Dairne Shanahan had an early awakening to the world of politics and power plays. She remembers the wealthy Cuban girls at her Canadian boarding school organising a march for Fidel Castro, when he visited Montreal on the eve of the revolution — then later watching the same girls returning to school with worthless Cuban dollar bills "hidden in their hair rollers" after the communists swept to power.
Her father was diplomat Foss Shanahan; after WWll, he and Alister McIntosh established New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs department. Shanahan later served as Ambassador to Thailand and Vietnam, and High Commissioner to Canada.
Dairne was born in Wellington, the fourth child of six children, and the only girl. She has vivid memories of her Chinese and British Army schooling in Singapore. "We were kids with a father who used to disappear a lot”. Childhood was spent jumping between schools in Wellington and overseas, including a boarding school in Canada.
Her father’s death when she was 17 "changed the dynamic" of her close family. She went to Victoria University, because "it was a given in my family", had a good time and eventually got a degree. She had no intention of following a family friend’s advice to "get a BA and become a good secretary. So I never learnt to type. Bugger that. I wasn't going to be anyone's secretary". Shanahan gained her FTCL (Fellow of Trinity College) diploma in speech and drama, and enjoyed acting in plays. But the offer of a scholarship to study drama in London had to be turned down, as she wasn’t yet 21.
There were summer jobs at the Ministry of Defence, while a stint in PR for the Apple and Pear Board saw her "writing up recipes for the Ladies Pages — stuff that!" A phone call from the producer of current affairs at the NZ Broadcasting Corporation changed her life. Des Monaghan invited her to interview for new current affairs show Gallery, as a researcher. Shanahan thought "that will fill in six weeks till I go off overseas again".
That first job in television would prove life-changing. "At that time there was one channel in black and white, and everyone watched it". It was a baptism by fire. Shanahan had two days to prepare notes for presenter Brian Edwards’ interview with new British Prime Minister Edward Heath. Edwards was startled by Shanahan’s rudimentary two finger typing skills. But after trading notes, they got on "like a house on fire".
Gallery would make Edwards a star, and provide Shanahan with her "niche". In 1971 she persuaded management to let her do interviews as well. Gallery often broke new ground and Shanahan followed her instincts. She remembers discussing story leads with her team for a trip to Auckland. "I took off on my own down Queen St, and came across a group of transsexual working women". Future MP Georgina Beyer was among them. Shanahan organised a film crew, and the resulting interviews brought stories of red light Auckland into mainstream Kiwi households.
Other stories explored Māori activist group Ngā Tamatoa, and taboo topics like abortion. She filed dozens of stories, including this profile of Norman Kirk (see start of second clip). She loved exploring new territory, but not everyone in her team was as comfortable. She was the only female reporter working in Kiwi current affairs television at the time, and remembers it as very much a boy's club. "I was never on staff, I was always on contracts. I didn’t want to be part of the organisation".
Shanahan left Gallery in 1973 to travel. She was approached by the BBC with a job offer, but ‘hammock syndrome’ and the desire to travel won out. Following her nose, she explored Iraq and the Middle East before falling ill in Turkey. Diagnosed with hepatitis, she returned home to recover.
The seeds of a new project were sown. Shanahan wanted to profile significant female world leaders, for proposed series Women in Power. Shanahan travelled to India with director Barry Barclay to interview Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and battled over the shape of the edit. As this piece explains, she won interest in the United States, before discovering they wanted the series to be fronted by Jane Fonda. The rest of the series was never made.
Shanahan spent time in radio, producing Checkpoint and talkback shows on commercial radio. She loved the immediacy of the medium. In 1978 she returned to television with current affairs show Eyewitness, then moved to Sydney to take up a reporting job on Willesee at Seven. She was demoralised to find they expected ‘cat up a tree’ stories. Channel Ten in Melbourne offered her another job. "It was for a 'shopping reporter' — they pitched this as being just a foot in the door". But New Zealand kept pulling her back.
It was back to Kiwi current affairs: as a reporter for Dateline Monday, then studio interview show Sunday. "I was given the boot from that for a lively interview with Bob Jones". Next she directed for Close Up, and worked alongside "bloody good journalist" Genevieve Westcott.
Over the years Shanahan had ample opportunities to observe political power. She got as close to notoriously testy Prime Minister Rob Muldoon as any reporter was able to. “I could get Muldoon to talk”. During a royal visit in the early 1980s, Muldoon invited her to to attend a private party for Prince Charles, alongside other Kiwis from various walks of life. Her boss joked that she would get crucified by everyone in current affairs if she went, but Shanahan couldn’t resist. "I looked at it as Muldoon somehow doffing his hat at me".
In 1986 America’s Cup fever took hold. Kiwi yacht KZ 7 was leading the race to decide which boat would compete against Australia for the cup. Keen to capture sporting history, TVNZ executives decided they wanted to capture KZ 7's final Louis Vuitton races, in the contest to see who would challenge Australia's Kookaburra lll. They sent Shanahan and a camera crew to Perth at roughly seven hours notice, as part of new show Flying Squad.
"We were using film...and everybody else was on video. It was a disaster from start to finish — and there was no plan B. KZ 7 started to lose races as we flew to Perth, and didn't stop. Later, delays in the satellite feed meant New Zealand missed roughly ten minutes of programming". Back home, Kiwis were "in mourning" over the loss, and TVNZ "were ropeable". It was an embarrassing moment for TVNZ. Shanahan decided to delay flying back.
When she did return, blame had been apportioned and she was effectively demoted and banned from future overseas assignments. Shanahan entertained taking TVNZ to court, but seasoned lawyer John McGrath advised against it. Flying Squad was canned, and she left for Canada to work on current affairs show W5 with Genevieve Westcott.
Among the stories from that time — some of which won awards — was a White House interview on gun control, after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Westcott and Shanahan interviewed Reagan and White House press secretary James Brady, who had taken a bullet and was permanently disabled as a result.
The pull of southern climes then took Shanahan to Sydney, to produce Front Page, a current affairs show that was "happily bleeding money". "There were notes on the wall about what type of champagne to buy!"
In the late 1980s Shanahan married a fellow Kiwi and gave birth for the first time, at age 43. Her husband was posted to Brazil, so they decamped to raise Olivia in São Paulo. After returning to New Zealand in the late 90s, Shanahan jumped into producing roles for 60 Minutes and Assignment. But by now the thrill had gone. "It’s OK in this industry to be a mature man, not a woman. It’s changing now...but it was such a male-dominated industry."
Shanahan decided to work for herself, producing independent documentaries for private clients — like artist Piera McArthur. She rediscovered her love of telling peoples’ stories, "warts and all”.
In the late 2000s presenter and former Listener editor David Beatson asked Shanahan to join The Beatson Interview on Face TV, talking to newsmakers like Prime Minister John Key and Benazir Bhutto.
Today Shanahan is working on a variety of writing projects. Looking back, she sees her career in television as perfect for someone with a love of politics, intrigue and storytelling. "I didn’t want a life or a job that was too predictable...and there weren’t many places for women like me in my generation to express that. It was a great ride. I've loved it”.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Published on 23 May 2019
Women in Power - Indira Gandhi (Television Documentary) Director Barry Barclay (Pacific Films/Endeavour Productions, TV One, 1976)
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)