For a lifelong news and sports nut who loves to travel, a job that requires meeting the world’s top newsmakers and athletes is a dream for BBC TV producer Tama Muru. Lee-Anne Duncan caught up with him in London.
This time it’s Zeinab Badawi on the other end of the phone. A long-time BBC presenter, she’s standing in for Stephen Sackur, who’s fronted the BBC’s half-hour interview programme for the best part of 15 years. That’s a long time, but not as long as Muru’s been involved, convincing newsmakers to come on the show, writing briefs, outlining questions and conducting recorded interviews in a BBC studio or out in the field.
He’s been on board for nearly 19 years, starting as a producer in the BBC World newsroom as part of the “Kiwi Mafia” that filled out the 24-hour news channel’s staff rota, then moving into the Hardtalk office as casual cover. The editor liked him, he loved the job, so he’s stayed on, working for both Hardtalk and its sports version, Extratime. Today, Muru is the most senior producer on the team, meaning he’s pretty much the editor’s top pick to organise and orchestrate interviews in salubrious or security-compromised locations all around the world.
And it’s a world away from his pre-BBC life: growing up in Palmerston North with his mum and two brothers; a degree in history and politics; a journalism post-grad diploma at the University of Canterbury; his first journalism job at Ōamaru’s Radio Waitaki – back in the days when journalists in tiny community radio stations were still a thing – then Radio New Zealand’s Wellington newsroom.
Now working for the world’s largest (and, might we say, most prestigious) broadcaster at the corporation’s flash renovated headquarters in central London, Muru’s producing role has taken him to more than 30 countries, at a rough count, and afforded him impressive stories, great gets, hilarious (now, anyway) near misses, and more names to drop than the phonebook – if such a thing still exists – of a small city.
High-profile sportspeople and politicians he’s rubbed shoulders with range from Jonah Lomu to swimmer Ian Thorpe (“when he was still denying being gay”); from former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres to US senator John McCain. Next, Muru is heading off to Zimbabwe. But as he turns 48, the expat Kiwi admits he’s starting to feel the distance between London and his New Zealand-based family, and his Māori roots in Ngāti Kuri (Te Aupōuri), New Zealand’s most northern iwi.
Why the BBC, and how did a boy from Palmerston North get his foot in the door?
Back in those days, there were many of us Australasians freelancing at BBC World, in thrall to the friendly Irishman who did – and still does – the rota for the London newsrooms. I knew someone who worked there and she put in a good word for me, so I was in. Isn’t that the way it works? As for why the BBC; alongside working as a journalist at Radio New Zealand, in terms of venerable, famed broadcast organisations, the BBC’s right up there. It’s frankly rather nice to say you work at the BBC.
You’ve been at Hardtalk and Extratime cracking on for two decades – what’s kept you there?
If I list just some of the people I’ve met, I think you’ll get a sense: Pete Sampras, Roger Federer – he autographed a whole bunch of tennis balls for me and I didn’t bloody keep one for myself – Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles, John McEnroe. And that’s just some of the tennis players. Rugby, there’s George Gregan, Jonny Wilkinson, Sean Fitzpatrick, and Jonah Lomu, of course. Sprinter cyclist Tyler Hamilton, before and after he admitted doping.
I love boxing, so George Foreman, Wladimir Klitschko – who I’ve met and pretended to spar with twice, 10 years apart. He was very, very nice – so articulate and friendly. He’s known as Dr Steelhammer, and, man, I got a sense of that standing there in the ring with this two-metre tall monster. I remember thinking, “If he really punched me, it would be like being kicked by a horse.” His fists were pistons.
For Hardtalk, just thinking about politicians, I flew to Lake Como to interview John McCain, and we did [then US secretary of State] John Kerry while he was in Addis Ababa on a goodwill tour of Africa. I loved meeting Ashley Judd [the actor whose public allegations against Harvey Weinstein played a key role in sparking the #MeToo movement]. She was very nice – polite, but passionate and no-nonsense. Very beautiful, of course.
One of my favourite interviews wasn’t a big name: Victor Conte, the now-disgraced head of Balco who supplied [top athletes with] THG, a previously undetectable steroid. We had some great moments in that interview, like when Rob Bonnet asked him: “How do you look back now at your role as a drug dealer in sport?” We weren’t mucking around.
A great selling point for Extratime and for Hardtalk is that we interview to time, so edit very little. You might get roasted, but you have the chance to have your say. I really like the presenters on both programmes – they’re fearless and no-bullshit, but lovely people as well.
What do TV producers do?
Bloody everything but being in front the camera. You bid for the interviewees, chat them – or their people – up about coming on the programme. You do the research and write the briefs, and coordinate with the presenter about angles of attack. You book hotels and the camera crews, get the visas and write risk assessments if you’re going into a dangerous country, which we do, so I might also have to organise safety advisers and security. Then, I’m on set for the interview, or in the gallery if it’s a studio interview, talking to the presenter in their earpiece about questions and timing. I’m then across the edit, doing the social media – Twitter, Instagram, updating the BBC website. To be honest, I like it like that. I’m a shameless control freak in this job and if I’ve done it myself I know it’s been done, because that might be the one damn thing done wrong that sinks the whole ship.
Do you have an example of that?
Oh yes, yes, I do. Many. But one in particular was one of the most epic days of my career. Stephen Sackur and I were in the US in 2018. We did Ashley Judd in New York, followed by Anthony Scaramucci – Trump’s very short-lived communications director – in Washington DC. Then we flew to Little Rock, Arkansas, to interview Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine”, the first kids bussed into a white school back in 1957 as a test to the US Supreme Court’s decision ordering the desegregation of the education system.
We flew into Little Rock about 9:30pm, got a hire car and drove to our Holiday Inn. Then I get a call from our British cameraman: “Bro, have you got my bag? My bag with the laptop and the camera card with the Scaramucci interview?” It’s the card from the camera that was trained on Stephen – we still had the camera card with Scaramucci’s side of the interview, but not Stephen’s questions.
About 400 metres from Little Rock Airport, a light had come on showing the SUV’s boot was open, so the cameraman got out and shut it. Seemed like the bag must’ve fallen out then. So, the cameraman and I get into the SUV and drove back to where we think it may have fallen out. And it’s cold, man; really cold. Like in Fargo. I have a jacket but no hat or gloves and we’re walking up and down the highway looking for the bag, but no go.
The next day, we’ve set up for the Eckford interview and the cameraman’s phone rings – it’s this guy who’s found the bag. We’re jumping up and down, we’re so happy. If we hadn’t got the card back, we’d have had to sit Stephen up against a wall to rage at an empty chair!
Another time, a presenter and I flew all the way to Nairobi to catch up with [UK Foreign Secretary] Jeremy Hunt. His staff called just before the interview to cancel, but we weren’t having that. We all poured everything on it and were able to get the interview back. You keep hanging in there in those situations. I’m not a pushy person at all, but being a producer changes your character.
Silly question, I’m sure, but what keeps you at the BBC?
I’ve become a travel junkie. I can’t lie. This year so far, for work, I’ve been to Italy, Hungary, Kenya, Turkey, Greece, Austria, Switzerland, the US… And it’s taken me to so many places I’d never usually get to. I went into one of the Jewish settlements in Gaza, just before they were dismantled, and it reminded me of Himatangi Beach, in Horowhenua. It was a sleepy beachside community. But then you walk out of that community, around the corner and up to the security fence, and there’s a bus looking like something out of Mad Max 2 driving back and forth through a security gate, ferrying Israelis across this no-man’s land. Ahead, you see the Palestinian settlements and they’re completely different – built-up, impoverished, terrible.
How did you get your interest in international news?
I do have to credit my parents. With my mum, Jane, you’re talking about someone who bought the Guardian Weekly when I was a teenager, so she was politically aware and active. My father, Selwyn, is similar and expressed his activism through art. Dad also had a career in broadcasting at Radio New Zealand, and TVNZ at Koha – a Māori current affairs show in the 1980s. So I was always aware what was going on in the world. And I’m a history buff, so the chance to see and experience what I’ve read about is quite something.
What would entice you home? Could anything top this job?
No, it couldn’t, and I’m realistic about that. You just can’t do this from Down Under. But I’m getting closer to wanting to come home. I’ve started turning some down trips, which I never thought I’d do. I don’t know what I’d do back in New Zealand. Communications? Reporting? I think I’d rather report than produce. But I’d be amendable to doing something different as well.
Would you get more involved with your iwi?
Maybe, but that would be for me personally rather than something likely to lead to gainful employment. There was a Murupaenga family reunion in early 2016, and that was fantastic. I went to Te Hāpua, where my father grew up. I walked up this very steep hill to the urupā and looked out over the Pārengarenga Harbour. It sounds corny, but I stood there with my two brothers and thought, “Yeah, this is me.” In London, you either have money or you’re young. I don’t have enough money and I don’t have much youth left. And I don’t have family ties here, so New Zealand is becoming more of a focus.
But for now, Maida Vale is still your stand-in tūrangawaewae?
I do love living in Maida Vale. I was in Tooting when I first moved to London and I hated it. It took three Underground lines to get to the BBC, which was out in White City then. Now I can walk to work, which is a major bonus in London. I love to play sport as well as watch it, so Maida Vale’s great because I can walk to Lord’s, where I play in the [cricket] nets every Tuesday, and can run around the Paddington training track. I’ve got my bakery, my butcher, my cafes. And I’ve got the Warrington, my favourite pub. It’s not gritty London – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like it.