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How cosmetic surgery enabled Corin Dann to have a stellar TV career

Corin Dann. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

TVNZ’s Corin Dann has an important new role, but if he hadn’t had surgery, he wouldn’t be on our screens at all.

Journalist Corin Dann has spent years reporting the rise and fall of politicians, their triumphs and defeats. He’s also witnessed unexpected and sometimes untidy exits from Parliament. In January, after 10 years as a political reporter, he took his cue from the luckier ones who’ve chosen the timing of their departure and announced he was stepping down from the demands of daily political reporting after nearly six years as TVNZ’s political editor.

Wellington-based Dann and his wife, Lotta, have three school-aged sons, and on his new days off – Mondays and Tuesdays – he’s enjoying simple pleasures such as walking the dog, picking up the boys from school, reading, playing his guitar and eyeing up the waves after digging out the surfboard that’s languished for years at the back of his garage.

Dann is from a Christchurch family of teachers and journalists. His parents, Margaret and Russell, both taught for 40 years; his brother, Liam, is an award-winning business journalist; and his twin sister, Amy, is a businesswoman. Lotta has moved away from mainstream journalism and written two books, Mrs D is Going Without and Mrs D is Going Within, about her decision to give up drinking. She also runs an online support service called Living Sober, which has about 6000 subscribers.

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Corin, 43, has swapped daily political reporting for TVNZ’s Sunday political programme Q+A and a new midweek economics podcast. He came to television after working in radio and says it took a miracle of sorts to get him in front of a camera.

Where does the miracle come into your career?

I was born cross-eyed and had my first corrective surgery when I was about three. When I was working in radio with Barry Soper, he’d jokingly yell at me, “When are you going to get that eye fixed?” Someone had suggested I might want to think about television journalism at some point, so I went and got one wandering eye straightened. Then I was asked if I’d like to host the business show on TV, so I got the other eye sorted. So that’s three goes at my eyes – and they’re pretty straight now.

In Wellington with wife Lotta. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Surgery like that is a modern miracle. I wouldn’t be on TV otherwise – it would be quite distracting for viewers if you had eyes wandering all over the place. I remember joking with Petra Bagust when we worked together on Breakfast that I’d probably had more cosmetic surgery than anyone else at TVNZ.

Both you and your brother Liam went down the journalism path. Was there a particular influence there?

I’m not sure – Mum and Dad were teachers, and  was always interested in political and current affairs and is a huge reader. Amy, Liam and I went to Cashmere High School with Guyon Espiner, who was one of my brother’s mates. Liam went into journalism first and I just trailed along. I was more into politics, whereas his focus is business. My twin sister, Amy, is the businesswoman of the family. She runs an accountancy business in Christchurch.

What’s your experience of being a twin?

I was lucky to have a twin sister – I had the benefit of a very wide peer group because all her friends became mine and vice versa. We get on really well and understand each other. We don’t need to say a lot – if one of us is worried about something, we pick up on it quickly. We go camping every year in Okains Bay. Amy has two boys, and it’s a wonderful meeting place in which to reconnect.

With twin sister Amy. Photo/Dann family

Your wife Lotta’s battle with the booze is well known. What’s been the result for your family of her decision to stop drinking?

It has been an incredible gift. Lotta was a high-functioning alcoholic. Her bottom wasn’t a terrible rock bottom, but she was starting to hide booze. What she did was incredible, brave and fantastic for our family, because she recognised it wasn’t going to end well and she had to stop doing it if she was going to have the life she wanted.

Now you’re getting more of the life you wanted – what’s the new work regime?

I fly to Auckland on Saturday afternoons after watching the boys’ sports and return to Wellington on Sunday night. My Saturday nights are pretty quiet – I mostly spend them prepping for the next day. We start conversations on Q + A about political, economic and cultural issues. People are challenged during interviews, but they can trust they’ll get a fair hearing. Sometimes it might get prickly, but we don’t attempt to mislead or trick them.

Guyon Espiner says he works out a forensic plan of attack for interviews. How do you prepare for yours?

Guyon is a good friend of mine and we often talk about interviewing. Tone is such a big thing, trying to understand how the viewer might perceive something. You can’t always win – sometimes people feel you’re interrupting too much and at other times they think you’ve let someone off lightly.

Moderating the Vote 2017 multi-party leaders debate. Photo/Getty Images

If you’re trying to hold someone to account for something they’ve done and they’re not answering the questions, you have to go in hard. Other times, it’s discussing ideas, exploring them. I try very hard to be even-handed. You need to figure out the approach in the days leading up to Sunday, and I have great producers to bounce that around with.

What’s the essence of a great interview?

A good interview means you forget you’re on TV, that you’re anywhere but locked in a discussion with another person. Everything else fades away. When you get those moments, you know it’s a good interview and a genuine conversation, and you know the viewers will feel they’re in on something real. I’m always striving for that.

What’s been your most memorable interview?

I interviewed the US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when he came out here two or three years ago. It was a thrill to interview a serving member of the Cabinet, who’d been head of the CIA. The calibre of the guy meant lifting my game.

I interviewed John Key many times, right from when I was a host on Breakfast, and he was always a challenge. He’s a very skilful politician, but there were one or two times when I thought I had him under real pressure and pressed him on issues like homelessness and housing. He’s a very difficult subject because, under pressure, he’s good at batting away questions.

Have any of your interviews gone wrong?

An interview with Hekia Parata turned into a bit of a train wreck. It’s a terrible feeling when you’re in an interview and it gets away from you.

Parata is interesting. She was very passionate and doing a lot of work to try to lift the tail of academic underachievement, but she was very into bureaucratese and I felt frustrated trying to figure out what she was really trying to say. It just didn’t work. Funnily enough, in one of the last interviews I did with her before she left politics, her communications skills had dramatically improved.

Who’s next in your sights?

I tried for Obama while he was here, but he wasn’t doing interviews. I’ll try for Hillary Clinton, who’s also coming to New Zealand. They’ve been at the centre of the world in terms of news and I was lucky to cover the last two elections in the US, so I’m very interested in them.

I’d also like to interview the Canadian author and psychologist Jordan Peterson, who wrote 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. He’s the leading provocateur academic in the world at the moment and has captured the imaginations of a lot of disillusioned young men in particular. He’s at the forefront of an anti-PC pushback and famous for an interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 in the UK, in which he questioned the issue of gender equality.

What do you like to read?

I read a lot of literary fiction. I’ve read all of Michel Houellebecq’s books; reading him is almost an antidote to all the non-fiction I read for work. I really enjoyed a couple of New Zealand books over summer: Baby by Annaleese Jochems and Iceland by Dominic Hoey. Anne Enright’s The Green Road is a favourite, and I’d read anything by JM Coetzee.

Literary fiction can be an escape from whatever else is going on around you, but if it was just escaping, I’d watch Netflix or read a spy novel. It’s more that I’m looking for things to confront me, even if it’s not always that pleasant. I read My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent probably because of a Listener recommendation. It was confronting and harrowing. Sometimes you have to put a book down for a few minutes to think through what you’ve just read.

At a friend’s wedding. Photo/Dann family

Now you have Mondays and Tuesdays off, what are you doing with your free time?

My aim is to be around after school and get my head around what the boys are up to. I’ll probably run a bit more, and I went out to the beach yesterday to look at the waves; I used to surf a long time ago so thought maybe Mondays and Tuesdays might be good times to do that. I’ll also be playing the guitar; sitting around trying not to do so much. The hard part is being completely engaged in the news debate and cycle. I hoover up news, but I’m trying not to do that so much on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I’m fresher on Wednesdays.

What’s something we don’t know about you?

I’m an amateur songwriter. I’ve been doing it for the past 10 or 15 years, and I’ve performed the odd one at weddings; I wrote one for my brother’s wedding.

I’m not a good writer, so I have no ambition to be an author, but I do play guitar and enjoy creating songs. Every now and then, I crack a decent one and play it with my mates. I’m happy for that to stay at that level. My inner critic is too harsh to allow me to take it any further.

This article was first published in the March 31, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.