John Campbell: I've got to be a dad

John Campbell's father is insistent his son won't be leaving for Australia or the BBC.

John Campbell's father is insistent his son won't be leaving for Australia or the BBC.

John Campbell's enthusiasm for his job is boundless.

When I interviewed him 10 years ago – on the eve of the launch of Campbell Live – his love of news, current events and, most of all, people, was unmistakable. A decade on, he is just as enthusiastic.  

"Ten years is a long time and after roughly 2400 stories, you can start to feel like you're repeating stuff, but I don't feel that way," he says. "Every morning I get up thinking, 'Today we're going to be really good. Were we good enough yesterday? It doesn't matter. We'll be really good today'. It's amazing to still feel that way and I think that's the privilege and responsibility of having that time slot. You've got to respond with the energy, otherwise get the hell out."

The fact that both Campbell Live and Campbell himself are winners in this year's TV Guide Best On The Box Awards is proof that viewers like his approach.

"That's a sincere form of flattery because they're the people who watch," he says of being voted best current affairs presenter for the sixth time. I'm thrilled because Seven Sharp campaigned really hard against us this year. They were actually working hard on air to get people to vote for them, and their audience is big."

Campbell has never been one for self-promotion and is, in his own words, notoriously private. Unlike many TV personalities, he keeps his family firmly off limits. "Being on the telly is part of who I am – it's a really important part of who I am – and I love this job and I've given a lot to it, but that's not what matters to my kids. I've worked really hard to keep the two things really separate," he says.

"I don't discuss my job at home. If you went into our house you would see no evidence at all – none – of what I do for a living. There's nothing. There's not a single photo of me at work. All the awards are proudly on display at work but they don't go home. I've got to be a dad. I want them, and I need them, to have the most ordinary New Zealand childhoods that they can possibly have. Obviously, they're not going to be ordinary because ours is a household that is not struggling in any way. We have lovely holidays and all that kind of stuff, but I never wanted their day-to-day lives to be affected by the fact that I'm their dad."

It is no surprise then, to learn he is committed to stamping out child poverty in New Zealand. Campbell Live has helped raised close to $2 million for Kids Can, an organisation that helps provide food and other essentials to children in decile-one schools. "I think it was a real shock to people that there are still children in New Zealand who are arriving at school with no lunch, having had no breakfast. I think our programme made people aware that that was the reality – and gave people an opportunity to respond to that."

He cites Campbell Live's ongoing commitment to keeping post-earthquake Christchurch in the spotlight and the show's investigations into issues like synthetic cannabis, zero hours contracts for workers and scams – as other high points of the decade.

Through it all, Campbell has remained true to his original aim of being where the news is happening, not just telling people about it. "If all you do is roll into work at 3pm and front other people's work, you don't have the right to make the assertions. You don't know what you're talking about. It's all second-hand," he says.

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He is the first to admit his "assertions" often meet with mixed responses, even more so now with the advent of social media. "When I first started we still received handwritten letters. You would do something controversial on a Tuesday or Wednesday and the following Monday there'd be this really full mailbag. Now, if you do something controversial that people like or dislike you've got a response within 35 seconds," he says, adding he initially resisted social media.

"Foolishly and embarrassingly, I said, 'This is a passing fad' and, boy, I was wrong. I love the engagement of social media. Sometimes people say stuff to me that just stops me in my tracks and the problem is you need to be able to survive that so your skin needs to be reasonably thick. But if your skin becomes too thick then you lose the empathy and compassion that journalists must have. It's a real balancing act." 

Campbell Live, TV3, Weeknights

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