John Campbell: The Jolly Journo
John Campbell's publicity machine could not have orchestrated a better introduction to the jovial journo.
Niko, a Wellington cabbie, gets the ball rolling. "I picked him up once," he says as he drives me to the airport. "Had a great long chat. Then two weeks later we're at the same restaurant and he comes over and says, Hello Niko, and gets yarning to me and my family. Genuinely good bloke."
In Auckland, John, another cabbie, picks up the PR patter . . . "I picked him up once. Now Paul Holmes is a nice guy, but a bit of a strutter. John Campbell, well, he's just a super-nice guy."
OK, OK, enough. I want to see for myself if this Mr Charming can live up to his reputation.
At TV3's studios in Mt Eden I'm ushered to the Campbell Live camp. And there he is.
"HELLOOOO," he gushes, all checked suit, wide smile and hearty handshake.
"Now, let me ask you," he says over his shoulder in the darkened editing suite where he and editor Toby Longbottom are going through the best of Campbell Live for the year. "D'you mind profanity?"
Just as well he checked that out. His famously colourful vocabulary is peppered less with "marvellous" and "super" and more with f..., always in context and with the gusto of a sailor on shore leave.
He and Longbottom go with a collage of footage from their child poverty campaign for their best-of piece. It is just the sort of story Campbell Live has become known for. The day of our interview, Campbell gets the news that Fonterra will roll out the milk-in-schools programme - an initiative the team has been pushing for for 18 months.
Campbell makes no apologies for this style of advocacy journalism, rather than straight news coverage, campaigning for the underdog, with his trademark heart- on-your-sleeve, we're-all-in-this-together- New-Zealand style. It's an approach that divides audiences.
"I think that's our point of difference," Campbell, 48, says.
"Isn't it funny, I've never met a journalist who didn't want to change the world and make it a better place. And without exception, that's why they get into journalism. And yet when they get there, they are asked to be dispassionate and objective. Who came up with that rule?
"At the liberation of Auschwitz, would you give the SS the right of reply? It would be grotesque or obscene - yet in some strange kind of way, even though it's an extreme example, that's the mode we are operating under.
"That everything in life has two sides is clearly bullshit . . . The question should be not, was it balanced? But was it fair? And they are completely different questions, in my opinion."
Clearly, Campbell feels strongly about this. He's even banging the table.
The child poverty campaign is the highlight of his professional career, he says. And he "absolutely" knows milk in schools was a direct result of the team's coverage. "
The campaign spawned its share of negative comments. Some called Campbell a bleeding-heart liberal. Others lambasted parents for gambling and smoking away the food budget instead of feeding their kids.
"Nonsense!" says Campbell, dad to daughter Alex, 11, and son James, 9. "Most parents are trying their hardest to look after their kids. That there are [some] of the population who don't care about their kids as much as middle-class parents do is a profoundly offensive suggestion."
Campbell shifts uneasily when asked about his own family. He met his wife, editor Emma Patterson, at TV3 in Wellington back in 1991. Was it love across a crowded newsroom?
"Ah, well . . . Look, Emma just wouldn't thank me for talking about this. She has so little interest in having a public profile.
"My family already have enough putting up with me being their dad and husband. That already comes with a lot of strings attached. I believe my children don't work for TV3 and that they should be spared any further loss of privacy."
Working long days and appearing live every weeknight, Campbell wishes he could be a more present father. At weekends he's "fully dadded up", but even then his job follows him around.
Recognition is a part of daily life. The kids don't mind, he says, but if it happens enough "the moment is lost and you can't get it back".
"If I take my boy to watch a rugby game now, it's almost disastrous because there would not be a minute where I'm not talking to somebody or posing for a photograph, so what's the point of him being there?"
Most people who approach Campbell have something nice to say, but he's no stranger to abuse.. "I usually just ignore them. I assess how angry they are and if it's going to get physical. From time to time, I call them on it."
Despite living in a villa in the plush suburb of Ponsonby, Campbell insists there is nothing flash about his life. Fancy cars and posh gear? Not interested. "I've got friends who are loaded and I enjoy going to their houses and going, man, that's cool, but it doesn't matter to me to have all that."
What matters - apart from family - are books, mates and music. Books are his most precious physical possession, he says. American authors, mainly. Noam Chomsky, Philip Roth, Richard Ford and Joan Didion continue to accumulate on his many bookshelves.
His idea of a really good time is to be somewhere not too far away with family where no one knows who he is. Nowhere flash. Maybe just a Pacific island. Not too shabby.
His pleasures in life are simple, he says. "I just love being with friends and talking shit.
"Or sometimes I love going to a live band. Getting up there in the very front, in the mosh pit . . . Beautiful."
THE EARLY YEARS
Campbell grew up in Wellington with younger sister Sally (now a producer in London) and parents Wendy and Jim Campbell, retired restaurateurs who now live in Martinborough.
He was a "massive contradictory mixture of things" as a schoolboy, he says. "I have probably suffered all my life with an enormous desire to please people and to do the right thing and to be the right person, but the problem is also that I have always been attracted to rogues and rascals.
"I was very intense and very worried about getting it right. I had a glorious group of friends who have the ability to laugh at life. We're still mates now."
As a student, he was a lost cause when it came to numbers. But words? Now that was something different.
The Wellington College student loved English and history and was good at both. Leaving school, he didn't have a clue what he wanted to do, but got himself a BA honours in English literature at Victoria University.
Meanwhile, Campbell was indulging in two of his great passions - rugby and radio. The former saw him playing club rugby and for a social team named the Mixed Veges, as it best described the players' rag-tag, multicoloured jerseys.
"They were beautiful days," he says with a hearty laugh. "We'd all played rugby at school and for other clubs, but it was all very serious, so we formed our own team. My recollection is that we weren't disastrously bad. You'd play the game and just feel so happy afterwards. Then various substances were consumed."
And when he wasn't kicking a ball around with the Mixed Veges, he was playing silly buggers on the air as his alter ego, Sparky Plug.
He and mate Jimmy Scott - aka Friendly Brains - gave alternative rugby commentary for Radio Active. "The idea was you'd watch rugby on TV with the sound down and listen to Jimmy and me. Our commentary consisted of appalling double entendres. Really, things in hindsight that were incredibly defamatory about some of the most senior and magnificent All Blacks. We used samples of what sounded like an orgy when the players were in a scrum. It was appalling. When Terry Wright, who looked like a traffic officer, got the ball, I'd make a sound like a siren as he ran up the field. It was tremendous fun."
During university holidays, Campbell got a job at a share-broking firm. "I was staggeringly bad at profit and loss, but I was relatively quick on my feet, so they put me on the floor on day one. I was the No 2 trader and fortunately the No 1 trader was a strong and competent character."
Radio New Zealand used to phone for market updates. . "I knew what good journalism sounded like and read like. RNZ would call. I didn't have a clue but I just guessed that you free-formed it. I sounded confident, picked up a few lines from the boys on the floor . . ."
But it was Campbell's Sparky Plug commentary that landed him his first journalism job, at Radio New Zealand in 1989. Former RNZ news editor Glyn Jones was watching an All Blacks game at the home of Campbell's sharebroker boss, Paul Davenport. Jones tells him to mute the TV, tune in to Radio Active and listen to these "lunatics" commentating. Davenport tunes in and tells him: That's John Campbell. He works on our trading floor. He talks to you guys all the time.
"So Glyn calls me on Monday and asks if I want a job as a business reporter. I went to the firm and asked if I could have two weeks off to give it a go and they were obviously delighted that they could get rid of me without any unpleasantness."
Campbell knew he'd found his calling on day one. He filed his first piece, then snuck down to the back of the newsroom to listen to the report going out on the air. "It was this extraordinary sense of this is it."
A FACE FOR TV
It was TV that Campbell set his sights on after his radio cadetship. He applied to TV3 a few times, but no one was interested, he says. "They were notorious for wanting shitkickers who would smash doors down and I was probably the politest journalist in the history of time."
Finally TVNZ offered him a job, so Campbell called TV3 and said he'd been offered a position by the competition. Someone asked him to fax up his offer for proof, and counter-offered.
"I think they hired me to shove one up to TVNZ. Plus, when I started at TV3, they had no audience, it was in receivership. I mean, what more could go wrong?"
In 1991, he started as a news reporter, moving on to anchor the gallery, 20/20, then to read the news with Carol Hirschfeld till 2005, when Campbell Live was launched.
He's been head to head in the current affairs war with TVNZ ever since with the likes of Paul Holmes and Mark Sainsbury.
News in September that Close Up was closing up after 23 years came as no great shock for Campbell, though he laments Sainsbury's loss. "He's a bloody delightful, glass-half-full man. I just like the bugger. [But] I think their end was natural. At the end, I think Close Up was just exhausted."
Campbell is a driven man. Has to be, he says. Particularly at TV3.
"TV3 viewers ride the remote, whereas TVNZ viewers are stayers. . . . If I don't try my hardest to earn them every single day, then what am I there for?"
Campbell is pretty relaxed in the lead- up to the live show but admits he gets nerves when he's got a tough interview lined up. And he's had a few tricky customers.
Helen Clark - "silently enraged" - wouldn't talk to him for two years after their rather famous stoush over Corngate. "I could have handled that one better."
Winston Peters can be a bit aggressive, too, he says. "We'd be having a pretty serious interview and during a commercial break - just before we'd come back on air - he'd call me a wanker or question the validity of my parentage, and I'd think, Did he just say that?"
Keeping his composure is tricky at times, particularly when covering emotional stories, such as the Christchurch earthquake and the Samoan tsunami of September 2009. These events stand out as his toughest recent assignments.
But he's the proverbial jack-in-the-box, popping back up with that tirelessly happy nature.
Though there is something that does bug John Campbell, the eternally jolly journo. "The thing I find soul-destroying is the cowardice and bullying that takes place on the internet, the hateful feedback that is almost always anonymous. I want to say to those people, Either own your opinions or shut the f... up.
"I just feel like, what can be asked of us as people? At the very least it is that we leave people better than we found them. That's not much to ask at all . . . What's more interesting than people? And why would you leave anyone worse than you found them?"
Campbell Live returns to TV3 at 7pm on January 21
The Dominion Post