Beyond the Front Line by Mike McRoberts review

by David Cohen / 07 January, 2012
3 News frontman Mike McRoberts gives us a romantic narrative geared not so much around the story as around the storyteller.
Consider, for a moment, the following proclamation by Mike McRoberts, globe­trotting frontman of 3 News: “The ‘fame’ aspect of what I do has never been a motivating factor. Nor is it for anyone I respect or admire. Like me, people like Hilary Barry, John Campbell and my wife, Paula, would gladly do the work they do without the associated public profile. I became a journalist to tell stories, not necessarily to read the six o’clock news or to have my face on billboards and the backs of city buses.”

Well, yes. But a great international journalist might not need to make the statement at all – the truth of it would already be embedded for all to see in the telling of these much-vaunted stories – and the fact this hardworking TV personality appears compelled to make it often in one way or another in Beyond the Front Line is possibly telling.

Say what you may about McRoberts, though, he looks the part. A handsome man not given to fluffing lines, with gleaming choppers, corrugated brow and general ticket collector on the Doomsday Express manner that have made him a natural fit for what his parent company at least would have us believe is a five-star foreign correspondent.

That aside might appear to dwell a little too much on things cosmetic, but in the frivolous culture that is free-to-air television in New Zealand, raw journalistic talent actually runs a distant second to visual artifice.

Oh sure, as we have already heard, and no doubt espied on the garish adverts McRoberts swears he can’t stand, “it’s all about the story”. But whatever the professional and logistical challenges – and these can be significant – in getting such pieces to air from exotic locales, it’s emphatically not about such unglamorous journalistic necessities as gathering data, conducting discreet interviews, deploying serious research and all the rest.

Despite its best efforts, Beyond the Front Line, which strings together the Dunedin-born newscaster’s various jaunts on top of some light autobiographical detail, rather underscores that distinctive point.

Afghanistan, Burma, Gaza, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan may all sound like hellishly fascinating destinations, as indeed they would be in the authorial hands of a Christopher Hitchens or Lawrence Wright. McRoberts, though, struggles to bring any of these interludes to detailed life, opting instead for a romantic narrative geared not so much around the story as around the storyteller as The Correspondent.

In our mind’s eye, we see him asleep in bed beside his almost equally famous television producer wife, Paula Penfold. It is very late. A telephone rings. He answers while blearily turning on a laptop, both of which bring news of an unfolding crisis in God knows where.

Even as The Correspondent absorbs the breaking news, a cab screeches to a halt outside the front gate to ferry him to the airport, where he will be joined by a trusted posse of news-gatherers bearing gun mikes and sound-recording mechanisms, all primed for a great parachute jump into terrain that is ­geographically, linguistically, historically and culturally alien.

The idea that any of this will produce anything halfway resembling a transmitted slice of real life can most kindly be described as fanciful – those who beg to differ might try to imagine the result if a Hindi-speaking television crew had spent a few days in New Zealand covering November’s general election. Nevertheless, the newfound author gives the cliché a damn good flogging, the sustained act of which might be the most enduring story of all here.

BEYOND THE FRONT LINE, by Mike McRoberts (HarperCollins, $39.99).

David Cohen is a Wellington writer and media commentator. His Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys’ Home was one of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2011.
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