Born and raised in the Hutt Valley, Mark Sainsbury originally saw the law as his career path. “I was going to do law,” he says, “save the world. All that sort of bullshit.” But the world had to be seen first. After dropping out, Sainsbury first drove buses (he still has his license) then worked as a bar manager before heading overseas.
He travelled through the United States and Mexico before returning to New Zealand with the intention of resuming legal studies.
First, though, he took a journalism course. The plan was to work part time in journalism while completing his law degree. But he was bitten by the journalism bug and in 1981, before his course ended, he was offered a position at TVNZ.
The job was as a researcher for a mid-week, hour long, current affairs programme called Close Up. It was the beginning of a long career with the state broadcaster.
One of his first big stories was a baptism of fire: the Springbok Tour of July and August of that year, an event which divided the country.
There had been much debate about whether the tour should go ahead, with the Muldoon government largely taking a hands-off approach. But the Prime Minister had asked the NZRFU to reconsider issuing its invitation to the South Africans. It was to no avail; the invitation stood. Sainsbury can remember calling the Springboks manager to get his reaction and was staggered to discover he was in fact breaking the news. The NZRFU hadn’t yet contacted its South African counterparts to confirm the tour was on.
Sainsbury says coverage of the tour remains one of the formative aspects of his career. He recalls that TVNZ staff were banned from joining the protests on threat of dismissal.
By 1983 Sainsbury was sent to the Dunedin newsroom for more reporting experience, both with the Network News and The South Tonight. In those heady days of regional news there was ample opportunity to cover a wide range of stories, both serious and light, and try out ideas.
He returned to Wellington in 1984 and joined the newsroom there, working as general reporter on news and features before graduating to more serious roles including politics and industrial relations. His inter-personal skills and interest in people made him an ideal reporter. People liked him and enjoyed talking to him.
In 1987 Sainsbury briefly left TVNZ. He joined Barry Soper at Independent Radio News as a parliamentary press gallery reporter in order to get more experience in the political ring. The following year, he was back in the TVNZ newsroom and in 1989 he joined the inaugural team on Holmes, the ground-breaking nightly current affairs show.
In 1991 he embarked on a Holmes feature on one of New Zealand’s most famous sons: Sir Edmund Hillary. Sainsbury accompanied the mountaineer on one of his regular trips to Nepal and formed a friendship that lasted until Hillary’s death in 2008. His relationship with Hillary, says Sainsbury, was one of the highlights of his career.
In 1993 Sainsbury returned to Nepal with Hillary to make a documentary for Keir Productions on the 40th anniversary of the conquest of Everest. He also presented a 90 minute live broadcast from Kathmandu to commemorate the event. Another highlight of the trip was the opportunity to interview Jan Morris, formerly James Morris, who was the Times reporter on the 1953 expedition and went on to become one of the world’s most celebrated travel writers.
The same year, Sainsbury was appointed TVNZ’s London correspondent, a position he held until his return to New Zealand in 1997. In this period the IRA was still active, setting off bombs in London’s Docklands and later in central Manchester. There was also the Dunblane massacre, the death of Princess Diana and, in Europe, the Bosnian war raged on.
Back in New Zealand Sainsbury re-joined Holmes as its Wellington reporter before moving on to Assignment, a long form current affairs programme.
By 2000 Sainsbury was back in the parliamentary press gallery, this time heading up the TVNZ team as political editor, a role he filled until 2005. He was heavily involved in the 2002 election coverage, hosted the leaders’ debates in the 2005 election, as well as co-hosting Decision 05 on election night, with Susan Wood.
During this period Sainsbury was fill-in host for the new version of Close Up (then fronted by Susan Wood). Close Up had replaced Holmes in a prime post-Network News current affairs slot. His fill-in duties continued into 2006 but elsewhere Sainsbury’s career took a new turn. He became the host of a late-night chat show: the short-lived About Now.
Sainsbury says he and his producers were given a free hand. They brought former rugby league player and boxer Anthony Mundine over from Australia for the show, and on one memorable occasion teamed up the founder of the D.vice sex toy shop with poet Sam Hunt.
In 2007 Sainsbury returned to more familiar territory. Susan Wood had left Close Up and Sainsbury was back in the hot seat, now on a fulltime basis. It was a role he filled until the end of 2012 when Close Up was cancelled, to be replaced by Seven Sharp in 2013.
In 2007 Sainsbury won the Qantas Media Award for best presenter and in 2008 he was once again moderator for the election year leaders’ debate.
Mark Sainsbury left TVNZ at the end of 2012 after a career with the state broadcaster lasting more than 30 years.
'Mark Sainsbury reflects on TVNZ career' (Video interview), TVNZ website (from Breakfast) Loaded 30 November 2012. Accessed 24 October 2013
William Mace, Matt Nippert and Paloma Migone, 'TVNZ announces it may axe Close Up', Stuff website, Loaded 27 September 2012. Accessed 24 October 2013
Nicole Pryor, 'Mark Sainsbury signs off' (interview), Stuff website. Loaded 1 December 2012. Accessed 24 October 2013