“One embarrassing interview shouldn’t be the end of your career,” says Speers, who presents his first episode of Insiders on Sunday. “Like any profession, politics is not something you’re instantly perfect at but a craft that you learn. The politicians I respect are the ones who have a tough interview but are willing to come back on.”
Speers is sitting on the back deck of his new home in Melbourne, a city he last lived in while working as a traffic reporter for Triple M in the mid-1990s. His wife, Liz, their two daughters and all their possessions are yet to arrive from Canberra so we take a seat on a wooden step. “I loved my time at Sky,” he says. “But the opportunity to do a new style of journalism is what attracted me to the ABC.”
Sky’s chief news anchor, Kieran Gilbert, says politicians from all sides respect Speers for his extensive research and tough-but-fair interviews. “At his farewell party, both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader said they couldn’t guess who he votes for,” he says. (“You’ve set a standard for people in this place for people to aspire to,” Morrison told Speers during a toast.)
Gilbert adds: “David and I are the best of mates. We go to the pub on Sundays, we take family holidays together – but even I have no idea which way he votes.”
In recent years, Sky has filled its evening schedule with conservative commentators: a strategy some critics predicted would fail. Instead, its weekly audience has grown to more than 1 million viewers, and it’s often the top-rating non-sports channel on Foxtel. “There were plenty of views I disagreed with but that’s not the reason I left,” Speers says. “The beauty of it is that we could have these arguments and thrash out an issue on air.”
Better to challenge controversial claims than stifle them, he believes. “But it really depends on the individual because it’s not always an easy judgment to make … if we’re talking about unelected individuals that have expressed extreme views, you have to be very careful about giving them a platform.”
Politicians’ adherence to scripted messages, he says, is a growing problem: “Real people don’t talk to each other the way politicians talk to us with their constant self-promotion and denigration of their opponents. When people hear that, they just switch off.”
This isn’t helped by media outlets that give more attention to a party’s polling numbers than the impact of their policies on voters: “I’m not pretending that Insiders can fix the disengagement and disaffection with politics but I think [all media] can do more to make it relevant for those who shrug their shoulders and say politics isn’t for them.”
Already accustomed to working long hours at Sky, Speers knew the 2016 federal election would demand even more of his time. But on the same day then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull set a date for the poll, Speers’ two-year-old daughter was rushed by helicopter to the Randwick Children’s Hospital in Sydney. A croup infection left her struggling to breathe and when her kidneys failed, she spent almost two weeks on life support. Speers dropped everything to camp out by her bedside. “It was a terrible time and it certainly tested us but something like that makes you re-evaluate everything,” he says. “She’s 100 per cent now and we’re very grateful.”
The 45-year-old spent his childhood in Tamworth and teenage years in Sydney. Dinner-table debates with his parents – his mother held a senior role at the NSW Board of Studies and his father ran cattle-breeding operations – sparked his interest in journalism. A work experience placement led to a job at Geelong radio station K-Rock in the mid-1990s, followed by stints at Triple M, 2WS, 2GB and 2UE.
When Speers joined Sky in 2000, the station was frequently confused with the unaffiliated Sky racing channel; two decades later, its influence extends well beyond its viewership and Speers is one of Australia’s pre-eminent political reporters. He’ll contribute to major breaking news coverage on the ABC but his priority is Insiders, a rare example of a long-running program that’s been growing its audience.
“There’s a lot of noise and clutter in news so a well-produced weekly digest like Insiders works in that environment,” Speers says. “We’re experimenting with a few ideas like taking the show out of the [Melbourne studio] and into the regions on occasion to look at things like the drought. There won’t be any radical changes though because it’s such a successful format and I don’t want to wreck that.”
Insiders returns at 9am Sunday on the ABC.
David Speers on …
Police raids on journalists: “It’s a worrying development not just for media but our democracy. If it scares off whistleblowers who want to bring information to the public, it’s a tragedy for all of us.”
The scarcity of Indigenous commentators on Insiders: “Panellists are typically drawn from the Press Gallery and there’s a lack of diversity in the Gallery … but as part of the ABC charter we’re obligated to represent multicultural Australia and we want to address that. As much as we want Indigenous journalists to talk about Indigenous policy we also want their perspectives on all issues from China to the drought to education.”
John Howard: “He was one of the early adopters of Sky and that was important for us because when we interviewed the prime minister, it showed other politicians we were a serious outfit.”
Traffic reporting for Triple M: “I was in a two-seater Cessna plane and being a young man, I wasn’t willing to admit my stomach was churning the entire time. I only lasted a few months.”
Social media: “There are upsides but one downside is that prosecuting arguments for genuine reform is much harder when they can be torn apart in a matter of days, let alone hours.”
Michael Lallo is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.