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Leigh Sales and Lisa Wilkinson respond to accusations they're too 'aggressive'.

We have a question: Why are male journalists never accused of being ‘aggressive’?

I’m confused about Leigh Sales.

Is she too soft or too hard? Does she lean left or right? And more importantly, does she kick off her shoes under that fancy desk on ABC’s 7:30 every night?

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These are the questions gripping the nation this week. Except for the shoes which is my own personal question because I’ve always wondered.

Here are some of the headlines you may have read about 7:30 host, Leigh Sales:

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So which is it, Leigh? Are you too soft or too hard? Too left or too right?

I’m also confused about this: Why is all this attention being put on the interviewer rather than the politicians she’s interviewing? And how come male journalists are never accused of being “aggressive”?

Here’s what I know for sure: Leigh Sales is the most high profile political interviewer in the country right now. It’s her moment. She’s always been a well respected and critically acclaimed journalist, but since returning from her second maternity leave earlier this year, she’s been on fire.

In her absence, the 7:30 chair was filled by another Walkley winner, Sarah Ferguson whose combative interview style earned her huge public praise and an ABC inquiry about potential bias for a post-budget interview she did with Joe Hockey.

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Sarah Fergusson.

So high were the accolades heaped on Ferguson that one columnist wrote a particularly cruel column suggesting that politicians should be queuing up outside Leigh Sales’ front door offering to help hang out her washing and mind her babies so she could return to work from her maternity leave earlier.

The implication being that Ferguson was tough and Sales was not and the lives of politicians would be so much easier when they were facing someone less capable. It was a backwards slap of the worst kind, intended to compliment Sarah while belittling Leigh.

But Leigh rose above the backhanders, took the time she’d always planned to take with her baby and returned to work on top of her game. Ratings for the show increased and she has brought her signature mix of warmth, wit, innate curiosity, masterful interviewing and forensic questioning back to 7:30 where it has lived since she took over as host in 2011.

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So why all the fuss around asking tough questions?

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A journalist’s job is not to throw Dorothy Dixers. They’re not there to facilitate spruiking or spin: “Tell me more about how tens of thousands of hard-working Australian families be so much better off under your new childcare policy.” We have question time for that.

The role of a journalist like Leigh Sales is to hold the politician to account. To challenge the press release. To probe below the sound bite and the platitudes and – if at all possible – to elicit some actual answers to their questions. To the questions we’d all like to ask if we had the chance.

That is what political journalists do every day of their working lives. Admittedly, some journalists, commentators and columnists wear their political alliegances openly; Andrew Bolt for example. But most do their utmost to do their jobs with deliberate and professional impartiality.

Watch Leigh’s budget interview with Joe Hockey here: 

The day after Leigh Sales’ interview with Joe Hockey last week, Today host Lisa Wilkinson interviewed the treasurer and challenged him over the paltry amount the coalition allocated to domestic violence services in the previous night’s budget.

For this she was accused on social media of being a ‘leftie’ for despite the fact that minutes later, she gave Bill Shorten a serve on air for not turning up on time for his interview. She then cancelled the interview with the Opposition leader, hardly the measure of a ‘leftie’.

“My job is to hold politicians to account, not be a conduit for their press releases,” Lisa Wilkinson told Mamamia. “They’ve already got PR people who do that.”

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Lisa Wilkinson interviewing Joe Hockey on Today last week
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Criticism from social media after political interviews is expected.

But yesterday, things went Next Level.

On Andrew Bolt’s weekly program The Bolt Report, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was asked to comment on the interviewing style of two ABC journalists: Leigh Sales and Lateline host Emma Alberici. Turnbull replied that he thought they were ‘very aggressive’ and that a ‘more forensic approach’ would be more effective.

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Emma Alberici on Lateline

I’m not at all surprised that Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t like “aggressive” questioning. Another word for that would be “challenging” and no politician likes to be challenged. But I don’t watch 7:30 or Sky News to hear a politician give a speech. Also, why is the communications minister giving career advice to two of the most respected and successful journalists in the country?

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To my mind, it all comes down to one question. Have you ever heard a male interviewer described as ‘aggressive’?

It’s a highly loaded term and one I can’t recall ever hearing used to describe Laurie Oakes, Tony Jones, Barrie Cassidy, Mark Reilly, David Spears, Kieran Gilbert or any other male journalist working in Canberra.

Similarly, I’ve never heard any of those men described as ‘soft’. Or hard.

They’re just considered excellent journalists.

So why can’t the same rule be applied to Sales, to Ferguson, to Wilkinson and to Alberici? All excellent journalists, who are willing to ask the truly difficult questions.

“The ABC’s core budget interviews were both conducted by women, which is no longer novel enough to cause excitement” notes journalist Julia Baird, host of the ABC news show The Drum. “For Andrew Bolt to ask Malcolm Turnbull to rate their style is simply a distraction from their competence.”

Political writer Annabel Crabb told Mamamia, “One year ago, Laurie Oakes started his post-budget Hockey interview by giving the Treasurer both barrels about the song he was dancing to with his little boy before delivering the budget. It was an incredibly hard-core opener. I don’t remember anyone making much of a fuss about that. But it seems that when Leigh conducts a tough interview, it’s worth days and days of stories. It’s actually embarrassing for the outlets who are beating this up.”

“I have seen ‘news stories’ reporting that Sales was simperingly friendly to the PM,” Crabb continued.  “I have seen stories reporting that she was unpleasantly aggressive to the Treasurer. Anyone who watches her for more than five minutes knows that she is fastidiously impartial. I can not believe that actual journalists waste their time on this rubbish.”

The last word goes to Sales.

“Everyone has opinions on every interview I do, so Malcolm Turnbull is entitled to his too,” she told Mamamia.  “But I’ll still keep doing hard-hitting interviews in which I try to get politicians of all stripes to answer the questions.”

And who are the winners when journalists keep asking questions of politicians and pressing them to actually answer?

Us.

That’s why Leigh Sales, Sarah Ferguson, Lisa Wilkinson and Emma Alberici are so damn good at their jobs. And maybe, Andrew Bolt, you should focus on your own interviewing style instead of obsessing about the style of other journalists.

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