Sarah Ferguson isn’t just a news breaker; she’s a taboo smasher. Time and again the Four Corners star wades into waters other reporters are too timid to enter, and emerges clutching a scoop that dominates the national conversation for weeks.

“She’s a one-woman journalistic powerhouse,” former ABC foreign correspondent Monica Attard tells The Power Index. “A lot of very good journalists plod through their careers without everyone eagerly anticipating their next report. Sarah’s an exception: we wait for her stories with bated breath.”

Last year, Ferguson exposed the barbaric treatment suffered by Australian cattle sent to Indonesia. It was Four Corners‘ lowest-rating episode of 2011 and its most impactful — a report so shocking it sparked a social media firestorm and forced the government to suspend the trade.

This year, she introduced the nation to Captain Emad: an Iraqi “refugee” who was operating a people smuggling network from his Canberra home. As News Limited columnist Miranda Devine wrote, “[p]robably no one in the ABC but Sarah Ferguson could have pulled it off”. The story drew howls from asylum seeker advocates, set off debate about the rigour of our refugee screening procedures and saw the smuggler flee the country the day after it was broadcast.

Smugglers’ Paradise ended with Ferguson confronting Emad, who was working as a trolley collector, in a shopping centre car park — a moment that epitomises her sense of drama and willingness to put herself at the centre of the action.

“She has something that isn’t always common at Four Corners: a strong sense of a headline,” says legendary ABC reporter Chris Masters. “She’s a terrific visual storyteller,” says 7.30 host Leigh Sales. “I wish I could do work experience with her for a year to soak up some of her techniques. Most journalists would trade on any one of the stories she does for their entire career — she turns around three stories like that a year.”

Yet it could all so easily never have happened. After finishing university in London, Ferguson abandoned a job writing arts reviews for The Independent to move to Paris.

“It was so clear to me that if I stayed in the UK I knew exactly what my trajectory would be,” she tells The Power Index. “I knew where I’d end up, which newspaper I would work for, where I would live, what my friends would be like, what my life would be like. I could see exactly what was going to happen and that frightened the life out of me. So I left with no money in my pocket.”

Intent on a career in television, she worked odd jobs as a production assistant on movies and advertisements, stashing whatever cash she had left over in an old hairdryer box. In 1992, while working as a researcher and translator for the BBC, she met the ABC’s then-London correspondent Tony Jones at a Paris airport.

“It was a sort of blow across the back of the head to be suddenly confronted with somebody you instantly knew you had a very powerful connection to,” Jones told The Sun-Herald in 2007.

So Ferguson left to join Jones in Australia, a country where she had no contacts and few job prospects. She started as a researcher on a two-week contract at SBS’ Dateline before becoming host Jana Wendt’s producer. She made her name at Channel Nine’s Sunday program, where she tackled topics such as despair and dysfunction in remote Northern Territory indigenous communities.

While establishing her reputation was gruelling, Ferguson’s adamant nothing compares to the workload at Four Corners. “We’re not just sitting around working nice and slowly,” she says. “There’s a physical and mental intensity that I haven’t come across anywhere else.”

A seven-week turnaround sounds luxurious to journos with multiple daily deadlines, but when you factor in three weeks for filming and two for editing the time soon vanishes. If your story falls over, you’re in big trouble.

That’s where Ferguson found herself the day she met with The Power Index at the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters. A planned piece on an international fugitive had to be dropped because the evidence didn’t stack up, and the pressure was mounting to find a new story. (She later decided to investigate Alan Jones following his infamous “died of shame” comments.)

While driven and direct, Ferguson is more self-effacing and less gung-ho than you’d expect; she makes a point to credit Four Corners‘ low-profile executive producer Sue Spencer for the show’s success.

“Sarah knows how to talk to people,” says Attard. “She’s a very real human being and very compassionate. People pick that up and open up to her.”

The most stressful part of the job, Ferguson says, is the impact a story can have on her sources. Her Captain Emad episode saw her primary source belittled by anonymous AFP insiders on the front page of The Australian. Her explosive 2009 piece on group s-x within rugby league saw “Clare”, her key interviewee, subjected to a smear campaign she described as a nightmare.

For a recent piece involving on-camera interviews with the perpetrators and victims of domestic violence she took care to warn her interviewees of the long-term impact speaking to her could have.

“When I was 25 I was concerned with breaking the story,” she says. “Now I’m sometimes overwhelmed by my thoughts about the consequences for the people in the program.”

The “big question”, she says, is how long she can keep going. “I am sane but my life is not in control. It’s a messy project and we just sort of bump along. It’s not a job that is in any way suited to family life.”

Although she often fantasises about being able to watch her sons’ rugby games, a gig on Four Corners is simply too good to give up.

“Every time I imagine thinking of doing something else I never get around to picking up the phone. With the fracturing of the media around us, there’s still a desire, a yearning for detail. And no one else is doing it.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey