Despite the more salt-than-pepper hair and his position as one of the nation’s most influential political journalists, David Speers somehow retains the appearance of a precociously bright schoolboy.
Perhaps that’s because he was one. “Yeah, a complete nerd,” he says with a surprisingly shy grin when asked about his school-age interest in politics. “I was always fascinated by it, national affairs… and international ones,” he remembers. “Mum and Dad encouraged me to get into arguments and debate about the issues of the day. I just used to consume a lot of news, which probably was a little unusual for someone of that age.”
It’s now more than a decade since Speers joined Sky news – then a “fledgling outfit” – which during the intervening period has transformed coverage of Australian politics and the way politicians do their jobs through its relentless 24-hour, live service. Now Sky TV’s Chief Political Editor and President of the Canberra Press Gallery – and the man Julia Gillard called into her office to announce her final, fatal leadership ballot with Kevin Rudd in June – Speers remembers the early days with amusement.
“My very first day I walked in and they asked, ‘do you want to go on air and talk about politics today’ – because they didn’t have a politics guy back then.” he remembers. “I said, ‘sure’, so they told me where the studio was and pointed out the make-up room. Walked in. There’s no one there but there’s one of those mirrors with the lights all around it and a tub of powder. I grabbed the powderpuff and went BOOM. Literally, powder all over me. I spent the next minutes frantically rubbing it off my dark suit. [Sky] is still pretty lean and hungry like that, but that’s what I love about it.”
Sky’s ‘face’ during this year’s neverending election campaign, Speers came to broadcasting via work as a radio journalist in places such as Geelong, Canberra and the NSW State parliament. On finding his way to Sky he soon found he had the ability to extemporize to fill time on air… and make it appear effortless.
“I’ve always enjoyed watching [former CNN anchor] John King and others, watching how well they speak coherently for extended periods of time,” he explains. “I quickly realised this just requires knowledge – feeding your brain with as much information as it can handle and seeing whether it sticks.”
An avid Tweeter during broadcasts, Speers has been at the forefront of the inexorable rise in social media and its influence on the political process in recent years, arguing that Twitter combined with Sky’s intensive round-the-clock coverage has undoubtedly helped democratise national affairs.
“A lot of people get into this argument that it has cheapened politics and reduced the quality of debate,” he observes. “Understandably, I take a different view – it really has opened up our political process so much more. You can access a political announcement within a couple of clicks, or watch an unedited press conference live on Sky and then you’re getting the news yourself – you don’t have to rely on a journalist’s interpretation of it.”
Watch Speers conduct one of his forensic interviews with a Federal politician (these days most of them request to come on his show, by the way), and it’s difficult to tell who he might vote for when he enters the privacy of the ballot box himself. He appears to demolish the claims of all sides with his trademark delivery of an incredulous half-laugh while asking a question. That doesn’t stop viewers regularly admonishing him for his perceived ‘bias’.
“I’ll finish an interview and have a look at Twitter – which you always do, don’t believe anyone who says they don’t – ” he says, “and it’s extraordinary. There’ll be 10 Tweets saying you’re a Labor Party lapdog and then 10 the other way. It washes out fairly evenly…
“To be honest I’ve never really had a particularly strong view one way or the other. What I’ve always enjoyed doing is picking apart the arguments on both sides, being that devil’s advocate and looking at what’s wrong with those arguments. I guess that’s the fundamental job of any political journalist, to try and carefully analyse what’s a good and a bad policy position.”
Based in Canberra with wife Liz and daughter Matilda, Speers travels to Sydney on Thursday nights to host The Nation in Sky’s larger Sydney studio. He likes the size of Canberra and the fact he can be home in 10 minutes from Sky’s Parliament House studio, but admits that in an election year his job is a singularly demanding one.
“It’s something I’m always trying to juggle, to be honest,” he confesses. “The job can be very demanding and some weeks, you end up spending way too much time at work.”
His urbane and eminently reasonable demeanour has seen the main free-to-air networks come calling from time to time, but for now Speers prefers the freedom offered to him by Sky, where sometimes arcane, unsexy policy areas are discussed and debated with all the intensity of refugee policy or the carbon tax.
“The beauty of where I am is the flexibility to do different things,” he observes. “Politics really is Sky’s bread and butter so for someone who is a political junkie, it’s the place to be.”