Leigh Sales on interviewing, journalism and stories that matter
Leigh Sales is one of Australia’s most recognised and respected journalists. As the new presenter of Australian Story and the recent host of the ABC’s flagship current affairs program, 7.30, she has interviewed dozens of prominent people.
Leigh is the winner of three Walkley Awards. She has written three long form works - Detainee 002 (2007), Any Ordinary Day (2019) and Storytellers (2023), as well as the essay On Doubt. In 2023, her service to journalism and the community was recognised with an honorary doctorate from Edith Cowan University.
Leigh has previously appeared on The Garret, and you can listen to that interview here.
ASTRID: Leigh, congratulations on your latest work, Storytellers. I have to disagree with you right at the start of this interview! You describe yourself in the introduction as a ‘crusty old-timer passing on knowledge’. Now, you made me laugh. But I disagree with that assessment. I would say that your career is at its height and will continue, so why was Storytellers the project for you at this point in your career?
LEIGH: It's funny, I've always enjoyed reading about people's craft and how they do things in any field, whether I know anything about it or not. Like, I bought a new table last year, and the bloke who made it, he was just completely passionate about making tables, ‘And what do you mostly use the table for?’… ‘Chatting to people, serving up being platters of food’ – I just found it fascinating how he approached it. I find musicians fascinating. I've always been interested in craft, and I do love hearing about the craft of writing and about people's processes, and it's always been interesting to me all the different ways that people do that. You know, some people are very disciplined and structured, and some people are very organic.
I'd always thought to myself, that would be an interesting thing to do in journalism, because I know from working with other journalists, again, how different everyone's method is. During COVID Lockdown in 2021, I thought, ‘Well, there's all the technology now, I can just talk to people online and have conversations about this. I'm not doing anything or going anywhere’. It was a good time to ask, ‘Am I ever going to do that?’ And so, it just worked in the moment.
ASTRID: Journalism is having a rough time, a prolonged rough time this century. I mean, we have social media, the rise of AI, there's changing business models, redundancy, fake news, fracturing audiences. The list goes on. And as I read Storytellers – I work I greatly enjoyed, by the way – as I read it, I felt like it was almost like a personal intervention by you into how we conceive of the media and the people who do media, for want of a better phrase. It felt quite hopeful. Was that the point?
LEIGH: Wow, that's… I'm so glad that you felt that it was hopeful. It's a last-ditch effort. It probably comes from replacing jobs with a bit of pessimism, but I hope, you know, I'm hoping it obviously has a broad readership. But for journalists reading it, it's a message to journalists to say, ‘Don't abandon the traditional values of journalism, keeping the audience in mind facts, impartiality, allowing the audience to make up their own mind. Don't abandon those things in favor of activism and advocacy’.
I think the people that I spoke to in the book – and I went for such a broad range of people, from tabloid journalists to the most serious investigative journos – the thing that they've all got in common is, I think, a curiosity about the world around them. I think that's what is at the heart of journalism, you approach things with an open mind and a curiosity and a willingness to learn.
I get worried that people now seem to approach journalism with, ‘Well, here's my idea of how the world is and I'm going to tell my story to fit that model’. I guess it's me on one level, making a case for the kind of journalism I believe in.
ASTRID: You do make the case quite strongly, and throughout every interview the idea of journalism as craft comes through, which, you know, this is a podcast about writing. I mean, it is a beautiful thing to sit down and really read people who are storytellers, and they also happen to be journalist expressing their craft.
Now, this works, Storytellers, is structured in ten sections. You range from live broadcast to what an EP does to anchoring to investigative journalism and so much more. I confess, and I think everybody probably would have guessed, I went straight to the interviewing section.
LEIGH: Oh, did you? How interesting.
ASTRID: I did. Well, I don't know. I mean, I find interviewing a beautiful, beautiful thing. I love listening to you interview. I love listening to people interview. And in a little introduction to the interviewing section, you write your interviewing Richard Fidler, interviewing Tracy Grimshaw, interviewing Laurie Oakes, but you don't tell us what you think of interviewing. You say you have to read it and you have to see how you’ve structured interviews to get what you mean, which made me laugh again. But also, this is your work. There will be some people who buy it because your name is on the cover. How did you know when to not insert yourself?
LEIGH: Well, the whole way that I've come up in journalism is basically it's not about you and don't insert yourself, whether it's in an interview or in what you're writing. And so, for example, at the moment I've been asked this year to deliver a media lecture, which I really was reluctant to do, because I have not made a habit of keeping a running commentary on the media or on stories or, you know, whatever. And so, I found that quite difficult to step out and put myself in.
When I wrote my earlier book, Any Ordinary Day, I used some first person because I needed a narrative structure to make it work. But I minimized as much as I could my own, as much of myself as I felt that I needed to. With Storytellers, I didn't want it to feel like it would be… I mean, it would be less interesting for me to just give my manifesto of here's how I think journalism should be done.
But I do think that people as they read the book, hopefully, every interview feels very different. That even though we're traversing the trade of journalism, the way I've structured each interview and the kind of questions I asked would give you a sense of some of the things I think are important in journalism.
For example, my questions depend on what the other person says in their answer, I don't just go down and preprepared list of questions. And so therefore, what I ask depends on what the other person says. And also, when I'm doing an interview, I will craft my questions when I'm thinking about the pre-prepared ones in the same way that I edit a piece of writing. I'm trying to make them as brief as possible, as few words as possible, as active voice as possible. I edit them the same way that I edit an actual essay. I think if someone's picking apart what I'm doing in the way that I'm executing the book, I think you'd pick up some of how I do my job.
ASTRID: Did you show the chapters, you know, that you had essentially crafted after the interviews to anyone? Or are they going to read your final interpretation and structuring of the interview in this book?
LEIGH: I showed it to them to make sure that they were happy with the edit. Every conversation with people went for about an hour, which I think translated to roughly 10,000 words of text, and then I edited it with the help of my beautiful editorial assistant, Grace McKenzie, who would take a first pass at it. And then I'd have to get them down to somewhere around 2,500 to 3000 words. So you're losing two thirds of what the person said, you want to make sure you know that it's a fair representation. So I ran that past everybody, and yeah, nobody really wanted any changes. They were all like, ‘Yep, no worries’, which was fantastic.
ASTRID: Now, I think that you are known for interviewing, you state that in the text. Actually… you know, I don’t want to ask that question.
LEIGH: I did exactly that in an interview last night, and it's the hallmark of a good interviewer, in my view. Because what you did there was you're following where the conversations going and you thinking, I should have taken a different path. So it's, it's good.
Well, this will maybe not be surprising, but you just mentioned Any Ordinary Day, which was your book that you published in 2019, you know, right before the world changed. I interviewed you then. And after I interviewed you, I was nervous. I asked you so sheepishly, ‘How do I be a good interviewer?’ And you gave me an answer that I didn't understand at that point, Leigh. I followed your advice, but I didn't understand. You said to do more interviews and like, well, I trusted it. But that's also terrible. Like, how can I do more interviews if I'm shit? And now I've got about 200 more interviews since then, and as I was reading Storytellers, I'm like, ‘Oh, God, this is so useful. I've had all that practice. And now I know what this means’.
LEIGH: Exactly. And it's like learning the cello at the moment. Something I've had to learn is to trust the process, because there's certain points early on, when you're not very good at something, where I feel like I have some days where my practice is so bad that I think, ‘Am I going to be the first person in history to do an hour of music practice a day and never going to be able to make it sound nice?’ And then now I'm at the point where, I mean, it doesn't sound brilliant, but it sounds not bad. Like, I think I could now say to someone that I can play the cello. I've had to really trust the process that if I put the work in and I keep doing the practice, that eventually I will be able to execute the thing. That's the same with interviewing where, or writing a news story, even when you've done it many, many times. It's like it becomes instinctual, where you just understand when to interrupt.
One of the most common questions young journalists ask me is ‘In a political interview, how do you know when to interrupt?’ And it's a very hard thing to explain, because you can only really understand it when you've done many political interviews and probably missed the moment where you could have interrupted.
So it's you doing the 200 interviews. Now? It's like, well, you've done the process. You've trusted the process and you understand, you have that bank of experience where you're making split second decisions all the time. It's one of the things I really like about interviewing because I feel like it's a skill set where you can never really… like in the 12 years I hosted 7:30 and three for Lateline, the main bread and butter of the job was interviewing. I always felt like I was just learning more and more and more, and that every interview was as challenging as the interview before, no matter what tools I brought to it.
ASTRID: In the interview with Richard Fidler – himself known for long form interviews – the two of you have a back and forth about interviewing and interviews that, in your words, you just fantasize about walking out of.
My question is – and I think you're way too professional to walk out of an interview Leigh – but also, with your experience, how do you avoid the ones that you shouldn't do, or get out of something that you don't want to be in?
LEIGH: If the person is unknown talent to me, I will try, or my producer will, to watch things they might have done. We can try to get a sense of how they will go in an interview situation. Also, it depends what the interview is for, because, say, an hour long interview in front of an audience, you need somebody who's extremely good talent to hold the room’s attention. Whereas if it's any, say, seven-minute interview, or a four-minute interview – let's say there's been a flood in a town and I need the local perspective – I'll be able to sustain four minutes. So it's pre-checking some shows, we'll do a pre-interview.
With someone like Richard Fidler’s show, they pre-interview people to check, a producer will check how good they are as talent. And so generally what you will do is you might make a call that someone's not going to be good enough, and then you don't do them. Occasionally, you get situations where you get somebody on and it's through desperation, because there's been a major disaster or something, you've had to go with who you can get it, and then you start the interview. I remember one in Lateline, we had someone out of Russia, and I just could not understand what they're saying, their accent was so thick, and then it's a wipeout. You have to just do what you can do and get out of it as fast as you can. But yeah, generally, you just try to avoid being in a situation where the person is not going to cut it in interview scenario.
ASTRID: I'd like to know what you'd like to be known for. You publish books, you are well known in journalism across Australia, you are a podcaster as well, clearly, obviously a podcaster as well. But what do you want the public to remember you for?
LEIGH: That I'm a trustworthy person who's got their interests at heart, and whether I'm writing a book or doing a podcast, or hosting 7:30, I'm authentic and I'm doing my absolute best to get people the facts without being worried that I'm pissing off somebody in power, or that it's not popular facts that people don't want to hear about. I think that's where trust comes from. If you think I'm going to tell you only what you want to hear, or only stuff that aligns with your side of politics, that just immediately undermines my credibility. I'd like.. it's nice if people like me, everyone likes to be liked. But also, I'd rather people think that I'm a straight shooter, fair and trustworthy. So really, if I dropped dead today, that's what I hope people would write in my obit.
ASTRID: You just use the word trust quite a few times. People trusted you to be in this book, your colleagues trusted you. Did anyone say no?
LEIGH: Only one person, who are probably better not named, just because they thought they might do their own book about their own career very high profile.He said no just so he could keep his powder dry.
But you know, that was one of the most touching things – because I aimed as high as I could, I went for the absolute, you know, cream of the crop. And the fact that everyone trusted me and said yes, and that they felt like this is a good thing to do to not just for potential journalists, but also just for the general public.
All of us are storytellers in our own everyday life. It's how we make connections with each other sharing our own stories. And that's whether it's the pilot coming over to tell you why flights been delayed, whether it's the person in the airport seat having a chat to you about where they're going, every single day, we're all telling little mini stories about ourselves and listening to stories from other people. And some of us are great at that. And some of us are not so good at it. And I think the tools we use in journalism are things that lots of people can apply.
The other thing I've noticed over the years that I've had a profile is when people talk to me that they are so interested in media and behind the scenes of how things happen. I think understanding how does Laurrie Oaks and how does Tracy Grimshaw do an interview is something that people find interesting.
ASTRID: Oh, absolutely. People remember watching these interviews, you know, and how the interviewer held a powerful person to account or how an interviewer showed empathy with someone who had just experienced something truly shocking. It's, you know, we've all seen that, and I think we're better for it, but we also want someone to treat us well if we ever find ourselves in that situation.
LEIGH: Yeah, exactly. I think I'll say to this, as you say, people remember sometimes these very famous stories, and so hearing what happened…
One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is Samantha Maiden from News Limited talking about how she broke the story that Scott Morrison was on holidays in Hawaii when Australia was in the grip of major bushfires. She basically says, you know, sometimes you think with these stories like it's it ‘Wow, that's how on earth did she get that story?’ And she says it basically came out of her, to use her words, having the shits. It was because she just felt like she noticed that Scott Morrison wasn't around and Michael McCormack, who was the Deputy Prime Minister, just seem to be the prominent person. She rang Morrison's office to go, where is he? And they gave her the runaround were rude to her. And she said that annoyed her so much that she was on this mission to find out where he was. She says she rang every last person she could think of with any possible connection to airports, you know, unions, baggage handlers, people whose brothers work there, blah, blah, blah. And she finally got this person who said that they'd seen Morrison getting on a flight to Hawaii, and then she kind of went from there. I mean, we all remember that, because we will remember the ‘I don’t hold a hose’ and that whole vibe. But hearing how that got unpacked is fascinating.
ASTRID: Referencing Samantha Maiden, I found her recounting the reporting she did around Brittany Higgins experience tough. And you know, in the text, you make it clear that she broke off because she was emotional. Not just referring to Samantha, but what is the cost of this for journalists?
LEIGH: I think it's clear with some of the people that they really do, and you know, I know myself, you really do carry things with you. Certain stories get under your skin. And Sam, she started crying about the impact on Brittany Higgins of telling that story. You do feel a degree of responsibility.
Chris Reason, who's an extraordinary reporter at Channel Seven, one of one of the best television news reporters in the country, many years ago now covered the Thredbo Landslide. He has covered pretty much every major global disaster of the past 30 years, and he said that one struck really close to home. Months later he was covering a disaster in Papua New Guinea, and he was waking up in the night in PNG, in the middle of a disaster zone, having panic drains about Thredbo. I think a lot of people can be really… they care a lot about people whose stories they tell. You become invested in them, and you hope that they're okay. It's funny, you can never quite tell which are the ones that are going to stick with you or not. Certain ones just really stick with you.
ASTRID: What has stuck with you?
LEIGH: I mean, obviously, so many. And I don't know why this one. I interviewed this man called Mathew Lowe, whose wife was one of the people who died on the DreamWorld roller coaster accident, which was just so awful. He was just such a lovely, gentle person. It was just such a horrible, horrible thing. I mean, everyone remembers what a horrible story that was, and how you just felt like, you think you're having a lovely day and then his hideous accident happens in front of your children and your wife dies. He did this interview, and he had such a quiet dignity about himself. He wanted to do it because he wanted people to pay attention to the coronial inquest, and to ensure that safety standards were improved, and so on. The way he conducted himself was so incredibly touching, you know, his dignity under such hideous circumstances. And his Mum sent me a nice letter afterwards as well, because you worry when you interview people like that, you want them to feel like it's been, you know, it's never a good experience, but that it's been helpful, and that they've got out of it, something that makes them feel like it was worth doing it. It meant a lot to me that his mother wrote to me about that. So yeah, he's always stuck in my head to the degree that I almost anytime I see any kind of theme park, I think about Mathew Lowe.
ASTRID: As a member of the public Leigh, I find that really heartening. I really love journalism. And journalists, clearly, that's my thing. But I think journalism can be scary.
LEIGH: Yeah, journalists can be scary. I think people the reading public are going to be fascinated by this collection of 30 stories that you have from people they recognize (apart from the EPs), but you know, people they recognize on their radio or on their TV or in the newspapers, feeling the stories. LEIGH: Yeah, exactly. I mean, also, not every journalist like that. My advice to people would be if you ever get rung up and asked by journalists for an interview, before you agree go and do a bit of due diligence and check who it is. Not everyone is trustworthy and reliable. So, you know, be bit careful about who you trust with your story. But yeah, they really do care.
I mean, one of the chapters that was my favorite, probably because it's off my area of expertise, and I've always admired these people, is the ones with photographers and video editors and camera operators. I would say I'm a very much, as you are, a words person. I really like writing and I've worked a lot, because I work in television, mostly I work with people who are extremely skilled at visual intelligence.
One of those people and I think someone who desperately cares is a woman called Renee, a legendary news photographer. She often used to be one of the only women in these real disaster, heavy duty zones. She would get the most extraordinary photos, and it's because she really cared and she took a lot of time with people. She spent time she would just hang out with people before she picked up a camera, a really incredible person who was very present in the moment.
The other person in that chapter who's a dear friend of mine, who is truly one of the best people in the world at what he does is Louie Eroglu, who's an ABC cameraman who's currently with Four Corners, and extraordinarily experienced around the world and foreign bureaus. His eye for things in the world around that can help illustrate a story is unparalleled. He was working on the series Four Corners did about the Lindt Cafe siege, and he had access at night into the Lindt Cafe. Louie had to get some pictures that could help us illustrate that night. Now, of course, you know, it's not a recreation, they're not going to recreate it and the cafe is just empty. You in no way can replicate what occurred on that night. And he said, he just sat there for a while thinking, what can you hear? What do you see? What's happening outside? And what struck him was the sense of being trapped on the inside of the room, and how outside there was a pedestrian crossing very close to the Lindt Cafe. It's on a timed, repetitive, boop, boop, boop, and that would go every two minutes. And he said, after he sat there for a while, he realized, that's just maddening, you can never get away from that sound. And so, he was careful in the way that he shot things that he made sure he incorporated a lot of natural sound, so that somebody watching that show could get the sense of that claustrophobic feeling of being in the room. You can never give someone the exact sense of being there, but the goal for journalists and photographers and for camera people is to give the audience at home the closest possible feeling that they can to what that person's life and experience is like. A lot of people in this book have just unmatched skills of being able to do that.
ASTRID: That section where you are talking about writing to pictures and the visuals required to sustain any kind of narrative on TV really was an education for me. I haven't thought about the visuals required to keep an audience interested in watching, let alone accurately and meaningfully tell the story. I confess, and this is my bias Leigh, I was really fascinated by the discussions of multiple interviewees about audio. Nas Campanella, who has done all sorts of different media roles, including TV, talks about voice. The only negative feedback I've got on The Garret is people thought I was making up my voice. This is just how I sound. But I'd like to interrogate your experience as a female with your voice.
LEIGH: Yeah, that's an interesting question. When I was coming up in the 1990s, Jana Wendt was the biggest female journalist on Australian television. She had a very deep, slow delivery, and there was a whole generation of female journalists who all felt the great need to speak like this. For me, when I started, I had a pretty heavy Queensland accent, I felt like I spoke too high. I think initially, you're trying to make yourself sound authoritative, whereas actually, what makes you sound authoritative is authenticity and speaking naturally. I've learned over the years to just try to deliver in as conversational manner as possible, because that's what really connects with people. You have to be almost not thinking too much about your voice beyond things like – which I think Nas makes clear – just clarity. For example, if I'm talking like I just was in Queensland on the weekend, and I noticed I'm talking to my brother, I'll drop a lot of what I'm saying with ing, I dropped the ing. I'll say, ‘I'm just gonna bring over some beers’, whereas if I'm at 7:30, I say ‘I'm bringing over some beer’.
So just things like that to make sure that you've got formal but not stiff delivery. And that's what Nas talks about. When she first started reading she wouldn't use any conjunctions. She would say, ‘the cat is sitting on the mat’, when the way you talk is ‘the cat sitting on the mat’ sounds much more natural. You've got to get that balance to formal but natural.
ASTRID: I'd like to shift tack a little bit and ask you about reading. Quite a few of the people you interviewed in this work really reference reading, particularly, from finding an angle for their column this week to live broadcast of a disastrous event unfolding in real time. You know, Stan Grant, Annabel Crabb, Richard Fidler, all bring it back to wide reading across fiction and non-fiction. I'd like your thoughts on that.
LEIGH: I mean, again, it comes back to the curiosity you need about the natural world, and that I think reading is gigantic part of that. In many of the jobs I've done, you can't really cram because you've got such a limited time. If you haven't been following say, the debate about the Voice or whatever, you can't just go from a standing start. You have to be across it all the time.
Stan Grant in the book makes the most extraordinary comments about this. His knowledge of International Affairs just absolutely blows my mind in terms of both what's going on at any one time, but also the history. He can do it for like every single country, it's absolutely gob smacking. And so for someone who does the kind of work that stands done, say Melissa Doyle, who used to be at Channel Seven, where they can be on live television and they have to talk for ages because they might be having to fill time waiting for something to happen, you have to have a bank of knowledge in your brain already that you can call on.
I think it's sometimes easy for people to be dismissive of commercial television presenters, right. So Carl Stefanovic in the book, or Melissa Doyle, people like that – the skill those people have! I mean, you try and do four hours of live television every morning and never run out of things to talk about on any given topic, from The Bachelor TV show to climate change, like the amount of information and prep that they have to hold in their head is gobs macking. It is huge.
ASTRID: Now, I'm clearly a fan of reading. And I'm fascinated by the overlap between journalism and the publishing world, and specifically journalists and non-fiction writers, and even journalists and fiction writers. In Storytellers, twice you referenced Helen Garner, once specifically in relation to reading Helen Garner and studying her work to express your writing more clearly and powerfully. There is I think, what's the word I'm looking for? At least I think there is a perception that journalists can't be good non-fiction writers. I find that offensive and I'm not even a journalist. I’d like to ask you about that. I mean, you interview Trent Dalton, he does fiction, non-fiction and journalism.
LEIGH: I think not everyone can do it. Its like the reference the cello before. I can play the piano as I already said, and playing the piano already gives me some tools that are extremely useful in studying the cello. But it doesn't mean I can just automatically play the cello. When I write a non-fiction book, especially if it's got any sort of narrative, I do obviously bring some skills to it. Because I know how to interview, I know how to gather information, and so forth. But I don't necessarily know how to structure a 60,000-word narrative, I know how to drive a 1:30 minute television story. I think the first thing is a bit of humility, recognising that you don't necessarily have the skill set. Some journalists have more stuff in their kitbag to do that than others.
And then fiction, I think, that's almost a different art form entirely. There's no way I think… even someone who's a really excellent non-fiction writer isn't necessarily going to crack it as a fiction writer, I think, again, you've got some, maybe you got more tools in your kit than a plumber might, but you don't necessarily. There might be some plumber who's actually got an excellent turn of phrase, he could write a really great work of fiction that would be beyond you as a journalist. So no, I don't think that just because you're good at journalism you're going to be good at that. And in fact, just because you're good at news journalism, doesn't mean you're going be good at feature writing. Just because you're a great live anchor and interview doesn't mean you're going to be a good long form investigative reporter. They're all quite different skills play.
ASTRID: That was an excellent answer. And I am going to finish his interview by asking you a question that has nothing to do with Storytellers, but I find myself desperate for your opinion. You just outline your thoughts on fiction, non-fiction and the different skills and tool sets required in being a good storyteller. How do you currently feel about AI?
LEIGH: Oh, worried, worried. Because of the nature I suppose of my position and profile, I’m more worried probably about the use of my image on things. I'm concerned because it's so realistic that people might see my face imposed on something where I'm saying something that I would never say, and that they might believe that it's me saying it. But I am also worried about just, you know, the ability for AI to write. I've read some pieces of writing from AI. I don't think that they compare yet to an actual good writer, but they certainly are very serviceable. I find all of that pretty scary, to be honest.
I just wonder where it's all going, I like to think that, you know, you started off by mentioning that I wrote I’m a crusty old bag, passing on knowledge. I try hard to remain… I love working with younger reporters, more so than just passing on stuff. I really enjoy hearing their take on things, what they think of journalism, what stories are of interest to them, what they're working on how they feel about their careers, because I find that quite energizing. I try hard, even though sometimes I see people of younger generations doing journalism in a way that I wouldn't necessarily do, but I also feel that well, I've had a pretty good stab at it. I'm still getting a pretty good stab at it. And there's space for people to do all sorts of different things. I guess the same with AI, where I'm scared of it, but I also feel like alright, well, it's happening. Let's see where it goes.
ASTRID: Leigh, I'm going to take that advice to heart. Congratulations on Storytellers, and thank you for your time today.
LEIGH: Thanks so much Astrid.