Jesse Mulligan is giving Mike Hosking a run for his money

Photography/ Stephen Langdon

Prime time

Written off (by many) before its launch, Three’s ‘newsertainment’ show The Project has not only survived for over 100 episodes, but sometimes trumps Seven Sharp in the ratings. Could that be because co-host Jesse Mulligan has found his voice? Here, he talks about government underfunding of DoC, being told to cheer up by Maggie Barry, and wanting to crush Hosking.

Until recently, the only broadcaster in the land who could boast of reaching a sizeable national audience, twice a day, was that deeply polarising lover of shredded jeans and the National Party, Mike Hosking. But then came Jesse Mulligan, the host of both RNZ National’s eponymous afternoon programme and Three’s newsertainment show The Project. Mild-mannered Mulligan has lately revealed a secret stash of strong opinions decidedly less flattering to our great leaders: namely, the paucity of Department of Conservation funding and the veracity of Bill English’s claim that National is “delivering for all New Zealanders”. Has Jesse Mulligan become the anti-Hosking? And when on earth does he sleep?

JULIE Hill: How many hours do you work per day?
JESSE Mulligan: It’s not as bad as it looks. I try and make sure I’m with the kids [who are six, four and 18 months] until the last minute, which is usually about 10am. Then I head into radio and at 3.30pm, I bike up to TV for a 4 o’clock meeting. The show’s usually done by 8pm. So, it’s a long day but it’s not like I’m digging ditches or anything.

When you were growing up in Hamilton, how did you discover your comedic gifts?
I don’t know if I’ve ever had comedic gifts. I’m a stronger writer and I think a strong writer can turn a punchline. I was never the funny guy in school, for example, although I would write funny things in school projects and make the teacher laugh.

Do you prefer radio or telly?
They’re quite different. I get to go much deeper on radio and probably pursue things which are less intuitively appealing, but when you’ve got 10 or 20 minutes with someone, you can do that. It’s a real luxury. The TV stuff is different – it needs to be interesting straight away. I feel really lucky to be doing both and I’m really, really enjoying both.

Have you always been opinionated or have I only just noticed?
I was head writer at 7 Days for a while, and it was really just grab a paper and see what the headline is and turn it into a joke. Then I did commercial radio – same thing, you couldn’t really talk about something unless everyone was already talking about it and you looked for a punchline. I looked for punchlines for 10 years. Then I moved to RNZ and you’re doing 10 interviews a day on news and current affairs, and art. I definitely didn’t engage very deeply for most of my twenties and thirties, but the last couple of years have been great for my brain.

In The Project you have a mix of comedy and news. Sometimes I worry someone’s going to crack a joke in a serious bit. How do you play that?
Probably the same way you play it socially. It apes a social conversation rather than a traditional news conversation. And you know when you’re chatting to a friend, when something you’ve said has clunked or has been inappropriate. It’s very rare that I’ll think, ‘oh, we shouldn’t have made a joke there’.

It sometimes feels like The Project is a way for politicians to audition for a future media career. Some of them are quite good.
Yeah, Jacinda [Ardern] was great. Paula Bennett was great. I really enjoyed David Seymour on the show. It’s hard to find prominent, articulate right-wing voices in New Zealand media. There’s just so few of them.

Do they view The Project as leaning to the left?
I think they probably do. We had Jordan Williams from the Taxpayers’ Union on and he said at the meeting, ‘I’ll say such and such about a story’. And I said, ‘great, a lot of people watching will agree with you’. And he said, ‘I don’t think they’ll be watching your show’. I don’t think that’s true and we don’t want it to be true. Half of New Zealand will probably vote National this year and I don’t want them not to watch or feel like they haven’t got a voice.

Are you a journalist?
I’m definitely not a journalist. I’ll let the journalists call themselves journalists because they’re quite protective of it, with good reason – they have training and stuff. On The Project I’m a TV presenter. I’m a writer, which has aspects of journalism to it. But there’s quite a traditional view of journalism that you’re not allowed to have an opinion. I haven’t been steeped in that tradition and my favourite kind of writing is opinionated writing. So in writing I’ve done for The Economist [he has written two articles, on predator-free New Zealand and paying to use national parks, for the esteemed UK-based magazine] or pieces for The Project, I’m like, line the facts up and then go hard.

What are your politics?
I don’t know. I don’t know who I’m going to vote for.

Your editorialising on DoC and the Bill English tweet make you sound like a screaming leftie.
I do feel really strongly about the DoC stuff. I don’t know if I’d be a one-issue voter, but I think National’s done a fucking shocking job of looking after conservation. It’s one of the worst things on their record really.

[Minister of Conservation] Maggie Barry said you should cheer up.
Which minimises it really. It’s quite a National Party thing to do: the ‘chill out everyone, have a laugh’. It forces people to get much more angry and much harder on them, and therefore the person complaining looks like
a lunatic.

Whose idea was it to have a live audience on The Project?
We just pinched it off the Aussies. We bought The Project Australia off them and the idea is we start off like them, then find our own thing. Their host is a guy called Waleed Aly, who is super-informed. It’s like, ‘no pressure but your equivalent in Australia is an expert on counterterrorism’ [Aly has a PhD on global terrorism, and is a columnist, academic, lawyer and musician]. But the live audience really keeps the bar high, it’s massively energising.

Do you want to crush Hosking?
We’ve beaten his ratings about a dozen times this year. I just want people to watch us so I keep getting to do it.

Are you going to be more opinionated from now on?
No, I think it only works when it’s deployed very irregularly. If you’re chatting away on The Project then you look to the camera and start going hard on something, people go, ‘what the fuck?’ It makes people sit up. But if you’re doing it once a week they’re like, ‘oh, here he goes again’.