Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

John Campbell: Mr Conscience

It’s almost a decade since TV3 decided to take on TV One at 7pm with a daily current affairs show. To celebrate Campbell Live’s 10th year, Greg Dixon talks to John Campbell about turning 50, his small, daily act of self-parody and why he wouldn’t let Canvas interview him at home.

TV Presenter and Journalist John Campbell. Photo / Greg Bowker
TV Presenter and Journalist John Campbell. Photo / Greg Bowker

"I feel like it's my wedding day!"

John Campbell hoots at the idea, though he's right: he could be a groom because he is sporting one hell of a suit.
Well of course he is. It's Campbell's thing, his shtick, his trademark. Paul Henry wears those glasses that make him look like a Beagle Boy. Mike Hosking has his peculiar hair.

And John Campbell has his suits.

I once saw him togged up in one at a rock gig. There he stood, head and shoulders above the hipster kids, his face beaming, his only concession to proceedings being that he'd taken off his tie. It still makes me smile to think of it.

"I do love suits," he tells me later. "My dad wore beautiful suits, and my grandfather, who lived in Christchurch and died in late 2010, wore a tie every day of his life, even when he went for a walk. But the singularity of my attachment to them is a small act of self-parody. I'm taking the piss out of myself, a little bit."

However, even by the extraordinarily high standards of three generations of Campbells, the one he's worn for the Canvas photo shoot is a thing of beauty; made by Paul Smith of London.

It's as blue as the wide Pacific and as sharp as broken glass. Here comes the bride!

But he's not quite comfortable. There are jokes: "be safe, be seen!" he bellows. And he keeps adjusting it, just like a nervous groom would. He might be on the telly, but you can almost hear him worrying he looks too "telly". Or worse, too much like an, er, "merchant banker".

For a man who stands out, John Campbell really doesn't like to stand out.

Still, I'm glad he's glammed up, because there's something to celebrate. Not only is the show that carries his name now in its 10th year, but it is in its zenith years too. Any programme that has been around for as long as Campbell Live will have had wild highs and God-awful lows. But in the last four years or so, the programme has reaffirmed the importance of 7pm TV current affairs shows actually doing current affairs, has delivered some of its best journalism and has, not unrelatedly, launched more campaigns than Napoleon.

Some of these have been kitchen sink dramas like the hardly radical but oddly contentious notion of making sure disadvantaged kids get fed. Others have been grand, conceptual crusades, like the show's rolling invasion of all parts of the country to try to explain why the GCSB amendment bill was a very bad thing indeed. In between the show's banged on about the disgrace that is Novopay, has done its best by the Pike River families, given Fonterra stick about milk prices and is currently encouraging the All Blacks to do something for Pacific rugby by playing in Samoa.

But the most important and laudable campaign has been the ongoing one to keep the travails of benighted Christchurch at the forefront of our minds. Campbell Live has made hundreds of stories about the city, has devoted 100 or more individual programmes to it, and Campbell has reported live from the city's red zones and flood zones on many, many occasions.

These are all good things. These are worthy things. And in the process of being so good and worthy it's as if - and Campbell will hate me saying this - he and Campbell Live have become, over the last few years, to the approval of some and the tut-tutting (and sometimes anger) of others, something close to the nation's conscience.

Which might explain why he looks so buggered.

And he really is tired. He has been since April. "Yeah, I'm reasonably exhausted," he says, sounding utterly exhausted.

It feels like we've got a purpose.sometimes we tell stories that really do make a difference and that is just fantastic.
John Campbell

While Campbell is at real pains (quite painful pains, if I'm honest) to emphasise that Campbell Live is a team effort - he praises all the reporters, producers and editors by name - and to stress he's really just another Campbell Live soldier, he's the only one with his name on the marquee. Of course, as a loyal soldier, he's at work by 9am like everyone else for Campbell Live's daily production meeting run by executive producer Pip Keane, but he doesn't finish work until he's done his cheery goodnight at the end of Campbell Live 10 and half hours later. He's the one doing the live interviews with the Prime Minister or head of Fonterra. And on top of this he's researching, filming, and writing his own stories too.

"What's exhausting, and what our show does an enormous amount of, is making tape stories. And I make a lot of them. So that's exhausting."

He brightens a bit. "But I can't of think of anything I'd rather be doing." And then defiantly: "I wouldn't swap it for anything!"

This is all said with an unfeigned conviction. Campbell might have been a journalist for a quarter of a century, might have been working for TV3 since 1991 and might have been fronting Campbell Live for going on a decade, but the unalloyed passion for what he does is quite undimmed. There is not a hint, either, of the lifer cynicism so common in old hacks. Campbell might be tired, but he's not world-weary.

Yet for all intents and purposes, this career of his, this grand passion, is completely accidental. Indeed, if I wanted to be naughty, I'd say it's ultimately businessman and right-wing columnist Bob Jones' fault Campbell, a bit of bleeding heart liberal, became a journalist at all.

"Life is really weird," Campbell says. "I studied English Lit at Vic. Loved it. Was working part-time in a sharebroking firm in Wellington at $6 an hour, stuffing envelopes and doing really menial chores just to get through university. It was lovely, it was delightful work."


John Campbell at Laneway in 2012, Still wearing a suit, but tie-less. Photo / APN

It was around this time - the mid-1980s - that Jones wrote an op-ed piece for the Dominion newspaper, complaining commerce graduates were trained in group think. The graduates that banks and sharebroking business really needed to hire, Jones maintained, were humanities graduates because they were independent thinkers.

"This sharebroking firm I was working in was courting Bob Jones and decided they would offer the only humanities graduate they knew a full-time job. I thought 'I might was well do this as anything else'."

Campbell was "the shittest sharebroker", but he was clearly good enough to talk about the market on the radio. "[Radio New Zealand's] Midday Report used to call me when I was down on the floor and they'd say 'what happened in the market?' and I'd tell them.

Extraordinary gall really, to dare to pretend that I had any understanding of what was going on.

"But a lot of what they tell you is like being a cricket score-keeper: the market's gone up eight points! Brierleys has risen 15c! It's not rocket science. But [then RNZ news editor] Glyn Jones called me up and said 'would you like to have a try out as a business
reporter working under Peter Verschaffelt?' I took two weeks' annual leave and went down.

My first day at RNZ, I just thought 'wow, this is extraordinary'.

"Journalists always scared me before then, the few journalists I knew were always quite scary. Old-fashioned HARD MEN! SMOKING MEN!" He's shouting now, then he laughs.

"Then I did a two-year cadetship at RNZ. Loved eevvveery minute of it."

It clearly showed. Before he could say "is the mic off?" he'd won a radio award and had been wooed by TVNZ, but then signed to TV3 for less money than TVNZ was offering because he like the cut of the young channel's jib. And then, before he could say "which camera do I look into?" - and by way of him being a hotshot press gallery reporter, a hotshot 20/20 reporter, doing a short-lived current affairs slot on 3News and reading the 6pm news with Carol Hirschfeld for five years - Campbell Live became a reality in 2005 thanks to Paul Holmes packing a sad and leaving TVNZ for Prime.

What does 10 years of Campbell Live mean?

"It means we survived." He says this bluntly, even a little grimly. It's been hard, obviously. For much of the show's life it struggled against the popularity of TV One's Close Up. Then there was the controversy in 2008 when Campbell Live was ordered by the Broadcasting Standards Authority to apologise for its infamous medals interview, which saw an actor pretending to be someone involved in the theft of the 96 medals from Waiouru War Museum. Two years later, this newspaper's media commentator, John Drinnan, was reporting TV3's owners Mediaworks were quietly questioning whether Campbell Live's ratings made it sustainable. After Drinnan's report, Mediaworks issued a statement praising Campbell. But it appeared the show was in danger.

The late Rod Pedersen took me out for lunch and told me not to become a w**ker. It was great advice.
John Campbell

And then, on February 22, 2011 Christchurch was struck by its deadly earthquake and Campbell Live was there. More importantly, it stayed.

"Everyone goes and covers an event [like that] as spot news," he says. "And then life [and the cameras] move on. Except what we all underestimated was that when life started going on again in Christchurch it wasn't going on in any way that resembled how it had been previously. "We just kept going back and suddenly we were going into bat for people and we were allowed to, nobody was saying, 'What are you doing? This isn't journalism.'

And then we thought 'Lunchbox Day', that was Pip's idea to say, 'Okay, let's make sure every child in New Zealand has a school lunch.' And we did that and no one said. 'Hey, you can't do this, this isn't journalism, this is something different.' So we just found our way to the advocacy, and it suits most of us to be ... It doesn't suit me to be a dispassionate, objective ... "

There had been no meeting, there had been no collective decision, but the Campbell Live team had made advocacy journalism their thing.

Ratings improved, however TVNZ played its part in that. When the state network dumped Close Up at the end of 2012 and replaced it with the lighter Seven Sharp last year, TVNZ handed the initiative to Campbell Live. Actually not just the initiative. In the past, Close Up rather than Campbell Live got the live in-studio interview with the newsmaker of the day. Now Campbell's show often gets first pick of the best stuff.

Initially, viewers appalled at the frothy nonsense on One protested by watching TV3.

However, the now Hosking-led Seven Sharp is well up and out in front in the ratings this year, while Campbell Live is down on its peak ratings from around this time last year.

"Campbell Live's audience is very much dependent on what is on each night," he says. "TV One's audience tends to stick with them through thick and thin, whereas our audience go, 'I'm not interested in this' and click: gone. But you know, we're still on air coming up for 10 years, we're still on air.

"We work hard - self-praise is no praise at all - but we work hard. I think we've learned things as we go along. You know that lovely adage 'to thine own self be true', which I always tell my children, I feel like our show has learned that.

"It feels like we've got a purpose." He pauses. "And also it's about professional satisfaction: sometimes we tell stories that really do make a difference and that is just fantastic."

And there's another thing to celebrate: he might not look it, but Campbell has not long turned 50. Although his boyish features seem little changed since we first laid eyes on them two decades ago, there are signs of ageing. His hair is going grey (I asked: he doesn't dye it). His eyes are going a bit too (he got reading glasses 18 months ago). He might be a bit heavier too (he doesn't exercise, just watches what he eats, well mostly).

However, in the ways that matter, John Campbell has changed little since we first laid eyes on him.

No interviewer who meets him fails to mention (and perhaps even mock) his earnestness.

Or his sometimes explosive enthusiasm. Or his propensity for goofy grinning when he's happy. Yet the thing that strikes me most about him is the awkwardness at the centre of him.

Partly, this is because of the profound contradiction at the centre of his life: he's a very private man who, because he is good at and passionate about what he does, has ended up as one the most recognisable people in the country.

For this interview, I asked to talk to him at the Grey Lynn villa he shares with wife Emma and their children, 13-year-old Alex and 10-year-old James. He always says no to such requests. But I figured that given he has very recently been interviewing political leaders in their homes for Campbell Live, he might recognise there would be a mild hypocrisy in him saying no to me. He recognised it all right, and still said no.

When I ask him about his reasons, he rambles a bit and then says " ... all I would say is that now, in terms of hiding places, that's all I've got left".

He likes to stay home with his books (mostly American and New Zealand literature and poetry), the music he loves (current obsession: Frankie Cosmos; "It's like a blood transfusion!") and his kids, who he adores.

"I love my children so much I don't even know how to begin describing it. What you learn from being a parent is your obligation to truly love. It's not a hard lesson. It's innate. But you can extrapolate so much from that. With love comes encouragement, and genuine interest, and guidance, and safety, and care. And then comes self-belief, and a sense of possibility. And happiness. Every child is owed those things. And every child will become a better adult if they get them."


Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld left their 3News presenter roles to host and produce Campbell Live.

When he does go out, he walks with his head and eyes down. But he can't close his ears.

In public he goes everywhere accompanied by the sound of people saying his name.

Imagine it? "John Campbell, John Campbell, John Campbell, John Campbell, John Campbell, John Campbell, John Campbell ... " Some whisper it. Some mumble it. Some say it boldly. Some add a few choice epithets to it.

He tells me about a recent occasion where he was shopping and left one of his kids with the bags while he went to get the car. "So I went 40 or 50 metres, then drove up. In the time that I was away, one of my children overheard me being described in appalling terms by two people who'd also been in the shop who really, actively loath me and discussed that in front of one of my kids. Now there's no amount of preparation that makes you survive that without it taking a toll."

And your kids ... ?

"Didn't choose to have me as a dad. Yeah."

He forces himself to cheer up. Then he's off again. "But the work! The professional satisfaction is profooooouuuund! There are days where I just think wow!. I come upstairs at 7.30 and say 'wow, that was a great show tonight'. And that's greeeaat. I feel reeaaallly lucky ... I couldn't stop being a journalist."

I do hope all this doesn't make Campbell sound self-pitying. I don't think he is. What he is, is sincere. Probably too sincere. Ask him any question and, unlike so many high-profile people, he genuinely tries his Honest John best to answer it.

Inquire, as I did, about his current state of mind and he says, eventually, "I find I'm galvanised most by a fear of failure." Ask if his self-esteem is tied up in being journalist and he says no, it's tied up in other things like "am I good man?" And if you happen to wonder what his biggest weakness is, he pauses for a while and then says, "I think my biggest weakness is that when something really matters to me I can be a bit Don Quixote about it. And I expect if I'm charging at the windmill I'll look back and there will be a whole lot of horses, all these other people who want to join me ... " he laughs. "And from time to time, that's just been disastrously wrong."

In retrospect, Campbell Live's GCSB campaign is an example of this, he says. "I thought people would give a shit about the GCSB story. I thought people would understand why it was important. I was completely and utterly wrong."

His other weakness, I'd have said - apart from sometimes losing his temper at just the wrong moment as he did with John Key during that now notorious interview about the GCSB bill - is that, even at 50, he still lives in fear of appearing an, er, "merchant banker".

"I do worry about that. And I think I ought to, in the job I've got. People like me have so much power, or, more specifically, our voices are so omnipresent, that the notion we hold forth without any sense of there being other ways of seeing the world, is preposterous. It is a w**k!

"When I first became somebody who was starting to appear on the TV reasonably regularly, the [TV3] head of news and current affairs at the time - the late Rod Pedersen - took me out for lunch and told me not to become a w**ker. It was great advice.

"When the bill came, he made me pay. I've often thought it was worth every cent!"

Campbell Live is on TV3 weeknights at 7pm.

- NZ Herald

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