Leigh Sales allows Malcolm Turnbull a little too much rope …

leigh sales and malcolm turnbull

I think the ABC, like most media organisations, is determined to hold the Government, any government, up to account, and speaking of politicians, of course, always feel that the media is too critical… I would say, as somebody who used to interview people for a living, both as a journalist and then as a barrister, and then, of course, as a politician, I would say that a more effective interviewing style is one that is less aggressive and more forensic. Malcolm Turnbull on The Bolt Report


The ABC 7:30 Report last Monday treated viewers to Lee Sales’ boldly experimental interpretation of the art of the interview as a non-aggression pact. It was less of an interview than an assisted monologue, a radical departure from Kerry O’Brien’s savaging of former PM leadership coup winner, Julia Gillard. Or indeed, Sales’ own recent Abbott interview where she rightly challenged his empty rhetoric; his sloganeering.

Is this an attempt to meet the Turnbull government’s hope for a more ‘forensic’ ABC, as the PM put it on The Bolt Report when he criticised Sales and Lateline’s Emma Alberici as ‘aggressive’?

Or is the host too scared of her guest to ask hard questions? Or is it OK to attack Labor but another, softer, set of rules apply to Liberal leadership coup winners? Certainly, Sales was soft on Monday.

Cue soft lights and mood music, Leigh Sales all but curtseys to new Liberal Party ruler, Malcolm Turnbull, The Bonnie Black Prince of Point Piper as he enters the 7.30 Report studio, lord of all he surveys.  Her greeting celebrates, cements Prince Mal’s political ascension,

‘Prime Minister, congratulations on your elevation to the position.’

Having put our newest Dear Leader up there, and ourselves down lower, the next bit is tricky. How should a commoner put questions to a king – especially one with Black Prince Mal’s fearsome reputation? Even Kerry Packer feared him. So, too does ‘our ABC.’ Mal, as Minister of Communications under Abbott presided over deep cuts to ABC funding.

Many Liberals would go even further; privatise Aunty out of obligation to the commercial masters of the airwaves such as Rupert Murdoch who see the public broadcaster as unfair competition. A waste of public money.

Two years ago a Murdoch Adelaide paper released the salaries of the ABC to help Rupert’s case. Leigh Sales’ salary was then $280,400, a bargain compared with Tony Jones on $355,789, yet each is one third of their counterparts on commercial flagships Seven, Nine or Ten.

Some say the publication of ABC salaries was aimed at recruiting talent but it has left most ordinary punters hoping for value for money. And so it was on Monday night.

Opting for a post- modern deconstruction of the traditional question and answer format, Sales co-opts her host into interview as assisted monologue. Her questions serve as Turnbull talking points not as opportunities to challenge what are often false or very flimsy generalities. Turnbull is relieved and perplexed at this lowering of expectations.

Prince Mal need not actually answer any or all of her questions, Sales makes clear, nor need he remain relevant in his responses. Making sense is entirely up to him. She will ask what seem to be questions but he can answer any way he likes. She will not interrupt. Follow ups are verboten lest Dear Leader be held to account for contradicting himself, for example as he does in his specious case for his party’s Direct Action confidence trick as an effective emissions control.

Sales opens by playfully making a pact with Mal to respect the sanctity of the opinion poll, ensuring that he knew she would be calling the shots on her show. He readily agrees that he does take polls seriously. More than most, he smiles.

Our postmodern interviewer Sales says she will remember this amazing insight. His assent will help her with her future scripts. It will also help keep future reports fluffy and focused on what the polls say this week. Or playing gotcha. It beats doing more detailed research.

Uncritical acceptance of opinion polls helps trivialise political conversations and overvalues impressions. Snapshots of our feelings are elevated and inflated out of all proportion to their true worth or beyond the means of most interpreters to adequately contextualize and responsibly explain. Every set of poll statistics deserves at least three basic questions.

Where do they come from? What are they actually measuring? And what have the pollsters done to the data?

Mal says none of this and Leigh is not about to prompt him for us. He does warn that a poll is only a snapshot but his big statement is that he takes them very seriously – more seriously than most. Some viewers are intrigued by the PM’s candid reply but Prince Mal is keen to avoid even a friendly gotcha moment.

But wait, there’s more. Prince Mal is disarmingly, charmingly frank about what lies beyond the looking glass. He is about to give Sales another exclusive. Politicians tell fibs!  They pretend opinion polls don’t interest them. Now that’s an exclusive. You heard it first on the Leigh and Mal show.

He waffles on. Whatever Mal may have said about polls not meaning anything, he never meant it, it is just part of his political shtick. You say stuff when you are politics.

The PM makes it clear that he takes polls very seriously, before worrying that this may sound foolish. He adds that polls are just a snapshot in time in case we think that he will be amazingly popular for all eternity, although it would be fitting.

A green light on polls allows Sales to lower the boom. She talks dirty; goes for the fundamentals. Prince Mal is asked about his government’s core values and beliefs. He nearly drops his dagger, dripping with Abbott’s blood in shock. Hard core so early! He is thrown.

The soft approach is a disaster. With no adversary to rise against, Turnbull flops badly. He bores on regardless, however, a good twenty minutes of piffle. He lacks focus, detail and structure. He expresses tepid generalities in long, over-qualified badly finished sentences. The freedom word comes out – ‘it’s all about freedom.’ As we all saw in the Liberal party’s attempts to stop its own members holding a conscience vote on gay marriage. Or in the Royal Commission into Bill Shorten.

Freedom of speech has been outlawed by this government if you are a doctor, nurse or any other government employee on Nauru or Manus Island and you happen to report any breach of the law or violation of our international rights obligations. Leigh Sales could take up these or a host of other incursions into our civil liberties under the coalition but she is not following up. Her role is to plump up the cushions on Mal’s day bed and hold his hand while he rambles on, not to hold her guest to account for his arrant nonsense or ask him to explain himself out of respect for his viewers.

Securing any specific commitments is off limits in this version of 7:30 Report. Take tax for example, Sales prompts him to reveal that he is going to change taxes but that’s it. Turnbull is allowed to get away with the ‘not ruling anything in not ruling anything out’ evasion on tax reform. Yet up to now everything has been ruled out in favour of coercing the states to propose a GST increase that the Federal government is too wimpy to impose itself. The savings then can be squandered on tax cuts to boost re-election.

Superannuation concessions for the rich, the capital gains tax discount, negative gearing, closing loopholes for the top 1% were all off the table for the coalition. An indulgent Sales helps to keep it that way by not following up or challenging Turnbull’s windy waffling.

Sales fawns over her royal guest, even apologising for interrupting him when he was rambling so badly he had become completely incoherent.

Sales: “I’m sorry I’m laughing, but you’re not at the dispatch box and you’re not at the bar, so I’ve got to squeeze in one more question before we run out of time.”

Turnbull: “One more question. Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

Sales: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry to be rude like that too.”

Turnbull: “You’re not being rude at all. It’s quite understandable.”

Sales: “The – no, no, I did cut you directly off.”

Turnbull: “That’s fine.”

Sales’ mission, clearly is to put Prince Mal at ease. Handmaiden to her latest star, she gently massages his regal ego, plying him with soft-serve questions and permitting him to blather on happily free from any hint of scrutiny or obligation to even make sense. Turnbull-shit.

Yet even a soft interview gives Turnbull enough rope to hang himself. Left unchallenged, he has nothing to say, no concrete proposals, no insights, no ideas, no plan but a snake oil salesman’s determination to talk things up. His assertions are include alarmingly vacuous claims.

‘So everything I can say to inspire confidence is going to help the economy.’

Sadly, it is on environment that Turnbull is most compromised having been a trenchant critic of direct action in the past. Tonight, however, everything is rosy. Besides, he knows each time he repeats a lie, it gains acceptance; displaces the truth.

… what’s good about the Emissions Reduction Fund and the other mechanisms the Government has in place? What’s good about them is they’re working. .. the Government’s policies will achieve the reductions that have been – that we’re taking to the Paris conference of the parties.

The last word may go to Sales whose light-hearted tweet trivialises viewer responses; she is above criticism or at least she will laugh off her responsibility to at least help her guests make sense.

“Leigh Sales went too hard/too soft in her interview last night and she is a left-wing stooge/right-wing fascist. Her outfit was gross/awesome/reminiscent of a bag lady. Bring back Kerry O’Brien​/Chris Uhlmann​/the guy who plays the piano with the puppet,” she posts.

Not so fast, Leigh. Parodying audience responses does not diminish our right to have expectations nor does it relieve you of your responsibility to hold your guests to account; keep the bastards honest. Don’t go soft on us. There’s more than enough fluffy stuff on the commercial channels. We are drowning in a tide of spin. Giving Turnbull or his ilk a free ride will cost every one of us dearly in the end.