Michele Hewitson Interview: Cameron Bennett

By Michele Hewitson

He was on telly forever, he misses war zones, he's become inspired ... and he's just how you think he'd be

Cameron Bennett has a deceptively ambling manner, but he has survived in some tough places. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Cameron Bennett has a deceptively ambling manner, but he has survived in some tough places. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Whatever has happened to that grizzled veteran hack Cameron Bennett?

He ought, surely, to be grizzled and cynical and world-weary. He was a foreign correspondent for years and years, covering wars and the terrible tsunami and Guantanamo Bay, until two years ago. He is one of New Zealand's most experienced journalists and has one of those TV voices you'd know anywhere.

Except that he is no longer on the telly, or at least not at TVNZ. So seeing him in the flesh, at home in his pleasant but not-at-all-posh Mt Eden house, is like seeing somebody you think you know but the context is awry.

He was on the telly for "100 years", and then, whoosh, gone. He was actually at TVNZ as a senior journo and foreign correspondent and flak jacket-wearer for almost 25 years, which is a long time and the reason for the familiarity.

Of course, once gone, as he pointed out rather pointedly - I think he thought I was making a bit much of his sudden disappearance, and fair enough, because what other kind of disappearance can there be? - nobody much cares, he says.

There is another body on the screen and that's that. He is very matter of fact about this, although you'd think that knowing this would be a bit crushing.

I thought he might be a bit crushed because I thought he got the boot, or at least jumped before he did. But he says a redundancy was on offer and he took it and this was a good thing. He says he was becoming a grumpy old sod, his presenting role on Sunday was to get the chop, so he thought, Why not make the great leap?

The great leap was into freelancing and now he's for hire for ... just about anything, really. His website has him offering himself as a media consultant and journalist for hire, available "anywhere, any time". Nobody has yet taken him up on the media consulting bit, but he doesn't seem to mind terribly much.

One of his oldest friends is Labour leader David Shearer - they met grape picking in France in their early 20s and "have done all our years together" - and he does give him advice, like everybody else, and he wasn't about to tell me what advice he's given him. So he does appear to have given himself media training.

He has what I suspect is a deceptively ambling manner (aided by that floppy telly hair) but he can't have survived all of those years at TVNZ by being a push-over.

He is also, of course, a war journo and he mentioned, early on, "the theatre of conflict" with a straight face. He later phoned and left a message noting that I had taken the mickey out of him a bit for this.

He said he wanted me to know that it was about context and he had been talking about the drama of using conflict "as a form of theatre, really. That was the context". In other words, he didn't want to come across as a self-important git, which is entirely understandable.

If he ever was a self-important git - and I'm not saying he was, but telly can do strange things to people - he is no longer. So, good. He said: "I don't think I have to be on the telly to validate who I am."

He is, in fact, exactly the person you thought he'd be after having watched him for 25 years being a serious news-getter on the telly. He is too young to retire, and too inquisitive. He says that contrary to what I'd read, nobody at TVNZ told him he was too old or "not contemporary enough". He looked contemporary enough to me. He was wearing jeans and a shirt of the variety that might cause the PM to make a silly remark.

He was really rather famous and even now, at the supermarket, people want to chat. So you'd think he would mind, even if just a bit, no longer being on the telly. It would hurt anyone's ego, after all.

But he says he was never really addicted, or not in the way some people are. He does miss war zones. But that is about missing adrenalin. I may have scoffed a bit about the actual danger but he insists he was, on occasions, in real danger. He surprised himself by enjoying danger. He liked the "hyper-reality of it. You're incredibly adrenalised".

I can see that he might well have been surprised. He is a fairly laid-back sort of chap otherwise and likes playing blues and country and folk on his collection of guitars and plays a bit of fiddle. He is a left-winger, which comes as no surprise at all.

He is in very chipper spirits (in his languid way) because he has done the interviews for a book called The Power of Us: New Zealanders Who Dare To Dream (Random House, $49.99; royalties to Medicine Mondiale), and has just been to El Alamein with a group of war veterans for a documentary for Maori TV's Anzac Day coverage. Both of these jobs amount to good works, and they are good work to get too, of course.

But a funny thing seems to have happened to him along the way. He's come over all fresh-faced and inspired and positively evangelical. "Ha, ha. That's okay. That's all right."

It was probably to be expected. We have come to see him about the book, which is the brainchild of Sir Ray Avery, who is always telling journalists who come to interview him that they should do something worthwhile with their lives.

Having interviewed Sir Ray, I do know that hanging around with him for longer than an hour or two is not a good idea for journalists. He makes you come over all fresh-faced and inspired and positively evangelical.

His latest convert said: "As a project, it actually inspired me." He said, of the messages of the people interviewed in the book: "I like that they talk about: 'Let's build the best thing we can build, not the cheapest. Let the creative imperative actually be the driver ...'"

Good heavens! He's a changed person! I knew that that Ray Avery was a dangerous man. He met him, of course, doing a story about him - for Sunday. "He's a great energy and he makes things happen. There was a feel-good factor about it that actually, genuinely feels like you're putting something worthwhile out there."

I don't want Sir Ray emailing me and telling me, again, to do something worthwhile with my life, so here's the plug for the book. It is a collection of interviews, by Bennett, and photographs, by Adrian Malloch, and the title is self-explanatory. Some of the names: Emily Perkins, Sam Neill, Rhys Darby, Mai Chen, Sir Graeme Douglas, Vincent Ward.

They are all creative people, obviously, and their interviewer says everyone is creative. We had a small spat over that, because I don't think that's true and what's more, some people shouldn't be allowed to be creative. Even accountants are creative, he said, "as we know". Which rather demolished his own argument, I felt.

I hate to bring cynicism into our feel-good interview, but I'm not sure what these sorts of books are supposed to do, or who they're for - not grizzled old hacks, obviously.

"I think it's actually quite a good sort of statement of identity, actually, from a range of New Zealanders - and it's inspirational stuff."

Fair enough. And I did enjoy the story he told me about going to interview Sam Neill at his Two Paddocks winery in Central Otago. The very famous movie star took the former telly guy out to lunch - at the local sandwich bar where the movie star had a strawberry milkshake. That seems like a fairly decent statement of identity to me.

I did ask who he liked best, because there is at least one prickly character in the book, and he said it wasn't about liking people. I'd have thought that it was a natural human response and he said, well, take Jeanette Fitzsimons, who is the only politician, if ex-politician, included.

He said: "She's incredibly shy. She's serious-minded. Yet she's got really good things to say. It's not about whether I liked her or not. I'm sure those who know her find her really likeable. But what I guess I'm saying is I really appreciated what they were prepared to say. Does that sound reasonable?"

Entirely reasonable, but I was after a story about his own glittering career. He provided one about his time, in his youth, selling garden gnomes at Harrods and which is listed as a career highlight in the bio notes at the end of the book. "People would end up in the gardening section when they were looking for women's shoes or something. You know what Harrods is like. And one day a famous person walked in: Bianca Jagger! And I tried to sell her a gnome and she just iced straight through. Then I ran into her years later in Macedonia; she was a Good Will ambassador for the UN and her PR person came over and said: 'Hey, Bianca Jagger's here. Does anyone want to talk to her? She's available to be interviewed?' And I said: 'You know what? Not really. No.' Ha, ha, ha!"

He said, about being interviewed: "I was surprised you gave me a call, actually."

It would be fair to say that, like most old hacks, grizzled or otherwise, he's not entirely comfortable being interviewed. But he's a decent sort and I was glad to meet him although - who knows? - it might have been more fun meeting him before Ray Avery got his mitts on him. But only a grizzled old hack would think so.

- NZ Herald

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