Which real TV journalists inspired The Newsreader?

September 9 2023

Actor Sam Reid admits he based his character in the ABC drama The Newsreader on a real Australian journalist, but won't say who.

"There was one very, very specific one that I studied very closely last season," says Reid, who plays up-and-coming TV news presenter Dale Jennings in the series.

"And then in this season, I still kept a bit of him, but there was another one that came in to kind of help show the progression."

Asked if he knew if anyone had correctly guessed who it was, Reid told the ABC he'd be surprised if they did.

A man and woman stand in an office with serious expressions on their faces.
Sam Reid says he studied one TV journalist "very closely" while preparing to play Dale.(ABC)
"Because while I based a lot of it on him, I kept it pretty to myself and made some adjustments."

Ever since season one of The Newsreader aired in 2021 there's been a guessing game in the media as to who the larger-than-life characters are based on.

With season two of the award-winning series starting this weekend on ABC TV and ABC iview, that game is sure to continue.

Anna Torv says Helen is not based on a certain former 60 Minutes reporter.
The show is about two nightly news anchors on a commercial network in the 1980s who end up in a relationship together. Anna Torv plays Helen, a hard-nosed journalist facing relentless sexism in the newsroom, while Reid's character Dale is a rising star who is struggling with his sexuality.

Torv says despite speculation, her character Helen is not based on former 60 Minutes reporter and host of A Current Affair, Jana Wendt.

"I think she's a very different beast to Jana," Torv says of Helen.

"I don't think anyone can touch Jana."

She says she watched a lot of TV journalists when preparing for the role but didn't focus on a specific one.

The Leigh Sales factor**Bold text**

The show's creator Michael Lucas says he interviewed many industry insiders while researching the series but promised they would remain anonymous – unless they outed themselves.

Launching straight after the first new episode of The Newsreader on Sunday is The Newsreader Podcast, hosted by real-life TV journalists Leigh Sales and Lisa Millar.

Lisa Millar and Leigh Sales rewind 30 years
Leigh Sales and Lisa Millar started their careers at a time when TV news looked a lot like the big-hair, big-shoulder pad, big-personality newsroom depicted in The Newsreader. They take us behind the scenes of their 30 years in journalism.

And Sales reveals in the podcast she was one of the journalists interviewed by Lucas. So Lucas is happy to talk about it.

He says his conversation with Sales influenced aspects of the series.

"I think what I loved most about speaking to Leigh was that she had a really great way of explaining the dynamics of relationships," says Lucas, who as well as creating The Newsreader is also a producer and writer on it.

"A lot of people can tell you really precise stories or can give you a lot of technical information about the time, but she had these really clever little insights into, 'This is what it feels like to be in this position'.

"She talked about when she used to work the autocue and how terrified she was of stuffing up and getting yelled at and that panic.

"And if you remember Noelene (Michelle Lim Davidson) at the start of the series, she was working the autocue and she's always been in that office dog's body position of never getting much applause but when she screws up, she gets really yelled at.

"The character of Noelene in some ways sprang out of that Leigh Sales story.

"I still go back and listen to the interview that I recorded with her and find little things in it that I forgot."

Tackling sexism and masculinity
Torv and Reid have both been busy on the international stage since we saw them in season one of The Newsreader.

Torv recently starred as Tess in hit HBO series The Last of Us, while Reid starred as Lestat in the AMC series Interview with the Vampire (which is available on ABC iview).

In season two of The Newsreader, details from Helen's past threaten to derail her career, a new character shows Dale how it might be possible to live life as a closeted queer man in the public eye, and the TV network has a new CEO trying to reshape the News at Six.

Both actors say they were excited to return to the roles.

"It was like OK, what are we doing?" Torv told the ABC.

"What do we want out of this season? And that's not just what we want the audience to get, but you know, what are we interested in exploring as the makers?

A man and woman stand next to each other
Both Sam Reid and Anna Torv say they were excited to see what happened to their characters.(ABC)
"You always want to have something that you're kind of curious about because it keeps you motivated and interested and digging deeper."

For Reid, "It was the first time I've ever done a second season of anything, ever returned to play a role again. So I was a little bit apprehensive about it," he says.

"But it was so easy to get back into it.

"I was excited because I was curious about where these characters were going to go and how they were going to develop."

Lucas says when he was initially creating the show, the starting point was Dale.

"I just always wanted to tell a story about someone who was trying to be a certain kind of masculine and failing," he says.

Reid says that has been an interesting aspect to explore.

"Particularly in Australia I think we have this sort of desire to hold specific models of masculinity up on pedestals and applaud them and push other ones into the shadows," he says.

"The framework of a news reader, this stable, firm hand who delivers the news nightly and that the nation trusts, is a really good way to explore that.

"At the beginning [Dale] just can't do it. But as we progressively watch him practice and practice and practice, and push his own personal beautiful self down further and further and further, you see coming up this sort of carbon copy of a man.

"And I don't know if he's that good at it."

Lucas says he created the character of Helen because he wanted to pair Dale with a woman who had a very different personality.

"The initial starting point was, she's got all the masculine qualities that would be applauded if they were in a man but she gets punished for it," he says.

In season two Helen is continually told she's too aggressive, shrill and abrasive on TV and that she should try being softer.

Torv says even though the show is set in the 80s, attitudes like that are still "something we live with".

"I do think that we still expect that and we still find it tiring," she says.

"Truly, it really still is just like that. But I think that's not just in news. I think that always you're either the ballbreaker or the sweetheart really, and so that middle ground is kind of confronting sometimes."

In the news
Lucas says he became obsessed with the news as a child because his dad often featured in it.

In the 1980s his father Ron Lucas was a HIV specialist at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital and was in demand to appear on television.

"He became one of those medical experts that gets brought into the media a fair bit to be interviewed and explain how the disease worked, not dissimilar to the pandemic when they would pull all sorts of scientists out," Lucas says.

"There was a really memorable moment when Eyewitness News with David Johnston and Jo Pearson – I still remember it so clearly – wanted to put him on the desk live to answer phone calls from viewers.

"We lived in the suburbs of Melbourne and they sent a helicopter out to land on our local oval. And so our whole family ran down and took all these pictures.

"I just thought it was amazing. I was obsessed with it. I was asking him so many questions about it."

His mother Jo Lucas worked as a nurse on the AIDS ward at the same hospital.

"They were both completely consumed in that epidemic," he says.

"I guess because for them, for all of them at working at the start of AIDS, they were trying to get the message right. So he was watching the news religiously, he would watch all the new services, and there was so much reporting about HIV and AIDS.

"That created a real tradition of religiously watching the news in our house. That was very much part of where it came from, the news obsession."