This summer we look back at some of the best stories from last year. This one, Kim Knight's interview with veteran broadcaster John Campbell, was first published in October.
What wakes you up?
I'm not a big sleeper. I go to bed late and wake up early and I'm ready to go.
What's your breakfast?
I was, until very recently, abysmal with breakfast. I would fuel myself with coffee, get to lunchtime and be really hungry, eat too much lunch, have a big sugar rush and by 3 o'clock I was almost in tears most days because everything was gone . . . so I'd go across the road to the little dairy and get myself a packet of jet planes. Green are my favourite. Green and orange. I was eating jet planes like - I mean, it was becoming really problematic. This is embarrassing, and very Grey Lynn of me, but I've discovered chia seeds and so I'm having granola and chia seeds and honey and yoghurt all mixed together and I just feel way calmer.
Does your job dictate your wardrobe?
I wear a blue suit. And I wear a blue or a white shirt. And brogues. The weekend is really problematic because you can't dress like that and I have no idea how to dress, so I wear the same brogues, a quite formal pair of jeans, a quite formal shirt and a jacket.
Have you ever wanted to loosen up?
Uniforms keep the world at bay. Sometimes if I'm reluctantly forced to dress for the beach or something and I put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, you know, everyone says "There's John Campbell wearing shorts and a T-shirt." It's just easier for me to not do it. It's not easy being the world's most uptight man.
You were on the West Coast recently, in a suit, on the beach . . .
And no one I was interviewing said, "John, don't be a dick, get your suit off." So isn't that lovely? That I can just turn up and be me? I feel most comfortable in a suit. If you be yourself and enable people to be themselves then journalism is achieving something, I think.
Have you figured out why you like journalism?
It's like a get into jail free card. There's nowhere we can't go. I'm a slightly shy person, I don't go to parties much. Journalism is like a form of dress-ups. I can go anywhere, you can ask any question, you can be way braver and have way more audacity and gall. You can be present at the best and worst of times and then you have a mandate to tell the story on behalf of people.
What's it like being public property?
I just avoid that. I don't believe in celebrity journalism. I don't think journalists should be celebrities.
But you've just done a photo shoot for Canvas?
'Cos I was asked to by my employer. That's part of the job, I absolutely understand that part of the gig of working at TVNZ is I'm going to have to do a bit of this shit. And you know, it's fine.
When your face becomes public property, do people feel like they know you?
They know my work. The other me, the non-work me - I mean, I believe it's called "private life" for a reason. I go to [music] gigs, which I love, but the band is the centre of attention. Everyone is looking forward.
You used to work as a share trader?
I had a part-time job at a share broker firm called Francis Allison Symes. My job was to stuff the contract notes into envelopes and send them to the clients. But I became curious and I quite like the alpha-ness of share broking, you know these really larger-than-life characters who were funny and appealing but they put out newsletters and stuff. It just seemed to me that they were really boring. They would always just talk about P-ratios or dividends or whatever and I'd think, "Why don't you tell the story of this company?" So I started just cheekily dipping my toe in . . . then I did an OE and came home and they said, "Would you like a job?" I became a trader on the floor of the Wellington Stock Exchange.
With the telephones and stuff?
Yeah. All of that shit, yelling and all of that. But I was really bad at it. I was always trading with seniors. If I'd ever been left on my own it would have been a spectacular disaster. And then, a long and strange story, Radio New Zealand phoned me up one day and said, "Would you like to try out as a business reporter?" [Turns out the chief reporter had heard Campbell's alternative "Sparky Plug" radio rugby commentary - and the chief reporter's mate worked with Campbell.]
Do you believe in serendipity?
Yeah, I mean that's pretty bizarre shit isn't it? You think of my life, you think of how unhappy I would have been if I'd remained a share broker and how different my life would be and how unfulfilled I think I would have been.
You could have become prime minister. That was a potential path for a man your age who was a trader.
John Key! I could have followed in John Key's footsteps. That may be the only time that phrase has ever been used.
Is money important?
No, not really. I mean, everyone knows money's important, you need to be able to pay the mortgage and doesn't that display something about me? Because for some people money means being able to pay the rent. So you need to be able to pay to live somewhere. I've been really well paid, but it's not a big driver for me.
How do you get to work?
Our house only has one car and we tend to make it work. I'm planning over summer to start walking. I get in 9-ish and I sit in the middle of the 6 o'clock reporters, which is fun because you get their energy.
How do you set up your desk?
Just a computer. And I just work my phone constantly. TVNZ's unusual because I'm not part of a team at TVNZ, like I'm moving around, so far I've had a week on Q&A and a week on Sunday. And I don't know what I'm doing this week . . .
What does the "at large" in your new job title mean?
I have to justify my keep in a way that is self-starting. I will still be working with extraordinary executive producers but I won't be in the bosom of a team. I'm going to have to really work on being really highly motivated.
How will you have your ego fed?
Especially when you front programmes, you often get lavishly praised for other people's work. I know when I've done a good story and I know when it hasn't been good enough and, right now, I've probably had enough over the years of having my ego fed. It's been some pretty generous feeding has gone on. If I don't understand now what constitutes merit, then I'm probably in real trouble.
Do you want your name on a programme again?
I didn't want my name on Campbell Live. That was [former Mediaworks news chief] Mark Jennings' idea.
People know who I am. People can call shit whatever they like, it's the work that matters, not the name.
There was talk that Campbell Live had built an empire and when the end came there was a bit of schadenfreude?
No one ever said that to my face.
People have said worse things to my face. Look, journalism is a competitive business. If you're not trying to be the best journalist you can possibly be and if you're not trying to do the best work you can possibly do, then what's the point of going to work? And that was a highly motivated team really driven to do the best work it possibly could. And good. That's how it should be.
There was an attempt to keep you in radio. Why didn't you extend your contract?
I've been doing daily for 20 years. Five nights a week for the past 20 years . . . That is a hell of a long time. Surviving 10 years at 7 o'clock on television is brutal and its tough . . . I just was exhausted . . . After 20 years of it, the studio was becoming tough for me. It was a conscious effort of will to just get up and get up and get up. Going into the field has never been a conscious effort of will for me. Every time I've driven out of the garage in a crew car, wherever I've worked, I've felt a sense of excitement. I wasn't feeling that same excitement about going to the studio. Get out the world's smallest violin, but you get home and you're f***ed.
Are you going to do a 7pm show again?
My answer is absolutely no, but that's my answer in October of 2018. In this business you never say never, but it's not what I came to TVNZ to do.
That 7pm slot has become much more, um, comedic . . .
I think those shows have a lovely vibe around them now. There's a generosity of spirit which is lovely. But I'm more interested in telling stories about people for whom life isn't working out as they'd hoped and probably as they deserve. That's not the diet of 7 o'clock shows at the moment. And that's fair enough. Look, I'm in a master-servant relationship here - I know the people who drove us out of TV3 don't believe this, but the employer is always right, whatever they want, they should get . . . I mean those pricks didn't want me there - there were only two pricks who didn't want me there - you can't force them to want you. It was a heartbreaking process but in the end I couldn't find a way to stay without betraying what I wanted to stay for. I mean, they wanted me to interview contestants from The Block. I didn't become a journalist to do that shit and if you're not prepared to do the shit your employer wants you to do, then you've gotta go.
Now that you're a reporter, rather than a presenter, when will you get to use your superlatives?
Yeah, good call! Because the stories I want to tell, by and large, won't involve superlatives. Every now and then I will do a story that's just going to be a celebration of something. Just so I can unleash the superlatives. I feel like we're only here the once and if shit makes us joyful, if it makes us happy, it's almost our duty to tell people about it, otherwise what the f*** are we up to? A lot of life is tough, it's repetitive, it's slog, it's running out of money before payday. If you can find stuff that makes you feel that it's worth it, then I reckon you should share that stuff.
Was that something that was instilled in you?
My mum and dad believed very strongly in good manners and my dad was ... he never died wondering what he thought.
New Zealanders don't always like praising people.
I think that's probably changing. I think probably the new New Zealanders aren't arriving with that kind of Presbyterian mindset. And certainly you won't find that in the Pasifika communities. There's way more yahooing in the Pasifika communities than the uptight white palagi communities . . . Scepticism is a quality we have to preserve rigorously, but I think it's okay to say from time to time: "Wow, that person is extraordinary."
Does your working day have a formal ending?
I just work until I feel like I've done enough work. I feel like if anyone ever stops you at the door on the way out and says forensically, "What have you done today?" I need to be able to be persuasive. That it's been worth having me. Once you start inventing excuses for doing less work, then you'll invent excuses for doing less work. In the end you'll be doing f***-all work.
Who cooks dinner?
Whoever is interested and in the mood. If you get home from work at 7pm or 7.30pm and you've got two teenage kids, it's quick. It's pasta and risotto and whatever you can do in half an hour and usually in one pot.
How involved do you get to be with your teenagers, given your big working life?
In short, my children are 17 and 15 and they're wonderful kids and they know their dad loves them, but they're living rich and full lives themselves now.
Did you always want kids?
I think probably I did. I love kids. The sense of possibility. Most children, hopefully - and maybe it's not as high a percentage as we would like - but there is a sense of weightlessness about children, a sense that the world hasn't taken its toll on them yet and that's wonderful. The quality of infinity is very much a part of childhood. The thing that makes me cross is when we're glib about disadvantage. When people say, "Life is a level playing field". Anyone with an IQ of greater than 12 must understand life is not a level playing field and some people are born into incredible fortune and privilege and other people aren't but just because they're not born into those things doesn't mean they're not bright and vivid and imaginative and hopeful. What we have to do is give them the same opportunity.
You've gone through a lot of prime ministers in your interviewing career. Do you have to adjust your approach each time?
I don't really enjoy interviewing politicians very much. The people who belong to their tribe think you're being too tough, the people who belong to the other tribe think you're not being tough enough. Whatever you ask them, they're going to say what it was their intention to say. I can't remember the last time that a politician said something that surprised me.
Will they miss you?
I doubt it. Some of them, I mean Gerry Brownlee, he just would never talk to me.
[Former Labour Prime Minister] Helen Clark talks to you now?
We've re-engaged in the past year or two but there was a long time between drinks.
Was that justified?
You'd have to ask someone other than me.
I wanted to ask how you relax but I think it will be a much shorter conversation. What's the last book you read?
I'm reading one at the moment which is just fantastic. I'll text you the title. It's so good, I can't recommend it highly enough. It's fantastic. [He emails later - Normal People by Sally Rooney].
All the time. I like the indie jingle-jangle music, I like guitar music - but strummed guitars, not lead guitars. I like sad music. I like a lot of really new hip-hop. For me, that's where the risks are being taken and life is being affirmed and also they're stories that aren't my stories and some of it is just so clever and good and funny and subversive and surprising. I was at Kendrick Lamar and it was just joyful.
Are you musical?
No. My dad [Jim] died in June and at his funeral I really wished for him I could have sung in tune, really belted it out for him. Because I really wanted to. My dad was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. He was larger than life and he would text me almost every night after work. It's quite extraordinary to receive texts like that when you're 54. He was 80. He was a lovely old cat.
Is there a bach or a place that means family?
No, we live in Grey Lynn and it really suits us there. It's nice, I like it. I mean, I hope the white folk don't ruin it.
Do you watch yourself on the telly when you get home?
No. No. There's enough of me, without me becoming arch or self-conscious or self-aware.
I've forgotten to ask you quite a crucial question - what's the first point in the day that you consume news?
Morning Report. My entire life. My mum and dad listened to it. Bizarrely, I even listened to it when I was flatting, before I knew I was going to be a journalist.
Do you have any evening rituals?
I used to have a glass or two most nights. I'm probably down to only three or four nights now. Suddenly you start thinking about things. I'd like to live to be old, I'd like to meet my grandkids or see how we're going to be better, do better, all of that shit. I was never a heavy drinker, I can't remember the last time I was drunk or even tipsy. I was a fairly typical university student though. I gave everything a go.
At university? Oh yes, shit yes.
You've described yourself as the most uptight man in the country . . .
Do you have to let go? Can't you just be uptight? Why can't you just be uptight?
Doesn't that drive people around you crazy?
I suspect it probably does. Bless them. I don't know. I find I just go and go and go. I've seen a lot of sad stuff and I've spoken to a lot of people for whom life is really tough. The best response for me is just to keep moving and keep working . . . Motion and movement. Always look forward. Do some more work today, and then you don't have to think about yesterday.
Will that come back to bite you? When you literally can't keep moving?
That's going to happen isn't it? I don't know what I'll do then. Just turn the music up louder I guess.
Do you dream when you sleep?
I never remember them. I'm in the story business, so maybe the night gives me some time off.