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Masterclass with a Master Journalist - Annabel Crabb

By Rose Cunningham

For as long as I can remember, my mornings have started with reading the newspaper, or reading the news on my phone as I wait for my bus to arrive when I’m in a pinch. I can recall hearing from my mum about an incredible journalist by the name of Annabel Crabb, and consequently, I became enamoured with her work.

She had a podcast that I listened to on the way to school, I knew she was a frequent guest on radio shows and even hosted the “Back in Time for…” series on ABC. I have written an article based on her Quarterly Essay titled “Men at work”, and quoted her in many of my speeches. Last year I was lucky enough to see her live at the Enmore theatre for Chat 10 Looks 3. I was inspired by her to write for TMW, and my goal is to one day write for The Sydney Morning Herald, or follow in her footsteps to become a political journalist for ABC.

Getting to learn from Annabel Crabb was incredible - from the slight panic, I felt trying to get Zoom to work (I’m interviewing my IDOL), to hanging onto every single word. This interview came down to my desire to learn from and understand Annabel Crabb, and I never thought that I would get an email from her letting me know that she wanted to talk.

I’ve been told never to meet my idol, but I was lucky enough to have the chance to interview Annabel Crabb for this issue of The Mary Word - and I am so glad I did. Annabel left me with wisdom, tips and an incredible experience.

I wanted to understand what took Crabb from a farm to interviewing politicians who influence the direction of our nation. I wondered what made her a curious voice who asks important questions and writes important articles which reveal significant trends in our society, speaking to both people in power and to the wider population who deserve to understand the important issues and where those in power stand on them.

Annabel Crabb is one of Australia's most well-known political journalists and media presenters, but when she was in high school, she had no idea that she would become one of Australia's most inspiring women. Primarily studying STEM subjects for the HSC to keep her career options open, she later did a Law Degree at university. Crabb had always been interested in feminist political literature, and while studying law, she realised that she was interested in the manner in which humans choose to organise themselves and regulate their behaviour. She ended up applying for a cadetship at a local paper, and from there began to write political articles.

When I asked about her favourite piece to write, told me that she loves “the variety of journalism” and is happy with a lot of the pieces that she has written, but she chose to tell me about a Quarterly Essay that she wrote about Malcolm Turnbull. She said that she enjoyed writing it because it took a long time to put it together and it was a lot of stressful work. She cited that an issue with modern journalism is the sheer lack of time that is often given to writers for a turnaround, especially to write a long piece. She explained to me that ‘the luxury of having an ungodly amount of time to absorb yourself in writing, something that can get to 25,000 words is very fulfilling”.

Annabel loves to interview “unusual people, and you can find a lot of them in politics”. Crabb has noticed a worrying trend, particularly on news and social media of people/organisations showcasing opinions and people with whom they agree. Crabb maintains a strong belief in the importance of not only reading or interviewing people whom you know that you agree with, but just as importantly, engaging with those whose opinions are contrary to your own as a way of testing them out. She states that “it is almost more important to read and interact with and listen to people with whom you disagree, just to make sure that you're making the right choices in your beliefs in the world”. She tells me that she is naturally an uncertain person, which is part of why instead of a politician, she is a journalist, as she almost never has views that are concrete, and which can't be challenged or even tipped slightly if a good argument against that belief is presented. As young people in the formative stage of our lives, this idea seems particularly poignant, especially if we are to grow “in time to do much”.

I decided to enquire about the challenges that she faced, expecting an answer about male co-workers being rude or struggling to break a glass ceiling. However, I got an answer that showed me part of how the climate for journalists, females in particular, has changed in the last 10-15 years.

When she started journalism, all of the editors of her newspapers were men, along with a majority of all politicians and political figures. Annabel grew up on a farm, in an environment that had always had a lot of men, so she tells me that she didn't feel particularly intimidated. However, something that she did notice was that topics that were seen as inappropriate for reporting on in a political sense, have now become topics that are considered acceptable to report on. Annabel explains that allegations of misconduct are now a thing which is acceptable to write about, especially misconduct towards women, yet it would have been almost taboo when I was born. When she started in journalism, Crabb was taught not to report on the private aspects of someone's life unless it is considered corrupt or illegal. Having seen what happens when this rule isn't observed, Annabel told me that she started to shy away from it. Despite this, she has come to question “how much this practice has protected the men who engage in misconduct in parliament”. She ponders the ethics, because it is a really tricky case, and it is almost impossible to report on political matters in a manner that is both ethical and non-intrusive. She tells me that she is asking herself “what am I helping to cover up” and feels she hasn’t quite answered it for herself. Despite all of this, she holds the belief that the culture of the parliament house and the experiences of young women in political environments are “much more the topic of legitimate debate today” as a result of the senior female journalists because it was 10-15 years ago.

When asked about the challenges women currently face, Annabel stops for a second, pauses and then begins telling me about the pay gap, and the massive superannuation gap that faces women as they retire, along with the heavy difference in the amount of domestic work that occurs. She does, however, mention and remind me of the fact that men often have no chance to ask for flexible working hours or even parental leave. The main contributor to all of this is ignorance, she says, and that some of the reasons behind this is that a large number of workplaces were designed to be suitable for certain people. Annabel states that in the 21st century, our image of a politician is of a white male, with a home, wife and kids, so this influences who we end up electing. Continuing her point, she tells me “It doesn't mean that those individuals are all terrible. It just means that we kind of missed out on a lot of other people who might have made good representatives because we had a very clear view of what an MP should look like”. Due to the rapid change in views, our Senate is about 57% female and that the great advancements in diversity are allowing us to have much more open discussion, along with the fact that research proves that diversity of all kinds creates a far better “business” outcome, thus applying to national politics as much as any other organisation. I found it interesting that despite our focus on the challenges of women in journalism and politics, Annabel took a moment to consider the other side of the coin, showing me her consideration of the different arguments that occur, and her search for what is right when she writes.

Ever the eager writer, I decided that if anyone has tips for The Mary Word, it would have to be the legendary journalist Annabel Crabb. So with about 2 minutes of our interview time to go, I decided to pick her brains on the topic.

Here are her words of wisdom:

  1. The first day, first issue or even first major article can normally be the scariest because we have to learn and write information in a new way. When we write articles, we learn to become “a quasi expert” on a topic. We have to be able to understand large amounts of information fast, and to a great level of detail that is perhaps more than many people would understand. Then we automatically start writing, however, we tend to lose sight of the fact that we are now an “expert” in a topic, and assume that everyone else knows what we know. What we really need to do is to step back, and work out how to translate all that we know, into a format that can be easily understood by your audience. She told me that it is a really tricky thing to do when you start out, but that we can learn it.

  1. Learn and grow. Annabel said that writing is something that needs practice. She compared it to getting in a car when you first get your L’s. “In the same way that you get good at driving a car - the first time you get behind the wheel, you think you're gonna smash into anything on the street? And sometimes you do.” She explained to me the sense of “dizzying fear” that you get when you start writing because there is the idea that we need to be perfect, but we get better at it every time we write. She also includes learning how to write quickly, and knowing what parts of an article “belong on the cutting room floor”. We need to learn to write basic articles before we can do anything else.

  1. “Cherish your curiosity- it is the only thing that you can’t fake”. Crabb tells me that curiosity and a need to learn are what drive journalism. Either we want to know something or our community wants to know something, and if we have no drive to find information, we can't learn for ourselves, and our audiences can’t learn about what they want to. She tells me that “part of what makes a great journalist is an almost FOMO, where you want to know about something more and more urgently”. She said that “the more people try and stop you from learning about something, that is your key to a kingdom”

To be honest, I was momentarily thrown when I first spoke to Crabb, due to her kind voice and enthusiasm to talk to me. I managed to regain my composure and I threw out a “Well hello there” from her podcast Chat 10 Looks 3, which was reciprocated by a genuinely chuffed chuckle of recognition. During our conversation, Annabel seemed to be the embodiment of verity. A generous interviewee, it was clear to me from the way that Crabb was giving me her full attention throughout the entire interview that she is someone who really cares not only about her work but also genuinely cares about the future of journalism, has thought deeply about it and is doing her part to encourage the younger generation.

Work hard, use your voice and stay curious. When we employ these 3 qualities we can make a difference, just as Annabel Crabb has. We can promote understanding, empathy and change - surely goals worth aspiring to whether we are budding journalists or have some other future in mind because we are the future.

Photo Credits to Stephen Blake Photographic


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