When Sabra Lane was a teenager, a doctor told her she wouldn’t be able to have children.
She was diagnosed with a hormonal condition called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), which is a leading cause of infertility in women.
Thirty-five years ago, it was poorly understood and the doctor’s grim prognosis was wrong — many women with PCOS do manage to have children with the help of fertility treatment.
But Lane didn’t learn that until much later, too late in fact, and the diagnosis had a profound effect on the way her life panned out.
“I was pretty devastated at the time,” recalls Lane, now aged 52.
“I think PCOS, has to a degree, shaped who I am — I’m pretty determined and cope well with pressure.”
Her experience would later lead Lane to fight for better awareness, diagnosis and treatment for women with PCOS and infertility — grief, she says, “you never really get over” (more on that later) — but her determination and ability to handle pressure has led her to become a highly respected journalist.
She’s been at the forefront of the ABC’s federal political coverage for the past 13 years and since 2017, has hosted the long-running morning current affairs radio program, AM — a program she first started listening to as a journalism student in the late 80s and hoped she would work on one day.
“It is a tremendous honour,” says Lane.
“I have always had a strong pull to radio and I love the program because I think it gives people a neat snapshot of major issues that are running in the day and I am well aware of how privileged I am to have this position.
Lane was also the president of the National Press Club — only the second woman to steer the organisation in its 50-year history and the first to be given life membership after stepping down at the end of last year.
“Sabra is one of the best,” says Misha Schubert, a longstanding senior journalist, speechwriter and communications director who’s been a vice-president of the Press Club for more than a decade and worked alongside Lane at the club and in the press gallery.
“She’s one of the kindest and most thoughtful humans there is.
“A superb reader of people, and someone who makes enormous contributions to the wider community.
“Her elegant kitten heels are big shoes to fill.”
Schubert believes what sets Lane apart as a journalist is how methodical she is with preparation and research.
“If Sabra interviews someone for AM or for a National Press Club broadcast, you can bet she’s read widely on that topic and has thought hard about how to frame questions that might actually get answers that illuminate rather than deflect,” she says.
“It’s an incredible skill and it involves a lot of work outside the studio.
“If you look at her National Press Club events in an ‘in conversation with’ format, the rigour and skill shines through.
“She was superbly on top of her brief, masterly in her handling of the event and demonstrated such skill.
“She knew when to press each leader further, when to let a point of debate play out and was impeccable in her even-handedness.
“It was a career-defining moment.”
Covering federal politics from outside Canberra
Lane has been “living and breathing” federal politics since arriving in Canberra in 2008.
She started as a reporter for ABC Radio Current Affairs (AM, The World Today, PM) before becoming the chief radio current affairs correspondent and moving to TV as 7.30’s political correspondent and then back to radio, hosting AM.
But last Christmas, Lane left the so-called ‘Canberra bubble’ and relocated to Hobart, from where she continues to host AM.
“It’s fantastic, meeting my expectations and beating them,” she says.
“It’s interesting because you get to hear views that are not Canberra views about big policies and ideas.
“So, you’re getting that input directly from people who are removed from Canberra about what they think is important and often what politicians think are important and what people out in other parts of Australia think are important are completely different things.
“I think the ‘Canberra bubble’ has become a term that politicians use when they just don’t want to answer a hard question.
“Sometimes politicians, their minders and the gallery are really interested in that inside beltway-type stuff but for a lot of stories it’s about ‘how does this affect the daily lives of normal people?’
“Generally, I think we are well-served [in political reporting] but sometimes that perspective is lost, not only with politicians but the gallery too.”
COVID-19 has forced many of us to reassess our lives and inspired many a tree or sea change but Sabra Lane had been pondering a ‘Tassie change’ for a couple of years, the pandemic just sealed it.
She’s had a strong affinity for smaller communities since growing up in the Victorian border town of Mildura, is a keen bushwalker and fell in love with Tasmania in 2017 after hiking the Overland Track.
It also reminded her of Norway, a place close to her heart, where she lived for a year as an exchange student in her teens.
Lane’s partner, Simon, had previously lived in Hobart for 20 years.
When she asked if he’d be happy to head back south it was a resounding yes — and also from the ABC, which is keen to decentralise its operations.
At the same time, PM presenter Linda Mottram relocated to the South Coast of NSW.
“Management has talked about relocating key roles out of the traditional broadcasting hubs of Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne and I think this shows they’re fair dinkum about it, that the corporation is absolutely serious about achieving its goal of being more relevant to more Australians,” says Lane.
‘I’m not into gotcha moments’
Political reporting is not for the faint-hearted.
It’s high pressure and the relationship between journalists and politicians can often be combative.
As an interviewer, Lane says she isn’t interested in simply snaring a politician in a verbal trap for the sake of a headline, rather she’s focussed on getting to the truth, which can be difficult when a politician is preoccupied with trying to stay ‘on message’ or worried about saying something that might come back to haunt them.
“I hate gotcha moments, I’m not into gotcha moments,” she says.
“But interviewing can be hard.
“I was accused of going for a gotcha moment last year with the Prime Minister.
“He’d just announced that he wanted unions and businesses to put down their weapons and sit down to try and talk about changes they could get on industrial relations policy.
“I had a question in mind about something that’s still running now, months later, the so-called Better Off Overall Test, which had been included in legislation to try to get unions on board and I simply wanted to get an answer about whether the government was still committed to that policy.
“I’d asked the question a number of times and I did want a yes or no answer to that question.
“The Prime Minister said, ‘We can’t have those old debates anymore’ and an observer said I was pursuing gotcha journalism.
“But I was genuinely just trying to understand where he was coming from.
“Perhaps he could have said, ‘Look, we’re not prepared to give a yes or no answer on that yet’ or ‘there is no yes or no’.
“Maybe it happens because we journalists are impatient for answers but sometimes politics isn’t black and white, it’s grey and we need to give politicians the opportunity to give us that nuance.”
When asked to nominate her memorable interviews, Lane mentions two you mightn’t necessarily expect, which revealed more about the person than politics.
“I did an interview when I was at 7.30 with former federal MP Barry Cohen, which initially was a pick-up interview for someone else’s story on Alzheimer’s,” recalls Lane.
“He was well aware his own faculties were going and he was really distressed, particularly about his wife and conscious of the burden that was being put on her.
“He kept breaking down and crying in the interview and I was just trying to reassure him that everything was alright.
“It was really powerful interview, so powerful that Sally Neighbour who was the executive producer at 7.30 at the time decided that should air as an interview in its own right because he was incredibly gracious and honest in giving people an insight into the insidious, horrible nature of dementia.
“Another interview that stands out for me was with Liberal MP Craig Laundy, who, also, started crying during the interview.
“He had been trying to agitate from within to change the Coalition’s policy to allow more refugees into Australia, which he ended up achieving, but just seeing the pressure of it on him, the fact that he was so moved by the issue and that he trusted me to speak about was also powerful.
“And I think both those interviews highlight that sometimes you’ve got to just let people say their piece, give them time and not interrupt them.
“I think if you let an interview breathe, sometimes you find that you get the best answers out of people.”
The enduring grief of not being able to have a child
While Lane has always preferred radio as a medium, she actually got her start in television at Channel 10 in Adelaide.
As a student, she spent Friday and Saturday nights listening to police scanners and weighing up whether it was a big enough drama to drag a camera crew out of bed.
“Police and fire brigades talked in codes, so, if I remember correctly, a murder was a 303 and you had to learn what was what and then ring or page a cameraman to head to the scene and I had to quickly discover good news judgment because if they got to a job that wasn’t newsworthy, they’d certainly let you know about it,” she says.
Ten then hired her as an assistant chief-of-staff, she moved to the ABC in Adelaide as an on-air reporter and then to Sydney to be chief-of-staff of the ABC’s TV newsroom.
In 1997, Lane joined Channel Seven as a producer, later working on the Sydney Olympics coverage and as executive producer of Sunday Sunrise.
She finally got a shot at radio in 2006, landing a low-level job at ABC radio current affairs after studying an audio engineering course at night school and then set her sights on Canberra.
But before she got there, she tried to start a family.
At the age of 35, she underwent fertility treatment but was unsuccessful.
“It was gut-wrenching at the time,” she recalls.
“I had to absent myself from family and friends’ gatherings where I knew that there would be young children because I just couldn’t cope with it.
While she doesn’t blame the doctor who told her as a teenager she wouldn’t be able to have children — there wasn’t much known about PCOS at the time, she says — had she been given better information earlier, maybe things might have turned out differently and her experience moved Lane to champion the cause of women with the condition.
In 2004, she joined the committee of a fledgling support group, the Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Association of Australia (POSAA) and ended up becoming president, sharing her story in a bid to raise awareness in the community and, particularly, amongst the medical profession and lobbying for national guidelines to improve diagnosis and treatment.
“I felt a need to discuss PCOS publicly because it encompasses so many social taboos, infertile women, women who are morbidly obese or overweight,” says Lane.
“At the time, so many GPs were not diagnosing it in a timely manner, or they were blinkered in their treatment or they were treating women for fertility issues but totally blind to the dangers around insulin resistance and diabetes or the other way around.
“Three out of four women with PCOS do go on to have children, some with medical intervention, others just by making changes to their lifestyle and losing weight, but you’ve really got to get on with it early.”
Gab Kovacs is a pioneer in fertility treatment and a PCOS expert who has known Lane for about 20 years.
He invited her to write a chapter from the patient’s perspective in his book, The Polycystic Ovary (3rd edition), to be released later this year and says her hard work in publicising the syndrome played a significant role in the federal Health Department funding an initiative led by doctors, Helena Teede and Rob Norman, to achieve international guidelines on the assessment and management of PCOS.
“I think she’s done a really good job, PCOS now has such a high profile,” says Professor Kovacs.
“The [international guidelines] is a landmark document and has been published in numerous journals.
“You could say the reason the Health Department was willing to fund this was because of public awareness and Sabra had a big part in getting that awareness going, so she was the foundation to that grant and these international guidelines.
Schubert says Lane deserves similar credit for her voluntary work leading the National Press Club, particularly in promoting women.
“Sabra’s presidency was a game changer,” says Schubert.
“She truly transformed the organisation in her time at the helm.
“She built on the huge strides the club has made over the past decade towards more equal representation of women on the board.
“And she actively curated lists of far more diverse speakers — spending hours and hours of her time each week coaxing a much broader range of impressive figures into standing at that awe-inspiring podium and delivering powerful speeches.”
When Lane first took over hosting AM in Canberra, with its horrendous 4:00am starts, she was “burning the candle at both ends”, working crazy hours and not getting enough sleep.
Then she had a major heart scare, her heart was racing at 230 beats per minute and she was diagnosed with super ventricular tachycardia.
There was no lasting damage but it forced her to reassess the work/life balance that is a constant challenge for many of us.
Now, in her new Hobart home, Lane thinks she’s got that balance just about right.
“I’m cognisant of the fact that I’ve got a really important job to do but I’m now in what I consider to be the best place in the world to be doing it,” she says.