A TV star who left because he was becoming 'a dick', no airs and graces, sensitive and sensible, an unblokey sports journo — so what's such a nice guy doing in a job like this?
The journalist and news reader Eric Young has been on gardening leave from Prime News for two months and on Monday he starts his new job, which is his old job, as the night news anchor on Prime News. This is due to some amazingly complicated contractual business which involved MediaWorks (which is TV3) taking over Prime's news from Sky TV. I think. He wasn't much help. He said: "It was confusing even to me!" The announcement of his new job, which is his old job, was embargoed until yesterday and, no, he didn't know why about that either. He said: "Well, to be honest, it's going to be lovely to have a job again."
I thought he'd been given the push because I read things that suggested he'd been given the push but that was just, he said, because people got the wrong end of the complicated stick. He said: "I like to think I never left Prime News; Prime News left me!"
Anyway, he said there was always "the hope and the understanding" he'd be back and in the meantime he had those two months off, on full pay, which sounds pretty good to me. He hated it. "It turned out I was really crap at gardening." He was bored. Why didn't he just relax and have a nice long, paid-for holiday? "Because I really like being in the office." What did he do on enforced leave? "Bugger all." He loves working, which is just as well because, at 53, he has worked at every channel, "including channels that no longer have news, I've got a record that will never be broken!".
He's been around for such a long time that he claimed I interviewed him "and Katie ... at least 12 years ago". I have no recollection of this — which is not his fault, obviously — but who the hell was Katie? It is Kate Hawkesby and they were both then at TVNZ, so it must have been more like a hundred years ago.
But of course, despite my deplorable memory for interviews, I know who he is and so do most people who watch the news on any channel, because he has been around for such a long time. He has an amiable face (he is good-looking but not ridiculously handsome; handy in a male newsreader) and has an amiable manner. He's not a lofty sort of newsreader and he appears to be airs and graces-free, which is also handy in a newsreader. You can imagine having a pint with him more readily than you might imagine having a pint with some other newsreaders I can think of.
But it's hard to sum up his long career without sounding a bit ... rude. Because he's a sort of second-rung telly news star, I suppose. I couldn't think of any other way of putting it, but he didn't mind. I asked what his profile was and he said: "I would say someone who's flown under the radar. Deliberately."
He was a sports journalist, on radio and in newspapers, before becoming a TV sports journalist, before he became a presenter. I wondered if he'd ever wanted to be a big star TV presenter, which I thought might have been a slightly delicate question because it means Why aren't you a big star TV presenter? Didn't he want to be Simon Dallow, say? "No!" Why not? "Why?" Well, because he does the same job for, presumably, a much bigger audience and a much bigger pay cheque.
"I have no idea about his pay cheque. I'm not interested. I have a little bit of an idea about his audience. Nah. I wouldn't swap it in a heartbeat. The difference for me is the newsroom. I love the small, collaborative newsroom we have and I'm not sure the TVNZ newsroom is like that." He is able to be a producer as well as a newsreader and he does mentoring, which I imagine he is very good at. And so, to paraphrase him, being a TV celebrity sort didn't eschew him; he eschewed it.
He was a very keen journalist and once interviewed a naked Kevin Tamati, in the shower, after the infamous sideline punch-up between Tamati and the Aussie prop, Greg Dowling. Golly. Where did he look? "Straight at his face. Obviously." The really strange bit about this story is that he never wrote about where the interview took place (until years afterwards, in a column). That says a bit about how long he's been in the news business. In 1985 you didn't write about your strange encounter with a naked rugby player in a shower.
He loves being a journalist so I wasn't sure why he had wanted to be a presenter. "I don't think anyone sets out to want to read the news. I wanted to be a journalist." That was rather my point. The difference, he said, is in that: "I'm still the meat at the end of the chain, but it's a very small chain."
I think, actually, he might have once thought — wrongly, as it turned out — that he did want to be one of those swaggering starry TV guys. But he is both sensitive and sensible and when he was at TV3 in the late 1980s he had a creeping realisation that, as he puts it, he was becoming "a dick". What was he doing that was dickish? "Oh, just being a dick about what I felt was my success, my wonderful career. I just woke up to myself. And so I left."
He left in a peculiar way. He invented a swish job in Sydney. "A complete crock." He did actually go to Sydney and did get a good job with Optus Vision, but why on Earth did he make a job up? He could have simply resigned. "Well, it was going to make it easier for everybody. If I was able to say 'I've got this great job in Sydney' ... But if I was to say 'I'm a bit of a dick. I need to go away and take a good hard look at myself', that doesn't fly."
He didn't much like himself. "That's exactly where I was heading. And every now and then I do these emotional audits of myself: Am I where I need to be? Am I where I want to be? Am I the sort of person I always wanted to be?"
What he really wanted to be was an architect. He has no idea where this came from — or how to make it happen, so it didn't. His beloved dad, now dead, was a butcher; his mum raised six children (his eldest sister, Jo, who was like his second mum, died of cancer in 2004) and worked in offices in clerical jobs. He is the youngest of the siblings and the family lived in New Plymouth and then, he said: "I went to sleep one night in New Plymouth and woke up in Napier and that was our new life." From the age of nine he seldom saw his father. "I did manage to see him three times and it was heart-breaking for both of us." His father, who was an asthmatic and "always a slight man" died 30 years ago, alone, in his flat, and he can still barely talk about any of this. When he and his siblings were clearing out his father's flat, they found a scrapbook which contained "every single story I'd ever written for the Auckland Star and the Auckland Star didn't go to New Plymouth". It took him a long time to tell me this because he still gets one of those lumps in the throat that words get stuck behind.
He swallowed and said: "And I still, every time I go into a butcher's shop, smile." I was glad about that because he was so upset, and he was upset about being upset in a public place (we were at a cafe) in front of me, a stranger, of course. And I was sorry he was upset, but I did think him both brave and honest. As a journalist, he would know how to side-step questions he really didn't want to answer. But I think he would have thought that tricky, if it had even occurred to him to attempt trickiness, which it wouldn't. He's a straight-up sort of chap.
His emotional audit would reveal him to be a very happy chap now. He has the job, again, phew, and he did get the architecturally designed house in Titirangi, which he'd "lusted after for 30 years" — three years ago. He lives there with his wife of almost five years, Michelle, a solicitor, and two chocolate brown cats, Denny and Alan (named after those characters on Boston Legal). It is a first, and late marriage. "Very, very late! The cliché is that she hadn't appeared."
You can see why it might have taken him a while to settle down. He said, about going to sleep in one place and waking up in another: "Look, I can trace a lot of stuff back to that."
He must be fairly resilient now, to have survived the television news business for so long, for one thing. He did leave TVNZ in 2005 after a sort of breakdown (a nasty clash with a producer who, he says, seemed to have it in for him), but he bounced back, thanks to good friends, he said.
He likes "talent" in other people and all his friends, who are mostly other news people, are successful. "I like people who are really good at their jobs." He is useless at talking himself up but generous about talking up other people. He loves John Campbell and is great mates with the Australian rugby player-turned-journalist Peter FitzSimons, and he was the MC at another great mate's wedding, Tony Veitch. (He said about Veitch that "for me the measure of a mate, whether they pass the sniff test on being a good mate, is how you respond to certain situations. And there were times when Tony was just someone who needed a mate, he needed a shoulder ..." )
He also has a good friend called Crusty (another sports journo, Mark Baker). I was trying to work out how blokey he was. Sports journo ... A mate called Crusty ... He said: "I'm possibly the least blokey of my blokey friends. I'm not even sure I have a blokey side."
He likes cooking, and loves his wife and their lovely house and the cats, who sleep in the bed. He's thoroughly decent and likeable and hard-working. I said: "Good luck with the old job." And he laughed and off he went, flying, happily, under the radar, and good for him.