Profile: Mike McRoberts On Conflict Here and Abroad
Conflict Zones Here and Abroad – An Interview With Television's Mr Nice Guy Mike McRoberts
Profile - By Nicholas Jones.
Mike McRoberts. Photograph by Nick Jones.
Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan: for somebody with a reputation as television’s “Mr Nice Guy”, TV3 news anchor Mike McRoberts has reported from some tough places. But the 44-year-old’s position as the de facto face of television foreign affairs reporting in New Zealand has brought both plaudits and brickbats.
McRoberts’ journalism is routinely the spark that sets off wider debate about conflict and disaster reporting: is enough emphasis given to historical context? Can quality journalism be produced by a reporter fresh off the plane? Should New Zealanders even be covering big international stories?
In January, McRoberts filed a story that showed him helping a badly-injured five-year-old Haitian girl to hospital, and in doing so fed another question to the blogosphere: do journalists need to be completely removed from their stories, or is cold hearted “objectivity” a false god?
“I appreciate McRoberts' intervening actions probably saved that little girl,” opined Herald on Sunday gossip columnist Rachel Glucina, one of several commentators to criticise the story. “He saw someone in trouble and felt compelled to help. How could he not? But it is my opinion, that in doing so, he was also fulfilling a self-serving purpose to tell his story. Had he just recorded what he saw, he may have intervened in the most effective way possible.”
Talking over coffee at his home in Auckland’s Westmere, McRoberts admits being called out by Glucina can be hard to take (“it’s like being critiqued by [Dancing with the Stars host] Candy Lane”) but is certain his decision to help the girl – and include it in his story – was the right one.
“I defy anyone in that situation to do something differently. I mean how can you just be an impartial observer to that, when you’ve got an opportunity to help? And I was able to use that to tell a story as well, and it told a pretty compelling story of how dysfunctional things were.”
It’s a flash of intensity that soon gives way to a relaxed atmosphere more typical of the interview as McRoberts pokes fun at the cult status his safari-like shirts have attained.
“It’s become what I wear now...one of the TV3 reporters turned up one day wearing a shirt like mine, and the cameraman who was working with him said, ‘What are you doing? You’re wearing Mike’s shirt.”
The shirts aren’t the only famous pieces of clothing in McRoberts’ wardrobe. In 2006, New Zealand Herald Sideswipe columnist Ana Samways published a photo of McRoberts wearing a flak jacket while his cameraman did not, questioning whether the flak jacket “might be just for show, a mere costume if you will”.
Photograph by, and courtesy of, Jon Stephenson, who noted: "Sideswipe said the photo was from Gaza, when it was actually taken in Lebanon during the Israel-Hezbollah war.”
It’s an insinuation that has stuck – New Zealand Herald reporter Michele Hewitson even joked with him during an interview that TV3 could issue a McRoberts doll, with “optional flak jacket”.
Today, mention of the words “flak jacket” visibly fatigues him – as if he knows their use will only feed the accusation, no matter his response. Still, out of politeness he gives it a go.
“The funny thing is, I normally take my flak jacket to places where I think I might need it, but I think I’ve actually only worn it twice. I’ve never worn it for a live cross or anything like that, or for anything other than protection.”
Jon Stephenson was McRoberts’ producer at the time and took the photo. He says the news anchor is reluctant to put on a jacket unless he thinks it’s necessary.
"I've sometimes had to urge him to wear one. Mike knows he may be criticised for doing so, but I'd rather he copped some flak from people back home than take flak in a war zone when he wasn't wearing his jacket."
Stephenson says other media at the scene were wearing flak jackets (he later emails through photos demonstrating this), but TV3's cameraman chose not to wear his because he finds it hard to operate his camera while wearing one.
Canada's CBC journalists chose to wear their flak jackets in the conflict zone. Photograph by, and courtesy of, Jon Stephenson.
Mike McRoberts may be a journalist now, but growing up in Christchurch McRoberts had wanted to become a lawyer. It was only a chance field trip to Radio New Zealand’s offices while he was at high school that he says caused a change of heart.
“When I was at Radio New Zealand it was 11.30am, so just before their big midday bulletin. And the buzz around the place was just incredible. And I was probably bitten then and thought, ‘Shit, this is what I want to do.”
Following a cadetship at Radio New Zealand and study at the Christchurch Polytechnic Broadcasting School, he spent 10 years working in radio, before moving to Auckland to take a job with TVNZ in 1995.
After a couple of years as the All Blacks reporter, he tired of the cyclical nature of sports news and began working on the Holmes current affairs programme, “probably the toughest job in television”.
A trip to Fiji in 2000 to cover the coup wet his appetite for conflict reporting, before he was headhunted to cross the great divide to TV3 and work as John Campbell’s backup and on current affairs programme 20/20.
An “ugly” battle with TVNZ in the employment court followed, which he won. Photograph by Nick Jones.
“I left TVNZ on the Thursday before Easter in 2001, and read the 6pm news on TV3 the next day on Good Friday. I hadn’t even been to the building before, I had to drive around and ring up the receptionist and find out where TV3 was located.
“Later that year of course 9/11 happened and the world changed dramatically, and my role did too. I covered Afghanistan and then a few years later Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and the Pacific conflicts in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.”
When John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld moved to the 7pm slot to present and produce current affairs programme Campbell Live in 2005, McRoberts and Hillary Barry were chosen to fill the vacant 6pm thrones.
He says the move came as a shock.
“I had no desire to read the news, I hadn’t even thought about it to be honest...I was never a spotty teenager thinking one day I’m going to be Richard Long.”
The decision to accept the job was made easier by the fact he could continue to report for the news and the 60 Minutes current affairs programme he presents, he says.
All the same, anchoring the news has “exponentially” increased his public profile, which he says has come as a challenge. He and wife Paula Penfold – a reporter on 60 Minutes – usually holiday overseas to escape the spotlight, and don’t go out much, preferring to socialise at home with close friends.
He’s thankful his children Ben (10) and Maia (8) have grown up with his job, and don’t see the attention he receives as unusual.
It’s easy to forget just how strange that job really is. The living room table we sit at is covered with the clutter that comes with a young family. A lawnmower sounds somewhere outside. Up the road a man is selling bags of avocados and oranges from the back of his van.
It’s an almost comical contrast that helps him deal with the trauma of what he sees overseas.
“It’s so different, it’s such a world apart from where you’ve been, it’s easy to put them in separate boxes and say that’s there and this is here.
“I found Haiti this year probably the worst situation I’ve ever been in. It was just flattened and there were bodies piled up on the footpath, and people would take them out like trash. The strange thing was that after a couple of days it just became familiar and you didn’t even look at it, you’d just walk past...it’s the impact on the living that gets me.”
The isolation and size of New Zealand contributes to what McRoberts believes is a “cultural cringe” attitude to Kiwis doing foreign affairs reporting, which is “ridiculous”.
“I find it extraordinary to suggest that we shouldn’t be sending our own people to cover the world’s biggest stories. We’re not American and we’re not British, and in so many conflicts in the past ten years we’ve had quite different thoughts about those conflicts.”
When he presented part of the news bulletin from Lebanon during the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 TV3 received a boost in ratings, which he says showed New Zealanders do appreciate one of their own covering big international stories.
“When I first joined TV3 I remember John Campbell saying to me that when Princess Di died he could have read the news naked, because there was no one watching us.
“But I think after Afghanistan and Iraq...and those kinds of events, when there’s a big story now we do attract that discretionary viewer.”
So, given the audience is willing, what comes next? McRoberts lists Afghanistan and Haiti as destinations he’d like report on soon, but “you can never tell with news”.
“I travel around with a packed bag in the back of the car and passport always in my bag in case something happens.
“With the war in Lebanon I remember there was an obvious upscale of activity, and I was at the kids swimming lessons in Mt Albert and rang [Mark Jennings], and he came back about half an hour later and said, ‘Yeah, let’s go’. And we were on a plane that afternoon.”
Just another surreal day in the life of TV3’s foreign affairs action man.
Nick Jones is an Auckland based journalist. This is his first article for Scoop.co.nz.