As soon as you meet her it becomes obvious why Sally Neighbour is one of the most formidable — and downright frightening — forces in Australian journalism. And why she’s been able, in under a year, to haul 7.30 out of its post-Kerry O’Brien funk and make it a must-watch program again for anyone interested in politics and current affairs.
She doesn’t do small talk, nor false modesty, and if she cracked a smile during her interview with The Power Index we must have missed it. Anyone doubting her guts didn’t read her feature in The Monthly, in which she described her then boss, The Australian‘s Chris Mitchell, as “rude”, “overbearing” and “vindictive” among other things.
Neighbour — best known for her 12 years as a reporter on Four Corners, where she won a trifecta of Walkleys — joined 7.30 as executive producer in February. Since she started, the stories are punchier, the interviews are tougher and the ratings are up. Monday night’s episode attracted 1.2 million viewers, putting it among the top 10 shows in the nation.
That’s still less than half the combined audience of Today Tonight and A Current Affair most nights. But, as Neighbour points out, 7.30 is the only prime-time current affairs show that covers national politics seriously and the only one with probing, long-form interviews.
She’s blunt about what was going wrong last year — and what needed to change. “It had lost its direction,” she says in an interview at the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters in Sydney.
“The focus had been on finding a new presenter — they ended up finding two — and revamping the look of the show. There was a sense last year that people weren’t sure what the point was. People are really clear now what the project is, what the mission is.”
One of her first decisions was ditching the awkward two-host format, a decision she insists had the blessing of both Leigh Sales and Chris Uhlmann.
“Leigh and Chris both felt that the program last year hadn’t been hitting the mark, that the format hadn’t worked, that there hadn’t been enough focus on the content and the journalism of the show,” she says. “The confusion and lack of delineation in the roles had undermined the presenters, their authority and their presence on the program.”
That call paid off in August when Sales’ feisty interview with Tony Abbott — which left the opposition leader looking flat footed and under-prepared — caught fire on social media and dominated the next day’s news cycle.
As for the stories, they’re noticeably newsier and edgier, with less of the dull-but-worthy packages that dominated the O’Brien days. Among the highlights have been revelations about an alleged Australian-funded death squad in West Papua, social dysfunction in the remote Aboriginal town of Toomelah and a dugong slaughter in far north Queensland.
“There’s a high bar for getting stories to air,” Neighbour says. “Not everyone is comfortable with that all of the time but that’s the way it is. I’m uncompromising about standards.”
Increasing the show’s appeal to younger viewers has also been a priority: out are the interviews with ageing rockers, in are stories about a trampolinist with AIDS or a one-armed pole dancer. The iconic Clark and Dawe sketch, beloved by traditional ABC devotees, has even been dropped for the past two weeks.
A criticism of the show this year is that, in a bid to make an impact, it’s sometimes been guilty of over-reach: Media Watch deplored a story on alleged visa fraud, which had strong follow-up in other media outlets, as sensationalised and “sloppily told”.
Neighbour, while standing by that story, acknowledges the program remains a work in progress. “We’re hitting the mark a lot more than we used to but we’re not hitting it all the time. We’re doing some standout journalism and some mediocre journalism. I’d like us to be doing more standout journalism and no mediocre journalism.
“People sometimes say, ‘we’re not Four Corners, we can’t do what Four Corners do’. That’s true but we I think still need to aspire to journalistic excellence. That shouldn’t be compromised by the fact we have a shorter amount of time to do our stories or less time on air.”