Steely calm, well-mannered, forensic interviewing: Sarah Ferguson. Photo: Steven Siewert
“That’s my tomato!” cries Sarah Ferguson, journalist and Caprese salad enthusiast, as the waiter tries to clear plates in preparation for the next course.
“I didn’t think it was a special tomato,” the waiter replies.
“It’s special to me. And so is this basil,” she says sweetly, and dispatches both.
At lunch with Sarah Ferguson, no tomato gets left behind.
We are at Fratelli Paradiso in Potts Point, and the menu is short and very Italian. So Italian that no translations are provided. Some items (lasagnetta, calamari) are comprehensible even to ignorami like me. Others (maltagliati, battuta), are less so.
With help from a patient waiter, we order calamari, Caprese, veal, a rocket salad, and a glass of wine each.
Ferguson, it is immediately clear, is an enthusiastic inhaler of experience. Her appetite ranges from cherry tomatoes clothed in fresh basil, to opportunities of a grander scale – including, most recently, the chance to fill in on 7.30 as the maternity leave replacement for host Leigh Sales.
“I don’t think I’ve ever turned down anything new, different and difficult,” Ferguson says of her temporary move from Four Corners to 7.30.
“It’s like if someone offers me a plane ticket, I can’t say no.”
Despite being an experienced reporter and multiple Walkley-award winner, Ferguson did not have any background in live studio interviewing, and says she was “rubbish” in the dummy interviews she did to prepare for the gig.
The 48-year-old places a great premium on preparation, and so when she went on holiday to the Italian Alps just before commencing the 7.30 role, she took with her a selection of manila folders of briefing notes on important topics.
One was marked “Car industry”.
“I picked it up. I looked at it and I thought, ‘You really should take this folder’, and then I thought, ‘No, seriously, you’re not going to read about the Australian car industry on holiday’.”
Ferguson’s first day on the job was the day Toyota announced the end of its Australian operations.
“I am sitting in the makeup chair dressed up like a character in The Mikado, with my purple cape, and in the makeup mirror, I can see the TV mounted on the wall behind, so I am reading it backwards,” she recounts.
“It says: ‘Breaking news alert. Toyota to close.’
“I said: ‘No! Not cars! Not cars!”
But cars it was. Ferguson believes you should always force yourself to do things that make you uncomfortable. She was uncomfortable that week, not that it showed. Her steely calm and her well-mannered, forensic interviewing have since garnered her great praise.
In her short time in the 7.30 chair, Ferguson has politely filleted Treasurer Joe Hockey (it was under her care, in a post-budget interview, that he admitted a tax was indeed a tax) and schooled Education Minister Christopher Pyne on “the rules” of her interviews, which forbid the senseless repetition of spin-doctor-authored lines.
Her other hits include bringing to public attention how little Palmer United Party senator Dio Wang knows about the provenance of his own campaign funds.
Ferguson says she is not intimidated by her high-profile interviewees, but she doesn’t under-estimate them either.
“There is a moment for a robust push-back interview, but then you also need to use the enough rope technique, the endlessly patient technique…you need to decide which of those fits,” she says.
And while some have criticised her for interrupting her subjects too often, Ferguson believes interruptions are justified when they serve the viewer.
“I have no problem with cutting people off when they’re wilfully not answering or avoiding or trying to deliver a pre-prepared answer, because that isn’t genuine discourse by any calculation” she says.
“The key is working out how frequently you can interrupt and I am sure there are moments I have gotten that calculation wrong. You have to learn about timing. I’ve also let people go on when they should have been interrupted.”
Ferguson is passionately in love with her medium, and gets visibly excited about the goose-bump-inducing moments television story-telling throws up.
She offers as an example the vignette of a young indigenous girl she filmed for a report on the low school attendance rates among Tiwi Islanders.
“There was this girl, surrounded by real family drama and chaos, very late at night on a school night, with 20 or 30 people roaming around the house. The family had just suffered a massive trauma and there she was sitting by the embers of a fire writing a story with the stub of a pencil,” Ferguson recounts.
“And she looked up and just said, ‘I love writing and I love reading’.
“The ideological battle over how to get kids to school falls away and you know this is what it’s about, this potential for this young girl. It was an absolutely spontaneous and authentic moment. That’s why it was so powerful.”
Ferguson was born in Lagos, Nigeria, to British parents. She was the youngest of three, and the family returned to Britain as the Biafran war broke out.
“It was the first major conflict that I noticed. [As a child] the plight of starving Biafrans was the reference for eating properly and behaving properly,” she says.
Ferguson studied English literature at University of London, King’s College, and upon graduating, took a job writing arts reviews for The Independent newspaper. But at the age of 23, she pushed the eject button on her life and moved, penniless, to Paris.
“I could see how my life was mapped out,” she says.
“I would live in one of three suburbs in London. I would have a claw-foot bath, holidays in Italy, a scrubbed wooden table in the kitchen. I would cook Italian food out of Sunday newspaper supplements and I would have a lot of orange Penguins in the shelves.
“It would be a perfectly reasonable, interesting existence, but terrifying, because it seemed so predictable.”
In Paris she found a small flat and bit-work as a television researcher and production assistant in the film industry. After a few years she was hired to do a spot of research and translation by the ABC correspondent Tony Jones, then based in London. They spoke on the phone for about a week before meeting, and Ferguson’s impressions of Jones were unfavourable.
“He behaved too much like a journalist. He was exacting.”
But when Jones emerged in the arrivals hall at Charles de Gaulle airport, something very strange happened, simultaneously, to them both. Jones once described it as being ‘‘sort of a blow across the back of the head”.
“To me, it was like, ‘Here you are. Here you are. I’ve been waiting for you’,” says Ferguson.
The pair worked together on the story (Ferguson can’t recall what it was, she thinks it was something to do with the European Union), and she vividly remembers being in a taxi as it crossed the Place de la Concorde, moodily staring at her reflection in the window and thinking “something very big is up”.
By week’s end, it was “all over bar the shouting”. Most of the shouting was done by Ferguson’s French boyfriend, who locked her out in a fit of Gallic pique. She didn’t mind that, but she did mind losing access to her contact book. She had to beg her jilted Frenchman to give it back to her.
The minute she catches herself talking about Jones, Ferguson stops herself because, she says, “couples are annoying”.
Besides, she is not anyone’s wife. I promise her I will include the bare details: the pair married in 1993, and together they have three boys – Felix, 22, from a previous partner of Tony’s, Cosmo, 18 and Lucien, 15.
When Ferguson came with Jones to Australia she had no contacts here and she was neck-deep in mothering her second boy when she realised she “really wanted” to get back to work. It was a compulsion.
“I’ve taught myself to accept who I was at that time, which is someone who wanted to work, and to stop feeling guilty about it.
“So I tell mothers at the same stage, ‘Take the time if you can, but don’t beat yourself up about wanting to work.’”
She says these days her sons tease her about her obsessions with “very un-motherly subjects – war, terrorism, militias. All the stuff I like”.
Ferguson felt nervous coming into the 7.30 job, but never inadequate or insecure. Refreshingly for a successful woman, she doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome.
“I’m reasonably confident and quite prepared to look like a fool, so there is less to be afraid of and that makes you brave and prepared to take risks,” she says, and then frets that admitting a lack of self-doubt will make her sound like a prat.
Ferguson doesn’t know where she will go next, but it will certainly be somewhere. She is the “family travel agent” she says, organising the clan’s holidays, only to get restless when on them, and suggest side trips to nearby destinations which she thinks might be fun.
Like Georgia, or Azerbaijan.
“And everyone else goes, ‘Can we just stay still?’.”