Mike McRoberts on war, depression and the importance of optimismby Clare de Lore
After more than 20 years dipping in and out of war zones, veteran newsman Mike McRoberts remains optimistic.
In that time, McRoberts, Ngāti Kahungunu, has reported on man-made and natural disasters, including periods in war zones, notably the Middle East. He has also run 10 marathons and later this month will lead a cycle tour through Sri Lanka to raise funds for Variety, the children’s charity. He also has a packed work schedule, including this month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea and the Commonwealth Games in Australia from April 4-15.
McRoberts was born in Dunedin to teenage parents. His father, Watene, known as Mac, was originally from Wairoa and his mother, Lynda, from Christchurch. The 52-year-old newsman spent most of his early years in Christchurch, where his mother still lives. Last he heard, his father was in Hamilton. McRoberts and his wife, journalist Paula Penfold, recently separated. They have two children, Maia, 17, and Ben, 15.
What was life like in predominantly Pakeha Christchurch?
Dad went to Christchurch on a Maori Affairs Department trade training scheme. My mother’s parents weren’t happy about the relationship, so Mum and Dad moved to Dunedin for two years. I was born there, then they moved back. I have two younger brothers and a sister. We grew up in Rowley, which is a pretty poor area; my old primary school is still decile 1. I had great teachers at Hillmorton High School, and in my last year, I was head boy. Quite a lot of Māori and Pacific Islanders live in the area now, but in my day, I was one of maybe two Māori boys at school.
What difference did that make?
Not a lot, except when Māori issues came up, because friends would say, “It’s okay, you’re like us.” When I started at RNZ, I was sent to the Te Māori exhibition because I was the only Māori in the newsroom. My chief reporter said, “Great report. You made it so easy for us to follow”, but I was following it, too, as I didn’t know anything about it.
Do you speak Māori?
I started learning a few years ago but stopped for some reason. My father didn’t speak it, because it wasn’t encouraged at school. A lot of the Māori guys who went to Christchurch from Wairoa stayed there and married Pakeha girls. I made a doco about my father, White Sheep, about how [their arrival] changed Christchurch and how, when they went back to Wairoa, it changed things there. Part of the repercussions was losing the ability to speak te reo. These guys should be kaumātua now. They may have the mana, but they don’t have the language, so it’s tough for them.
What made you decide on a career in journalism?
I had won a scholarship to do law at university. Before I started, Maori Affairs offered me the chance to take part in a writing hui, and one of the places we went to was RNZ in Christchurch. We were there in the lead-up to the midday bulletin, so there was a buzz, and I thought this is what I really want to do. I became a cadet in the Christchurch newsroom.
What are your career highlights so far?
In Zimbabwe, I interviewed Morgan Tsvangirai [Prime Minister, 2009-13]. He was an incredible man with a real presence. He’d had a lot of tragedy in his life and had been persecuted and tortured. When I interviewed [Burmese politician] Aung San Suu Kyi a few years ago, I was expecting a similar feeling, but I didn’t get it. I asked about the Rohingya people, but she brushed me off. I said to my then boss, Mark Jennings, ‘I don’t think she will be very different from what they already have.’”
In July 2014, soon after you arrived in Gaza as TV3’s correspondent, an Israeli rocket exploded on the beach. Some children were wounded, but a second blast killed four cousins aged 9-11. The Israel Defence Forces called it “a tragic outcome”, saying their target was a “Hamas terrorist operative”. A later inquiry said the boys had been mistakenly targeted. You have singled out that event as perhaps the most troubling in your more than 20 years reporting from war zones. Why?
They were just kids, then they were gone in an instant. Gaza is without doubt the most miserable place on Earth that I have been to. The people are trapped in a small coastal strip and conditions are terrible. There is no chance of a normal life or of escaping to one. That hopelessness and the anguish of the parents of those boys stay with me.
Why go into conflict zones when they clearly affect you?
I am no fan of war, but I am addicted to the human-interest stories that emerge. It is very intense, so you get amazing and important stories. Some people say I dip in and out of these places, but I think we need a New Zealand eye on these events.
As a journalist, it is one of the greatest gifts to be able to go and make people aware of what is happening in the world and perhaps change things. Once, when I was going to Gaza, I cut short a Christmas holiday. Ben was about 10 and Maia 12, and they asked why I was going there. I said, “Innocent people are being killed, and if reporters go in there and the world becomes aware, it might put pressure on both parties for a ceasefire.” I got over there, and as soon as I had done my first piece for the news, there was a ceasefire. When I rang home, the kids said, “Well done, Dad.” Ha, it wasn’t me, but they both have a keen sense of social justice and awareness of the world.
How do you cope with the relentlessly disturbing aspect of covering war and conflict?
I am an optimist, and I am also stupidly confident sometimes that things will turn out. When I speak to schools, I tell kids that when I was a teenager, I had a bad stutter, a stammer that went on for two or three years. If you had said to me at 13 that I would one day be reading the 6pm news, I and everyone around me would have laughed. There wasn’t money for therapy, but I learnt to slow down and formulate my words. Having that experience has formed a huge part of me. It turned me into a much better listener, which you need to be as an interviewer. Listening isn’t just waiting for your turn to speak. It also gave me a lot of empathy.
Your autobiography, Beyond the Front Line, came out in 2011. Do you plan to update it?
Maybe, but writing a book is bloody hard work. I spiralled into a depression after I wrote it. I know Sir Ray Avery and I told him I was struggling post-book. He said, “I hope you are calling it your first book, because if you just call it your book, you will think your life is over.” There is something in that. With the industry in crisis at the time, it felt as if the best times were over. Sometimes, given the way the industry is, you question whether you will even have a job, but now I feel on top of the world.
Does being a public figure affect you?
I’m not complaining, because there are lots of benefits, but having a profile means you’re always “on”. When Mark Weldon came to MediaWorks [as chief executive], he brought in a human-relations company. We’d never had one before. In 25 years, no one had left and we decided who we wanted to hire. Once this company came in, we had a massive staff turnover. I was asked to do a time-and-motion study, including what hours I worked. I asked them to tell me when I was not Mike McRoberts, TV3. Maybe when I’m sleeping.
What are you reading?
I read a lot of non-fiction, particularly biographies. Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation is among my favourite books. In covering the Middle East over the past nearly two decades, I’ve had the pleasure of his company many times and enjoyed conversations on his apartment deck overlooking the famous Corniche Beirut. I also enjoy Frederick Forsyth, whose novels are detailed with history, and John Grisham’s fast-paced courtroom dramas.
What’s your assessment of the state of the media now?
Trump has been brilliant for us, because people are going back to trusted news sources. Our ratings are great, despite a decline in television viewing. Things are really coming together, which is what you’d hope after 30 years in the business.
This article was first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.