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Why will Leigh Sales be at home on election night?

Sales is being replaced by Kerry O’Brien on election night.

By JAMILA RIZVI

If there was an Oscar for Best Performance By A Political Interviewer in 2012/2013, Leigh Sales would win it.

As host of the ABC’s preeminent news and current affairs program, 7:30, Sales has done all the heavy lifting during this election campaign and the three years leading up to it.

She was the one asking the questions when Tony Abbott was brought undone in late 2012.

She was the one providing minute-by-minute live updates and insightful commentary as Julia Gillard’s prime ministership came to an end, anchoring hours of rolling coverage.

And she was the one who deftly and intelligently interrogated Kevin Rudd upon his return to the top job.

So what will she be doing on election night? Nothing.

To widespread astonishment, the ABC has confirmed that their election night coverage will not feature the host of their flagship news program. Instead, Sales’ predecessor at the 7.30 Report, Kerry O’Brien, will be returning to the chair.

O’Brien, who hosted the 7.30 Report for the fifteen years prior to his retirement in 2011, will be joined by a panel of journalists including Q&A host Tony Jones, election analyst Antony Green, ABC News Breakfast‘s Joe O’Brien and Kitchen Cabinet‘s Annabel Crabb. But O’Brien will be the main event; the voice of political wisdom and experience.

I’ve been trying to think of a neat analogy about retired footballers making a return to the game when they’re not match fit and unfamiliar with the playing styles of the current teams. But that feels a little unwieldy, so I’ll just say what every regular viewer of 7.30 must be thinking right now: Why the hell has Leigh Sales been benched?

According to one senior TV executive (who wishes to remain anonymous), “the industry is flabbergasted. She’s the best they’ve got at the ABC and to have her doing nothing on election night is an absolute joke.”

Except it’s not a very funny one.

Election night is a chance for networks to show off their very best. When you’ve got every channel presenting live on the same event, the competition for eyeballs is extreme and the opportunity to enhance the reputations of presenters is significant.

And the politics of television politics are intense.

Over at Channel 9, it will be Today Show hosts Lisa Wilkinson and Karl Stefanovic, who will be running the show. This makes sense as the pair have had regular on-air interactions with both parties’ leaders over the past three years. They anchor 15 hours of live TV per week and have interviewed every major – and many minor – political player during this campaign and the years leading up to it. They’ll be joined by the Nine Network’s iconic political reporter Laurie Oakes.

Laurie Oakes will be joining Karl Stefanovic and Lisa Wilkinson

At Channel 7, they’re giving a fierce plug to their new national 4pm bulletin  by putting Melissa Doyle and Matt White on the election coverage desk, along with Sydney news presenter Chris Bath. They’ll be crossing to specialist political commentators, who will be with the leaders on the ground.

At Channel 10, the irreverent and slightly younger-slanted politically savvy crew at The Project (who are also Ten’s only national news team) will be anchoring the election night coverage, along with chief political correspondent Hugh Rimmington.

And Sky News will be showcasing their political A-team, led by David Spears and Keiren Gilbert.

Every single network is making a calculated decision about promoting a new show or presenting their best possible political team. So why isn’t the ABC?

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Leigh Sales is Australia’s most prominent and certainly one of our most respected news anchors. If Sales is busy on election night, you know, washing her hair or watching the Pies thrash Port Adelaide, then that’s one thing. Perhaps it was her choice to sit this one out. But if she has been screwed over overlooked in favour of a bloke who hasn’t done the job for almost three years now, then that’s a whole different can of politically-charged worms.

Sales has proven herself to be a formidable interviewer, with her oft-quoted mantra of “preparation and planning prevent piss poor performance” manifesting itself in night after night of clever, thorough questioning. As I write this, she is interrogating Tony Abbott about everything from a possible intervention in Syria from the west to the listing of RU486 on the PBS.

But it seems no matter how many notches Sales carves into the wooden hosting desk – it’s not enough.

Some will argue that ‘Kerry always hosts on election night’. Well yeah, because he was the host of the ABC’s flagship political program. But here’s the thing that’s happened between the last election night and this one: he’s not any more.

Leigh Sales

The show has moved on. The viewers have moved on.

So why haven’t ABC management moved on?

One journalist with decades of experience suggests that, “side-lining Leigh Sales is typical of the boys club of newsrooms and nothing has changed. This move is demeaning and divisive not to mention deeply disappointing.”

And with the greatest respect to the much-loved veteran Kerry O’Brien (who I am personally a big fan of), there’s no legitimate reason why he is being brought out of 7.30 retirement to supplant the ABC’s chief political anchor.

I worry that television networks remain wedded to the idea that political wisdom and experience comes only in the form of older white men. That while you can have a woman in charge day-to-day, you should bring in the tried and tested, familiar voices for events like the election. That when it comes to having opinions about Big Important Serious Stuff, audiences want to hear from the Big Guns. And the Big Guns are all blokes.

Now, I’m not calling sexism. I’m not calling ageism either. Without an explanation from the ABC (we called them for comment but none was forthcoming)*, or Leigh Sales (she was busy preparing for tonight’s interview with opposition leader Tony Abbott, which you can watch below) about why this we decision was taken, we can only speculate. And I recognise that there are many factors at play in making a decision like this.

But I will say this: Sales is a first class journalist, who has more than a decade’s experience with the ABC, including as Washington correspondent and the host of Lateline. She’s written an award-winning book and there’s a Walkley on her mantelpiece. She’s in the best form of her career and has firmly established herself as the toughest political interviewer in the business. And while I cannot know for sure, I am confident she would have jumped at the chance to host our national broadcaster’s election night coverage.

I was really looking forward to watching Leigh Sales drive the ABC’s election bus on Saturday night.

And I suspect many others were too.

UPDATE: The ABC have responded to Mamamia’s questions. They have explained that Sales will feature in their other televised election coverage (on Friday and Sunday evening), but not on election night.

They said in a statement that “With the prospect of a change of government, this [Sunday night programming] is potentially as important in explaining the background to a new government, as the election night results program

The ABC did not address Mamamia’s questions about why Sales will not be hosting or even feature in the Saturday evening broadcast and the live discussion of election results as they come in. They did not respond on the question of whether Sales was asked to host, ahead of Kerry O’Brien.

On Monday the 2nd September, Leigh Sales did yet another great political interview with Tony Abbott – you can watch it below:

Will you be watching the election coverage on Saturday night? What channel do you plan to watch?

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