Leigh Sales is leaving 7. 30, the ABC’s flagship nightly current affairs show she has helmed for 12 years. During this time, she has grilled prime ministers, world leaders, celebrities, actors, sportspeople as well as a cross-section of people from all walks of life. In turn, she’s been handed bouquets and brickbats for her interviews, been savaged on social media for perceptions of bias and favouritism and had her personal life exposed.
As she prepares for her final 7. 30 on June 30, Sales fields questions from one of the toughest and hardest-working interviewers in the country: herself.
Thanks for joining us. How has a person with zero knowledge of sport managed to survive more than a decade hosting an Australian television current affairs program?
If this is the kind of interview you’re planning …
Just answer the question. You’ve learnt a thing or two from politicians I see.
First, I don’t have zero knowledge …
Your executive producer once told you that he had landed [Australian cricket coach] Justin Langer for an interview, but that it would happen in 10 minutes hence and he asked if you would be OK. You replied, Yep, no problem and as he strode away, you googled, Who Is Justin Langer?
Yes, but that’s a handy lesson for would-be journalists: become a quick study. Actually, I remember once my school friend Melissa Deacon was watching 7. 30 when I had an interview with Shane Warne, and knowing I barely follow any sport, she texted me, Did I literally just hear you on television say something like, ‘Warnie, we’re here at the MCG and I can’t help but remember that time you took your 700th wicket’? She said she was rolling around on her lounge laughing hysterically and she accused me of perpetuating a fraud on the Australian people.
Have any of your other school friends ever weighed in on your performance?
Yes, Scott Clydesdale who topped year 11 and 12 maths is always nervous on federal budget night. He constantly fears I will mistake billions for trillions and he knows I’m not good at calculating square metres, so I assume he’s worried about my infrastructure questions. This is because I once sent him a calculation about how much topsoil I needed for my backyard and asked him to check it. He texted me, Salesy, based on these numbers, yes, sure, go ahead if your goal is to bury your house and live underground.
What’s with these answers, are you auditioning for a comedy gig as your next job?
My real-life friends have remarked that I’m a lot funnier in real life than a 7. 30 viewer might expect.
What’s with the real-life qualifier there?
I don’t know why I said that but I can see why you get a lot of abuse on Twitter, you’re really irritating.
What do your friends think of you hosting a serious news program?
My friend Grant McDonald says he likes it when I have fun because he thinks that’s when you see the real me. To be honest, my very old friends, the ones from school and childhood, rarely mention it. It’s reassuring, actually, it makes me feel like they would have stayed friends with me whatever I did in life, whether it was this or being a hairdresser or a mechanic.
They probably would have preferred a hairdresser or a mechanic, far more useful.
Tell me about it; my car broke down the other day and I called the only handy bloke I know. My contacts list otherwise is full of useless types like writers, actors and former prime ministers.
Do you get on well with the former prime ministers after those 7. 30 interviews you’ve subjected them to?
Yes, and I hope they would all laugh at the joke above. It’s hard to explain but I have this odd fondness for all of them. There’s something about everyone who’s done that job that kind of stabs me in the heart. It is such a hard job. I don’t think people understand how tough it is if they’re not in proximity. I have a lot of respect for anyone who steps up to do it. All five of the PMs during my tenure at 7. 30 – six now with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – regularly came in for interviews and I respect them for it.
So let’s go through what you think of them all. And tell the truth. Kevin Rudd.
He is stunningly smart. I ring him sometimes on background to ask for his insights on foreign policy or political strategy and I always hang up the phone and go, Wow, he connected those dots brilliantly. His latest book on China is outstanding.
She’s a lovely, warm person. I think she’s set the gold standard for a post-prime ministerial career. I’ve never seen her be anything but professional and pleasant.
You can have a challenging, robust conversation with Tony and he argues his corner well and he is never thin-skinned about it. He always greeted and thanked the studio crew – some guests never even acknowledge them – and, no matter how rough the interview, he was easy-going when it ended. The world is full of boring people and he is not one of them.
A great Australian story. I think of him as a larger-than-life figure, just because he’s led such an extraordinary life, from the Spycatcher trial at the start, right through to becoming PM. His analysis on any topic is astute and engaging. He is a hilarious storyteller, between his voice and the way he uses language, he can have tears rolling down your face.
Contrary to the myth that he never showed up for interviews, Scott has been interviewed by me more than any politician in the federal parliament – between Lateline and 7. 30, easily upwards of 50 times. He never shied away from a tough interview and he was never anything but professional and courteous. I wish him well in the next leg of his life and I look forward to speaking to him when the dust settles.
How about the ones from before you started anchoring 7. 30: Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard? You’ve interviewed all of them.
I last saw Mr Hawke only a few months before he died. We sat on his back verandah, chatting and looking out over the bushland at the back of the house while I waited for an interview with Blanche. I felt emotional, actually. I had this sense of being back in my childhood and seeing him on TV when Australia won the America’s Cup. I was like, Wow, how is that kid sitting here today and having a cup of tea with Bob Hawke? He was just a legend.
Mr Keating – one of the most amazing, brilliant, original people I’ve ever met. When Gough Whitlam died, he came into the studio to do an interview to pay tribute. The next day he rang me, and I said to him, I couldn’t help but think last night … and I paused because I wasn’t sure how to say it. And he said, You were thinking one day, someone will be sitting there and you’ll be asking them about me. I could feel my throat tighten a bit and I said, Who do you want me to invite to do it? But he wouldn’t say. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to get to talk to him from time to time. There will only ever be one PJK.
Ah-ha! Bit of ABC leftie bias showing there.
We aren’t up to John Howard yet! He has always been very kind to me, always helpful. I try to organise, once a year, to have a cup of tea with him because hearing his perspective on politics and foreign affairs helps me understand where the Liberals are coming from, like ringing Kevin helps me understand the Labor side. Mr Howard’s radar is as sharp as it ever was.
My father was in the military and he met John Howard very briefly once in East Timor in 1999, and he said, My daughter is a reporter on the ABC, Leigh Sales. I was an absolute nobody but Mr Howard remembered it years later and he would always ask me how my father was going. When Dad died, Mr Howard rang me personally to offer his condolences. So did Malcolm, actually, who was PM at the time. It touched me that they both took the time to do that.
Why do you call John Howard Mr Howard and Malcolm Turnbull Malcolm?
I don’t know, maybe it’s an age thing. Hawke, Keating and Howard feel like my elders. Mr Keating has told me several times to call him Paul and I just can’t.
You don’t find it weird that you like both John Howard and Paul Keating? Most people love one and detest the other.
Not at all. It’s one of the things I love the most about being a journalist. If you listen to what people say and try to process it with an open mind, you can talk to anyone. People can sense if you are genuinely trying to understand them and it helps them trust you. It’s not your job as a journalist to agree or disagree with them. That’s for the audience. It’s your job to report people’s positions fairly and accurately. You can’t do that if you won’t engage with them, or if you talk to them with a judgmental mindset.
Other than sport, come clean about the other subjects on which you’re clueless.
Well, I remember I once had to interview Salman Rushdie. I had found literally all of his books impenetrable. When I admit that, people always say, Oh, you must read Midnight’s Children. I’ve tried. Impenetrable. I was really anxious that we would not have a connection because he is so much more intellectual than me. But he was one of the most charming, witty, delightful people I have ever interviewed. I thought to myself afterwards: Ah, that’s why Salman Rushdie always has a beautiful woman on his arm, he’s utterly brilliant and intoxicating.
Who else has been notably charming?
Shane Warne. I couldn’t have liked him more, he was so fun. After the interview, we were running a secret competition about who could sign the most copies of their book in the least amount of time. He would send a message, I did 500 in 1 hour 42 minutes. And so I would then be riding the staff at Booktopia to move things along at breakneck speed so that I could beat Warnie’s time. It got pretty competitive. He’s another one of those originals who make life less boring! I cried when he died.
Bill Nighy. He was gentle and erudite and I felt like we could have immediately retired to a bar together. Another person who surprised me was Renee Zellweger. I wasn’t particularly a fan and not that fussed to do an interview. She walked into the room and, honestly, it was like a sunbeam burst through clouds. She was so sweet and funny and self-deprecating, she won over every person there within seconds. I liked her so much.
I also remember, in 2011, Guy Pearce and I stood around chatting for an hour after the cameras stopped rolling. The crew had completely packed up and everyone was waiting for us. My producer thought we would miss our flight home because Guy and I couldn’t stop talking. We met again in 2018 and it was the same, so we stayed in touch.
Paul McCartney, my all-time favourite. I am such a massive Beatles fan. I was really nervous to meet him because I thought, What if he’s an arsehole and it ruins the Beatles for me; what if every time now that I ever listen to Abbey Road all I can think about is the time that McCartney was horrible? But he was wonderful.
Name dropping much?
That’s really bad interviewing. Insulting the guest kills rapport.
You’ve insulted a lot of politicians over the years, so what’s good for the goose …
I don’t set out to insult them but I do sometimes deliberately structure a question to get a reaction. I will ask something that people are saying about the politician but that perhaps nobody has put to their face. Sometimes their look when I ask it says a lot more than what actually comes out of their mouth. I do find it hard to psych myself up for confrontational interviews. I’m naturally a person who avoids conflict so that takes a toll on me.
Is that why you’re leaving?
You know why I’m leaving.
Too much sport?
Too much sport and I can’t maintain the charade any longer.
Leigh Sales’ last episode of 7. 30 is on Thursday, June 30. Farewell To Leigh Sales: A 7. 30 Special is on ABC, Friday, July 1, at 7. 30pm.
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