After making his name reporting from varied global hotspots, TV3 news anchor Mike McRoberts makes sure to travel with a passport close at hand. He argues that viewers don't just like seeing local reports from the world's big news events: they've “come to expect it”.
Though at school he acted in plays, McRoberts remembers himself as being “painfully shy”, with a bad stammer in his early teens. In his book Beyond the Front Line, McRoberts argues that even stammering has an upside. “I became a very good listener and organiser of thoughts in my head. If you have trouble getting words out, you learn very quickly to know exactly what it is you need to say.”
In his final year at high school in Christchurch, pupils voted him head of the school council. Though a keen newspaper reader, the teenager wanted to become a lawyer. Things changed after he took a high school journalism course run by the Department of Māori Affairs. Witnessing “the buzz” at the local radio station as staff rushed to ready the news, he was hooked.
In 1984 McRoberts won a hard-to-get Radio New Zealand cadetship, and later, six months of journalism training. Wondering if he was up the job, he was reminded of a comment from that high school journalism course that young Māori find journalism challenging, because many find it difficult to question authority. His lifeline came after a transfer to the sports office. The longtime rugby fan felt at ease with his subject matter, and gained valuable live experience. By the age of 24, he was running the sports department.
Having hosted a basketball show at TVNZ for a year, McRoberts was offered a job on TV One's Sports Night by News and Current Affairs head Paul Cutler. Soon he was handling all the All Blacks stories, and presenting sports bulletins.
In 1996 he was named rugby journalist of the year for his coverage of the All Black tour of South Africa, a personal highlight. After McRoberts spotted star Springbok winger James Small in a bar the night before the first test, Small lost his place in the team.
McRoberts began doing fill-in shifts presenting the six o'clock news. He also did three years reporting for Holmes. There he cut his teeth on foreign assignments, flying to Fiji to cover the George Speight-led coup.
In this period he had the idea of making a documentary about a group of Māori who had moved down south from the North Island and married Pākehā, his father among them. The result was “labour of love” White Sheep.
At the end of 2000, TV3 news boss Mark Jennings contacted McRoberts and invited him to become back-up news presenter for John Campbell on the 6pm bulletin, plus do reporting for 20/20. When John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld departed to launch Campbell Live in 2005, McRoberts and Hilary Barry took over presenting the primetime bulletin.
In his book Beyond the Front Line, McRoberts writes of being “incredibly grateful” to have become TV3's 'go to' guy, when it comes to many of the big stories, both here and overseas. In 2005 alone he was on the ground to cover the Iraq elections, the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza strip, and a magnitude 7.6 quake in Pakistan (he filed 10 stories for 60 Minutes that year alongside his job as news anchor). McRoberts argues that his coverage of international events is a natural extension of TV3's longstanding philosophy of only employing presenters who are journalists.
McRoberts has also aroused debate over the role journalists play in their own stories, after pieces showing him helping an injured Haitian girl get to hospital, and a Qantas Award-winning story on an Afghan refugee in Pakistan who was employed by his crew as a translator. Money sent in by TV3 viewers later paid for the teenager's university education.
When the second major earthquake hit Christchurch in February 2011, McRoberts rushed to the airport, while trying to contact relatives from his old hometown. The aftershocks were unlike anything he’d experienced on quake stories overseas. “You could literally hear them coming, like a train rumbling towards you.”
After three weeks covering the quakes, McRoberts was on the plane home when he saw images of another quake, off the coast of Japan. 24 hours later he presented 3 News from a studio in the semi-deserted city of Tokyo, then drove with other TV3 staff into some of the disaster zones. The morning after returning home he co-hosted coverage of the Christchurch memorial service, alongside John Campbell.
McRoberts details many of his trips in Beyond the Front Line, including trips to Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and East Timor. He also describes interviewing the “humble and utterly modest” Willie Apiata for 60 Minutes.
Along the way there have been lucky breaks, and close calls. In 2003, after hours on a banana boat in the Solomon Islands, he managed to get an exclusive interview with warlord Harold Keke, three weeks before Keke gave himself up.
Shortly after 9/11 he reported from the city of Peshawar in Pakistan, as the first bombs fell on nearby Afghanistan. Caught up in riots and tear gas, McRoberts lost sight of cameraman Michael 'Dutchie' Lacoste and producer Phil Vine, though all got through unharmed.
Two years later, hoping to time their arrival for the invasion of Iraq, McRoberts and cameraman Chris Jones drove the short distance from Kuwait City to the Iraq border. Tens of thousands of US soldiers were camped nearby. Surprised they'd got so close to the border, they were soon surrounded by a group of armed soldiers. Soon they were taking a guided tour of the border, and being shown Iraqi sniper positions. A Kuwaiti sergeant offered his cellphone number, and later provided inside information on early stages of the coalition invasion, which directly contradicted official accounts.
At the 2017 New Zealand Television Awards, McRoberts was judged Best News and Current Affairs Presenter for his work on Newshub Live at 6pm.
Mike McRoberts, Beyond the Front Line (Auckland: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2011)
Nicholas Jones, 'Profile: Mike McRoberts On Conflict Here and Abroad' (Interview). Scoop website. Loaded 11 December 2010. Accessed 11 February 2014