Guyon Espiner

by Jane Clifton / 12 August, 2006

It was a spider that felled Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, but at the time he was more interested in swatting at TVNZ's political editor, Guyon Espiner. After covering Peters's recent Washington trip, and earlier broadcasting Treasurer Michael Cullen's anti-media frothing, Espiner has found himself at the centre of a furore over journalists putting themselves in the story. This is a novel position for the earnest, diligent 35-year-old Cantabrian, who doesn't even do "noddies" - backcuts some TV journos do to keep their faces to the fore. Taken on as Mark Sainsbury's understudy three years ago, Espiner took over the Press Gallery's most fraught job this year, after 13 years in news-papers. He's bemused by the debate, but holding his ground.

What is your version of Mr Peters's decision to kick you and other journalists out of an impromptu press conference with Republican Senator John McCain? Through reasons best known to Winston Peters, he refused to confirm or deny that he was going to Washington right up till the last minute; he refused to issue an itinerary; he was almost paranoid about the secrecy of this whole trip - I think because of sensitivity that if his meeting with Condoleezza Rice was cancelled, it would reflect badly on him. It made it very difficult to cover. I certainly wasn't in there to buy a fight or goad him. Those questions to McCain were almost patsy. The question that tipped [Winston] over the edge was mine, which was "Surely that must give you some heart, Mr Peters?" Hardly a cutting, aggressive question.

He enjoys a fight with the media, if you look back at his career. And he probably genuinely believed that his achievements on that trip were overshadowed by the drama, though I think that's a pretty hard argument to sustain. And he loves the last word. I can't think of any other ministers who would have called another press conference back home to highlight and have another go at that issue.

How do you normally get on with Winston? I've had a pretty good relationship with him over the years. I've got a huge amount of respect for him as a political operator and survivor. The place would be a lot more boring without him.

There's been a lot of negative comment about journalists putting themselves in the stories. That disappointed me, because we tried really hard not to make it about us. But how do you not say that he booted us out and closed a press conference? It would be disingenuous and dishonest to deny that sometimes the relationship between the media and a politician is part of the story. And Winston Peters is a classic politician who will draw the media into a story. It's an element of his public battle that the media are against him or are part of some dark force that's gathering to bring him down unfairly. You'll try to ignore that as much as you can, but sometimes it would be just ridiculous to cut that element out.

You must have feared you might not get Winston on camera at all in Washington? Well, that's right. We'd been forced to chase him around town, and we even had a shot of ourselves [the media] saying, "Well, where is he?" because that's what happened. You can criticise me for putting myself in the story, but how else are you going to visualise [for the viewer] that Winston Peters hasn't issued an itinerary and we can't find out where he is? I mean, are you going to show a blank street, and say "This the street Winston Peters would have been on, if we could have filmed him"?

The episode has also led to more criticism that television is too devoted to promoting itself and its own stars. Have you felt under pressure to promote yourself? Very little of that. I've just carried on working as a journalist. I guess I'm in a slightly different position because [TVNZ] took me on because of my experience in politics rather than for my experience in television. I've just tried to get on with doing the journalism I've always done, only in a very different medium.

Yours is generally regarded as one of the most powerful jobs in journalism, certainly the most powerful in the Press Gallery. How do you handle that power? It's quite a big pressure. You use the same journalistic standard of judgment you always have. But it's the pressure and even intimidation politicians will exert because you've got that power. That can be a bit tiresome, getting those phone calls saying "Why weren't we mentioned in that political poll story [even though we got less than one percent]?" Sometimes you get a call like that after every bulletin.

You don't get much time to tell a story, do you? No. One minute 30, and, if it's a bigger story, two minutes 30 to three minutes. We always argue for closer to two minutes for any political story, because it will generally need more context. But it's amazing how much information you can get across if you're using sound, vision and voice to full effect.

Politics is not a particularly visual activity. Do you rely much on "noddy" backcuts to yourself, and staged footage of MPs pretending to walk in and out of doors and read reports? I try to use as little of that as possible. I don't like it. There is a certain amount of discomfort that goes with that sort of stuff. And those shots are pretty boring. You do use pieces to camera more often in political stories, for summing up to put a story in a political context. Whereas for arts and sports stories, you often won't see the reporter at all. I don't do [noddies]. I'm uncomfortable doing it, though I don't think there is ethically anything wrong with it. But they did have trouble shutting me up doing live crosses. I love talking about politics, but they've managed to pare me back a bit in the last year.

Do you miss writing? Because you are known to be a word fan, and a bit of a poet ... Well, I've been doing North and South's political column, which is a bit of a fix. I really love that, because I still love the written word. I occasionally dabble in poetry and other stuff. I don't have a lot of time for that now.

Any poems published? Just one, in a collection of poems from the Porirua Poetry Café, of different people who have read there over a few years. But just the one! I like [American poet] Billy Collins; 20th-century poets like Dylan Thomas and T S Eliot; a lot of New Zealand poets, James K Baxter, huge fan of his; Sam Hunt. I guess fairly traditional, nothing obscure. But it was something I studied at university and just kept up an interest in. It can occasionally help with scriptwriting - but, um [gallows laugh], not often.

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