Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Guyon Espiner on saying goodbye to politics and TVNZ

He’s left politics and TVNZ for TV3, he’s left Wellington and, at the age of 41, he’s finally getting married. That’s a lot of change, in no time at all. So, wonders Greg Dixon, is Guyon Espiner having a bit of a mid-life thing?

'I have taken the old school route of being as impartial as possible and trying to beat up on all sides as much as I can.' - Guyon Espiner. Photo / Mark Mitchell
'I have taken the old school route of being as impartial as possible and trying to beat up on all sides as much as I can.' - Guyon Espiner. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It was a job for an investigative journalist, all right. I stood on the pavement in a bushy, sunshiny gully in Wellington's Lyall Bay, wondering where I could find one - because, well, I needed to find another one.

I was looking for Guyon Espiner, formerly of TVNZ, now of TV3. I knew he lived somewhere around about this particular bit of narrow, snaking road. But, after the taxi dropped me off from the airport, I was buggered if I could find his house. It'd need an investigative reporter to find an investigative reporter.

I wandered a bit further up the ever-rising tarmac and found an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter being industrious in their garden. They thought his number might be up the road a piece. But then again, it might down the road too.

I tried down, peering at up a shrubby cliff and seeing nothing but a roof top. Eventually - it could have been 10 minutes, it felt like an hour - I found Espiner's house number (and an arrow) painted on a rock at the bottom of some steep-looking stairs.

Bloody Wellington.

The humiliation continued. After puffing up the stairs, I had trouble finding his door. But that seemed about right, I thought later.

The public Espiner isn't hard to track down at all. As a political reporter and then TVNZ's political editor, he's been at Parliament most days for 14 years and on our televisions most nights for eight years pontificating, prognosticating and proclaiming on the bollocks coming out of the Beehive. And if it's likely we won't be seeing quite so much of him on screen now he's moved to TV3 and its weekly investigative programme, 60 Minutes, the public Guyon will continue to be easy to find.

The private Espiner I'm not sure I got anywhere near. We sat, not quite comfortably, at his dining table for more than an hour and a half and talked, gossiped and laughed a bit while he studiously listened to, then politely answered, my questions.

The intensity you see on screen is there in person. So, too, the agile mind. But in the cab ride back to Wellington airport, it occurred to me that as interesting as he was, he was merely playing the role of willing subject, happy to talk business while giving away not very much at all about himself.

I might as well, I concluded glumly, have been interviewing a politician.

And a dirty turncoat politician at that. The tribalism in television - particularly between the free-to-air broadcasters' news teams - is legendary. Even by the bitchy standards of the media, their rivalry is something rivalling total war. So to move from TVNZ to TV3 (or from TV3 to TVNZ, though this appears rarer for some reason) has something approaching the gravity of a politician announcing that, ahem, he or she is deserting the government to join the hated opposition.

Espiner laughs at this, of course he does. He offers that "I suppose that's not an entirely incorrect observation", which was nice of him.

"It is very competitive and that can lead to a tribal sort of feeling, I guess ... I didn't have to sort of give away the secret recipe or do a funny handshake when talking to the other side [TV3] though."

At TV3, the deserter will, more or less, leave politics behind him. And he's happy with that. He's filled his boots on it. He's seen, if not it all, then plenty. He's watched as tired governments have gone and as new ones have waxed, only to wane in turn and be consigned to history. He's gone to China and Afghanistan, he travelled to Antarctica with the late Ed Hillary, he's been to Washington, interviewed Hillary Clinton, got a good, close look at Obama and George Dubya's cowboy boots. He's been in shit fights with Winston; he's helped nail political scalps to the wall; he's spoken truth to power.

His first day at Parliament (in 1998, for the Evening Post), was also former Prime Minister Jim Bolger's last, it was the day Spud gave his valedictory speech to the House.

"So that goes back a fair way. I've loved it, but that's long enough. You know, you do get a bit feral and you do get a bit sort of caught up in it. I think it can be a little damaging. I think it's nice to move on and give other people a go and also, it's good for your soul and your career to move on."

This is interesting because, I think it's fair to say, the parliamentary press gallery is, for many journalists, something like a Bermuda triangle - they go in but they never come out. It has been said, too, though Espiner hums and haws about this, that TVNZ's political editor has the most powerful job in New Zealand journalism. So to walk away after a mere six years ...

Curiously enough though, it was a politician that, at least in part, influenced Espiner's mind to give up his own seat.

"Simon Power was a bit of a revelation from the other side. He did [as National MP and minister] 15 years in Parliament, about the same amount of time as me, in a very different job obviously. But then, on the cusp of power, he said 'nah, I want to go do something else'. I thought that was pretty cool. I am a great believer in quitting while you're ahead and I'm a great believer in not overstaying your welcome."

But why do so many political journalists not quit and, perhaps, end up overstaying their welcome? Is it simply the intoxication of the proximity to power?

"I tell you, it's a few things. It's definitely the intoxicating nature of it, and journalists like to be flattered, don't they? They love it. [People] think they're this hard sort of species but we love to be flattered and for the Prime Minister to be ringing or to be ... mixing it with people who have power and have an influence is intoxicating. It's also the natural journalistic impulse of 'what's gonna happen next?' There's no point you can actually leave, because you're just about to go [and you think] 'okay, I've seen another term - the first term of the National Government. But wait, what's David Shearer [Labour's new leader] going to be like? Jesus, how's that going to end? Oh Christ, I'll have to spend another year having a look at that'.

"You know I saw Helen Clark go, I saw her come in 1999, go out in '08. Shit what's the next guy going to be like? You know every time anyone meets you, from no matter what walk of life, when you're in politics they go, 'God, it must be interesting at the moment mustn't it? You must be having a ball.' And it's always like that. I remember about six months where it wasn't that interesting, somewhere around '02 or '03. It sticks out because it was quite boring. Other than that it's intense and so of course people want to stay."

The dinner table was where his curiosity about politics began. Born in Christchurch, the third son of a doctor, Espiner's home in the affluent part of Cashmere was a cerebral household, where ideas and issues were served along with the meat and three veg.

"That was a massive part of my upbringing. Like the debates that you had at the table were really serious. Dad would say, 'what are the facts on this?' and you'd have to marshal your arguments really well. That's what got me into what I do today. So there was reading and there were ideas and discussion - but there was never any expectation to do anything [career-wise]."

His father had gone to Christ's College on a scholarship but he sent his three boys - the eldest Colin, Stephen and young Guyon - to the local school, Cashmere High. "[It was like] 'good luck', but not in an uncaring way. I still felt the world was kind of open to me, which is a really important gift, but with the gift too of not being too constrained and saying, 'you must do this or that'. None of that."

It seemed to work. Colin - who's some three years older than Guyon - went into journalism first, became the Christchurch Press' political editor and is now online editor for the Sunday Telegraph in Australia. Stephen, meanwhile, is a lecturer at Lincoln University.

Espiner freely admits Colin's career choice put the idea of journalism in his head. "I think there was quite a bit of that. Yeah, he went and did very well, very quickly and I think that was an influence on me. Having studied English - and language was always my thing - I was going to do something in the written word and I didn't quite know how I was going to make that work."

After graduating with a BA from Canterbury and attending the journalism school at Wellington Polytechnic in 1993, he joined TVNZ in 2003 after 10 years in journalism, mainly at the Evening Post, followed by a stint as political editor of the Sunday Star Times. He was made TVNZ political editor in 2006, finally going head-to-big-head with his great mate Duncan Garner, TV3's politics guy.

This, apparently, wasn't enough to keep Espiner busy. He took to interviewing politicians at weekends too, on TVNZ's political talk shops Agenda and its successor Q&A. Added to this, he wrote, for five years, a politics column for current affairs magazine North & South.

He seems to have been terribly pure about it all too. He hasn't voted while in the gallery. "I have taken the old school route of being as impartial as possible and trying to beat up on all sides as much as I can. I get asked a lot by members of the public 'oh, so who do you support?' And they feel quite affronted when you say, 'well, you know, we're just trying to referee this match,' but it's actually not as hard as you think."

Observing the Beehive boys at close quarters for more than a decade has, for Espiner, allowed him to confirm, with a sigh I might add, the adage that power corrupts.

"It erodes slowly doesn't it? I mean you watch someone like John Key and you watch him come in and you watch him being the anti-politician and then you watch the language change and you watch the excuses that have to be made for the things that went before and the things that inevitably never came to pass.

"And you just watch it slowly happening and you watch them slowly believe their own publicity and that's what makes it easier than some people think to be impartial. I don't think you'd survive if you were ferociously partial, because it's just so obvious that none of them have the monopoly on [what works]."

But what about his own power, the power that came from being in people's living rooms each night?

"Yeah, you've got a bit of clout because you've got a big audience and you're influencing people's opinions about people who run the country, so of course that's got some significance in it."

And he handled it how?

"I reckon I was pretty level-headed about it."

You didn't go crazy at some point?

"No. I mean, look you know that the minute you go, they aren't going to ring you anymore and what does that tell you? So it's not you, it's the position."

And so he walks away. He leaves, at just 41, the nasty, corrupting power behind - which, you might say, takes a kind of power, or strength at least, to do. But he's not just leaving his job: he's leaving TVNZ and he's leaving Wellington and - this very weekend - he's getting married as well.

That, by any measure, is an awful lot of change to make in a short space of time. I can't help mocking him a little with "when you are you getting the Harley Davidson?" but he's much too circumspect and stout a fellow to countenance some sort of wimpy mid-life meltdown, I'm sure. It's simply a matter of one thing leading to another, apparently.

The chain reaction begins with the woman he marries tomorrow at Golden Bay. He met Emma Wehipeihana - in something of a Wellington cliche - at Backbenchers, the pub across the road from the Beehive. That was 2009, when she was working for then-Labour MP Darren Hughes. After dating for a year or so, Espiner proposed last summer while the couple were holidaying in Cuba.

He might be said to have left marriage quite late. She, not so much.

"She's 27, I'm 41, so yeah, you do the maths but ... yeah. I mean, I don't really think about it that much."

Wehipeihana, who works in human resources, took a job in Auckland late last year, which led to Espiner's decision to leave Parliament and Wellington - but to stay at TVNZ. He figured he might be able to keep working on Q&A, perhaps back up Mark Sainsbury on Close Up and do investigative pieces for TVNZ's news programmes. Then the network's head of news, Anthony Flannery, resigned and so did Rick Ellis, TVNZ's CEO.

"While I was trying to work something out with TVNZ, there was a state of flux. The chief executive was going, the head of news was going; the people who were going for [Flannery's] job were positioning for that job and then they were going as well, and it meant that it was very difficult to actually talk to one person who could say, "well, okay mate, here's the deal'."

Instead, TV3's head of news Mark Jennings - and Garner - did the talking, and Espiner joins 60 Minutes, which returns to air next week. He will also be writing for the Listener in the near future.

Paul Holmes, who worked with Espiner on Q&A, said in a Herald column late last year that Espiner is "a hell of a loss to TVNZ and [his loss by TVNZ] should not have happened". Espiner isn't bitter, however, or if he is, he isn't letting on. "TVNZ is the people that work for it. I don't want to sound cliched about it, but God, it gets a hammering TVNZ, and I won't be doing that."

Did I say Espiner doesn't give much away? Perhaps it's better to say that he has learned the politician's art of answering questions as asked and offering no more than he has to.

For example, when I ask about a clearly important moment in his life, the death of his mother a decade ago, he says it was tough - but I'm not surprised when he immediately changes the subject to long-distance running, which he says he took up as a way to cope with her death, "to fill the space a little".

His small home doesn't let on much about the inner man either, though while he obviously has a thing about being sharply dressed, the house is surprisingly modest and modestly furnished. There's a guitar, which he's happy to be photographed with and uses to bang out the occasional song; there are a couple of small bookcases in the living room, with the likes of Ian McEwan and John Pilger on the shelves; there's not much on the walls, apart from a map of the world with pins stuck in various cities; the only pot plants are cacti ...

Even the most delicious rumour I'd heard about him - that, in the past, he'd used poetry to woo women - he says is untrue. But after I ask about this he does open the door a little wider by confessing he writes poetry - just not now. "I'm too happy to write poetry at the moment. I'm in such a good space."

So if you're looking for Guyon Espiner, best to stick to journalism. "I've always been happy to talk about journalism," he says, "so I always do interviews, I guess, about journalism. They quite often used to say to me at TVNZ, 'oh will you do your 12 questions about what your favourite X and Y is?' I haven't done any of that, just 'cause I don't think people really want to know - and I didn't want to tell them."

- NZ Herald

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