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The calm before the storm

Even in her rare downtime, 7.30's host is abuzz in the lead-up to the election.

The suspicions are true: Leigh Sales, host of the ABC's flagship current affairs program 7.30, is blatantly biased. ''The Wire was nowhere near as good as The Sopranos,'' declares Sales, who anoints the late James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano as her favourite fictional character. ''The Sopranos was so fully realised. I've watched it all the way through three times.''

Box sets and just-recorded episodes that take in Borgen, The Newsroom and House of Cards are the 40-year-old journalist's preferred form of relaxation, although she doesn't have many viewing opportunities. In the middle of a concise federal election campaign, an interview with Sales on 7.30 is the largest serious exposure a politician can find.

''If you look at our metro and regional numbers it's regularly more than a million people, and that's bigger than any newspaper or radio station,'' Sales says of 7.30's ratings. ''It's high stakes, big risk or big reward.''

Speaking in July, after Kevin Rudd had replaced Julia Gillard as prime minister but before the announcement of the September 7 poll, Sales was excited about what lay ahead. Negotiations were under way with both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott about how many appearances they would make, all happening with the unspoken acknowledgment that a misstep with the diligent, incisive Sales can become a major story in itself.

The Brisbane-born Sales was also still buzzing from her extended performance on the evening of June 26, when she anchored a four-hour-long coverage of Rudd's challenge against Julia Gillard's leadership of the Labor party. It was an impressive performance by Sales that drew a large audience, and she was able to move the focus from breaking news to analysis and back again, with the arrival of ABC commentator Annabel Crabb leading to an unusually telling and philosophical examination of the tumultuous Gillard years.

''It was fun, but also stressful. I didn't sleep very well for three nights afterwards from the adrenalin; I was going over things in my head and I was so wound up,'' recalls Sales, who began her preparation at 4pm that fateful afternoon when the vote was announced. ''Annabel brought so much depth off the top of her head into it. She was so articulate and thoughtful.''


These sturdy achievements are definitely not where 7.30 appeared headed several years ago. In 2011, Sales' first year as the replacement for long-serving The 7.30 Report host Kerry O'Brien, the show's content was insignificant at times and the structure downright baffling. Viewers were leaving in droves, and Sales was aware of - and in some cases agreed with - the criticisms of the program.

Sales, whose contract is up at year's end, admits that when she took six months' maternity leave she didn't expect to return as the host of 7.30, but when she did, she found a new executive producer, triple Walkley Award-winning journalist Sally Neighbour, who has successfully rebuilt the program since February 2012.

''Sally really focused it and things improved from there,'' Sales says. ''She's an editorial leader, really sharp editorial mind and take-no-prisoners in her approach. The show needed something with a strong idea of what it could be to take it over. She's focused on what needed focusing on, which is to get the stories good. It can't just be about the interview, it has to be a more engaging program.''

When Sales watched back parts of the June 26 leadership changeover coverage, all she could think was that she was saying ''umm'' too much. Sales is not afraid to poke fun at herself but she knew what Julia Gillard was talking about when she said, having been deposed, that being Australia's first female prime minister ''did not explain everything'', nor did it ''explain nothing''.

Sales routinely receives misogynistic abuse via Twitter, reaching storm-like proportion in the days and hours following a particularly bruising or argumentative interview.

''No matter who I interview it's always full of, 'How dare you interrupt them', 'You're so rude', 'You're a nasty bitch','' Sales says matter-of-factly. ''I deliberately don't look at it after I come up for air, but a bit gets through the next day. If it's a high-profile interview there's days of abuse and vitriol.''

As a presenter, Sales misses writing (in 2007 she penned Detainee 002: The Case of David Hicks) and immersing herself in a story. She doesn't expect to see out her career without returning to reporting at some point, but it's apparent she more than likes her job, even if it sometimes leads to anxiety dreams such as the one where The Chaser's Chris Taylor insists Sales record an improvised comedic news bulletin for them.

''I'm scared to do things all the time in my career,'' Sales says, ''but I just know that I have to do it because I don't want to watch someone else do it.''

7.30 airs weeknights at 7.30pm on ABC1.