Hugh Jackman’s appearance on 7:30 highlights the problems of starry-eyed cultural journalism

The ABC’s 7:30 program is a reliable source of quality journalism, offering dignified current affairs investigations at a time in the evening when other networks race to the bottom – zooming in on tasty dishes in My Kitchen Rules and lifeguards pounding the sand in Bondi Rescue.

Last week 7:30 investigated franking credits, the aftermath of the floods in Queensland and a high school for students with autism. This week’s stories include an excellent 30-minute episode on the conviction of Cardinal George Pell.

But on Wednesday night, in its final minutes, the ABC’s flagship current affairs program did what current affairs programs so often do with stories involving celebrities, and turned to mush. Celebrities have a strange effect on people, reducing even sharp and shrewd minds to the state of weak-kneed adolescents.

Appearing on the program to spruik his world tour, which arrives on our shores later this year, Hugh Jackman responded to a range of questions reminiscent of a Dorothy Dixer once asked of Mr Burns in an old episode of The Simpsons: “Your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?”

As I tweeted that night, I find it astonishing that a show like 7:30 can be so diligent in covering politics and so starry-eyed in covering culture. The program plugged the film and soundtrack of Jackman’s monstrously successful musical The Greatest Showman, splicing in footage of the acclaimed song-and-dance man performing as notorious shyster PT Barnum, whose life inspired the production.

Why was there no question for Jackman about the history rewriting of this repugnant film, which indulges in lies that will be remembered, cherished and interpreted as truth long into the future?

Barnum built a career off the back of exploiting the suffering of people he presented to the public as ‘freaks’ – a far cry from the champion of diversity Jackman plays in the movie.

As The Guardian’s Steve Rose wrote in December 2017, Barnum “exhibited African-Americans with birth defects, affirming their racial ‘inferiority’.” One of the scammer’s earliest “hits” was Joice Heth, “a blind, partially paralysed slave” whom Barnum claimed was 161 years old. When Heth died, “Barnum held a public autopsy and charged spectators to watch.”

That moment didn’t make it into the director Michael Gracey’s toe-tappin’, feel-good musical. Funny that. An obscene exercise in historical revisionism, the film tells us that these empowered (and not at all exploited) people should be grateful for the beautiful Barnum’s charity and ‘make no apology’ for their lives and appearances.

One person responded to my tweet by writing: “I had a grown adult telling me what an inspiration Barnum is to him since he saw the film. ‘He saw the best in everyone, regardless of their physical appearance.’”

The idea that the average viewer consults the history books after watching a film about a historical figure is, of course, fanciful. Filmmakers dealing with true stories bear some responsibility – not to get all the details right (which is impossible) but to think about, at the very least, what impact the content they produce will have on how narratives are formed and remembered.

Instead of questioning Jackman about anything along those lines, 7:30 host Leigh Sales began: “For a show like this, how do you choose what song to open with?” The remainder of the interview followed suit, delving into subjects such as how the superstar feels about life in his 50s (spoiler alert: he feels better about life than ever).

7:30 often uses cultural coverage as a fluffy bit to bung on the end of the program, complementing the hard-hitting stuff. Sales meets her idol Sir Paul McCartney, for example, and has the greatest day of her life. Occasionally there are cultural stories of substance, such as Sales’ excellent interview with Yael Stone last December.

There’s nothing wrong with balancing light and dark elements, and not all parts of the show need to be hard-hitting. But journalism is about critiquing power structures. Why does that scrutiny so often not extend to the big entertainment companies, who in some ways have more power than governments? Politicians would kill for the influence that Hollywood producers have over children’s dreams.

People may shrug their shoulders and say, “The Greatest Showman is just a movie,” as if the status of entertainment affords content creators carte blanche to say and do anything. Maybe you think the talented (and hugely influential) Jackman has done nothing wrong: just an actor hired to play a part.

Perhaps that is true. Or perhaps we are living in a new era when performers like him must, finally, take some ownership of the content they help produce. Not just for our sake, but also for their legacy. Remember Mickey Rooney’s grotesquely racist performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Of course you do. Remember the name of the bloke who directed it? Probably not.

Either way, on a current affairs program, these matters are least deserving of a question.

14 responses to “Hugh Jackman’s appearance on 7:30 highlights the problems of starry-eyed cultural journalism

  1. Agree with Michael James, especially “how I miss those Lateline/Tony Jones amazing interviews with the likes of world figures and intellos such as Christopher Hitchens or old-school correspondents like Fisk in Beirut etc.”

    7.30 is a travesty of what it once was with Kerry O’Brien (or Jane Singleton), who really knew how to call politicians to account and interview them in depth.

    Leigh Sales is like an apprentice journalist. All she seems to do is read from a list of questions, occasionally half-heartedly admonishing them for not addressing the issue. Her interviews with Turnbull and Morrison are embarrassing. No wonder she got another 3 years: she’s the perfect “journalist” for a fearful, subservient ABC under this current bullying government.

    Didn’t see the movie. Not a fan of musicals or Hugh Jackman particularly.

  2. Agreed. Leigh is a treasure. This is petty smiping over nothing. Luke B musta been hard-up for copy last week

  3. It’s correct that Leigh Sales has never been good with culture based interviews. She only asks about fame and career rather than the work itself. But c’mon Luke, your angry take on The Greatest Showman is just nonsense. You probably don’t know that The Favourite was far from historically accurate in its depiction of Queen Anne and her court. Who cares, it was a fine film. But where’s your consistency … you can’t just boil up about historical inaccuracy in one movie but fail to apply the same yardstick to all the others.

  4. Luke buckmaster makes a fair point about the starry-eyed & uncritical nature of this interview, and the Macartney one. After watching Sales and Jackman looking mutually thrilled at meeting each other, and hearing myself say “how lovely is Hugh Jackman, eh, what a nice chap!” I thought Ye gods I’m back at age 16, idolising some film star or singer…how embarrassing. I felt uncomfortably complicit in Leigh Sales’ gratification of a private fantasy, even if Jackman really IS a lovely open guy. But I don’t agree about the film. A musical is a musical, nobody should expect historical accuracy, and you can make a case that Barnum’s attitudes were those of his time so they’re now out there to be critiqued. My Fair Lady can be interrogated as a historical/cultural travesty, as its progenitor Pygmalion can be too, even tho Shaw was an Edwardian. Don’t lay a guilt trip on a producer or a star for not engaging in cultural self criticism. ‘The Producers’ to me is tasteless but it has a place as a musical about a bad, ideologically unsound musical, mocking American tastes and ideas. Leave them alone, I say. If Sales had taken the line you suggest, it would have been dull as well as cloying.

  5. While I don’t agree that 7:30 Report is quite the program Luke thinks it is, I think his point is very well made. People who are only interested in “entertainment” might wonder why they read the Daily Review? What makes “entertainment”entertaining? I used to like action movies as a kid, but now I find them boring. There’s nothing in them that provokes anything in me emotionally or intellectually …

    1. I agree. His introductory sentence doesn’t make the week’s reports seem half bad, but my impression overall was scathing, to the point that I wanted to switch over and did at several points. Even the quality of reports on significant issues is declining, and seems increasingly perfunctory. I reckon it is due to two main things.

      One is that Michelle Guthrie’s desire for more “human interest” stories, amid her confession she herself doesn’t watch current affairs or investigative reporting like 7.30 or Lateline (this being killed off on her watch). In other words Guthrie wants to turn 7.30 into those unwatchable pseudo-current affairs shows on the commercial stations, and she has almost succeeded–except in this case, success will be failure. It will neither gather the audience that watches those commercial stations (who get plenty of it already and are locked into the trash scheduled before and after those shows) but will lose the people who want real investigative reporting on real issues. And I don’t mean the increasingly superficial stuff on all the social issues, in which they now often just go to “testimonials” of some weepy victim etc. That route never leads to enlightenment but to a very dubious and unfulfilling voyeurism. I can’t stand it.

      Second, Sales has fallen victim to the same trend. She seems to put herself into a competition with the airheads on commercial stations (and ok, to be fair they may or may not be airheads but that’s their role and they are paying for their supper/big salaries). The ABC have fallen into the horrible business of trying to sell Sales as a celebrity “reporter”. This is horrible beyond description, not just because that is not what viewers of this type of show (ie. 7.30, Lateline, Foreign Correspondent, the old Catalyst, even dare I say it, Q&A) want, and because she is no good at it. I cannot remember a celebrity interview by Sales that I didn’t cringe at, including Hugh Jackman, McCartney (who do hundreds of these meaningless 10 minute slots a year) or that trip to New York to do ex-FBI chief James Comey (who of course was doing exactly the same thing: he had a new book to sell). (Oh, how I miss those Lateline/Tony Jones amazing interviews with the likes of world figures and intellos such as Christopher Hitchens or old-school correspondents like Fisk in Beirut etc.) (and Jones’ moderation of Pell-v-Dawkins in which Pell revealed his obstinance, arrogance and punctured the myth of his high intelligence).

      When I heard that leigh Sales has renewed her ABC contract for another 3 years, my spirit sank. I don’t wish her anything bad but the coming three years will either see a recovery by the ABC or further sinking into irrelevance. Her presence only aids the latter. Besides which she could command a 7-figure salary at the commercial networks and that seems like what her persona is yearning for.

      FWIW, there are plenty of current ABC talent to handle the likes of 7.30. Indeed possibly Laura Tingle is being groomed for that role. While many who fill-in for Sales in her many absences (Ellen Fanning, John Barron, Emma Alberici, even PVO!) do better than she does. Also I don’t believe they should have one single anchor which is blindly following the American “celebrity anchor” nonsense. A different one for every night of the week would be fine.

  6. Hear hear! I am always amazed when good journalists whose modus operandi with politicians is hard-hitting seem to fall into a simpering coma when faced with showbiz stardom. It is perfectly appropriate to ask tough questions of entertainers, including discussion of the whitewashing of characters such as Barnum in theatre or film narratives, questions of the representation of race in contemporary film/ theatre, or analysing the prevailing patriarchal culture in the entertainment business – one that condones the harassment of younger, less powerful women and men; these are crucial contemporary issues in our culture, and people like Jackman are powerful players in their profession and ought to be as accountable as any other powerful, well paid members of a very public profession. Would Sales go lightly on members of the racing profession, sportspeople, or religious figures? No, and neither should she.

  7. “dignified current affairs investigations” – seriously? The 7:30 Report has a breath taking bias and a presenter who is rude & arrogant. I stopped watching it over a decade ago.

    1. It’s a good and necessary bias. It’s called non-Murdoch.
      There’s no such thing as a decent current affairs show without bias anyway. Simply by asking difficult probing questions which challenge a status quo, you’re gonna be biased. Every position taken on any issue is underpinned by values. Ergo, bias. There’s mo such thing as complete neutrality.
      Journos are MEANT to upset the apple cart.

  8. I believe films are made firstly for entertainment value Luke, I have seen this movie and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m also going to see Hugh in his show in August. I am also totally aware that some liberties were taken from the details of history surrounding PT Barnum purely for the film making purpose. If your only going to the cinema to see historically correct versions then I suggest you won’t be seeing many films.

  9. This review is unfair and demeans Leigh Sales and the ABC.

    Why should Leigh dredge up all the negativity that surrounded Barnum’s career. She was interviewing Jackman on his upcoming Australian tour. I am sure that except for you most viewers didn’t want a hard hitting expose of a flawed character. They wanted to glimpse an insight into Mr Jackman’s history and career.

    Keith Hurst

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