Michele Hewitson: Paora Maxwell

By Michele Hewitson

Proud Maori TV chief executive has an emotional start in the top job and makes light of the public squabbling about him

Paora Maxwell says he's more comfortable mixing with Maori, loves his dogs, and is probably happy being married to the job. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Paora Maxwell says he's more comfortable mixing with Maori, loves his dogs, and is probably happy being married to the job. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Paora Maxwell, the new CEO of Maori Television, started his job on Monday and he was visibly emotional. He said: "Yeah, I have to say that, you know, it was a pretty big day." He cried. He said: "I'm not sure whether they were tears of exhaustion or elation."

I thought they might have been of relief - because, phew! he must, surely, be thinking after the torturous process it took to get through the door. After the interview, he was taken off to have his picture taken and had to run back to his office: "I'll just grab my little swipe card so I can get back in!"

Yes, now he's finally in, he wouldn't want to risk being locked out. He ran up the hall, cackling, and shouted to his PA on the way: "She's rude!" He might end up being an unusual sort of CEO.

How was he on Wednesday? "Good! Day three! Ha, ha." We were in his office, which is just an office, but I wanted to see his throne. The Maori TV website ran a story about his investiture - in Maori TV you don't just walk into your office and start being CEO, you are escorted from Te Puea marae into the building by whanau and iwi - which mentioned the blessing of his throne.

It is a bog-standard office chair. How disappointing. "Michele," he said, "it was metaphorical. I am a prince among men, but nevertheless, that," he said, gesturing towards the bog-standard office chair, "is it".

But, "ha, ha, yeah I read that too and I went, 'I wonder if there are any other baubles that come with being, you know, newly sanctified'." There was one. He leapt up and showed us his new iBook. "I have to say," he said, "I'm very pleased with this sexy little number."

He was about to be not very pleased with me because I hadn't meant to get straight to it, but I did have to ask whether the bauble was brand new or had belonged to his predecessor, Jim Mather - in which case, I said, it might have contained The Petition. This was a joke, but it was too soon to make such jokes. There was supposed to have been a petition signed by around two-thirds of the staff opposing his selection. "Ha, ha," he said, valiantly, "yeah, I could look in the deleted files and see what was there." Has he seen this petition? "No. Not interested." He must want to know who to give the chop. "No. I've got no interest in that whatsoever, despite what your colleague says. No interest whatsoever. It's all political, you know, and I accept it's political, so I'm not playing that particular game."

It is rather the point that it's all political. His long friendship with the board's chairwoman, Georgina te Heuheu, led to accusations of cronyism. I thought that friendship had also led to a perception he was a right-winger, but he says nobody who knows him would say that he's a right-winger. "Are you asking me if I'm a National Party voter? I've just told you I'm not a right-winger."

There were mutterings about the circumstances under which he left Television New Zealand in early 2013 (he'd say, no doubt, only from my colleague John Drinnan, the Herald's media columnist); resignations were predicted should he get the job. Had there been any resignations? "I don't think so. Has there?" How would I know? I'm not the CEO. "Exactly."

And yet, five job interviews, "a process of intense scrutiny", a psychometric test later, here he is. "Here I am!" Who would have thought? "Yes, well, that's the question here, isn't it? Ha, ha." He got to see the results of his psychometric test and they were that "I am an eminent CEO!"

Still, I wondered whether he might at some stage have thought he'd never get the job, or perhaps even whether he still wanted it. But he says while there were "moments of stress ... stirred up by your newspaper", he had a "kind of epiphany, the moment, really, when I turned the stress corner when I realised that everything I've done in my career I can live with". He had a longish list of the things that he'd done in his career that he could live with. He said: "And when you can live with yourself, you can face anything."

Later, he began on another list of all the successes of his long career in television but I'm afraid I got bored and so said, possibly a little abruptly, that he had the job now, we didn't need his CV. It was all my own fault that I was getting his CV because I'd asked why he hadn't been given a reference by the chief executive of TVNZ. I said it looked odd and he said it most certainly did not because he didn't report to the chief executive and, "Well, excuse me, but when you left your last job, did you have a reference from the chief executive?" Well, excuse me, I'm not a high-up telly executive, for one thing. And I wasn't about to recite my CV.

He said, in response to my being rude about not wanting to sit through a recital of his, "No. No. No. No. I'm just making sure that you know I don't have a dented record in TV. I'm proud of what I did." He joined TVNZ under a scheme to encourage Maori into television and at first worked on Play School, but he always had loftier ambitions: "The purpose of my work is very important. I've always been a person who, you know, wanted to do things and wanted to, in some sort of idealistic way, make the world a better place." He was the general manager of TVNZ's Maori and Pacific unit when he left. With, by the way, "a glowing reference from my boss".

He left, he said, because he'd done all he wanted to at TVNZ. He didn't just leave TV, he changed his life almost entirely. He sold his very nice house with the pool in Ponsonby, he had already swapped shopping for clothes at his formerly favourite shop, Fifth Ave, Ponsonby, for buying DIY supplies at Mitre 10, Ponsonby, his current favourite shop. "I think you just get to an age and I think that it's around 50." He is 56. The next thing he did was to go and live on a pa. He owns a house and two flats at Ohinemutu village in Rotorua. He bought the property seven years ago, from an aunt, and is now renovating. He held out his hands and said, "I'm not afraid of getting my hands dirty. Look. I've got two ... what do you call them ... calluses on my hand. That's from stripping wallpaper."

He was happy as anything there, living with family, and soaking in the hot pools and not being involved in TV. But, "the opportunity to lead Maori TV was big in my mind, you know".

He only moved back to the city - to an apartment just up the road from Maori TV - last Sunday. He's back in his "monkey suits", which is a bit of a shock after his "pa clothes", mostly shorts and gumboots. His two pugs, Baxter and Benny Typhoon, have had a bit of a shock too. "The apartment is smaller than we're used to, so the dogs are a bit confused. I can see them going, 'Dad!"'

Er, Dad? He thinks his dogs are like his children. "Well, pets generally are, aren't they? Do you have pets?" Yes, but I don't think of my pet as a child. He wanted to know what I had, but he'd already guessed I was a cat person. Why would he think that? "Umm. I just think I would align you more with cats." But why? "Umm. This is your interview about me! Ha, ha, ha! We won't go too deep on that one."

Let me take a guess: To dog people, being a cat person is the equivalent of being the devil incarnate or, possibly, John Drinnan, which is much the same thing.

He is, on that topic, very disappointed in the Herald and went on and on about it, and so I said, "Oh, cancel your sub, then." He said he already had. He didn't have to say: So there. When he was in his being-cross-with-me stage, he accused me of being a mouthpiece for Drinnan which is, for one thing, far ruder than my taking the mickey over his swipe card and, for another, pretty daft. Did he really think I wasn't going to ask about the controversies surrounding his appointment?

Anyway, this is my interview about him. So, some things about him: His dad is Maori; his mum Pakeha. He was a forestry worker, from a poor "but very proud family"; she was a "middle class white girl from Dunedin". They met, in Rotorua, at a dance hall where Howard Morrison used to play. It was his mother who was determined that her children (he has an older sister) would grow up in touch with their Maori heritage. When the family moved to Dunedin, she took them along to a Maori club. "She was very ... I think the word is foresightful". His te reo is pretty good but "I wouldn't say my Maori is great. I don't have a gift for languages."

He is more comfortable being with Maori. He's not sure why except: "I guess when I was growing up, that's what gave me confidence. I don't know how we learn these things, or where feelings of comfort come from."

He is not in a relationship and hasn't been for some time. He's perfectly happy on his own, with the pugs. I didn't think it was a secret that he was gay, and it isn't, but he glided over my cues so in the end I just asked if he was funny about being gay. If he was, I would have left it out, of course. He said it was nothing to do with his job, and obviously it isn't, but this is an interview about him. In the end, he said: "I'm fine. God, I'm completely happy with who I am!" He hasn't "ruled out" getting married one day, but he is probably better at being married to his job, he said. And, "I've got two fantastic dogs!" He really loves them. "Oh, they're fabulous! You know that old adage: Man's best friend."

He has said he's thick-skinned (I wonder). What this means is he's "seen a lot and done a lot and I've had my share of ups and downs and I think it just gives you a resilience, you know. Some things that would unsettle another person ..." What sorts of things? "A petition! Ha, ha, ha!"

He's allowed to make the jokes. Fair enough; he holds the throne.

- NZ Herald

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