Feb 16, 2021 People
Tova O’Brien is tired. At 6.30am on a Sunday morning in October, after presenting five hours of live election coverage the night before, Newshub’s political editor arrives to work at the MediaWorks studios on Flower St in Eden Terrace. She hasn’t been as involved in preparation as usual, so when she looks at the schedule for that morning’s Newshub Nation post-election special and sees she’ll be interviewing Jami-Lee Ross, the former National MP and co-leader of Advance NZ, she asks her producer to give the interview half the time it had been allotted. It’s all the time she needs.
Ross has spent his entire adult life in politics, rising through the ranks of the National Party from age 18 until his resignation 15 years later, in 2018, after being accused of leaking Simon Bridges’ travel expenses (to O’Brien) and, in return, accusing Bridges of corruption and violation of electoral laws. This was before he released a covertly recorded phonecall with Bridges in which Bridges called National list MP Maureen Pugh “fucking useless”; before he’d been accused of bullying and sexual impropriety by four women associated with the party; before being admitted into a mental health facility; and before being the subject of a Serious Fraud O ice investigation into fraudulent campaign donations.
After a year-and-a-half as an independent MP for Botany, Ross formed the Advance NZ party before merging with Billy Te Kahika’s New Zealand Public Party, which had missed the deadline to register for the election. Together, Ross and Te Kahika (whose Facebook videos attracted more views than Labour and National combined) rode a wave of anger, misinformation and conspiracy, leading a rogue alliance of anti-vaxxers, 5G-truthers, Covid-deniers, and QAnon faithful. But, despite its bustling rallies and its millions of Facebook views, the party received only 1% of the vote, well short of a seat in Parliament.
“You’re going to be nice to me, aren’t you, Tova?” Ross says, entering the studio, hoping his long-standing relationship with O’Brien as a source and a subject (he had, for example, given her an exclusive interview after his release from Middlemore Hospital) had earned him O’Brien’s sympathy. “You have to be nice to losers.”
“No,” she tells him pointedly.
“Jami-Lee, you’ve just described yourself as a loser,” she says as the cameras go live. “You are out of National, out of Parliament, out of Botany” — each ‘out’ spoken like a dagger to the heart of an already wounded enemy — “your political career is in tatters, do you have any regrets?”
Ross gives a milquetoast Kiwi-bloke answer about giving it “a good go” and “enjoy[ing] the opportunity” to work with the “good people” in Advance NZ. “Do you want to have another crack at answering that?” O’Brien asks, as she begins her deviation from her team’s prepared questions. Then, after Ross’s second bland attempt at obfuscation: “Why on earth did you get into bed with Billy Te Kahika?” she asks.
Ross tells her that he was impressed with Te Kahika’s social media engagement and the crowd size at his rallies. “So it was purely political ambition?” O’Brien cuts in with a slight smile, recognising the sitter Ross has just given her. “You sold your soul for political ambition?”
As Ross denies that he was actively encouraging conspiracies, O’Brien sharpens her attack: “You know exactly what you were doing, you were whipping up fear and hysteria among vulnerable communities.” It is not a question.
When Ross starts self-justifying about mortality rates of Covid-19 compared to other flu epidemics — a now common soft entry into Covid-denialism — O’Brien holds up her right hand. “No. I’m going to stop you there,” she says. “I don’t want to hear any of that rubbish.”
“You can’t just give me that and not allow me to answer,” he quickly responds, mistaking himself for the person with the power.
“If you’re going to come on the show and say things that are just factually incorrect, I can do that actually,” she says. O’Brien gives him a final opportunity to repent for his sins before he meets his political maker. “This might be last time that you’re on air — probably the last time we’ll invite you on — are there any apologies you want to issue to anyone?”
Ross answers by admitting some responsibility for the multiple National scandals of 2018, before giving himself credit for what he says was prescient advice for his former party, which, the night before, had suffered a historic defeat. He ends by claiming that if he’d stood in Botany — the electorate he’d proudly served as MP for 12 years — he’d have split so much of the centre-right vote that National’s assumed future leader, Christopher Luxton, would have lost the seat.
“You’re dreaming, mate,” O’Brien says, shaking her head before thanking him as “former National MP Jami-Lee Ross,” the naming of the party he’d lived in service of for most of his life, a subtle dig at the tragic legacy of this hollow man.
The rest of the day proceeds as scheduled, O’Brien oblivious that the interview is picking up steam on social media until she reads a text from her husband (Beastwars drummer Nathan Hickey) saying it had reached 50,000 views. Overnight, a series of Northern Hemisphere journalists and media figures with followers in the millions — CNN’s Jake Tapper, Piers Morgan, The Guardian’s Owen Jones, comedian Patton Oswalt, and Glenn Greenwald, among others — watch and share the video as people around the world delight in a post-truth politician having his feet held to the fire.
The following morning, O’Brien wakes to thousands of notifications of comments, likes and followers. “Whoa! That’s quite something to wake up to,” she tweets at 8:43am. (At the time of writing, iterations of the video have been watched over 11 million times.)
“I didn’t think it was an exceptional interview,” she says, four weeks later in the sunny courtyard of an Eden Terrace cafe. Yet many disagreed. “This is how you do it” was a phrase used repeatedly in comments on the video. “I wish she would come to [insert name of country] and interview [insert name of leader]” was another. “Finally!” many said. At a time when politics is increasingly splintering into petrified partisanship, treated like a team sport but with the highest stakes imaginable; when politicians increasingly speak exclusively to their base, to their home crowd, with a vanishing of shared aspirations, let alone shared truths, the interview gave millions of people around the world a moment of catharsis. Yes, facts can matter. Yes, actions can have consequences. Yes, power can be held to account.
It didn’t really matter that the interviewee was no longer politically powerful in the slightest — a disgraced politician on his way out to pasture — it was the symbolism of it (how many other politicians with similar tendencies and tactics do we wish were also on their way out?); it was the sharpness of O’Brien’s knife, the precision of her cuts (so many memorable attacks in just over four minutes), and the slight whiffof glee, the subtle hint of personal aggrievement (the belittling sarcasm of the final “mate”).
“I’ve been accused of all sorts,” she says, “from hating him to wanting to take him down, sleeping with him — spurned lover stuff — but there really isn’t anything behind it other than a frustration over the misinformation that’s been peddled during Covid. I feel that quite keenly. I had seen him on a march down Queen St with the Advance NZ crowd a couple of weeks earlier, and I genuinely believe he abused his privilege as an MP, which should have been to help inform people and protect them during a pandemic rather than feeding into bullshit that can circumvent public safety. So if there was any personal feeling, it was on behalf of what most people would feel about that degree of misinformation that’s been doing the rounds during Covid.
“When he raised that flu [mortality rate] stuff — there’s been so many times he’s been allowed to say that and he just shouldn’t be allowed to, because it’s not true. We don’t live in a world now where we have to kowtow to the 2% of scientists that don’t believe that climate change is real. We don’t have to listen to views that are patently false. It’s that shared frustration, and not just around Covid, but world leaders and political campaigns driven by fear and misinformation. But that interview didn’t happen in a vacuum, you can watch or read journalists around the world doing that exact same thing every single day. Fact-checking, calling out falsehoods. It is what we do.”
That was in October. Labour was triumphant and O’Brien was using her considerable skill — as a journalist, broadcaster, and, yes, entertainer — to take down an obvious, freshly defeated Bad Guy. She was, as unanimously as you can get in 2020, a hero. But six months earlier, in April, as New Zealand was settling into Level 4 lockdown and making a daily habit of tuning into the government’s 1pm briefings, she was, to many of those same people, a villain.
O’Brien, in hindsight, seems to have been predestined to journalism. Born in Papua New Guinea — to a helicopter-pilot father and journalist mother — she was six months old when her family moved back to New Zealand, and three when her parents split and she moved to Wellington with her mother, who worked in the newsroom at Radio New Zealand (where O’Brien would hang out after school) and was for a time Mike Hosking’s producer.
O’Brien got into trouble — she was that kid who always questioned authority and resented arbitrary rules. With no career path in mind, she took a year off after high school to work in hospitality. Resistant to following in her mother’s footsteps, she thought she might become a psychologist — she liked talking to people and telling stories — but her stint at the University of Otago didn’t stick. So she went back to hospitality, where she worked for a decade — in Wellington, Melbourne and London. Then “one day, it kind of slapped me in the face that journalism was the perfect job,” she says.
She studied journalism at Massey University in Wellington while working at Radio Active. A friend of hers was a producer on Campbell Live, so she called him to see if she could get a tour of the newsroom. “He picked up the phone and said, ‘You must be calling about the job,’” she recalls. That job was as an editor on the assignments desk. Instead of getting a tour, she got an interview and was given the job. In the 13 years she’s been at Newshub (3 News until 2016), she’s had about 12 roles, most of which have been in or connected to politics.
In 2016, she returned to London to work as Newshub’s European correspondent, a dream job. “The stories were terrible, exhilarating, traumatic, sometimes inspiring,” she recalls — terrorist attacks, Grenfell Tower, earthquakes. “It was an incredible snapshot of European history.” In 2018, she returned for the only job offer that would bring her back — political editor, the position held by Duncan Garner and then Paddy Gower, two brash and boisterous journalists who changed the way politics was covered in New Zealand.
Like Garner and Gower before her, O’Brien is one of the press gallery’s most prominent and forceful members. She frequently gets called upon first during question time, often asks the hardest questions, tends to be front and centre of any press scrum, and is leaked to as much as any journalist in the country. But, as a result of coming to prominence in the age of social media and being a self-assured and often assertive woman, O’Brien’s reporting style has inspired frequent waves of vitriol online far beyond that directed at her male predecessors and counterparts. Throughout her 13-year career she has routinely been accused of being a political operative — or worse. “I haven’t slept with Simon Bridges, Jami-Lee Ross, Jacinda Ardern or anyone in Parliament, if that clears some stuff up on Twitter,” she says with a laugh when I ask her what people get wrong about her. “Nor am I working for Jacinda Ardern’s office or for Judith Collins.”
During the first lockdown, stuck at home and hungry for information, hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders tuned into the daily update (How many new cases? How many total? Any deaths today?), and stayed watching for the press conference that followed. This was the first time most people had seen this kind of sustained questioning of their leaders and it was happening at a time when those leaders were almost universally supported — loved even — by the majority of the country.
‘Tova’ became a regularly trending topic on Twitter, the social-media platform best suited for real-time critiquing of the day’s announcements and the subsequent question time, with some users trying at various times to get the hashtags ‘#ShutUpTova’ and ‘#OvaTova’ off the ground. (Like Beyoncé or Madonna or, closer to home, Jacinda, O’Brien is best known by her first name.) “If I went on Twitter there was a lot of ‘cunt,’ ‘whore,’ ‘bitch’, ” she says matter-of-factly, as if such misogyny and obscenity instantly rolls o her like rain hitting Gore-Tex, though, of course, it can sometimes seep through, too. “But if I went into my emails, and letterbox … there were lots of really lovely thoughtful letters and emails and notes from people saying ‘thank you’ and telling us why XYZ story helped them, and those were the things that I tried to pay attention to during the pandemic.”
Much of the criticism online was due to the perceived excesses of O’Brien’s coverage of then-Health Minister David Clark, who, within the initial nationwide lockdown period, had driven to a park to go mountain biking, driven his family to a beach for a walk and continued the process of moving house, all in contravention of lockdown rules. He offered his resignation, but the Prime Minister didn’t accept it (though she said under “normal circumstances” she would have). O’Brien used every opportunity to not only call him up on it, but to press Ardern to hold him to account. Many viewers saw it as needless ‘gotcha journalism’, focusing on the political optics of a situation over its real-world importance. We were meant to be the Team of Five Million and here was O’Brien giving our captains shit rather than following their lead and amplifying their message. Many thought that, instead of using her time with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Health and the Director-General of Health to ask practical questions about the spread of the virus or the effort being made to contain it, O’Brien was trying to score political points by getting Clark fired. Another ‘scalp’ to add to the collection.
“I fucken hate that word and I hate that perception,” she says. “What was upsetting with David Clark, and the reason he had to go, in my opinion, was because I was getting phone calls from people saying, ‘I can’t go to see my dying relative’, ‘I can’t go to this person’s funeral’, and yet the Health Minister was doing this. “If someone is forced to resign or a minister is sacked, it’s usually because they have done something wrong, it’s not because journalists have somehow contrived to make this person look like they fucked up… If you’ve found a minister to have done something wrong and you expose that and you’ve held them to account then you’ve done your job. “Accountability is why we’re there.”
O’Brien’s firmly held convictions about “what we do” and “why we’re here” have come under sharp criticism, not just on Twitter but in Parliament, especially in the valedictory statements of Clare Curran (the Dunedin South MP and former Minister of Government Digital Services, Minister of Open Government, and Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media) and Sarah Dowie (the Invercargill MP whose a air with Jami-Lee Ross was made public when she was being investigated by the police under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, for a text message she allegedly sent to Ross saying he “deserved to die”).
In her 29 July speech in the House, Dowie took aim directly at O’Brien over both the accuracy and the delivery of O’Brien’s reporting on The AM Show:
While it’s clear I had made some poor choices, the fact that a press gallery reporter was live, providing analysis, brought the whole sorry affair to a new level. In my eyes, it can only be described as comical. She was maniacal, could hardly get her words out, and she didn’t have the nous to work out the difference between a complaint, investigation, charge, and proceedings.
O’Brien doesn’t take these accusations lightly. Dowie’s speech led her to rewatch every report and segment she’d made on the Dowie-Ross scandal. O’Brien maintains there were many aspects of that story that were never made public out of respect for the privacy of those involved, but that once it became known that police were investigating a complaint against a sitting MP, it would have been a dereliction of duty for reporters not to disclose that information to the public. “I pored over the coverage and questioned whether that was the right approach and absolutely stand by everything that I did. I wrote her an email explaining to her why we did things the way we did.” (Dowie didn’t respond.)
In her farewell speech less than a week later, Curran made a broader and less personal attack:
Politicians and the news media focus on conflict, perceived or real slip-ups, rather than substance and the quality of ideas. The objective is to catch people out and take them down, rather than providing a platform of discussion for and against the best improvements to the lives of New Zealanders. Politicians should be held accountable but we are not prey. [The press gallery] is not unaccountable though you act as though you are… You are neither judge nor jury. To be credible, you must turn the mirror on yourselves.
O’Brien is decidedly less sympathetic to Curran’s complaint. “The reality was, she was a minister and she screwed up over and over again,” O’Brien says, becoming increasingly animated when defending her journalistic ethics and integrity. “My observations as a political editor, I’m not just ripping them o the top of my dome, ya know? They’re made in discussions with all sorts of people, from ministerial colleagues, the Prime Minister, her o ice, other MPs in the Parliament, other journalists — that is where I get the basis of my analysis. It’s grounded in source work and knowledge of what her colleagues are thinking. I stand by all of our reporting during that time. She was a minister who couldn’t answer basic questions around a conflict and that’s the reality of the job. The standards are high. You can’t be a Minister of Open Government trying to circumvent open government and transparency.”
Stories of hypocrisy are journalistic catnip. They resonate so effortlessly with readers and viewers because they are universally understood. Accusations of incompetence or failures of policy tend require subject-specific knowledge, or an understanding of the inner workings of government, or comprehension of different ideas about what competences might be required in any given situation. But hypocrisy is simple — X purported to be Y, but they did Z, which means they cannot actually be Y. It’s worse than lying. People, and politicians especially, can be turned into liars by uncontrollable circumstances and we regularly forgive liars in those cases. But we take hypocrisy as an inherent moral failing, as if the hypocrite never believed the thing in the first place and therefore is unlikely to believe in anything else they told us. It’s a perfect narrative.
“I hate hypocrisy, but hypocrisy wasn’t the problem,” O’Brien says. “It was the breaches of the Cabinet Manual, it was the lying, it was the lack of transparency. She was also guilty of hypocrisy because she was the one to come out and say that the government’s going to be the most open and transparent and that was her role. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that she did something she shouldn’t have. Twice! Or thrice, was it, in the end? It wasn’t us being mean to her. I didn’t have her sacked. The Prime Minister did. The people criticise journalists — it was the Prime Minister that did it.”
Curran and Dowie both paid greatly for their personal and professional mistakes. Both were the subject of personal and professional bullying and relentless press attention. Both suffered from mental health issues as a result, and both decided not to seek another term in Parliament. “I think it can have a chilling effect on democracy if journalists are second-guessing themselves, but I take a lot of care when I feel like there are mental health issues relating to my stories — and I always will — but I also think we need to be able to maintain a robust fourth estate, especially in the press gallery.”
A common complaint in the accusations from both Dowie and Curran was that media coverage of them was gendered, that scandals involving male MPs which also included personal impropriety (Iain Lees-Galloway’s affair with a staffer, or Andrew Falloon sending unsolicited ‘sexual images’ to multiple women) or deception (Hamish Walker leaking the details of Covid patients to the media) did not receive the same relentless attention. “That wasn’t the reality,” O’Brien asserts. “We covered those stories with as much, if not more tenacity. There were more stories about them too, but perhaps because they all happened around the same time in a political maelstrom, the women felt those stories weren’t as targeted. I think it’s always going to feel like you’re getting the harshest treatment when you’re the focus of a story, no matter who it is or what’s happened.”
Journalists all say that their reporting is not personal and that the subjects of that reporting shouldn’t take it as such. But valedictory statements are often a chance for politicians to return fire to those who’ve been aiming at them for years. And here were two subjects of O’Brien’s vigorous reporting taking aim — directly or indirectly — at her. They took it personally. Did she? “I did take it personally insofar as I went back and watched everything I did on both of the stories and reflected on it,” she says. “I did take a moment, absolutely. But I stand by the stories that we did. I back the decisions that we made. And I would do the same again.”
The Monday after the election, O’Brien wakes to find she’s gained thousands of Twitter followers overnight. Later that morning, like many other journalists here and abroad, I ask her for an interview.
I’d first wanted to interview Tova O’Brien the villain, whose every public remark was subject to scrutiny by the social media hordes. I wanted to interview Tova O’Brien the muckraker, with stories of meeting sources in parliamentary toilets to view secret documents (she did tell me that one). I wanted to interview Tova O’Brien the entertainer, who, five months before she made the best New Zealand television drama of the year, had made the best New Zealand television comedy of the year when, on his first day in Parliament as National leader, Todd Muller and his deputy, Nikki Kaye identified Paul Goldsmith — one of the whitest men in Wellington — as the only Māori on National’s front bench. And after her global virality, I wanted to interview Tova O’Brien the triumphant hero of journalism in a post-truth world. But, I ended up interviewing Tova O’Brien the surprising idealist.
Watching from afar, I’ve come to assume that all players in the theatre of politics are inherently cynical, all in on some game, that they’re all savvy operators playing for optics, all tallying points, all playing to win. But maybe that assumption is the most cynical and savvy of all?
On the bright Thursday in November we meet for a lunch of karaage chicken and tall, impossibly cold tap beers. She’s far from tired. She’s sharp. Renewed. Energetic. She talks with the bounce of someone who has drunk the perfect amount of coffee.
I tell her that, in preparation for our interview, I’d reread a 2014 Metro profile of her predecessor, Duncan Garner, the man who’d made her want to get into political journalism, who she’d seen crash into the newsroom, back from some covert mission to catch out some misbehaving politician. Garner is brash and blustery, the epitome of a hyper-masculine journalist that, just seven years later, doesn’t feel at home in the world anymore. He’s all about scalps and scorekeeping; political journalism as bloodsport. O’Brien is the latest in the lineage that began when Garner moved from TVNZ to TV3 in 2003 and was passed on to Paddy Gower when he became 3 News’ political editor in 2012.
I read her one of Garner’s quotes that I couldn’t get out of my head when watching O’Brien at work:
Linda [Clark] used to teach me you’ve got to own the stand up. You’ve got to own your space. Cos if they sense a weakness in you, they’ll crucify you. They’ll crush you. Linda said that Parliament turns you feral. She’s absolutely right. It does. It turns you into winning and losing. There’s no draws in Parliament.
“I don’t see [journalism] as a game of winning and losing,” she tells me in response. “I really do see it as a conduit between the powerful decision makers and the rest of the country. It’s a two-way street. It’s giving all of those people a voice in [Parliament], and that was particularly pertinent during Covid … and also translating what’s happening in that place and making it relevant and interesting to all of those people and why those policies matter to them, why a coup matters to them, and what it means for that party, and what it means for their political choices. That’s how I see things. And that’s not to say that we aren’t sometimes aggressive and not to say that we aren’t going to stand up for ourselves and our stories, but I see it as more of a two-way process between voters and MPs. Yeah, maybe with the accountability comes a level of toughness where you do have to assert yourself and you do have to be strong and you can’t show weakness because you have to have the courage of your convictions. If you are going to go out there and call for the health minister’s resignation you need to believe that and own it because that is someone’s job.”
None of which is to say that O’Brien and the press gallery couldn’t do better. They could. During lockdown, the press gallery asked more questions about the sustainability of the media industry than the populations most at risk to Covid-19 — Māori and Pasifika, the elderly, the homeless. But those failings don’t mean that some of their reporting — including Tova O’Brien’s — didn’t make a contribution to our country’s relatively successful approach to containing the pandemic and getting life back to as close to normal as anywhere in the world.
“If the Prime Minister went up there every day and said what she wanted to say, we’d have problems,” she says. “We’d think that everything was hunky-dory during Covid-19. It. Was. Not. There were so many things that got fixed iteratively along the way because of journalism and because of the courage of New Zealanders who were coming to us and the stories that we were telling. That was fixing the system. No one had done this before — everyone was panel-beating it into shape. And we played a role in that as well.”
It’s a role she’ll continue to play — at least for another three years. The political editor position has a lifecycle. It’s all-consuming and high stress. “It’s important to refresh,” O’Brien says. “I always set out to do two elections if I could — hopefully the bosses are backing me — so I’d like to stay until 2023 and then work things out from there.”
She’ll have no shortage of options. Her interview with Jami-Lee Ross will linger in the back of the minds of television executives, here and around the world. In a live cross with UK’s Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan (who ‘slipped into [her] DMs’ as the Ross interview went viral) says as he breaks for commercials: “If your mum’s in London, why don’t you come in here and work for us?”
“I’ll pass that on to my bosses, Piers,” she says, smiling uncontrollably. Tova O’Brien is ready for anything.