Susie Ferguson: Reporting for duty

By Alan Perrott

She’s spent six years in war zones — including being shot at and driving into a minefield — and has even taught Prince William at Eton. Morning Report host Susie Ferguson talks to Alan Perrott about her Scottish childhood and ‘coming home’ to New Zealand.

Susie Ferguson, new host of Morning Report. Photo / Catherine Cattanach
Susie Ferguson, new host of Morning Report. Photo / Catherine Cattanach

Despite all the questions Susie Ferguson has asked during her career, it's the one she didn't ask that may end up mattering most.

Just a quick "What's the pay like then?" would have done, nobody would have been offended and she could have saved herself a whole lot of effort and stress. Then again, she may never have left Scotland. Wouldn't have taught our future king, or had a bath with her clothes on in a desert, during a war.

Instead, there she was, in London, stage-managing an excellent one-woman show and approaching the end of a degree that was going to get her into showbiz. The dream was coming together nicely ...

"I wanted to be a director. That was the plan, and I was working with this woman. She'd been in the industry for 10 years and I could see she was a really talented director. We got talking and it turned out she was only doing it for expenses. She wasn't really getting paid at all, and I hadn't really considered that, the whole salary thing, the career, up until that moment. So I was thinking, 'I don't think I want to do that. I have to earn some money and make a living.

God, I have to think about this'."

As luck would have it, after graduating Ferguson ran into an old tutor from the first theatre course she'd done in Stratford-upon-Avon, who was chasing up new students. She went along to a promotion event and found herself sitting next to a career adviser during the lunch break.

After explaining her dilemma, the two listed the skills she'd learned that could work in a different job. Voice work, performance, storytelling ..."Okay then, have you thought about radio or television journalism?" suggested the careers adviser.

No, she hadn't, but it sounded like a good idea.

It meant becoming a student yet again but at least she was still only in her early 20s when, in 1997, she kicked off a whole new career at the oddly named London School of Printing.

It was a decision that ultimately brought the 36-year-old to Radio New Zealand's Morning Report, a job you might say finally fulfilled the portents of her youth.

New Zealand has always loomed in the background of her life. The first of the Fergusons left the Scottish borders to settle in Gore in the 1860s, with her grandfather following along in 1930 to teach philosophy at Otago University. He then married and had two sons, one of them her father, John Ferguson, who was 8 when the family was lured back to Scotland by an irresistible job offer from the University of St Andrews.

"Growing up, my grandmother was always very Kiwi. Her accent marked her out straight away, and a lot of things she did were very Kiwi, like her melting moments biscuits. Every week there'd be a new batch in the biscuit tin so I grew up thinking every grandmother made them. But I didn't see them anywhere else until I got here and noticed every cafe seems to have them."

Then there was the photo album full of old black and white shots of her grandparents' wedding in Gore, tales of bush explorations, and the letters that regularly arrived from the other side of the world.

Ferguson's mother, Tina, has cousins in Auckland, Taranaki and Hawkes Bay.

Her dad was a news junkie and one of her earliest memories is being 4 years old and watching a television report in 1982 of the bombing of HMS Sir Galahad during the Falklands War. Her father's intense interest told her that this was very important.

"Just thinking of that image takes me straight back to our living room," says Ferguson. I still see the carpet, the television in the corner. That was the line in the sand where I first became interested in stuff on the television."

Yet it was the theatre that first grabbed her imagination.

She left Edinburgh at 18 - with her parents' blessing - after being accepted into a course run out of that bastion of all things Shakespearean, Stratford-upon-Avon. "They were great about it, being academics [her father was a GP and her mother lectured in anatomy at the University of Edinburgh]. I could see that they might have been against the idea, but there was no 'You'll never get anywhere with that'. They just wanted me to get a decent degree, it didn't really matter in what."

With that first course behind her, Ferguson took on a three-year degree at London University's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

It felt like liberation.

"I didn't want to go back to Scotland. Even when I first left at 18, I had no intention of returning.

The weather is really oppressive, the low clouds feel like they're pushing down on your head, and Edinburgh is so parochial, people ask what school you went to, then categorise you on that basis. I think a lot of people have never lived anywhere else; they're very blinkered. It's a beautiful country and I'll take the family back to visit, but I didn't want to live like that."

While determined to direct, Ferguson's degree in drama and education could easily have led her into teaching. She even did a one-month placement at Eton, where one of her pupils turned out to be the teenaged Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. His house was performing The Tempest. "He was just another student really and I was told not to treat him any differently. If he needed to be told off then I was to tell him off. But then that class was full of Lord So-and-so's. We just called everyone by their first names."

Then came that fateful conversation with the talented, if penniless, director. It's illustrative that Ferguson considers their chat "a life-changing experience, but not that big a deal". It was simply a pragmatic decision to change horses midstream.

So, on she went to the Printing School where she joined a select band of a dozen or so, including TVNZ's Breakfast co-host, Rawdon Christie.

"I remember she seemed more mature than me despite being younger. I probably let my ego show more than she would have," recalls Christie.

Despite three years as classmates, their differing career paths meant they didn't talk again until this month.

Whereas Christie was dead-set on television, Ferguson wanted to be a radio arts correspondent and she got her start at Scot FM, even though it meant returning north.

On her first day, she met the boss, who kindly made sure she had a cup of tea before pushing her into the studio to read the next news bulletin.

"I was slightly terrified, my hands were shaking. It was a self-operated desk as well so I had to work everything but, luckily, I'd been there before so I knew how it worked. It went all right I think but I sounded really nervous."

After returning to London she spent 18 months newsreading at stations ranging from Classic FM and Virgin Radio to the BBC and ITN without finding quite the right fit, until 2001, when the wife of an ITN political correspondent heard Ferguson and asked him to have a quiet word. That wife was the head of the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) and thought Ferguson might like to see the world.

Yes, she would. A full-time reporting job came up in February 2003, just as troops began massing for the invasion of Iraq.

But it didn't look like having anything to do with her, not even when she and a colleague went off to secure tickets for BFBS staff to travel to the Middle East. Then they were offered a spot for an extra radio journalist.

Three weeks later, Ferguson was in a full nuclear/biological/chemical protection suit with gas mask, helmet and blue flak jacket, bouncing through the Kuwaiti desert in a Warrior armoured vehicle with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, who were about to go to war with Saddam Hussein.

Which all came as a surprise to her parents.

"Mum nearly dropped the phone."

Ferguson was placed with a three-man team: a driver, a company sergeant-major, who did all the shouting; and a sniper, who quietly disappeared every couple of days.

"It was ... well, it was intense. At times very difficult and frightening. And boring - we would end up sitting around for hours waiting for something to happen."

Then there was the low-level dread of an attack with the weapons of mass destruction they assumed really did exist, the daytime 56C heat and the freezing nights, and the basic fact that she was one of a handful of women in a very masculine world.

The practicalities meant learning how to wash fully clothed and, as for toileting, with no trees nor bushes, let alone public toilets in the desert, "you just got on with it".

Interpersonal stuff was trickier. The troops were ordinary blokes with all the variations you'd find in any group. So, while many welcomed her, others made their hostility clear.

There were those who were creepily eager to put their weapons to deadly use and others who were against the war altogether. What united them was disciplined professionalism and a willingness to do whatever necessary keep their mates alive, so it paid not to piss them off or hold them up.

It wasn't unknown for unpopular embedded journalists to be accidentally dropped off or left behind in bad spots.

As for the Iraqis, after her unit first entered Basra to cheering crowds, the vehicle on her second visit was stoned constantly until she reached camp. Then there was being shot at, watching out for roadside bombs and, on one occasion, finding her team had somehow driven their Warrior into a minefield, requiring a nerve-jangling slow reversal over their own tyre tracks.

So yes, it was intense, and she returned to Kuwait five times before further stints in war-torn Afghanistan, then Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Lebanon, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, Pakistan (after the 2005 earthquake), and post-tsunami Sri Lanka - a total of six years in war zones.

"It was always challenging," she says, "and you can't go into situations like those and not come out changed. But the thing I found most difficult was coming back to normality. I got good at dealing with extreme stress, the possibility of bombings and being shot at, but everyday stress like being late for a meeting and I'd get panicky. I couldn't cope with that at all and I think I got really bad-tempered, quite nasty, and it's possible I didn't turn into a very nice person.

"But it was bloody exciting, a heightened state of reality that reminds you you're alive while giving you this amazing opportunity to see world-changing events.

"It's a weird way to live, a skewed way of seeing the world, and the ultimate selfish job if you've got no responsibilities or children. It was quite hard to stop doing it, really."

Yet, for all the derring-do and scares, the war story she feels the most pride for was a radio documentary, Kiss The Children For Me, which told the story of a woman's journey to see where her father had died during the Falklands War. It can be heard on the RNZ website.

Experiences like that were always going to be a hard act to follow.

"I went to Kuwait and Iraq when I was 25 and when I came back I felt like I'd just done the biggest story of my life, one I'd never surpass and so I felt rather washed-up. That wasn't what I'd expected and that was hard."

Family and friends helped get her to the point where she's now grateful, and possibly amazed, for what she's been through.

What she really needed was a new adventure. So, she and new husband Lee came to New Zealand for a holiday and to think. What they didn't expect was to fall in love with the place.

"It's that classic story of going all the way around the world to feel at home. I'd worked all over the world and even, as they say, left a part of my soul in Afghanistan, but I'd never felt that before. We even had the "What if we don't get the plane?" conversation on the way to the airport. I think we'd realised we'd leave London to try to come here."

It didn't take long. Ferguson got citizenship via her father, her husband got a job as a public servant, and the couple arrived in 2009 with the first of their two children.

"My dad was quite touched we'd come here, I think," she says, "and it gave him a good excuse to come back."

But she needed a job as well. With most stations based in Auckland, Radio New Zealand seemed the obvious choice and along she went with her war-heavy CV. She was taken on as a casual, doing the odd reporting and producing work for Checkpoint, before working her way up to sharing the big chair on Morning Report, with Guyon Espiner.

It's a job with the added pressure of having replaced veteran presenter Geoff Robinson and, while determined to bring her own style to the role, it can't be ignored that RNZ listeners have become well-used to strong female voices.

As adventures go, what this one lacks in bullets it more than makes up for in happy endings, as long as she resists the urge to tweet.

"I'd lose my job overnight. I don't think I could resist telling people just what I thought of them."

Especially those who see something wrong in having a Scots accent on RNZ. The glare that follows her statement, "I am a citizen ..." is something to behold.

As for the future, well, she has already done plenty, in more places than most ever will and admits long-term career plans have never been her strong suit. But she may finally be ready to lay some deep roots.

"I feel part of something here. I'm happy and my whole life has suddenly changed. I've got a family, a dream job and new country to explore."

Let's just hope the pay's okay.

- NZ Herald

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