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Profile image for David Beatson

David Beatson

Journalist, Presenter

In 2008 the NZ Herald described David Beatson as an “elder statesman broadcaster”. Beatson's five-decade long career virtually spans the history of New Zealand television, from Town and Around reporter to wrangling 70s and 80s election debates, to representing a Prime Minister and the national airline on screen.  

Dunedin-born and educated, David Beatson began his journalism career in 1962 as a cadet reporter on The Otago Daily Times. For the next couple of years he filed stories for The Waikato Times, before returning south in 1965 to work as a radio and TV reporter for the NZ Broadcasting Corporation in Dunedin, and undergo training in announcing and filmmaking. His first onscreen gig was as on the southern edition of magazine show Town and Around for DNTV-2. By the age of 22 he was hosting the show.

Over the next two decades Beatson’s bespectacled face and brown polyvinyl jacket would become a familiar presence on current affairs TV, where he developed a reputation for a no-nonsense interviewing style. He described interviewing as "a very sharp art". "There's no such thing as an easy interview, and if there is, get another job". In 1968 he kicked off a new series of pioneering political affairs show Compass by scoring an interview with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh (with Ian Cross). At times Beatson would put a pile of documents under his chair before the start of an interview, to make clear he had done his research.

In his book New Zealand Television: The First 25 Years, Robert Boyd-Bell describes Beatson as a “popular frontman interviewer” for late 60s/early 70s current affairs show Gallery. In Beatson's words, the guiding principle of the show at that time was 'tomorrow's headlines tonight' — ie providing insights into events that were about to occur. A 1990 NZ Herald article describes how he resigned from Gallery in 1971 on a point of principle. Minister of Defence David Thomson had accused the programme of reporting unfairly on the Vietnam War. Beatson went on the record to argue the need for a change of policy at the NZBC, so that it could reply to such criticisms.

He concentrated on PR for clients like Dulux and Colonial Motors — and his work for NZBC radio, where he presented morning talkback for Wellington's 2ZB. In 1974 he was lured back to TV by producer Bill Earl, to front nightly current afffairs show Nationwide.

In 1975 Beatson became the first parliamentary correspondent for new channel TV2. While covering the election that year, he was on the panel for this Leaders Debate between Bill Rowling and Rob Muldoon (who Beatson praises in this video interview). Getting footage from Wellington to Auckland required some unusual methods. Sometimes passengers helped out by carrying film with them on commercial flights; on one occasion Beatson found himself on a hired plane in bad weather, while the pilot tried to figure out where Auckland was. By 1977 Beatson had shifted to the city himself to become TV2’s executive producer of current affairs, overseeing shows like News at Six, the twice-weekly After Ten and The Friday Conference (the later two presented by Gordon Dryden).

In 1978 Beatson initiated the long-running Eyewitness, which was presented live from the parliamentary gallery. The programme evolved out of After Ten; Beatson described it as "a great nightly challenge, and good fun". In 1979 Beatson and Dryden were among the founders of Radio Pacific, NZ's first news/talk radio station; Beatson did time as a breakfast show host. 

He resigned from TV in 1983 to be appointed managing editor of the NZ Listener, but could be sighted onscreen occasionally on high profile occasions, including during the 1987 general election — when he hosted a debate between the finance ministers at the height of ‘Rogernomics’ — and fronting a panel discussion following the documentary Love Life Aids - The NZ Story, as the then-new health scourge was grabbing headlines.

At the time The Listener was still the country’s biggest circulating magazine, but it faced rapidly falling readership. In December 1988 Beatson resigned, telling The Evening Post  “I’ve had five years of number crunching and was facing another five”.  

Early the following year he joined the PR team for then opposition leader Jim Bolger (Beatson’s wife Lesley Miller had earlier unsuccessfully stood for National). In an Evening Post column, ex-TV chief Ian Cross noted the National Party’s gain from Beatson's appointment — Bolger was struggling to project a forceful image on TV — but lamented the loss to New Zealand broadcasting: “down the gurgler goes its most experienced performer across all its media holdings …”. 

Beatson was credited as a key strategist in National’s landslide 1990 victory and became the Prime Minister’s Chief Press Secretary. Among other tasks, he helped prepare Bolger for television interviews on shows like Holmes and Perigo. In late 1991 Beatson resigned. The following June he was appointed Deputy Chief of the Tourism Board.

In February 1994 he began an eight-year stint as Air New Zealand's manager of public affairs. Beatson was the airline’s spokesperson during an especially tumultuous period that included the ill-fated Ansett experiment (the $1.64 billion dollar loss after the wannabe Australasian airline was written off was the biggest in NZ corporate history to date). In 2002 when Beatson parted ways with Air New Zealand, a potential Aussie buy-in was again causing controversy. “I think one learns from experience. One doesn’t repeat it," was Beatson's own take. "Anybody who went through all of that is going to take the view that yes, that’s a big gorilla, and it can be very dangerous.”

In a 2002 Sunday Star-Times profile, Anthony Hubbard opened with a summary of Beatson’s time as the airline's PR man. He called Beatson the “spin-doctor’s spin doctor: cool, grave, bland, all velvet vowels and jowls. As the public face of Air New Zealand during eight years of uproar, he offered a bloodless unflappability and a reassuring calm.” 

Despite occupying several high profile public roles Beatson has maintained his privacy throughout his career. He had a reputation for a hard-nosed work ethic: his time at Radio Pacific ended with Beatson being hospitalised with “nervous exhaustion”. In 2002 former Air New Zealand chief Gary Toomey spoke of having “to order him out of the boardroom and ask people to order an ambulance, because he would’ve kept on going.”

In mid-1996 he was appointed chairman of NZ On Air, the primary public funders of NZ TV content. Beatson held the role for six years, and impressed upon the board that their role was of a hands-off nature, beyond their key task: deciding whether a particular project was worth funding. Beatson began with a pledge to “narrow the gap” between the funders and creative talents: “there are going to be tensions, there are going to be winners and losers, there are going to be happy people and people who are angry, it’s inevitable. Not everyone is going to get what they want all of the time from NZ On Air” .

In October 2008 the NZ Herald announced that the broadcaster “from a smarter era in current affairs” was developing a weekly show with non-profit Triangle Television (later digital channel Face TV), based on an hour-long interview with a contemporary newsmaker.  Quizzed about returning to the screen after so long, Beatson replied, “if you are not a little nervous there is something wrong”. The Beatson Interview screened from May 2009 to 2013. Beatson enjoyed the chance to "examine political issues and how they were being managed". Interviewees included PM John Key, National MP Nikki Kaye and Auckland Mayor Len Brown. 

Beatson continued to contribute as a commentator to discussions on New Zealand broadcasting — including petitioning NZ On Air for funding to be directed towards regional TV, writing blogs for website Pundit, and featuring on panel discussions on shows like Q+A. He described his last campaign as being to lobby for the creation of a "non-commercial free-to-air television system" to communicate to all New Zealanders in the digital age.  

Over the years Beatson sat on several boards; he has been president of the Current Affairs Broadcasters’ Society, the Association of Broadcast Journalists and the Magazine Publishers’ Association.

David Beatson passed away on 21 September 2017.

Profile update on 22 September 2017 

Sources include
David Beatson
'David Beatson: A Broadcasting legend' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 20 February 2017. Accessed 20 February 2017
Infofind - Radio New Zealand Library
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television: The First 25 Years, (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Ian Cross, ‘National’s gain political comment’s loss’ - The Evening Post, 17 February 1989
Tim Donoghue, ‘Behind the scenes, movers and shakers’ - The NZ Herald, 25 October 1990, page 9
Anthony Hubbard, ‘Flying out of the storm’ (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, 1 December 2002, page C5
Richard Long, ‘Victory for Bolger after chiefs battle’ - The Dominion, 8 February 1989
Victor van Wetering, ‘Listener’s Beatson to depart in February’ - The Evening Post, 6 December 1988
Writer unknown, ‘Beatson Back’ - The NZ Herald, 31 October 2008
Writer unknown, ‘New NZ On Air head keen to ease tension between body and public’ - The NZ Herald, 18 April 1996
Writer unknown, ’Tourism post for Beatson’ - The Evening Post, 15 June 1992