarisation around politics, I hate the fact that there’s a certain cohort of people who think everything the other side does is evil like because they disagree with them that therefore those people must be evil. Well, no, they’re coming from a good position often, but they just have a different way of viewing the world and different answers to problems.  

Introduction at Clinton town hall address
Hello, I’m Leigh Sales from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Welcome to this town hall style event with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
 

Nick Bryant
Leigh, one thing that really impressed me was that when Hillary Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State at the end of the first term of the Obama administration, she held a global town hall meeting in Washington, she wanted somebody to moderate it. And rather than go for an American anchor, somebody CNN or NBC, or whatever, she said, let’s get that Australian woman from ABC, let’s get Leigh Sales. 

Leigh Sales
Yeah, that was actually incredibly flattering and touching that they did that. I mean, she was amazing. And, you know, one of the great thrills for me is that I’ve also interviewed Monica Lewinsky. And I mean, I’m a real student of that Clinton, kind of era of the Clinton presidency. And so to have the chance to have spoken to Hillary and Monica I find amazing. And they’re both amazing people, both incredibly impressive people. And then last year I interviewed Huma Adedin, and who’d been Hillary’s longtime kind of righthand woman. I’ve haven’t interviewed Bill Clinton, he’s the missing puzzle piece in that Clinton thing.  

But now Hillary Clinton, I mean, she’s an impressive human being, like, you know, her command of the breadth and depth of her knowledge of all forms of public policy is gob smacking.

Nick Bryant
And there’s a charm, I think, with Hillary. 

Leigh Sales
Absolutely, yeah. Again, you know, we did this event in Melbourne together, which was the first time I interviewed her, and we’d been told we’d be allocated before we went on stage, a minute and a half to build rapport. And I was so nervous, of course, as you’d imagine, and she walked out. And she’s obviously so used to having to put people at ease, because everyone freaks out that it’s Hillary Clinton. And so she immediately started chatting, and she was telling me about the previous time she’d been in Australia and how it was when Bill was president, and they’d been at Yarralumla at the Governor General’s residence, and they discovered that all the kangaroos had been rounded up and relocated from the property because for fears they posed a security risk to the President. One of them might kick him or something. So that was great. 

She’s got a good sense of humour and, as you know, humour builds rapport, you know, really well. So she’s one of those people, like any good interviewee, you kind of just have to give a gentle steer, and then they kind of you know, they’re off. 

Nick Bryant
You spoke about nerves there and I’m fascinated by this. Because in the TV industry, it’s almost like Macbeth in the theatre industry. It’s, you just don’t talk about it because you’re kind of frightened that something bad is going to happen. But it’s quite something. And I found this when I was doing a lot of TV. I mean, it is nerve racking. And you’re always one catastrophic failure away from a kind of career-limiting or ending moment. 

Leigh Sales
That’s right. Or miss speaking, you know, when you’re on live TV. Yeah, I, that’s why I said before about, say with my interview prep, or having, you know, my Ruper file, my Queen file, whatever, there’s so much that’s out of your control. So any false sense that you can give yourself that things are in control is helpful on a performance level. So say, for example, I leave my desk upstairs at about two past seven. I go into makeup at 10 past seven. I go into the green room at quarter past seven. I go to the bathroom at 20 past seven. It’s really regimented my routine — if it can be, if nothing’s happening after seven o’clock — and it’s purely a psychological trick that I’m trying to persuade myself that everything’s completely under my control, when it’s not. And so those little routines kind of help. Or things like if I’ve got a major interview, there are certain suits I prefer to wear, because they particularly comfortable. And so I feel like, okay, I need the black suit. It’s all a big psychological thing. 

Nick Bryant
Oh, I had comfort cufflinks and there’s a pair of avocado socks that my daughter gave me. On big news nights, like the election, I’d wear the avocado socks. 

Leigh Sales
I know, it’s so, so weird, isn’t it? One of the things I find the most scary is federal election night coverage. Because after the first 45 minutes, the rundown is just like a blank slate because you don’t know what’s happening. And you know, there’s a kind of rough outline, but you don’t have a script, you don’t know what the content is, and so on. And because what I mostly do is host 7.30, which is a heavily scripted show, that the idea of a rolling, never ending, scripted show I find really scary. But my friend Nick said to me, when I was stressing about this most recent election, he said, do a mind map and write down like, what are the things you fear is going to happen? And then, you know, what are the things that you can do to mitigate against that? And it was actually incredibly helpful to have this visual, because I think once you get stressed you get kind of tunnel vision and you can often just think about what might go wrong, particularly in the moment when something does go wrong, you can really get stuck on that. So having a visual reminder that I’ve got options here is really helpful. 

Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales on Chat 10 Looks 3
Hello, this is Annabel Crabb and this is Leigh Sales. Welcome to our first podcast. Yes, I’m trying to think of something more illuminating to say than that. But that just about sums it up. We’re just talking about how it feels like we’ve just met up together in one of those French hotels that you hire for an hour or something. It seems very, there’s something a bit seedy about this arrangement. Anyway, our podcast is called Chat 10 Looks 3. 

Nick Bryant
I want to talk to you about podcasting. Because that seems to be where you’re, you know, the two sides of your personality sort of come together and you do this wonderful podcast. It’s called Chat 10 Looks 3. I mean, 75 per cent of our audience come from abroad so they wouldn’t know Annabel Crabb. She’s a national treasure. It’s almost like she’s a combination of Maureen Dowd meets Maggie Haberman meets Marvelous Mrs. Maisel 

Leigh Sales
Yeah, that’s right. Meets — who’s that wonderful columnist in The Guardian — Marina Hyde. 

Nick Bryant
Marina Hyde, exactly. Very similar. And you have this wonderful podcast and you were in on the ground floor, you really got into podcasting early. 

Leigh Sales
That was just through accident, not by design. So Crabb and I, we met around 2008, I think, and we just got on well. She’s a very smart, funny, engaging person. And we kept saying, oh, we should do you know, a book together, a TV show together. We’d have ideas, but we’re very time poor, because we have, between us, you know, five, now five children under the age of 15. And so we ended up saying, well, what can we do that would involve the least amount of time and no prep? And it was, what if we just did a podcast, which seem to be this thing that’s coming off, this was back in 2014. And we just talk about culture, because she and I are very interested in the arts, books, so on, and neither of us in our day jobs talks about that, cooking. So we just started. 

Basically, we used to record on our iPhone. We would have a conversation about what we’d read, watched, whatever, that week or that month, and it went from there. We weren’t really sure if many people were listening to it. And then a strange thing happened that people would start coming up to us in the street. And instead of talking about 7.30, or, you know, whatever Annabelle was doing, they would be listeners of the podcast. And so we started to then look at the data and we got the sense that it actually had this, you know, much bigger audience than we had been aware of, and then it just kind of went from there. 

Nick Bryant
And how do you think podcasting has changed the game? It seems to me, there’s a kind of expectation amongst the audience now that, for a start, we’ll reveal a lot more of our personalities. It’s a different sort of conversation style. 

Leigh Sales
You know, when I first started, a friend of mine, who’s a very experienced ABC foreign correspondent said: “Why are you messing around with your own credibility like this? You have got an immaculate record in serious journalism. Are people going to take you seriously if they hear you laughing about TV shows and books and movies, whatever?” And I think, you know, the era of the anchor as the like, kind of godlike figure who just has authority and credibility and no personality really beyond that, that’s gone.  

So, I kind of had this belief that people would buy me as a fully rounded human being. That I am, as I said, interested in very serious issues. And I can be super serious about, you know, intellectual matters. But I can also be silly and have a bit of fun and be interested in, you know, nonsense. And so, you know, fortunately, people do seem to have been happy to go with that.  

There’s nothing wrong other than I just feel a strong sense of it being time to pass the baton to the next runner in the race. And to take a break at the end of the election cycle feels like a good time to move on to something new at the ABC. 

Nick Bryant
Leigh, what do you think going to come next? You’ve spoken about your love of interviewing. You’re equally good at interviewing the Prime Minister of the day. And it’s worth pointing out actually that there have been a lot of Prime Ministers of the day during your tenure. I mean, you’ve had Kevin Rudd, you’ve had Julia Gillar, Kevin Rudd again, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Scott Morrison, Anthony Albanese, all on your watch Leigh. Is there a correlation?  

Leigh Sales
It’s amazing, because I think that’s all in the time I’ve hosted 7.30. The whole rest of my career I only had John Howard and Paul Keating. Like, it’s unbelievable really.  

Yeah, what’s next? Look, I honestly don’t know and it makes me laugh because I keep seeing speculation in the paper about things I’m going to do, like there’s a piece this week that I’m going to host a talk show. It’s like, I’ve not pitched that, the ABC has not offered it. I don’t think a talk show would work in the Australian market currently. So there’s all sorts of speculation. But, honestly, I am telling the truth when I say this: I need to have some leave and have some rest and get some time to think, because hosting a daily current affairs show for 12 years, you have no time to think beyond what’s in the immediate news cycle today. What’s going on today? What do I need for the show tonight? How do I talk this person into coming on next week. Your day is tied to that and then the rest of my time is my two kids. So it’s full on. So the space where you can brew up good ideas for things, it’s all taken up. 

Nick Bryant
We’ve spoken a lot during COVID about the great resignation, and it seems to me that something similar is happening in the media. I mean, a lot of us are kind of rethinking our day-to-day commitment to news. A lot of us are rethinking the priorities in our life. Is it part of this great resignation thing or part of something a bit different? 

Leigh Sales
Funnily enough, since I’ve announced I’m stepping down, a few people close to me have also chosen to take long service leave. And then a number of other friends have said: “Oh, that’s really had a big influence on me. I’m thinking about, you know, what should I do?” I think it’s probably not peculiar to journalists, I think the COVID periods may be caused a lot of people to reassess. But I think as well, I mean, undoubtedly, the COVID period has hastened my departure from 7.30, because I’m so tired, because of having to juggle my kids at the same time as doing my job and all of the challenges with running your life. Whereas when you normally get assigned to a big story, you go in, you cover it, and you know that you can leave and go back to your normal life. In this story, your normal life was not functioning like it normally functions. So that made everything much harder. 

Nick Bryant
I was hoping I could tempt you into song during this podcast and maybe this is the question to get it on. I wonder whether you’ve got any regrets, after your stepping down? And maybe this would lead you… 

Leigh Sales
Into a new dimension. Do I have any regrets? Probably in my 20s not being enough in the moment and enjoying what I was doing enough and appreciating it. Because, like a lot of people when they’re young, I was ambitious and in a hurry — and somebody more senior would get assigned a story and I think, “Oh, I earned that story.” — instead of enjoying the story I was actually on. 

And so I think I changed a bit on that when I was in Washington and the thing that helped me was when you’re a foreign correspondent you know it’s for a fixed period of time. And so I think you are more cognisant of thinking, well, look at this beautiful snowy winter, I’m only going to have three of them, you know, and so those kinds of things, I think, force you into the moment a bit more. And so I’ve gotten better. And you know, even at 7.30, if I have interviewed Paul McCartney, or Elton John, or whoever, I have always stopped to think, Wow, you’re a little brat from the back looks at Brisbane and you’re about to interview Paul McCartney, like that is really rare, very, very special. 

Nick Bryant
And that little brat from the back streets of Brisbane, when you got your first gig at Channel Nine, Brisbane Extra, you were told, you’re never going to have a future on television. 

Leigh Sales
Yes, my executive producer at the time took me aside and said, we thought I’d have a future as a producer, because he said you don’t have the voice or the looks to be on television. Which you know, to be fair, when I look back, I think, Oh, God, I would have been rough as anything. And, you know, for Channel Nine in that era probably didn’t. So, you know, it’s just shows how far I guess TV has come in some ways. And that kind of prompted me to think, alright, well, I can stay here and be a producer. But I feel like I want to be a reporter. And so I applied for a job at ABC and then went from there. 

Nick Bryant
Leigh, what’s your advice to the next Leigh Sales? 

Leigh Sales
For someone young, you know, coming through into journalism now, I mean, it’s a tough profession. I think I would say follow your natural curiosity, as I said, and try to do stories that interest you. Care about basic craft, like writing concisely, learning what writing for television is — how does it differ for writing for radio, for example — like those basic craft skills and see if you can learn from people who know how to do that. And also to treat the opinions of strangers, particularly anonymous strangers online, as kind of worthless actually. Because you don’t know who they are. You don’t know what their vested interest is. 

My grandmother used to say to me, when I used to ask like, oh, you know, what did someone say think of me? She’d go, “well, it’s nobody’s business what anybody thinks of you.” And I think that’s still true, whether it’s good or bad. Because if you believe the good press, say in my case, people come up to me all the time in the street and go. “Leigh, you are so brilliant, I’m gonna miss you.” That has to be as meaningless as people telling me online, “Oh Leigh, you’re crap, you’re a slut, blah, blah, blah.” Because all of it affects your way that you view yourself and the world. And it’s all kind of irrelevant. What matters is that you’re a good person to your friends, that you look after your family, that you do the best you can in your immediate circle. That’s what really matters, not the opinions of you know, randoms out there. So that’s the other thing I think for young journalists, particularly at the moment, when everyone has an opinion on what you do. Listen to the opinions of people that you trust and people who matter. 

Nick Bryant
In this season of Journo, it’s been a real treat to interview two of the journalists who I actually admire the most: Lyse Doucet of the BBC, who we spoke to in episode one, and Leigh Sales of the ABC. I love their integrity, their compassion, their curiosity, their professionalism, and on top of that, they’re also great fun to be around.  

So, my advice to any young reporter listening to this podcast could be neatly encapsulated in just seven words: be like Lyse and be like Leigh. 

You’ve had an amazing career. You are a fantastic ambassador for the ABC, for public broadcasting and our industry as a whole. Congratulations on all you’ve done at 7.30 and we really look forward to what’s happening next. 

Leigh Sales
Is there a long lunch in our future? 

Nick Bryant
Oh, I certainly hope so. I’m a man of more leisure now as well. 

Leigh Sales
Excellent, perfect. 

Nick Bryant
The lovely thing about getting off the day-to-day news cycle is we can stick something in the diary and actually, know we can make it, and that for me is one of the great joys.  

Leigh Sales
Yeah, that is going to be absolute Heaven. Alright, I’m holding you to that in the next six months. We’re having a long lunch. Thanks. 

Nick Bryant
Journo is produced by Deadset Studios for the Judith Neilson Institute, which supports quality journalism and storytelling around the world. You can find out more about the Institute’s programs and events at jninstitute.org.  

Make sure you follow the podcast on your podcasting app so you’re alerted each time we release a new episode.  

Our executive producer is Rachel Fountain, our producers are Grace Pashley, and Britta Jorgenson. Sound design is by Krissy Miltiadou. Our managing editor is Kellie Riordan and our commissioning editor is Andrea Ho at the Judith Neilson Institute. And I’m Nick Bryant.  

Leigh, one of the things I’ve always loved about your journalism is you’re a great practitioner of what sometimes called the Two Kim’s School of Journalism. So, if you were live on 7.30 and something happened to Kim Jong Il, you could deal with that really easily. And if you’re live on 7.30 and something terrible happened to Kim Kardashian, you could deal with that equally well. 

Leigh Sales
Well that is a very nice compliment. Thank you very much. And I probably could. That means that, and I think this is a thing that a lot of journalists have, I have an eclectic bag of interests. So I’m really interested in foreign policy and national security. But I’m equally as interested in pop culture. I can find myself down rabbit holes, like I was listening on the weekend, for example, to Classic FM and they were doing a countdown of the 100 greatest film and television scores in history. And so then that put me into a John Williams rabbit hole. So then I’m Googling which instruments does John Williams play. He’s the composer of Star Wars in Jurassic Park, one of the all-time greats. And so then I was deep into a John Williams rabbit hole. And I think that’s one of the things, I think, that’s absolutely key in journalism is having natural curiosity and following your curiosity wherever that might lead.