Why Sabra Lane Now Calls Hobart Home
by Stephanie Williams
As one of Australia’s most prominent political journos, Sabra Lane is in the box seat when it comes to interviewing decision makers and thought leaders. And she’s now doing it from Hobart.
Did you always want to be a journalist? In the later years of high school, I thought maybe. I finished year 12 and did a year overseas in Norway. It was while I was away that that really cemented in my mind.
Why Norway? It was an exchange year with Rotary. The district said: “We’ve never exchanged with Norway before. Would you like to go?” And I said: “Of course I’d love to go.” My father was a little bit disappointed at the time because he said: “Japanese is the language you want to learn. No-one speaks Norwegian.” But I absolutely loved my year away, and I connected with my first family really well. I lived on an island on the southwest coast of Norway. I still speak fluent language, in a dialect they speak on that island. I joke to people that I must have been a Viking in a previous life. When I go there I’m usually a little bit rusty, but after 48 hours, I’m back into it.
When you got back, you decided that journalism was for you? I went to Adelaide, I studied at Magill for two years full time. I’d been working part-time in my first year selling shoes, because my parents couldn’t support me all the way. The second year, one of my lecturers knew my circumstances, and one of their commercial networks was looking for someone to listen to their police scanners on weekends overnight. And I got that job. They speak in code. They wouldn’t say ‘Oh, there’s a murder on Rundle Street.’ They’d say ‘Oh, there’s a 303 at’ such-and-such.
I guess it was another language to learn? Yeah, exactly. They all spoke in codes. The firies had their own code as well, so a big fire wasn’t “It’s a big fire,” there’d be a K99. I still remember these things! That was in the era that was before the internet, before mobile phones – I had to learn news judgment really quickly, because it meant paging someone. If they didn’t respond to their pager, you’d have to ring their landline and wake up their entire family. It had to be the right call. I learnt news judgment very quickly. That summer the news director said “Instead of having summer holidays, how about you work full-time, as assistant chief of staff?” I thought that would be a good thing, instead of going home to Mildura. At the end of that stint, the news director said “Don’t go back to uni. I’ll give you a job.”
Did you ever finish? Eventually I did. My parents drummed into me the fact you need a degree. I decided to take the job, and then finished the degree part time. Took me another 10 years. The bus of opportunity often only stops once so you’ve got to run and jump.
Which job was that? That was my first stint with the ABC. I had a job at Channel 10, as assistant to the chief of staff for 12 months, before I ended up becoming a full-time on-the-road reporter. Then, at a very young age, I found myself as the chief of staff for the TV newsroom at ABC in Sydney.
That’s big! It was big, and it was a really important job for someone so young. I was good at making people collaborate, and bringing everyone together. After a couple of years, I wanted another challenge, but I found I couldn’t advance. I felt like I’d been pigeon-holed. I went back into the commercial world and worked at Channel Seven for seven-and-a-half years as executive producer of a national program, Sunday Sunrise, the forerunner to Sunrise. And I left. I wanted to go back to the ABC, to join AM and PM on radio. I’d listened to those programs for years, and I thought “I would give my teeth to do it.” I had no radio experience so I did an audio engineering degree. I can now mic a rock band! By the time I had that certificate under my arm, I went back to manager at the ABC and said “You can’t say no now.”
And you got a role in Canberra. I moved to Canberra in 2008. I was chief political correspondent for AM, PM and The World Today. And then I got tapped on the shoulder in 2013 to join 7.30, up until 2017. It was during that period that I was elected to the Press Club board and in 2018, became the president. I relinquished that in December when I moved down here.
What does it mean to be the president of the Press Club? It’s a treasured institution. There aren’t many places that offer the platform for important leaders, not just politicians, to come and give a considered speech of half-an-hour and then subject yourself to the open questions.
I watched the Chinese Minister Wang Xining deliver a speech last year. It was fascinating watching him being questioned. Yes. He came there to make a point, but the journalists also were able to ask him a range of questions, openly, without declaring anything. You couldn’t say that the Chinese would allow something similar in Beijing. At the moment, we do provide the opportunity for people to discuss ideas and policies, and that’s a clear example of not only a government getting to put its view directly to the Australian population, but also for journalists to publicly quiz and question him, as being representative of the Chinese government unhindered. Uncensored. Totry and understand why China is behaving the way it is towards Australia.
Each day you spend the morning holding decision-makers to account on AM, on behalf of your listeners, which to me that’s a very big responsibility. How do you get the best out of your interviewees? There’s a lot of ducking and weaving. The actual time in the program is precious. It’s not just the interview. We have important stories from around the country that need to be told. There’s no other program doing anything like that, and it’s still a really important forum. We’ve seen the most amazing contraction happen in the media landscape, and yet AM is still a really important flag post in the morning for politicians, for business makers, for people right around Australia to be able to tune in. It’s important to quiz people about what they’re doing, and why. And to be able to do that in a polite way as well. There’s a difference in being determined in pressing for an answer and being rude. You’ve got to go gently. It’s a dance. You’ve got to be really careful. I’m also mindful that people say “You should just shut them down and say ‘If you’re not going to answer the question, that’s it.’”
I imagine letting something play out can say a lot more than shutting someone down. Correct. If you ask the question three different ways and the person is still not going to answer, listeners can make up their own view. If people don’t like decisions that their politicians are making. Vote them out. Vote for someone else. You have a vote. It’s a very powerful thing. It was a clear example in Tony Abbott’s seat at Warringah. People were so disenchanted with what happened, they voted him out, and they voted for an independent.
Are there any interviewees that have stood out over the years? I like the surprising interviews, where sometimes an interview goes unexpectedly in a way, that you didn’t expect. And I had quite a few of those on the 7.30, where you’d sit down and do and interview for someone for inclusion in a package, and they showed more emotion than you expected. The former member for Reid, Craig Laundy, was one. I quizzed him about the stand that he’d taken. He was just a humble backbencher then, and he started crying during the interview. And then he said “You’ve made me cry.” I thought that said something about him. It was an issue that was important here, deeply, in his heart. They’re not just MPs. We all like kicking them. At the moment, it seems that it’s a rich environment, to say that they’re all a bunch of losers. Many of them do go in there with the right intentions. They want to make the country a better place. But sometimes they get lost along the way. They get lost in their own importance.
What does your morning look like? I’m up at 4.15am, and instantly I’ll check my phone to see if I need to get my head around any prerecorded interviews with our correspondents, so I can be thinking about that as I’m showering. I’ll quickly check The Australian, the FinancialReview, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, just to see what issues are running. I’ll be in the office before 5.00, then on air at 6.05. I’m not really free until 11.30. I’ll go home, have a break. I might catch up on some reading, New York Times or something like that. If parliament’s sitting I’ll listen to Question Time, just to see what issues they think are important. Then I’ll be talking with my executive producer round about 3.30pm,
to see what should we be planning for tomorrow? If there’s an interview to be prepared for, I will prepare for it tonight, rather than do it in the morning, because I don’t have time.
What’s your take on the Government’s handling of the current sexual assault allegations and the commentary around working culture in Parliament House, as someone who has worked there. I can’t talk about the Government’s handling of it, because I still report on it, but clearly the government is under a lot of pressure. The pressure is quite substantial on Linda Reynolds, because she’s been in hospital.
That says something. The pressure in the Gallery at times like now is intense. You’ve got to get it right. Culture is important. The standards that you set in environments are really important. Newsrooms are intense and some people can’t handle that kind of pressure. Sometimes people are quite quick in their judgment, and quick in their assessments, and some people might find that very confronting. Other people thrive in that kind of environment. I’m not missing the kind of pressure that they would all be subjected to at the moment!
Being in the environment, even if you’re not as connected to the story, I imagine it becomes a pressure cooker. Yeah, it is a huge pressure cooker. I’ve lived in that environment. I was part of the Gallery for 13 years. And there are stories that you think: ‘this is really important. Got to do it.’ Then you get out of Canberra, and then you see that those stories are not even a ripple.
What’s your view on the current state of journalism in Australia? Never before have journalists been asked to do so much. Newsrooms, when I started back in the 80s, were huge. Staff had the luxury of being able to do one story a day. Now, you’re filing live crosses into morning or afternoon news programs, as well as the 6.00 and 7.00 news, as well as filing material for online. They can do just about anything, and they’ve got to be right. You get instant feedback now. No filter. When I was on TV and at the Press Club, I hated people saying: ‘Oh, I really liked your outfit,’ and you’d say: ‘Well, what did you think about the speech?’ I would try and dress plainly, classically, so that people wouldn’t pick issues with that and would just listen to what was said.
How did the relocation to Tassie happen? I came here in 2017. I did the Overland Track. I just loved the wilderness out in the West Coast there, and when I got to Hobart, I just had a fabulous time here. It resonated with me. At the time, I said to my mum, when I returned to Canberra, that when I was done with Canberra I was pretty sure that this was where I was going to come. At the start of last year, I had re-partnered, and my partner had lived in Tassie for a long time. I had mentioned to friends that this was where I thought I wanted to be. COVID had just hit and one of them said: “Have you told management the way that you’re feeling?” So I asked hypothetically, “would you support that idea?” And there was this pause on the phone, and I thought ‘oh no, he’s going to say no.’ And he said: “wow, that would be fantastic.”
What do you love about Hobart, now that you live here? I love the mountain. If I get home and I don’t need to do anything until 2.00 or 3.00, I’ll have a quick sandwich and go for a walk. I love the feel of Hobart. It’s got history to it. It reminds me a little bit of western Norway, with the mountains and the sea. And the people are fantastic.
Do you get recognised here? A lot of people don’t know who I am but some people do. I’ve joined a little sketch group and a lot of them don’t know my work. But one of the first nights, a bloke walked
in. He looked at me and mouthed “I know you, but I’m not saying anything.”
You’re a keen bushwalker. Do you have a favourite place to explore? I love the mountain, but just anywhere in Tassie. It doesn’t matter where you go. My partner’s also been a very keen bushwalker, and he knows Tassie very well, so he’s just gradually taking me to places. We’ve been to south-west. There’s a lifetime worth of exploring to be done.
Had you been into anything artistic like that before? I got into that when I was in Canberra. I’d been married for quite some time, and that marriage broke up, and I really threw myself into work just to survive. After a couple of years of doing that, I was like: ‘I’m a really boring person. It’s just work, work, work. I need to find something else.’
And finally, what are the origins of your name? It’s very distinctive. Sabra means ‘Israeli-born Jew’, but I’m not. My parents read a story about Robert Frost, the American poet, at the time my mum was pregnant, about someone who was writing his biography. The biographer had discovered Frost’s long-lost childhood love, and her name was Sabra Peabody. He tracked her down, to find out more about Robert Frost as a child. They spent some time together, and he went his merry way. He caught up with her a couple of months later for another chat, and she said “since we last spoke, I went up into the attic, and I discovered all this stuff from my childhood, and there was this pencil case. In this secret compartment I found these old poems that Robert had written to me as a girl.” So she said, “you can have them.” The biographer realised how precious these poems were as the first poems of Robert Frost. He put them in the museum, in the safe, with a note not to be opened while Frost was still alive. Frost had reason to go to the safe and read them. He was so angry that his trust had been betrayed, he said to the biographer, “that’s it. The book’s off. No cooperation.” Some months went by, and then there was a rapprochement, and Frost said “I was so angry with you. You breached my trust.” And then he started crying, and he said “tell me all about her.” My parents just loved that story. That’s a goosebumps story. So they said if mum gave birth to a girl, that would be my name. My brothers have very ordinary names.
What are they? Brian and Gary.