Thomas van Leeuwen
If you ever wondered what it’s like be an internationally acclaimed profile writer, the people you would meet and the conversations that would ensue, try walking to the local bookshop with David Leser.
During a stroll through Bondi, he is flagged down 100 paces from his front door by a gorgeous Kiwi woman straddling a black Harley Davidson. It’s Lisa Dempsey, co-owner of design label Jac + Jack, and she wants to show off her new leather-studded birthday gift that’s arrived in the mail. “If I was 10 years younger…” ribs David.
Two minutes later, David is flagged down by another friend, this time it’s director and Top of the Lake screenwriter Gerald Lee. There’s a warm handshake, some joke about an orgy, and a promise to catch up next week. But at Gertrude and Alice bookshop on Hall Street, his name is called out by James Farquharson, architect and co-collaborator with the Bureau of Urban Architecture. Has this been staged? Is it just the area? Or is it David that attracts these characters on a stroll?
Walkley Award-winning journalist David Leser is a big game hunter when it comes to profiling the characters that often appear in the headlines. Targets that have crossed his sights include politicians John Howard and Pauline Hansen, media identities Alan Jones and Andrew Denton, tenacious women from the McCartney Sisters in Belfast to June Newton, widow of famed photographer Helmut Newton and Anna Murdoch, former wife of Rupert, stars Russel Crowe, Heath Ledger, Dame Edna Everage, even Xena, warrior princess. The headcount David has accumulated over his career warrants the ‘hunter’ title, but it’s been a steep trajectory from copyboy at The Daily Telegraph where he was “treated like a lickspittle”.
He joined another big name hunter, Andrew Denton, yesterday at the Roslyn Packer Theatre to discuss with him his podcast series, Better Off Dead, and whether prolonging life may diminish quality of life.
Like most writers, David was uncertain of what the future would hold when he left school. After dabbling as a copyboy, he studied a commerce degree “for about three weeks”, before moving on to become assistant to the creative director at advertising agency W.B. Lawrence. After being retrenched and starting a Bachelor of Arts degree, he again dropped out of university, picked up stumps and travelled the world.
David’s journey took him through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. While camping in the village of Paleochora, Crete, he realised he wanted to study Middle Eastern politics, a subject he felt passionately about as a result of his Jewish background. “Whatever took me into temples, churches and mosques when travelling was something in my nature,” he says. He wanted “to try and understand, to try and ask the right questions, to work out a moral compass – how do we live? Without even knowing it, I was drawn to people’s stories.”
After 15 months overseas, David returned to Australia and enrolled in a double major of Middle Eastern Politics and English Literature at Macquarie University. One of David’s lecturers, Middle Eastern expert Professor Robert Springborg opened his eyes to the Arab world and provided the intellectual gasoline his curiosity desired. “The Middle East had claimed my imagination. Intellectually and as a story, it had everything – colonialism, Zionism, Pan-Arabism, terrorism. So if you wanted to look at human conflict, there was no sharper lens than the Palestinian-Jewish-Israeli conflict.”
David’s studies prompted him to ask the questions that would eventually lead to a career in journalism. Graduating in 1979, David’s career started as a 4th year cadet at News Corp after his father, Bernard Leser, the legendary publisher who launched Vogue Australia, put in a good word for him. “It was a complete baptism of fire because I was seen as the son of a silver-tailed publisher,” says David.
“On my first day, the chief of staff asked ‘What can you write about?’ I said I knew a fair bit about the Arab-Israeli conflict. He said, “Mate, this is The Daily Telegraph, not the fucking Jerusalem Post.” In week two, David took offence when another journalist tossed everything on his desk to the floor and sat in his seat. “I said to him ‘Listen here, you imperious prick, this is my desk.’ Then he stood up and did that elementary Australian thing. He whacked me.”
Being floored in the workplace may not sound like a dream job to some, but the office angst only increased David’s determination. After a four-year learning curve of court reporting, police rounds, and Parliament sittings, David again travelled the world but this time for work. Freelancing and reporting for publications across America, the Middle East, and Europe, David covered murder trials, demonstrations, uprisings, war zones and peace conferences. After a year freelancing in Palestine and Israel for the English-speaking South China Morning Post, David returned to Australia to get married in 1987.
Away from the Middle East, he began to focus on the moral wrestlings of the human condition. A compulsion to ask the tough questions led to five years with GH magazine (later to become HQ magazine) targeting identities like rocker/politician Peter Garrett, society queen Lady Mary Fairfax, and journalist Oriana Fallaci.
Moving to The Good Weekend magazine in 1994, he found the freedom to produce some of his most notable and award-winning features, going toe-to-toe with headlining characters across politics, arts, culture, and business. The red zones of Palestine had been replaced by a red-faced Alan Jones screaming “NO, NO, NO” 17 times after being questioned about his motives for the people he chose to attack, and those he chose not to – something apparently no one else had dared to ask him. It was this story that won for David his first Walkley Award for Feature Writing.
To gain genuine insight into a subject, David recognises the need to “draw blood” and ask the tough questions, but maintains he is no bloodhound journalist. Rather, he uses subjects as vehicles to explore deeper issues of society and ourselves. “In the case of Peter O’Connor, it can take you into the largely unchartered territory of the male psyche. In the case of John Marsden, into the world of teenagers. With Petrea King, into the realms of life and death. With Fran Peavey, into the politics of the heart.”
In 2000, David joined The Australian Women’s Weekly at the invitation of acclaimed editor Deborah Thomas who was brought in to establish a culture of excellence at the country’s most popular publication at that time. “That included bringing on board the best writers I could find, and David was number one on my hit list,” Ms Thomas writes in her foreword to David’s book Dames and Divas, a collection of profiles written for the Weekly.
“David manages to engage the reader in an intimate and evocative manner, drawing them into the lives of his subjects,” Deborah Thomas says. David was the Weekly’s senior feature writer for eight years.
Since then, David has continued to freelance and has produced three more books, including his memoir To Begin to Know: Walking in the Shadows of My Father which was short-listed for the 2015 National Biography Award.