Photo: Meek Zuiderwyk

Jack Tame: Boy wonder grows up

At 32, TVNZ’s boy wonder has just started keeping sensible hours after settling into a more-sensible job. He wants to be introduced as a journalist, not a TV presenter. And he wants to date. Which will be easier now his bedtime's not 8.30pm.  

Jack Tame lives by himself in an apartment off K’ Rd. From his living room you can see the expanse of Auckland in three directions — west, down Great North Rd to Mt Albert and the Waitākere Ranges; south over spaghetti motorways to Mt Eden, One Tree Hill and Mt Wellington; to the north, on a clear day, you can see Tiritiri Matangi and Little Barrier Island. On Friday nights, he likes to look down on the car park across the road, guessing which cars will get towed. (“The guys who run it are ruthless,” he says with a grin.)

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The apartment is impeccably clean and orderly, and not in a way that is clean and orderly just for the benefit of a writer with a dictaphone, but clean and orderly in such a deep way that is only achievable if it is, in fact, never anything but clean and orderly. The apartment gives the impression that its occupant has never heard of Marie Kondo because someone like Jack Tame has never needed to hear of Marie Kondo. (“Tidy house, tidy mind,” he says, like a true believer.) When I visit to interview him, there isn’t even a couch, just two comfortable armchairs facing each other, like a mid-century-modern Frost/Nixon. The next time we meet, he asks if I noticed there wasn’t a couch (I had) and tells me he’d recently added one — his friends had been giving him shit about it.

Jack Tame is a 32-year-old who, for the first time in a long time, is thinking as much about his life outside of work as work itself. Since he was 19 and still at broadcasting school, he’s been reporting for and hosting various Television New Zealand news and current affairs shows. He was the channel’s boy wonder, his youthful face and schoolboy charm were welcomed on whatever programme required them. He spent five years as TVNZ’s foreign correspondent in New York, flying all over the US to cover the stories captivating the world. For the past two and a half years, as co-host of Breakfast, he went to bed at 8.30pm to get up at 3.30am, sleeping in on Saturdays till 6.30 to get up for his morning radio show on NewstalkZB. In May, he took over from Corin Dann as host of Q+A, a current affairs and political interview show that airs at 9.30pm on Mondays.

Now, he goes to the office most weekdays, but usually shoots only on Monday. He gets up at a reasonable hour, and stays up past 9pm. He goes out to dinner. He even went to a comedy show recently. “I want to date,” he says, unexpectedly frankly. “I want to spend more time with friends, I want to play sports more. I want to read more. When you’re working a job like Breakfast, if you’re doing your best it completely consumes you — absolutely, completely exhausts you.”

Jack Tame is finally getting up at a reasonable hour. Photo: Meek Zuiderwyk

But it’s not just dinners out and comedy shows he’s seeking — Tame doesn’t want to be introduced as a “TV presenter” any more. He wants to be a journalist. “I’m aware for some people it’s inconceivable that you would choose to leave a show that is relatively high profile such as Breakfast, for a show that’s on at 9.30 on a Monday night. You’re trading relative glamour for 16 minutes with David Parker talking about Belt and Road.”

While he thinks Breakfast has unfairly been categorised as light, unserious entertainment — “there are few jobs in the country where you have the opportunity to interview the Prime Minister regularly,” he says — the opportunity to press the most powerful people in New Zealand to better explain the policies they’re advocating or the decisions they make was an opportunity Tame couldn’t pass up. Especially the year before an election.

“The people who come on the programme come on expecting to be challenged — that’s an attraction for me,” he says. “I’m 32, and if I want to be working at 45, then actually taking some time to really establish myself as a respected, experienced live interviewer is in my best interests. It’s also just what I’m interested in. Relative to the average person, I’m pretty nerdy — and pretty nerdy in a news sense — and a lot of the stuff that interests me probably isn’t going to interest a Breakfast audience. It also may not interest a Q+A audience, but I think it’s probably the best fit.”

As a kid in Christchurch, Tame was excited to get up in the morning just to read the newspaper with his dad, silently passing sections back and forth. At school, he did a bit of everything — rugby, barbershop, trombone — but he already knew he wanted to be a journalist. He says he wanted to be an “eyewitness to history” and to “experience as much of life as is possible, with all its glory and barbs, so that you become wise, so that you learn as much as possible about the human condition, and about life, and you make sense of as much as you can”.

“Being a reporter, you get an amazing privilege to meet and interview interesting people, but you are also standing in the freezing cold at Sandy Hook, or you are going to the Manukau District Court and covering some terrible trial. You get a spectrum that most people aren’t exposed to. But, I think through experiencing that spectrum, a degree of cynicism, especially regarding people in power, is a natural outcome.”

This natural degree of cynicism is, along with his TV-perfect diction (the word “recidivism” has never been said more clearly), what makes Tame such an effective interviewer. He has a knack for politely pressing politicians out of their comfort zones, his expression a precarious balance of questioning brow and a mischievous smile. He can say the most confrontational things without seeming the least bit confrontational. He excels at playing the devil’s advocate in an age when the very idea of non-partisan objectivity can seem redundant. So while Jack Tame the private individual, or Jack Tame the radio talk-show host, may espouse political opinions, often in public, Jack Tame the Q+A interviewer is prepared to challenge any politician or power broker who comes on his show, regardless of how their politics may agree with his own. “I get notes all the time saying, ‘You are too left,’ ‘You are too right.’ ‘You are too left,’ ‘You are too right’,” he says proudly.

On his second week on the show, Tame interviewed Chlöe Swarbrick about the Green Party’s advocacy for cannabis legalisation. Despite publishing an editorial in support of law reform in the Herald headlined “Protect kids from cannabis — legalise it”, he pushed Swarbrick firmly on the consequences of legalisation, the organised crime and driving fatalities in early-adopter states like Colorado, gently mocking her suggestion that police could adequately measure impairment in drivers with the eye test. “Really? That seems like an archaic way to see if people are under the influence of drugs!” he said, barely containing his glee.

Swarbrick agrees that, despite his published opinion of the matter, it’s Tame’s job to critically examine all his guests’ views, whether he’d publically agreed with them or not. “I wouldn’t expect anything less than for him to grill me on my perspective on things,” she says. “But the devil’s advocate approach is interesting, particularly when no answer to a question is going to be accepted.”

Tame is proud he gets accused of being both too right-wing and too left-wing. Photo: Meek Zuiderwyk

Earlier on the day of the interview, Tame tweeted: “Paula Bennett has refused to appear on @NZQandA tonight to debate Chloe Swarbrick on the cannabis referendum. She’ll appear independently but tells us she won’t appear with Swarbrick at this time. I’ll put some of the criticisms of the cannabis legislation to Chloe Swarbrick.” It was retweeted 70 times and liked by more than 500 people. It felt like a statement of intent from Tame, taking what might have just been an on-air statement at the top of the show and making it personal, taking ownership of the show, not just holding a politician to account in front of the camera, but doing so himself, as Jack Tame rather than as the host of Q+A. “It is our responsibility to hold these people to account and if she wasn’t prepared to front, I wanted people to know that,” he explains. “But, if you go and check the tweet and check the show, I didn’t say, ‘Paula Bennett’s a coward’, or anything like that. And I made it clear that she’d been prepared to come on separately … but I wanted people to be aware of the process behind closed doors, especially when a senior politician, a former minister, isn’t prepared to front. I think it’s important.”

Despite the editorial and despite the tweet, Tame put up a better opposition to Swarbrick’s policies than Bennett — a member of the actual Opposition — had in many of her media appearances on the issue. “I think you’d be hard pressed to say that I was showing bias to one side,” Tame says, “because I didn’t give Chlöe Swarbrick a soft-ball interview. I challenged her as forcibly as I would have challenged anyone in that position.”

Despite dividing his professional life between editorialising on issues on the radio and being a devil’s advocate adversary on Q+A, he doesn’t see himself as cynically engaged in scalp-taking journalism. Every politician, whether he agrees with them or not, is compromised in some real sense. They have to be — you don’t get given that sort of power otherwise. “There are some qualities that are universal amongst politicians of all stripes and one is hypocrisy,” he says. “And I just find hypocrisy to be such a gross quality. It’s in powerful people, but it seems to be especially prevalent in politicians. And so, I think as a journalist I’m often drawn to the hypocrisy of arguments and ideas.”

And Tame is keenly aware of what a privilege it is to have access to power brokers and to do so on a platform that is less reliant on entertainment and ratings than other current affairs programmes, where what once was a light, conversational final five minutes is increasingly the main focus of the show. At around 10 minutes an interview, Tame has more time than almost any major TV journalist in the country to get past the prepared soundbites and force his subjects into uncharted territory. He’s also aware that interviews on Q+A are a limited resource, and that the decisions he and his producers make about who to put on the show and give a platform to are, themselves, political. So while Q+A did not cover the launch of Brian and Hannah Tamaki’s new party, Coalition New Zealand, it did, a couple of weeks earlier, offer Brian Tamaki an opportunity to talk about his efforts to get his Man Up programme into prisons.

“I think, editorially, that was absolutely the right decision,” he says. “Māori are grossly over-represented in our prison stats. And having called around to various respected experts and former politicians, there was a sense that although he’s an incredibly controversial figure, and Destiny Church is an incredibly controversial organisation, Man Up might be doing some good. Going into that interview, I was really determined not to turn it into a circus, and not to open up and say, ‘You’re a charlatan’ — which I know for a fact there would have been viewers hoping I would do it — but I really wanted to try and determine whether or not there was any legitimacy to this programme and whether or not he had followed the procedures in getting it approved. As part of that interview with Tamaki, I asked him, ‘Are you considering politics?’ and he alluded to potentially considering something soon. But once they had announced their party, we didn’t for a moment consider having him or Hannah Tamaki on, because everything about it was a circus, but everyone just wanted a sillier interview than everyone else, and that wasn’t something we were drawn to for a moment.”

The interview with Tamaki — Tame’s first in his new job — was exactly what he believes Q+A should be doing. “I’d like to think I put him under pressure in that interview, but he came out of it thinking that it was appropriate, and appropriately respectful as well. It’s very easy for people in apartment buildings in central Auckland or living the high life in Grey Lynn to get snooty and delegitimise fringe movements that are completely foreign to their own experience and existence. I think that story was valuable. I think the coverage that their party received was not.”

Tame has taken over the role on Q+A from Corin Dann, who now presents Morning Report on RNZ. Photo: Meek Zuiderwyk

In the TVNZ studio — a large black room with remote-controlled robotic cameras that seem like they’re from the future but are actually 20 years old, and a 17-metre-wide semi-circular digital screen that will surely feature heavily in the channel’s 2020 election coverage — Tame is buoyant and lively. He bounces around the set, talking about the Cabinet reshuffle, describing the interview he’d done earlier in the day with Winston Peters, and weighing up the pros and cons of the internal machinations of the British Conservative Party’s leadership vote. He has the ease of someone who’s grown up in studios like this, always seconds away from being on air.

Because he has. He barely takes more than a few seconds between fully engaged conversation and his scripted interludes to camera. He seems so thoroughly prepared that the only immediate rehearsal he does is repeat a name which may be difficult to pronounce. He tells me that while he prepares extensively for interviews through editorial discussions, reading articles and talking to sources, he reads his scripts only once before he reads them live on air, though he reads them as he writes. But once he talks to an interviewee, or to his panel, it’s clear he’s the kid in class who’s done all the readings. “He always knows his stuff, and he’s always done his research, and that’s pretty obvious,” says National’s Judith Collins, the week after her Q&A interview in which Tame repeatedly congratulated her for the polls that showed her as preferred prime minister over Simon Bridges. “He’s not an interview that I’d go into without preparing and reading a few notes on and anticipating what he might be asking.”

He’s drawn to interviewing because it is, he says, the rawest form of storytelling. To sit across from another person and try to draw information or emotion or truth out of them is a “primal human experience”. “I enjoy the rush, the adrenalin that comes with interviewing someone live. I enjoy the challenge from an intellectual perspective, learning as much as I can about a subject and then being in a position where you have to debate a minister, for example, someone who has all the resources in the world to turn to on the issue and to try to offer them as robust an opposition as possible. But I think at its core it’s the most basic human interaction, isn’t it? Sitting down, no fancy pictures over the top of it, no nice tricks to make it look pretty, it’s basically just two people.”

Despite his skill as an interviewer — and as a TV presenter and broadcaster — Jack Tame is also known (there’s no other way to put this) for his boyish looks. If he’s on the other end of an interview, it’s almost always commented on. And, it’s true. At 32, he does still look young — and while that’s an obvious advantage in many parts of our youth-obsessed culture, in the context of TV current affairs journalism, it can cut both ways. “Youth is nothing to be wished away,” he says in a way you can tell he’s said many times before. “I’ve often been criticised as being young. If you go and ask the parents of most people my age when they were married, and maybe when they had kids, they would have been much younger than me. Not only that, I’ve travelled to seven continents; I’ve covered election campaigns in New Zealand and the US. I’ve filmed the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. I sat through the Bain retrial, I covered the [2011] earthquake and I was in Christchurch recently, I went to Pike River and spent a lot of time there straight afterwards. And I did Sandy Hook, and Pulse [nightclub, Orlando] and the Colorado Batman shooting. The United Nations. I’ve been inside the White House and filmed presidents. I’ve been in an enormous position of privilege, and yet people are still like, ‘What do you know about life?’ It’s a silly fight — it’s like being ID’d at the supermarket, right? For however long, you get annoyed that you’re ID’d and then the moment you’re not ID’d you go, ‘What?’”

So, after witnessing all that history, I ask, have you found some of the wisdom you’ve been seeking?
“Yes,” he says. “I think I have, but I think that there are other parts of my life that have been lacking that I can build wisdom in. You know, that’s having a relationship or having a family and all those sorts of things. I mean, I’ve had long-term girlfriends and all that sort of stuff — life is more than work. And the thing about being a journo is you do get to have these amazing experiences, but you’re witnessing it, you’re not necessarily engaged in it. You fly in and you fly out, effectively. Or, you’re a conduit for that experience rather than someone who’s actually going through it. Which is not to say that it isn’t valuable, because it is. But it is to say that I think there are other things in life that give you wisdom as well and that I haven’t prioritised those other things.”
Jack Tame, TVNZ’s boy wonder, is growing up. Jack Tame, world traveller in search of wisdom, is looking for it at home. Jack Tame has bought a couch.

This piece originally appeared in the July-August 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline "The Wisdom of Jack Tame".

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