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Ian Johnstone


Ian Johnstone's extensive CV as a journalist and presenter ranges from pioneering 60s television shows Compass and Close Up through to the long-running Crimewatch. Over four decades, he has interviewed everyone from Barry Crump and Glenn Turner to Robert Muldoon.

A "devout Kiwi by adoption", Ian Johnstone grew up on the border of England and Scotland, the son of a Scottish banker and an English villager. Studying English at Durham University, Johnstone found that the small size of his college enabled him to sample acting, debating, and rugby.

After university Johnstone moved to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where he worked for three years as a provincial administrator. The area was still governed from London, and Johnstone later compared the system to a boarding school, with the locals being the ones waiting for the chance to run their own affairs. It was in Africa that a likeable Kiwi senior officer recommended that Johnstone and his new wife abandon plans to head home to teach, and instead move "to the best country in the world — New Zealand".

Johnstone's arrival down under in 1961 coincided with the roll out of television in New Zealand. He did time as a teacher in South Canterbury, where the hardy, salt-of-the-earth farmers reminded him of Scottish border country. Then he got a part-time job as a radio announcer at 3XC in Timaru, despite the horror of mispronouncing Turangawaewae during his audition. The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation transferred him to Wellington, where he read the news for both radio and television.

In 1963 he got his first TV interview, thanks to being the only person in the announcer's office at the time. Something went right; within weeks Johnstone was asked to prepare and present new TV series Close Up, an interview show which introduced Johnstone to Barry Crump, ex PM Walter Nash, and somewhat "prickly" MP Arnold Nordmeyer.

The show Johnstone would be most associated with that decade was current affairs programme Compass, whose job "was to hold up a mirror so New Zealand could look at itself". At Compass he was part of the first NZBC film crew sent on overseas assignment (to Fiji, shortly before the country's 1970 independence), played a part in a controversial episode documenting the change to decimal currency, and hit a brick wall with proposals television should examine Kiwi involvement in Vietnam. 

When regional magazine show Town and Around began in 1965, Ian Johnstone was the first frontman. He argues that Town and Around and later regional successors were popular because "they let viewers know — every night — that their television service belonged to them and was part of the life of their town or region."

In the early 70s, Johnstone decamped to Fiji, where he spent four years working in radio for intergovernmental agency the South Pacific Commission (later renamed the Secretariat of the Pacific Community).

In 1974 he heard the "restrictive" days of the NZBC were about to be overhauled in favour of a two channel set up. After offering his services, Johnstone was offered nightly current affairs programme Tonight at Nine, sharing frontman/ reporter roles with Lindsay Perigo.

As Johnstone recounts in his book Stand and Deliver, the next six years proved hectic in all senses — a TV service undergoing multiple overhauls as Robert Muldoon took over the reigns of change from Labour broadcasting minister Roger Douglas, competing newsrooms rushing to outdo each other, and an outpouring of creativity on-screen (including the epic The Governor, whose making Johnstone documented).

In 1976 Johnstone became the first NZ television reporter to visit South Africa for a trio of Seven Days shows, interviewing Desmond Tutu, journalist Donald Woods and PM John Vorster. It was the most "difficult and dangerous" assignment he had yet tackled, as Johnstone and a small crew (including frequent collaborator Allison Webber) endeavoured to get interviews under the prying eyes of the apartheid-era Government. South Africa - the Black Future won Johnstone a Feltex Award. The Listener called it "masterly in balance and clarity", and praised Johnstone for a lack of bias and fear. "Calm, sane and blessed with common sense and decency, mercifully free of the prima donna touch, he asks pertinent questions with a quiet voice".

Won over by an earlier Johnstone piece about Wellington, producer Richard Thomas stopped him in a corridor one day with the idea that Johnstone should create a more personal show about his adopted homeland, Johnstone's Journey. Working on the series confirmed that there are situations when there is "nothing wrong with a reporter delivering his or her own opinions and feelings, as long as they can be justified". 

The more personal touch would be evident in the series Beginner's Guide, which went "into areas of life which intrigue or mystify or frighten us". The episode on prisons drew positive responses from both viewers and inmates. Meanwhile 80s talk show Speakeasy took one subject per episode, then gave a trio of guests the chance to talk about it.

The 80s saw Johnstone everywhere: reporting from Africa, parts of the Pacific, where he was making documentaries for the UN and Foreign Affairs, scriptwriting in New York with Kiri Te Kanawa for doco Return Home, overseeing this Treaty of Waitangi debate at Govrnment House, and chairing the infamous 1984 leaders' debate that ended with Muldoon telling Lange that he loved him. Johnstone says it was like a boxing match; he got the job because Muldoon refused to appear with Ian Fraser. The UN doco — an episode of 1981 series Agenda for a Small Planet — gave him a rare chance to explore some of his concerns over the power and misuse of the television medium.

There were other kinds of drama too, with a brief cameo as a "tall, angular, balding" English general in the Ettie Rout episode of Pioneer Women

Two other personal TV highlights from this decade are We're Only Human and Crimewatch. Johnstone co-hosted the latter programme for more than nine years from 1987, during which time calls to the show's special phoneline helped police solve approximately 1400 cases. The other show, the serio-comic We're Only Human, involved collaboration with sociologist Bryan Bruce, probably "the most multi-talented man" Johnstone has worked with. The duo would later work together on a number of documentary scripts, after Bruce reinvented himself as a filmmaker.

Since then Johnstone has presented live reports for a succession of Anzac Day wreath-laying ceremonies, and co-presented the 2004 procession ceremony for the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, one of the largest outside broadcasts undertaken by TVNZ. He also added to a long CV of narration work by providing voiceovers for two feature-length documentaries by Alister Barry: Someone Else's Country, and In a Land of Plenty.

Johnstone's entertaining and opinionated biography Stand and Deliver was published by Cape Catley in 1998. Among other things, it includes extended sections on Crimewatch, Johnstone's views on the future of NZ television, and his experiences in apartheid-era South Africa.


Sources include
Ian Johnstone
Ian Johnstone, Stand and Deliver (Whatamango Bay: Cape Catley, 1998)
Joseph Romanos, 'The Wellingtonian interview: Ian Johnstone' - The Wellingtonian, 22 April 2010