Apparently uncomfortable in anything except a suit and tie, a devoted Hurricanes fan, inspired by journalists John Pilger and Joan Didion, and with effusive good manners and unbridled enthusiasm, John Campbell is a singular figure in New Zealand broadcasting. Before becoming presenter of one of TV3's flagship shows, he had to fight to get on the channel — and nearly came up jobless in the restructuring that ultimately revitalised his career. He has been called a "nerd" by one Prime Minister, and a "creep" by another.
John Campbell graduated from Victoria University with an honours degree in English Literature — and an unfinished thesis he describes as "the most appallingly precocious postgraduate work in the history of the university". University also introduced him to the media — as Sparky Plug on Radio Active, he hosted a show called The Joy of Knowledge and was part of a team providing "unbelievably rude" and "grossly defamatory" alternative rugby commentaries.
In 1989 he was a "not very successful" dealer on the stock exchange trading floor. He also provided a market report for National Radio which led to a job with them as a business journalist. He was one of the last cadets trained by the broadcaster.
TVNZ came calling 18 months later; but Campbell was more interested in the fledgling TV3, who he saw as "ruder and braver and not taking themselves too seriously". They had already turned him down once — but he faxed a copy of TVNZ's offer to Rod Pederson at TV3. He responded with a lower offer and Campbell jumped at it, joining TV3 as a general reporter in June 1991. Six months later he was in the Press Gallery, with Bill Ralston as his mentor.
He moved to current affairs show 20/20 in 1994. Meanwhile, Ralston had a 10 minute current affairs slot during the 6pm news bulletin. When he left to edit Metro in 1997, Campbell was a surprise replacement.
The 6pm bulletin was at the forefront of TV3's efforts to take on TVNZ. To combat TV One's team of Judy Bailey and Richard Long, TV3 had looked to a single newsreader as their point of difference; but, with Philip Sherry, Joanna Paul and then John Hawkesby, ratings success had continued to elude them.
For 1998, TV3 decided on a dual news reading team. Former Crimewatch presenter and Holmes producer Carol Hirschfeld was lured across from TVNZ to join Hawkesby. Campbell's nightly segment also disappeared in the shake-up. There was talk of him making "occasional current affairs specials" but his future at the network looked uncertain.
Hawkesby opposed the plan. In February 1998, within days of the new format going live, he resigned. Campbell was drafted in. He and Hirschfeld had met just twice and had only a Sunday morning practice run on the Ice TV set. They weathered a nervous first night and established themselves as the 3 News anchors.
In May 2000 Campbell took over from Brian Edwards as presenter of National Radio's Saturday morning show. He departed in March 2002 to spend more time at home, and deal with the added demands of election year coverage.
That election campaign saw him drawn into a political storm. 'Corngate' entered the lexicon after a feisty interview about GE seed with PM Helen Clark, inspired by Nicky Hagar's book Seeds of Distrust. She claimed Campbell had ambushed her, and memorably called him a "little creep". Campbell later conceded aspects of the interview could have been handled better, but was unrepentant. A relationship with Clark that he admitted had been "unbelievably cosy" was gone; but, he told the Listener, "it's no more meritorious to sell your soul to a Labour government than a National one." Elsewhere Campbell's interview with Jenny Shipley over the Kiwi response to 9/11 was seen by some as having helped spell the end of Shipley's political career.
Meanwhile, the Campbell-Hirschfeld partnership was working on screen and off. She was an ideal producing partner; and they collaborated on two series of Home Truths, a late night show built around a single in-depth interview. In 2004, Campbell and Hirschfeld followed it with A Queen's Tour. It followed the itinerary of the 1953 Royal Tour and mixed archive footage with music and interviews, to take a fresh look at towns the Queen had visited.
These projects aside, Campbell's day job was still reading the 6pm news. But after five years it was no longer a challenge; or, as he put it, "It's not rocket science...not even close, it's not even skyrocket science." After five years he "needed to join in again". Campbell had long had the 7pm timeslot in his sights. He got both wishes when TV3 debuted Campbell Live on 21 March 2005, after some angsting over whether Campbell's name should be part of the title. The same year, the new show won a Qantas award for Best News Investigation.
Campbell Live became a flagship show for TV3. It continued to win awards, and had triumphs and weathered controversies. A mocked up interview with an actor reading lines from one of the Waiouru Army Museum medal thieves drew a storm of criticism, and Campbell agonised about it publicly, as only he could.
During 2010 Campbell Live was dogged by speculation about its continued viability. In response, TV3's owner Mediaworks issued a statement hailing Campbell as "an outstanding broadcaster and New Zealand's leading television interviewer". TV3 had "no intention of changing that long standing and excellent relationship". The following year the show (and Campbell himself) were nominated for three awards, winning for Investigation of the Year.
In April 2015 Mediaworks confirmed that Campbell Live was under review. Although the show won impressive ratings after the announcement, and some viewers campaigned to keep it on air, it was confirmed on 19 May that he would be leaving the company. Campbell Live was to be replaced by The Project, which would have multiple anchors. The final Campbell Live episode on 29 May 2015 opened with a shot of the entire team who made it, crammed into the studio. It was the most watched episode in the show’s decade long run. Afterwards TV3 reporter Sarah Hall told media through tears that staff had formed a 400-strong guard of honour to see Campbell off. Amidst the many tributes, columnist Tracey Barnett mentioned "the beauty of a man whose enthusiasm doesn’t know satire".
Campbell Live reporter Ali Ikram called Campbell "the most complete broadcaster the country has produced; the best interviewer, the best storyteller, the best presenter, the best journalist on TV." Ikram recalled Campbell's close to the wire work, after rushing to present live at a Christchurch flood in 2014. "The most flawless half hour of television was delivered with no autocue, standing knee deep in water. That is the broadcaster’s art, to make it all look effortless..."
Campbell announced that he would be returning to his radio roots, with a role at Radio New Zealand. Checkpoint with John Campbell launched to rave reviews on 18 January 2016; it was acknowledged in a July survey as the most popular radio show in its timeslot. The following year Campbell won a presenting award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He was also back on camera, after Checkpoint began streaming on YouTube and other avenues.
ln June 2017 Campbell joined Nigel Latta to co-host live TVNZ special What Next? Screening nightly over a week, the ambitious interactive show set out to examine what New Zealand would and should look like in 20 years. In September 2018 Campbell left his RNZ position, to join TVNZ. Head of News John Gillespie said he would work across a number of programmes as a reporter and presenter.
Profile written by Michael Higgins
Updated on 27 September 2018
Steve Braunias, 'Marvellous' - The Listener, 6 May 2000, page 16
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Ali Ikram, 'Ka Kite Ano Campbell Live' The Ruminator website. Loaded 29 May 2015. Accessed 27 September 2018
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Glenn McConnell, 'John Campbell named Best Radio Host at global broadcasting awards' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 2 November 2017. Accessed 27 September 2018
Matt Nippert, 'Maaaaarvellous!' (Interview) - Salient, 31 March 2003, page 19
Diana Wichtel, 'Campbell's Scoop' - The Listener, 24 May, 1997, page 22
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Unknown writer, 'Campbell out front' - The Dominion Post (TV Week liftout), 29 April 2003, page 8
Unknown writer, 'Bloody marvellous! John Campbell and Morning Report lead RNZ to a ratings resurgence' - The Sunday Star-Times, 31 July 2016