Canadian-born journalist Genevieve Westcott made a major impact on Kiwi television when she arrived in New Zealand in the mid 1980s. She had a directness that Kiwis weren’t used to in the pre-Holmes news era, and was criticised for being overly blunt and emotional. It didn’t help that she was a woman with a North American accent. Awards judges failed to share these reservations, and she won a host of journalism prizes.
Westcott was born in Toronto in 1955, the third of nine children. Her father held senior posts in the Ontario government. After gaining a Bachelor of Arts in political science and economics, and a Master of Arts in journalism, her first job was as a financial reporter for The Vancouver Sun. Three months later, she moved to competitor The Province. At 23 she was their youngest ever editorial page writer.
The course of her life changed when she met New Zealand-born photographer Ross Kenward. Their professional and personal relationship saw them work together extensively, and they married in Wellington nine years later.
When an eight-month industrial dispute curtailed newspaper work, the couple moved to television — Kenward as a cameraman at public broadcaster the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Westcott as a researcher with Vancouver TV station CKVU. She quickly graduated to reporting and discovered that her early stories were too complex and verbose. "No one understood what I was saying," she told North and South magazine in 1986. "I looked a jerk."
In 1980, she resigned from CKVU, and rang the executive producer at CBC every day for six weeks until she was offered a job. She gained a national profile with an exclusive prison interview with Clifford Olson — Canada’s most prolific serial killer — who had been convicted of murdering 11 teenagers.
Kenward was looking to return home. The couple resigned their jobs in 1983 and arrived in New Zealand without any guarantee of employment. Westcott didn’t have citizenship, or a work permit.
TVNZ quickly offered her a job on Eyewitness News, but Kiwi television came as a shock. "I found it very tame, provincial journalism. Particularly the way a reporter would talk to the camera in front of picturesque scenes, reciting other people's views. It's the easiest way — and the biggest cop out". Her more direct style and Canadian twang soon made an impression. One story about the Sabine family, who reunited with children they'd abandoned 15 years earlier, prompted a ministerial inquiry.
In 1985, she joined weekly current affairs show Close Up, where she established a productive working relationship with director Chris Harrington. She won the Feltex Award for Best News Journalist of 1984.
The following year Westcott and Harrington produced an hour-long special about a gang-related killing on an Auckland street, in broad daylight. Death in the Morning won them an award at the Feltex Awards, with judging panel chair Brian Priestley praising her for her "pertinacity, Westcott for her ability to persuade ordinary people to talk, and let's face it — her courage".
For some she was still too aggressive, sensational and Canadian, but Westcott was philosophical. "If I was a man they'd say I was to the point. I am the way I am. It comes from living in such a big family...if you do something here in a single-minded fashion, criticism comes that you're an aggressive broad." Harrington was angered by "all the nationalistic nonsense against Genevieve for being Canadian. It's a real problem — this insane nationalism — that says she's not a good reporter because she's got a different sounding voice".
Major awards in successive years should have seen her on a career high, but a new TVNZ show, The Flying Squad, failed to eventuate. After marrying in January 1987, Westcott and Kenward returned to Canada, where she won two awards for investigative reporting at New York's International Film and TV Festival.
With the impending arrival of TV3, Westcott was lured back to NZ by Marcia Russell to front their current affairs flagship A Current Affair, opposite TVNZ's Holmes. She was six months pregnant when it debuted in November 1989, but her pregnancy lasted longer. The show was cancelled after just 11 weeks. Her son was born in March 1990 and she returned to TV3 later that year, to her own early evening news segment,The Westcott File. An end of bulletin current affairs slot followed in 1991, until she was replaced by Leighton Smith.
After a brief lay off, she was back at TVNZ in February 1993 working on 60 Minutes. In 1995, she won a second gold medal at New York's International Film and TV Festival. A Qantas Award followed in 1996 for her work on 60 Minutes, but she was already back at TV3 with 20/20. After cameoing in Peter Jackson feature The Frighteners, playing a tabloid reporter, Jackson observed that "we had to move her on to new areas of tackiness. I think it was going against her instincts".
In 1997, Westcott won her second Qantas Media Award in two years. One of her stories was an investigation into a fatal road accident in Southland which resulted in an inquiry into police handling of the case. She left 20/20 in 1998.
A step away from straight journalism in 1999 saw her resolving minor disputes on You Be the Judge, a Touchdown series for TV2. It was roundly criticised when the paternity of a six-year-old boy was revealed live in the studio. TVNZ shelved the project after six episodes.
Following You Be the Judge, Westcott developed her own communications consultancy. She also worked as a celebrity speaker, and on Sky TV’s Country TV farming channel (alongside David Beatson and Mark Leishman).
Her husband and longtime colleague Ross Kenward died in May 2014; in July, she returned to TV3 as one of the fill-in presenters on The Paul Henry Show when Henry took a two week break. By now she was working for Massey University, where she did extended stints in marketing and external relations.
Genevieve Westcott died of breast cancer on 10 July 2020. She was 65. Said friend and fellow reporter Carolyne Meng-Yee: "She was a trailblazer in journalism and for women in journalism. She was very intelligent, sassy — but fiercely kind."
Profile written by Michael Higgins; published on 11 July 2020
Hannah Dickson, ‘My Tacky Career’(Interview) - The NZ Woman's Weekly, 23 December 1996, page 19
Michael Hooper, ‘Three's Company’ - The Listener, 23 April 1990, page 80
Finlay Macdonald, ‘Back’ - The Listener, 20 November 1989, page 93
Steven O'Meagher, ‘Genevieve Westcott: Close Up on New Zealand's Best TV Reporter’ (Interview) - North and South, August 1986, page 62
Judith Thompson, ‘In From The Cold’ - The NZ Woman's Weekly, 1 February 1993, page 6
Vaimoana Tapaleao, 'Journalism trailblazer and television presenter Genevieve Westcott dies' - The NZ Herald, 11 July 2020
Rosemary Vincent, ‘January Wedding for Genevieve’ - The NZ Woman's Weekly, 15 December 1986