J C Superstar: John Campbell on leaving TV3, radio life and his new TV show

by Julie Hill / 08 June, 2017
Portraits/ Stephen Wells
 

Self-confessed “uptight white middle-aged guy” John Campbell is making a (temporary) jump to TVNZ to take the nation’s pulse for a new series about the country’s future. Here, he talks about getting over TV3, being inherently uninteresting, and why being a journalist is a bit like being a superhero.

To misquote Jarvis Cocker, John Campbell is not Jesus, but he has the same initials. After walking-slash-brutally-being-pushed from his TV3 show two years ago, the most marvellous man in media has been pioneering the art of radio with pictures on RNZ National’s 5pm show Checkpoint. This week, he debuts on TVNZ to co-present the new show What Next? with Nigel Latta, a series that explores what New Zealand might look like in 20 years’ time. 

JULIE HILL Do you find it weird being interviewed?
JOHN CAMPBELL Yeah, I hate it. I feel like, one, I’m really private and, two, the public stuff about me is not inherently that interesting. I like Flying Nun music, I like indie jingle-jangle bands, I like books and poetry, I like suits. Everyone knows that shit.

I feel like it’s the work that matters. So over the years I’ve really gone out of my way to avoid being interviewed. Also I think a lot of people who do what we do are a bit shy. For me, the great discovery of becoming a journalist was that it’s like a form of dress-ups. There are moments when I’m asking people questions and I’m thinking, at what stage are they going to call my bluff, or say, “I don’t have to answer that, who do you think you are?” When my children were little they would put a tea towel round their neck and be a superhero. I think journalism’s a little bit like that.

How’s radio life?
Campbell Live was really architectural, you could really plan it, whereas Checkpoint is much more like, “we’ve got 90 minutes today and what are we going to fill it with?” We’re like short-order chefs. It’s got a great team – my direct boss is Pip [Keane] who was my boss at Campbell Live. My big big boss is Carol Hirschfeld who was my first boss at Campbell Live and the person between them is Mary Wilson who was Checkpoint host for two decades. I couldn’t be luckier.

Do you find the limitations on the visual side frustrating?
We’re working on that. My ambition is to have way more visual stuff and spend much more time in the field. I understand the necessity of studio interviews but I’m much happier where life is taking place. I always say to people the greatest misnomer in journalism is ‘newsroom’. There’s no news in that fucking room. It’s where you process the news but the news is where people are.

Do you resent TV3?
Not any more. I think in the end we proved that if you told people why journalism is important and said, ‘look, if you don’t watch us you’ll lose us,’ that people did watch us, in huge numbers. And during our review period we were outrating whatever the juggernaut at the time was, whether it was The Bachelor or X Factor, and we were the highest-rating programme of the year on TV3. They say to you, “be commercially successful” – well, we were. But you know, life goes on. You can’t force people to employ you.

What do you think of The Project?
Haven’t watched it.

Is What Next? the result of TVNZ trying to woo you since you left TV3?
I mean, there were calls. But first of all I had to go away and feel optimistic again and get better. I was sad. I was really sad.

How did you get better?
Just by minding my own business. I listened to music, walked the dog. There’s no point in becoming angry or cynical, or wishing anyone ill. So I just kept out the way really. I’m still keeping out of the way!

Do you miss telly?
Yeah. Not achingly. I miss what telly can be. I miss the theoretical possibilities of television.

And the money?
Yeah, there isn’t much money. I’m struck by that. When people talk about Radio NZ having no money, you don’t know that until you get there – there’s no travel budget, there’s no correspondents budget. But I would say as a taxpayer that the money is spent well and cautiously. No one’s taking the piss. All I want to do is do the best journalism I can do. It sounds like a load of shit but I’m fit for purpose for being a journalist. I wish I’d been a brilliant rugby player, I wish I’d been Bobby Gillespie in the Screamadelica phase of Primal Scream, but I wasn’t. Journalism is my thing and I’m bloody lucky to be able to do it five days a week in a public journalism environment. No one’s looking over my shoulder. In the end at TV3 they were saying, “Don’t do child poverty. Don’t do Pike River. Don’t do Christchurch”. They said it’s too depressing. No one says that to you at Radio NZ.

There’s so much anxiety at the moment about global politics and the climate. Will What Next? give us some hope for the future?
Well, maybe slight hope. I don’t know that it’s going to be prescriptive. I think if we pretend we know the answers then we’ll be doing everyone, including ourselves, a disservice. I think the notion of the programme is that we at least ask, can we rely on certain assumptions about ourselves and about the world? And if we can’t, what’s our plan B? Are we going to keep dairy farming? And that’s not only an environmental question, it’s a pragmatic business question. What say the world stops drinking milk? What say there are cheap synthetic alternatives available? Or automation: if roughly half the jobs that exist on the planet at the moment are not going to exist within the lifetimes of many of our viewers, then what’s plan B? They’re good questions and I’m delighted to be involved in answering them.

 Are you going to talk about where the media will be in 20 years?
I don’t think so! But I look at you, and there are lots of jobs machines can do but a machine can’t do this. It might be able to transcribe what I’ve said, but if I’m sitting opposite a machine I’m not going to feel an obligation to answer its questions and look into its eyes and think, ‘okay, what am I going to say to this machine?’ The problem is how are we going to pay for journalism? We haven’t worked out that out yet, have we? But I think those of us who can afford to pay for it should do it. Otherwise it’s going to disappear.

Journalists have always been hated, but do you think people are realising life might not be so great without us?
Yeah, I always say people hate you until they know you. The first few times we went down to Greymouth after the explosions, I was really told what I could go and do with myself. And you think now of the relationships those families have with journalists. So a process of introduction and courtship has to take place, then trust has to be established. Which is why we shouldn’t be cynical and why we should never win someone’s trust and then betray it. And if we’re going to stab someone, we have to do it in the front.

A few years ago we were at the same Kiwiana party at the Grey Lynn RSA. I was dressed as David Bain and you were dressed – well, like you dress. So I wanted to ask you, did you just not have time to get a costume together or did you come as John Campbell?
I can’t remember. But if I didn’t come as John Campbell, I would have come as another uptight middle-aged white guy.

FUTURE SYSTEMS

On What’s Next, John Campbell is joined by five ‘futurists’ to tackle the big issues. Here’s who you’ll see on screen

Social entrepreneur Shay Wright is the co-founder of Te Whare Hukahuka, an organisation aimed at mentoring, training and funding indigenous entrepreneurs. He was named in Forbes Asia’s list of ‘30 Under 30’ social entrepreneurs.

Frances Valintine is the co-founder of The Mind Lab, which works with educators to change the ways they teach. She’s been named one of the world’s top 50 education innovators. She also co-founded Tech Futures Lab, which upskills businesses to embrace technological change.

Derek Handley is an entrepreneur who divides his time between New York and Auckland and has been involved in a string of tech-based businesses and is also the founder of Aera, a charitable business trust that invests in causes and companies tackling social issues. He was also CEO of The B Team, which he co-founded with Sir Richard Branson to promote sustainable business.

Sacha McMeeking is a social entrepreneur, strategist and solution builder who runs the Māui Lab, a hub that connects emerging Māori talent with the contemporary challenges of Māori society to create next generation solutions for te ao Māori.

Wendy McGuinness is the chief executive of the McGuinness Institute, which she established in 2004 as a way of contributing to New Zealand’s long-term future. The McGuinness Institute is a non-partisan think tank that applies hindsight, insight and foresight to explore challenges and opportunities facing New Zealand.

John Campbell hosts (with Nigel Latta) What’s Next, a new series on TVNZ 1 about how New Zealand could or should look in 20 years’ time. It airs for five consecutive nights from Sunday 11 June and livestreams on tvnz.co.nz.

 

 


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