The ubiquitous Mr Latta

Psychologist Nigel Latta says he isn't always right.
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Psychologist Nigel Latta says he isn't always right.

Strapped into a harness 328 metres above the ground, there was no way Nigel Latta could fall. But he was scared, and that was perplexing.

"I was really disappointed with my brain. I had to think: 'What would Bear Grylls do?' I had to count the steps one at a time. One side of my brain was going 'You're being a dick,' but the other part was going 'Don't let go, you'll fall to your death," Latta says.

"That little scared lizard brain part of me was saying 'You're going to die,' and he was running the show."

ON THIN ICE: Nigel Latta on location in Antarctica.

ON THIN ICE: Nigel Latta on location in Antarctica.

Latta, whose career has been built on logic, is the first to admit it doesn't always win. Which is why he found himself clinging to the top of Auckland's Sky Tower during the filming of his new science television series, a sweaty mess.

That series is ostensibly the reason Latta has agreed to talk today.

"I'm the total opposite of the guy who loves that profile stuff," is the first thing he says, as he gestures towards the couch in his Grey Lynn office. I briefly entertain the thought of lying down. "I've just discovered that it's part of it, and that you can use it in useful ways so I've made my peace with it."

Nigel Latta, television's favourite psychologist, is 48 years old. He is caucasian with green eyes and brown hair. What else would the presenter who brought us Beyond the Darklands have us know about him, aside from his basic identikit profile?

"I'm interested in stuff, and I try not to be a pain in the ass," he says. "I've always thought you wanna be the low-maintenance guy. Once I can do something I get kind of bored by it and want to do something else. I like challenges, I like to do stuff that is hard or personally testing.

"See, I'm not really an expert in anything, but I'm curious about just about everything. Particularly science, because I think it's the most interesting thing on the entire planet. I don't give a s... about what the Kardashians are doing."

He may not be able to command nine-figure sums for his television series, but like it or not, being in the spotlight is part of Latta's deal. If it wasn't Beyond the Darklands, his five-season show about the backgrounds of violent criminals and sex offenders, then The Politically Incorrect Guide to Parenting series of programmes and books certainly set him up as New Zealand's answer to Dr Phil.

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Oamaru-born Latta began studying philosophy at Otago University, getting as far as the first lecture. "They started off with 'should you take the lift or jump out the window' and I thought, 'well, I know the answer to that one, you take the lift', so I gave up on philosophy."

He then "kind of bumbled through" zoology and marine science (he has a bachelor of science in zoology, and a master of science in marine science) before considering joining the police.

"I got within about two weeks of sitting the fitness test and then Aramoana happened up the road and my argument to my then-girlfriend, now wife, that it was a safe career kind of broke down."

Instead he moved to Auckland to train as a clinical psychologist, working at the Leslie Centre and for a community alcohol and drug service in South Auckland before striking out on his own. "I hated staff meetings, I hated having to ask to get permission to do stuff so I left for private practice pretty early."

In his professional career he has worked with families, criminals and victims, consulting for agencies including the Department of Corrections and Child, Youth and Family. He has two children, boys aged 12 and 15.

On the back of his successful 2005 book, he was contacted by Screentime to make Beyond the Darklands. "I went 'Oh, that sounds fun,' without really thinking it through. It was my first telly thing, and I had this idea of the telly world that wasn't entirely accurate."

Most recently, he was on our screens in a six-part series simply entitled Nigel Latta, with cameras following his investigations into social issues such as child abuse, alcohol use, and the justice and education systems.

In person, Latta is almost unstoppably chatty when talking about subjects he is clearly passionate about - science and the government's lack of investment in it being one - and takes the time to think before he speaks. Considering his stated reservations about talking to a journalist, his answers seem candid. He swears like a trooper, laughs easily, and seems like the kind of guy you wouldn't mind being sat next to at a dinner table.

"How Nigel is on TV is how Nigel is in real life," says Razor Film's executive producer Mark McNeill, who has worked with Latta on almost all of his television series.

"He's not like a lot of presenters who occupy a role, he's just him. He's funny and real, and I think people get that. The fact he's got a psychology and science background means he understands a lot of stuff and is interested in people, but he's also a down to earth person. He's not a TV wanker. If someone needs to pick up a tripod, Nigel picks it up."

While Latta isn't picture perfect, McNeill puts his popularity down to his ability to connect with the average person.

"Particularly in the Politically Incorrect shows, Nigel was saying a lot of things people were thinking and had never heard anyone with letters after their name say. He has a naughty schoolboy's delight, and that kind of works I guess."

That's not to say everybody's a fan. Latta's views are often polarising, and not always consistent. In 2007, he was a vocal opponent of Sue Bradford's so-called anti-smacking legislation, before being appointed to head a government review in 2009 and concluding the law was working well. A year later, he was lambasted by child-safety advocates (including Bradford) for suggesting naughty kids be locked in their bedrooms until they behaved.

"I take a position on things that I know a lot about and feel qualified to, but I get asked to comment on a lot of stuff," Latta says. "Most of it I just go 'nooo . . .' Some of it is trivial and stupid, and some of it is stuff I don't know anything about."

But if it's something that riles him up, he has been known to "start mouthing off" without completely thinking through what he's saying.

"Because I've now talked to all sorts of people about all sorts of things for quite a long time, at some point I'm going to say things that contradict stuff I've said before, and that's because I think differently about it now.

"But we live in this weird world where you're not ever allowed to change your position about something, you can't flip-flop. which I don't even begin to understand. My life is constant flip-flopping from politics to what I want for lunch. That's the nature of being a human being. No-one's got any f...ing idea of what's going on, you're just trying to make the best guess based on what you've got."

If there's anything he's learned through his years of psychological practice, it's that human beings are flawed. He says the rest of us could learn from being a little more empathetic.

"Some public figure has a fall from grace and they get shredded and I think 'Well f..., show me a person who isn't a bit messed up, or doesn't have s... in their life that they don't want the entire world knowing about'.

"Chimpanzees do bad s... and other chimpanzees don't go 'Wow.' You know, one chimpanzee will eat another chimpanzee's kid and they won't go 'How did this happen? and why would you do that?' because of course you do that, it's just s... that happens in the world. People do bad stuff because we're flawed and imperfect and we're these biological little machines that are really all about replicating our genes, and along the way we've managed to make iPhones and buses and stuff because it makes it easier."

Slightly terrifying animal analogies aside, is there any time he wishes he hadn't commented?

"Sensing Murder. Oh, don't even write that, it will just get me more f...ing emails.

"I went on it and, oh," he shakes his head, "yeah, I just got years of emails from angry sceptics, and I got years of emails from nutburgers who thought I believed in ghosts which is not what I said. I just said I couldn't see any obvious jiggery-pokery."

Eight years after Latta appeared on the episode, New Zealand Skeptics still keep a quote on file from Latta - clarifying his slightly cloudy position that he thought the psychic was genuine in her belief she was conversing with the dead - ready to fire out to media or researchers.

"It does come up," Skeptics spokeswoman Vicki Hyde says. "It was unfortunate. I don't think it did his reputation much good, but I think he got used by them as so many people do."

Criticism has also come from his own contemporaries in academia, who have accused him of being a "pop psychologist," dumbing down information for the masses.

Otago University Professor Richie Poulton, director of the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, says those attacks are completely unfair.

"He's doing great things for the scientific community by talking on important issues, and he's very talented in the way he can communicate scientific things in a straightforward manner.

"The fact he provides a strong view is intended to provoke. The way we engage on issues in New Zealand is very dissatisfying. We're polite to each other and leave the room and stab each other in the back, or we attack the person. To have a robust discussion is not usually a reality, and he provokes discussion. We don't often hear that nowadays because there's so much tripe on TV.

"It's important, and thank God for him."

Latta will be co-authoring a book with Poulton on the landmark scientific study, one of his many projects. His most recent two-part series Nigel Latta in Antarctica will begin screening this Wednesday on TV One, followed by the science-based series, Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up.

For the Antarctica series, Latta spent three weeks exploring Scott Base.

"I think most Kiwis think it's a few indulged scientists on a bit of a junket, doing research. It seemed to me it was important people knew more about why we go to places like this - it's an incredibly unique environment.

"It's a hostile place, it doesn't want to kill you but if you're even mildly stupid it will, without even thinking about it. All the research is important, no-one is down there going 'How do we make penguins look more pretty?' "

The lack of funding of the sciences is a sore point for Latta, something that riles him up.

"One of the problems we have in this country is we want to create a better economy, but we spend a pitiful amount of our GDP on scientific research. We're going to give more money to the America's Cup. And I think, show me the figures that prove this amount of money has a net gain for the country. I think science is a better bet for us."

Filming for the science series, which included scaling the Sky Tower for an episode about lightning and getting mild hypothermia for an extreme weather episode, has wrapped up.

He and his production team are working on a new series of Nigel Latta, which will see eight one-hour investigations into issues of social justice. It's where Latta feels most comfortable, and where he can do the most good.

"I think TV gets knocked as being trivial, but I think you can still do meaningful things and that's why I've enjoyed the shows I've worked on."

He gives an example: after the screening of the episode of Beyond the Darklands about murdered toddler Nia Glassie, women's refuges had an influx of domestic violence victims.

"I'm not enormously proud of being on TV, because that's a fairly shallow and inconsequential thing, but I'm hugely proud of the fact that we may have played a role in helping some of those women get out of abusive relationships and go to women's refuge. That kind of stuff, that I'm proud of."

The tape recorder is off, but Latta isn't quite finished.

"I'm 48 and I still think, 'What the hell do I want to do with my life?' I have moments that can sometimes be minutes or hours where things are going really well, then - it's life, man - s... will hit the fan.

"Being famous in New Zealand is like being famous in slightly less than Sydney, so it's not like it's a big deal. When I see people who get all caught up in their television persona I think, 'Come on, man, you're famous in less than Sydney.' Let's keep this in perspective."

 - Stuff

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