It’s always sad leaving somewhere you love, but for journalist Sarah Ferguson, leaving Washington DC during the January 6 hearings – one of the biggest stories of our age – is particularly difficult. Fortunately, though, she is coming home, “always a wonderful thing”.
The 56-year-old Gold Walkley Award winner is also about to take up stewardship of the ABC’s 7.30, one of the top news and current affairs gigs in the country.
Spending time in America over the past 18 months has been illuminating and terrifying. “We are witnessing the breakdown of shared values in America, the bedrock values that established … contemporary America, the values that propelled it – they have broken down,” she says.
“The Congress barely functions, the understanding of opposing members of politics being on a shared mission has broken down, the number of people who don’t have faith in the democratic system is shocking, the number of Republicans who think the last election was stolen is shockingly high.
“The peaceful transfer of power is no longer a certainty; who knows what’s going to happen next time … [Postcolonial America] was based on a beautiful idea of democracy and it’s very hard to see it now. So I’ve watched something really dark happen in this country.”
In stark contrast, Australia’s federal election in May was almost textbook-perfect in its adherence to proper democratic principles. Watching from afar, with husband Tony Jones, formerly of Q&A, the lead-up was challenging for Ferguson.
“It wasn’t easy because I kept seeing flashes and reminders of what was happening here, versions of it – more hyper-partisan language, more ad hominem attacks, more assaults on the truth … that idea that we don’t have shared facts,” she says.
“Those things that have been happening here, I started to see them in Australia, and I was worried about how that would manifest in the election, but then we saw a quick, seamless transition of power from one government to the other and I felt incredibly proud,” she says, adding, “That’s so naff. I can be proud of my country and I was in that moment.”
The differences between the two countries are also evident in our media. An avid consumer of news and current affairs, Ferguson says American news is very loud, “it seems to make a lot of noise”. If you move around the country, travelling through airports or hotels, it’s on all the time, she says, so you have to work to get away from it.
She is pleased to see recent changes in CNN’s approach, “a reversal from the more partisan news style of the Trump era”. “There’s an attempt to dial that down … to move in the direction of not alarming the public when you don’t need to alarm them.”
To her mind, Australia’s media sits “somewhere between the more aggressive British style and the sometimes slightly folksy style Americans adopt”.
I wonder what being away has taught her about journalism. “I think about the craft all the time and it’s individual by individual, but you can’t beat a good, simple question, no matter where you are and no matter what the topic. And I just need to be reminded, like everybody, that a good, simple question is the key to a good interview.”
The difficulty is rigour takes time, she says: there is an advantage to a longer interview. “We face the same danger America has faced, which is if your interviews are too short, you can’t get past the talking points. Politicians in particular being the most important people we need to hold to account … you need time to construct an interview that breaks down those evasive responses. We’ve all gone through a period of thinking shorter is better; I don’t agree.”
That notion was underpinned by the assumption viewers or listeners would zone out if pushed for lengthy periods. Ferguson says it’s the opposite, that audiences have a lot of tolerance for listening to people talk.
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO SARAH FERGUSON
- Worst habit? Starts with wet towels on floor and goes from there.
- Greatest fear? Birds inside house (Tippi Hedren horror).
- The line that stayed with you? “Never mind manoeuvres, go straight at ’em.” Jack Aubrey quoting Horatio Nelson.
- Biggest regret? Not calling my mother enough.
- Favourite room? Edit suite when it’s all working.
- The artwork/song you wish was yours? Almost any Rothko. I’d say Picasso but I couldn’t keep it out of view. One Rothko seems fair.
- If I could solve one thing... The real list is too long, so let’s start with people using their phones on loudspeaker in public.
“People still find it really fascinating if it’s well done, if it’s really engaging. I think we’ve misunderstood the audience’s attention span and panicked at the thought that an audience can’t sit through a long interview.”
The Washington stint was an unexpected diversion, when China refused to grant her a visa back in 2020. Since being based in the US, she has reported on the January 6 attacks, the Murdoch media, especially Fox News and its role in the US election – which she described as one of the most significant stories of the time – and the war on Ukraine.
In 2018, Ferguson penned On Mother, a beautiful reflection on her relationship with her English mum, Marjorie, who she credits with imbuing in her a thirst for knowledge, a love of words and, most importantly, love, support and strength of character. “She never said don’t move so far, or it would make me happy if you came home, or even that it was hard for her.”
Her mother’s unexpected death was the catalyst for the book; Ferguson used her forensic journalistic skills during the coroner’s inquest to reveal a series of errors that had catastrophic results.
She also wrote a book inspired by the documentary series of the same name Revelation, with Jones, about paedophilia in the Catholic Church in Australia, and The Killing Season, about Labor’s leadership ructions under Rudd and Gillard.
Ferguson argues that the rate of change we are experiencing at the moment creates an ideal context for a shake-up of the intellectual framework of society. And when you get that shake-up, she says, new ideas are possible.
“New formulations about how humans relate to each other, how groups of humans form into societies or in commerce, in the arts, in every field. It feels like the status quo ante is up for grabs in every way.”
She cites the awakening of people’s sense of what American society should look like after the death of George Floyd. “It feels like Australia is alive with possibilities … it feels like so many certainties are being interrogated. It doesn’t mean that everything from the past is wrong or needs to be swept away, but to question the way we relate to one another at its most basic level creates a very exciting intellectual environment. That why I want to come back.”
On the eve of the ABC’s 90th anniversary, Ferguson says while it’s not perfect, the national broadcaster is a place of creativity and brilliance and that it creates “this wonderful intellectual space that belongs to everyone in Australia”. The ABC is about true public service; it should be witty, sharp and smart, she says. “It should always be a little bit rebellious, a little bit cutting edge, reaching for the boundary of human expression in art and journalism.”
That mission is what inspires her: the boundless possibilities every day, the challenge to understand what’s going on in the world. “Understanding that all of these systems that mankind has created, they are just that. They are ideologies and systems that we’ve created. None of them existed until we created them, and they are all imperfect, and they should all be being rattled all the time.”
“You have to take the audience on a journey and if they trust you, they’ll relax and you’ll be able to go so much further to those moments of glorious truth – or at least get some answers to the questions on the day,” she says. “Trust is everything: hard won, easily lost. All those things we have come to understand about it. And in Australia, we do still have quite high levels of trust. Here [in America], it’s so obscenely partisan that trust is limited.”
Her passion for her work is palpable. There are moments in filming or editing when you know something magical has happened, she says.
“It doesn’t happen all the time … it’s a highly imperfect business, but every now and again all the pieces come together … a brilliant piece of cinematography, or an edit or an idea, and you know you’re sitting on something brilliant and it’s like a great piece of music and your heart just soars. It sounds like I am madly enthusiastic about it, but I am.”
Drowning in boxes as we speak, Ferguson still has several books of poetry on her bedside table. (Among them Robert Frost’s poems about New Hampshire, and selected poems of Louis MacNeice.) Reading poetry and, equally, being made to commit it to memory is one of the joys of her life: “It’s the biggest gift that I was given in my education … it means that you’ve got it to hand.”
“We need more poetry in our lives, and by that I mean not just to love words but to love the story of poetry. Stories make us all feel better. Scrolling on Twitter doesn’t make you feel happy. Reading and someone telling you a story does.”
Sarah Ferguson starts on the ABC’s 7.30 on July 4.
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