Guyon Espiner talks frankly about politicians, te reo and whānau

by Clare de Lore / 29 November, 2017
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Guyon Espiner with his wife, Emma, and their daughter, Nico. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Nothing’s left to chance when Guyon Espiner puts on his headphones for RNZ National’s flagship news programme, Morning Report. 

Broadcaster Guyon Espiner leaves his Mt Eden home for RNZ’s Auckland studios soon after 4.30am each weekday, armed with coffee and a meticulously prepared plan. Notes are compared with his Wellington-based Morning Report co-host Susie Ferguson and they confer with their producers on breaking news and last-minute interviews. There’s about an hour to do final research before 6am, when the three-hour programme starts.

Espiner is from a Christchurch family in which opinions matter. He recalls his mother Mary and father Eric encouraging their three sons to express their views and debate current events around the dinner table. A strong work ethic was also passed on; at 83, Professor Eric Espiner still works as an endocrinologist. The younger Espiner says his dad probably works more hours a week than he does.

Forty-six-year-old Espiner set his sights on a journalism career after completing a BA in English literature and a diploma in journalism. He’s amused to hear that Wikipedia lists his first job as a TVNZ fashion reporter. Not true, he says, noting it’s a good lesson on not taking Wikipedia at face value.

He and wife Emma, a third-year medical student at the University of Auckland, have a four-year-old daughter, Nico, and three cats. He’s a long-distance runner, something he took up to relieve the stress of his previous job as a TV political editor. He’s learning te reo and with Tim Watkin co-authored The 9th Floor: Conversations with Five New Zealand Prime Ministers, which also featured online and on TV. He also writes occasional features for the Listener.

Espiner with Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader Phil Goff during a 2011 leaders debate. Photo/Getty Images

Espiner with Prime Minister John Key and Labour leader Phil Goff during a 2011 leaders debate. Photo/Getty Images

What’s the best part of your work?

I love writing, but the art of the interview, which I came to later in my career, is still my favourite thing. I like cricketing analogies. Interviewing is like bowling an over – not every ball is at the same pace or in the same direction, but you have to make the person play. Sometimes you bowl a slower one to catch them by surprise; sometimes you’ll start in an unusual place. It’s also a story, and a live interview should follow a bit of an arc. It should start in a fairly welcoming position, rise to a point of tension, and probably leave on a friendlier note.

Is there room for more regular long-form interviews at peak times?

Absolutely. I’d love to see that come back, and maybe with greater interest around these issues, we might see more of that.

Do you see that as being part of the so-called RNZ Plus?

I’m not in the position to make those decisions, but it’s pretty exciting that people are talking about putting more money into this. There has been talk in the Labour policy about an RNZ Plus situation, some sort of television station. I’d hope there would be scope for that and appetite for it. When we made The 9th Floor, we thought, “We’ll get some political scientists and some academics watching”, but we ended up with about 400,000 who viewed it in some way.

Espiner with former Prime Minister Jim Bolger. Photo/RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King

Which of those 9th Floor interviews did you find the most revealing?

Most of them were revealing, with the possible exception of Helen Clark. We found the further we went back, the more reflective people were and the more revelations we got. For Clark, I wonder if the paint was dry enough, even though she left office in 2008. In terms of the others, Jim Bolger’s repudiation of neo-liberalism was surprising. Saying unions are possibly too small – and this from a guy who put through the Employment Contracts Act. There were some surprises in character with Jenny Shipley and Mike Moore as well.

Such as?

I was struck by the degree to which Jenny Shipley is a conviction politician. An utter lack of populism about her was amazing. You can say what you like about Shipley, and there is a lot of ill feeling towards her out there, but she didn’t do any of those things for her own gain or popularity. And the poetry of Mike Moore’s lines – haunting – have stuck with me. He said, “It’s not the criticisms of your enemy, it’s the silence of your friends that you need to worry about”, and I often think about that. The poetry and the sadness. He’s still wounded by not getting another shot [after National survived a 12.7% swing against it in 1993] and being rolled by Clark. To many, it’s on-the-field stuff and they can retire to have a drink, but he’s still massively wounded.

Do you have to shut off sentiment?

Yes. When Jacinda Ardern first came into the Auckland studio [after the Government was formed]. I know her a little bit and have for the nine-odd years she’s been in Parliament, but when we’re on, there are questions we need answers to.

Photo/Tony Nyberg

So, no political honeymoon?

Government starts on day one. You’re probably going to be more frustrated by and aggressive with someone who’s had nine years to fix a problem, but at the same time, you don’t give someone a free ride because it’s day one. I’m not interested in being either nice or mean.

Some critics are adamant that RNZ is the voice of the left. What’s your response?

I say listen to our interviews. I challenge anyone to present me with facts that support their allegation that we’re too nice to the left. Good luck – you won’t find it. Look at the history of Morning Report – Mike Hosking, Maggie Barry, Kim Hill, Geoff Robinson, Sean Plunket. You’re not going to find a consistent, coherent left-wing narrative.

Are there interviews you regret?

Yes. I said to David Cunliffe, “You’ve done the Woman’s Weekly interview, you’ve told people about your family, you’ve told us that people just need to know you. Maybe people just don’t like you.” Listening back, I thought that was way too harsh. You always walk that tightrope – maybe it was true, maybe it was a fair question, maybe it wasn’t. When I started on Morning Report, I went in too hard. Tone is the key thing and you have to change tone according to circumstances.

Did Jack Tame go too hard in his interview with Ardern on TVNZ 1’s Breakfast this week when asking about Donald Trump reportedly thinking she was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife?

It was a legitimate issue and she answered the questions. One of the great things about our prime ministers is that on Monday mornings, they do four or five live interviews. She did pretty well over those interviews and Jack Tame did his job.

With Emma on their wedding day in 2012. Photo/Espiner family collection

But you didn’t take up the issue with her in your interview a short time later.

I listened to the interview [with Tame] and I chose different issues. I sometimes catch those interviews if I can on Three and on TVNZ 1 on Monday mornings, to see what she is saying. I decided not to follow that, but I support Tame in doing it. The story was picked up internationally, which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a great story, but it was a legitimate line of questioning.

So, you think it was newsworthy?

Yes. Is it a diplomatic issue? Yes, it is, of a type, because you are effectively saying Trump was a fool. People can make their own call on that, but it was newsworthy, and Tame was right to pursue it.

The BBC has had a major pay-equity issue, especially regarding the disparity in pay between top male and female presenters of Today, its Morning Report equivalent. Are you and Susie paid the same and has it led to RNZ looking at itself?

There is both a reporting on what the gender inequities are and a commitment to getting rid of them by a certain time. I saw that from [RNZ CEO] Paul Thompson recently. I don’t know whether Susie and I are paid the same.

At the 2016 Auckland half-marathon. Photo/Espiner family

Would it bother you if you and Susie Ferguson weren’t being paid the same?

Yeah. I think if you’re doing the same job, then you deserve to be paid the same money.

Who would you most like to interview?

Donald Trump. I’d work really hard on that. Some people can just go in and do it off the top of their heads, but I’m not like that. I work out my question line. I don’t ask random questions unless it’s a breaking story.

How do you plan your interviews?

If I’m talking to the Prime Minister or a minister of the Crown in a planned interview, there won’t be random questions. The first question has been thought about and is being asked because of what the next question is, and where we’ll go. It involves a lot of research.

What’s the burning question that makes Trump someone you want to interview?

It would be an amazing interview. Have you ever seen a longish-form interview with Trump where the person properly digs into what he’s about and what he’s doing? Amazingly, I haven’t.

Is that actually possible?

That’s why I want to do it. And domestically, I’d like to interview Winston Peters, because since he became Foreign Minister, he hasn’t given us an interview.

Espiner as a schoolboy. Photo/Espiner family collection

What are your “go to” resources or publications?

RNZ has one of these old-fashioned things that most news organisations don’t: a library. They send you periodicals such as the New Scientist, the New Statesman, the Atlantic and the Economist. I’ve curated a fantastic Twitter feed and read everything from the Wall St Journal and the Financial Times to the Telegraph, CNN, BBC and Japan Times.

What have you read for pleasure recently?

The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000, by Vincent O’Malley. I did an hour with him at the Tauranga Arts Festival. That was an amazing book. Now I’m reading Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women. I read everything he ever puts out. This is the exact opposite of the Waikato book – a series of delicate short stories.

Do you have much time for leisure reading?

I don’t have a lot, because any spare time goes into my te reo studies. I do that on Tuesdays from 6-9pm, which makes Wednesday mornings a bit hard on the radio. I’m also doing my own thing with Scotty Morrison’s [te reo] books. Emma can hold a good conversation in te reo. She learnt it to quite a high level at school, but wants to ramp it up again.

Espiner with daughter Nico in 2015. Photo/Espiner family collection

And Nico?

She’s one of the prime motivations for doing this. We speak te reo at home. I’m teaching her, because I spend a lot of time with her. Next year, she’s going to a school with a bilingual unit. She’ll be a fluent speaker, which is pretty awesome. Commands such as, “Don’t leave your toys on the floor” – “Kaua e waiho ō taputapu tākaro kia marara noa ki te papa” – she knows and is picking it up.

What response has your use of te reo on Morning Report had?

The biggest fear for a lot of Pakeha people speaking te reo is that Māori will say they’ve stuffed up. That has never happened to me. Māori have been great supporters. The pushback has been from some Pakeha, probably a loud minority … texts fly in with people saying, “You’re speaking gibberish.”

What makes learning Māori so important to you, your broadcasting role or your family?

It’s a convergence. My wife is Māori from Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Porou. Her father is fluent. You go to a tangi at Otaki, and you love the experience but can’t understand what’s going on. Why can’t you? Because you haven’t bothered to learn the language. When you have a child, you want her to have her culture and language.

The final bit is I really want another language, so it fits together. I have a microphone and I want to use it. It’s a beautiful language and we can use and embrace it.

This article was first published in the December 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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