Political journalist Patrick Gower: Gower power

by Karl du Fresne / 09 May, 2014

Political editor Patrick Gower is the attack dog nobody can resist patting. 

Watch almost any politician being interviewed by Patrick Gower and you soon notice something unusual. They call him Paddy.

It seems an oddly chummy form of address for someone with a reputation for leaving blood on the floor. You’d think they’d want to be a bit more guarded; keep their distance.

But no, Paddy it is. “Paddy, Paddy, Paddy,” pleads Winston Peters on TV3’s The Nation as he tries to deflect Gower from a line of questioning.

The politicians don’t talk like this to TV1’s Corin Dann and they didn’t seem to do it to Duncan Garner, Gower’s predecessor as TV3’s political editor. But there they are on the TV3 news, addressing Gower as if having a friendly argument with a mate over a pint.

Even Judith Collins does it – although being Judith Collins, she adopts a more headmistressy tone. (“Patrick, you’re wrong,” she says repeatedly as he presses her with questions about the Oravida controversy, in which Collins embarrassed the Government over her activity on behalf of a company in which her husband is involved.)

Mind you, not all politicians are so favourably disposed to Gower. Don Brash, normally a man of almost painful politeness, famously called him – to his face – a “deceitful bastard”. But the general tone of genial familiarity marks Gower as different from most of his peers in the Press Gallery.

It seems to suggest that with Gower, as with no other political journalist on tele­vision or radio, the new rules of the game are tacitly acknowledged: that political journalism in the 21st century has become essentially a form of sport. There’s sometimes an almost playful undertone in his exchanges with politicians, even when he’s doing his best to eviscerate them and leave them hanging on a meat hook. It’s as if they all understand that’s how the game is played these days.

Gower might be after their scalp today, but tomorrow he’ll be pursuing someone else. It’s nothing personal.

Journalism wasn’t on Gower’s radar screen when he was growing up in New Plymouth. His English-born father, Gordon, was a fitter and turner at the New Plymouth power station. His mother Joan, who was of Irish descent, was a doctor’s receptionist. There were two children, Gower and a sister.

He had a Catholic upbringing, attending St Joseph’s convent school and Francis Douglas Memorial College, run by the De La Salle order, where one of his best mates – and later a groomsman at his wedding – was the older brother of All Black Conrad Smith. The Smiths lived just around the corner.

At secondary school Gower, by his own account, was “difficult, but never in a bad way”. He was inclined to backchat. The De La Salle brothers were good for him, he says; “very forgiving, which is what I needed”.

He did a BA with Honours in politics at Victoria University of Wellington without having a clear idea what to do with it, though journalism had been at the back of his mind. He had always read the Taranaki Daily News, the sports pages especially, and his flatmates in Aro Valley thought him unusual because he had a subscription to the Dominion.

He says it came as a relief to his parents when he finally settled on a career. After completing a journalism course at the Auckland University of Technology, he got a job working the graveyard shift, 6pm-1.30am, at the New Zealand Herald – this after the humiliation of getting a swag of rejection letters from other papers.

The Herald turned out to be a good learning experience. There was the excitement of late-breaking stories and the buzz of seeing the paper overhauled between editions. And though he wasn’t pushy – not then – he was curious and eager for work. If the phone rang on someone else’s desk, he had to answer it.

He got his first big break when he became the Herald’s police reporter – “an awesome job, a big adventure”. It meant seeing a side of Auckland he hadn’t seen before and engaging with people – witnesses to accidents, victims of crime – in a way he doesn’t now: “real” people who had never talked to the media before and probably wouldn’t ever again.

Gower talks with relish about his days as a hack newspaper reporter, and you sense that his boyish enthusiasm for chasing ­stories has never left him. “I was a shoe-leather guy,” he says. “I loved getting out of the office.”

He did the mandatory OE and while in London met the woman who became his wife: Bridget, a nurse from Dunedin. (They have two children: George, aged four, and Maeve, nearly one.) He reported for Jane’s Police Review, a weekly police magazine published by a company better known for its defence and intelligence publications. Working for a specialist publication whose readers knew more than he did was another useful experience, he says; he had to get things right.

Gower returned to New Zealand, and to the Herald, when his mother developed cancer. (She has since died.) The 2008 election was approaching and the paper needed an extra pair of hands in the parliamentary Press Gallery. He became a protégé of Audrey Young, the Herald’s veteran political reporter; she would come up with story ideas and Gower would chase them.

Reporting politics suited him. It wasn’t just the personalities and the political theatre; Gower says he enjoyed getting to grips with policy issues, too.

But it was his nose for the damaging exposé – the type of story that destroys reputations, if not careers – that marked him as a political reporter to be watched. It was Gower who reported late in 2009 that the then Act leader Rodney Hide, known as the perkbuster because of his attacks on MPs’ self-indulgence and misuse of public money, had gone on a taxpayer-funded overseas tour with his girlfriend (now his wife) at a cost of $25,000.

Hide paid the money back, he notes, “but it was the hypocrisy thing that really hurt him”.

Not long after that, Garner came calling. TV3’s political editor worked just down the hallway and needed an offsider. Gower had misgivings (he felt bad about leaving the Herald, which had been very loyal to him, and was worried about whether he could make the transition to TV), but took the leap.

For the first few months he wondered whether he had made a terrible mistake. “I looked like shit on TV, performance-wise. I was wooden. People would get pissed at parties and say to me, ‘God, you look awful.’ I think the public stopped just short of a petition to get me off.”

Even now, it couldn’t be said that Gower is everyone’s idea of the polished, telegenic presenter. In fact he’s the perfect rebuttal to the frequent accusation that television news departments are only interested in hiring people who look pretty. “I can’t rely on my looks to get me through,” he concedes.

His suits always look a little too tight. His hair sticks up awkwardly, his teeth are prominent and he has a habit of curling his lip so the viewer can’t tell whether he’s smiling or snarling. But none of this matters much when you’re the highest-profile political journalist on television, which Gower inarguably is.

People can debate whether what he does is good journalism. His boss, TV3 news and current affairs head Mark Jennings, concedes he sometimes pushes close to the edge, which can be polarising. But Gower breaks stories and makes things happen. Through his aggressive reporting, he has become a force in politics.

One big game of wits

He breaks not only stories but rules too. He insouciantly ignores the old principle that fact and comment should be kept separate and similarly disregards the traditional notion that the journalist should be an observer of politics rather than a participant.

On the claim he sometimes makes himself part of the story, Gower pleads guilty as charged. “It’s part of my style. Every now and then you have to put yourself out there; otherwise the politicians will walk all over us.” But he’s also slightly defensive and insists it doesn’t really happen that often.

Political journalism, he says, is one big game of wits. Part of the satisfaction for reporters lies in outfoxing a political machine that’s always trying to put one across them. “Every week there’s a situation where one side is trying desperately not to tell the truth and using every trick in the book to look better in the eyes of the public.”

Garner, who prides himself on having shown Gower the ropes, goes further. He describes political reporting as a war zone and Gower as a commando – and though he laughs when he says it, you sense he’s not completely joking.

“You’ve got to have a fantastic gut instinct for stories and you’ve got to back yourself,” says Garner. “Paddy learned very quickly that if you back yourself, you can lead the pack.”

Gower leads the pack almost literally, especially when there’s a wounded politician to be pursued.

In 2010 the quarry was embattled Labour MP Chris Carter, who was under attack for credit card spending. Carter made the mistake of trying to evade the questions of waiting journalists outside the Labour caucus room. In madcap scenes that brought to mind the analogy about dogs chasing cars, Gower harried Carter as he fled down a staircase. It generated a visual spectacle for the evening news but contributed little to the sum of human knowledge.

Even Gower now seems to concede it may have been over the top. “That was a long time ago,” he says. “In print that would have been a ‘no comment’. In TV it’s a whole lot different.

“Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have chased him. I should have only gone down one storey, not two.” That’s about as close to an act of contrition as you’ll get from the former convent schoolboy.

But he also excuses himself, pointing out the behaviour and body language of a politician put on the spot in front of a TV camera often conveys far more than a story in print can do.

Block and tackle

There have been other, similar occasions. Former Act MP David Garrett – another politician under siege at the time – has alleged that Gower once continually blocked him when he was trying to pass through Wellington Airport. “I had little doubt that he was trying to provoke me to drop my bag and then drop him.”

Then there was the Brash episode, which happened not long before the 2011 election. Gower says he had exposed tension between Brash, then leader of Act, and the party’s candidate for Epsom, John Banks, over the decriminalisation of cannabis. Brash had spoken in support of it; Banks was resolutely opposed.

3 News showed Gower confronting Brash as he got out of a car outside Wellington’s Amora Hotel. The former Reserve Bank governor’s exact words were: “You’re a deceitful bastard, quite frankly, and I don’t want to talk to you any more.”

TV3 was evidently so proud of the moment that when Brash’s autobiography was released this month, it replayed footage of the exchange twice during a news item presented by Gower.

He insists he can’t think of anything that would have caused the mild-mannered Brash to call him deceitful. Perhaps we can help.

Brash told the Listener it was the third time that day Gower had waylaid him outside a conference where party leaders and finance spokespeople were setting out their economic policies. “What really riled me was that on each occasion when he stopped me, he purported to want to talk about the economy and Act’s financial policy. But no sooner had I stopped to engage him than he diverted the conversation to talk about my recent speech on law and order, which included a reference to decriminalising marijuana.”

More depressing still, he says, was that the confrontation was the only news item TV3 used after an all-day conference of “hugely important” speeches on the economy. “Patrick was looking for something sensational and I finally gave it to him.”

All the Gower trademarks were there: homing in on an apparent conflict, direct confrontation with the camera running, refusing to take no for an answer.

No hint of malice

But here’s the thing. Even after that uncharacteristic outburst three years ago, Brash refers to Gower by his first name. There’s no hint of malice. And when Carter was looking like a trapped animal, he, too, addressed his tormentor as “Patrick”.

It’s as if there’s now a resigned acceptance that cornering politicians and pressuring them into saying things they don’t want to say, just to get to the camera out of their face, comes with the territory.

A Beehive insider says Gower learnt a lot from Garner, who had a similarly aggressive approach, and the two still “bounce off each other”. (Garner, who has an afternoon show on RadioLive, confirmed to the Listener that they talk to each other most days.)

The Beehive source said TV3’s political reporters took a more aggressive approach than TVNZ’s but seemed to concentrate on stories about conflict and political stumbles rather than weighty issues. “Paddy doesn’t strike me as being deeply interested in how the current account is faring.”

He noted some younger political journalists (Gower is 37) have a confidence bordering on arrogance, inserting comment into stories in a way that wouldn’t have been contemplated by an earlier generation of reporters.

Yet they often got things wrong, one example being Gower’s on-camera predictions about how National would react to TV3’s overcooked story about Kim Dotcom owning a signed copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. John Key didn’t lie awake at night worrying about what Dotcom was up to, the source said.

But he gave Gower credit for being even-handed, pointing out he had pursued the controversy over Labour leader David Cunliffe’s secret donors’ trust as aggressively as he did Oravida’s connections to Collins and the National Party. “He may go for Labour or the Greens one day, but you always get the feeling he’ll be on to us another day about something else.”

And in keeping with most people spoken to by the Listener, the Beehive insider agreed that off-camera, Gower was hard not to like. “But he’s a different personality when the camera is running, when he’ll ask ministers the same question four or five times to see if they stumble or seem unsure about their position.”

The Listener interviewed Gower in a trendy Wellington cafe called the Trade Kitchen. It’s where he goes when he wants to escape the Beltway. “No one from Parliament comes here,” he says, unaware that Trevor Mallard is sitting a few metres away.

Gower is personable, laughs readily – often at his own expense – and seems blessedly free of airs, which seems to confirm a fellow Press Gallery journalist’s opinion that although he’s “wildly over-stimulated” as a journalist, he’s not one of those media egos who uses up all the oxygen in the room.

Gower has come prepared for the interview and appears to have mentally rehearsed the points he wants to make. Days later he phones and spends some time talking about big stories he broke while working for the Herald. They included an interview in Afghanistan with the US ambassador to Nato, who revealed hitherto unknown information about what the New Zealand SAS was doing there.

He’s not boasting. Rather, it seems he wants to establish his credibility as a serious journalist. “I’m aware that there’s a certain view of me out there,” he says.

Going the extra mile

Certainly, no one can fault his nose for a story, or his chutzpah. When Gower accompanied Key’s mission to China in March, he wasn’t content to cover the orchestrated events. No, Gower and a cameraman hailed a taxi in Shanghai and asked to be taken to the head office of Oravida, the company that had caused so much strife for National.

He had no idea what he was going to get and wasn’t even confident they’d find the place. But on arrival they were shown into an almost deserted building and allowed to roam at will. To Gower’s astonishment, the office walls were covered with photos of National Party politicians, including Judith Collins – and one showing Key playing a round of golf with the Oravida owner that hadn’t previously been disclosed.

It made an arresting, if slightly surreal, item for the TV3 news. “We struck gold,” says Gower with obvious satisfaction. “TV’s a great way to tell a story.”

Asked about his relationship with politicians, he says it’s a love-hate thing – “a bit like my teachers at school”. Some get dirty when the camera is off and there can be pressure behind the scenes, especially in election year. But although some bear a grudge, others realise next week the other side will be copping it. Key understands that, Gower adds. “Others could learn from him.”
As for his own political views, he says he has hardly any. “Journalism is the driving thing for me. There’s not enough room in the engine for politics.”

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