Investigative journalist Paula Penfold has worked on a number of high profile stories — most notably the Teina Pora case, in which a man wrongly convicted was released from prison after 21 years. In 2015 she called the case “the hardest but most rewarding story I’ve done in 25 years of journalism”.
Penfold studied geography as part of a Bachelor of Social Sciences degree at Waikato University. After completing a certificate in journalism at Christchurch Polytechnic in 1990, she joined Radio New Zealand as a journalist/producer. “I'll never forget the adrenaline of producing at ZB as the Paremoremo prison riots broke out in the late 90s,” she says. As an RNZ police reporter, Penfold did stories on serial rapist Malcolm Rewa, who was convicted in 1998 for the rape of Susan Burdett. She would later spend years on the case of Teina Pora, the man imprisoned for Burdett’s murder.
A move to TVNZ followed, where Penfold spent four years producing morning show Breakfast. During her tenure as producer she dealt with stories of all kinds. One of the most significant was the terrorist attacks on New York on 11 September 2001. “I made it from home to the TVNZ studios in nine minutes. We were on air soon afterwards, and we stayed on air for the next nine hours, watching, gobsmacked and terrified, as the Twin Towers came down.”
Heading to TV3 in 2003, Penfold began to focus on investigative reporting. She spent a decade working on 60 Minutes as a reporter and producer, before the programme left TV3. At that point she began working on 3rd Degree, which later became 3D. During her time on the shows she earned a reputation for hard-hitting stories.
In 2008 Penfold produced the Qantas award-winning 60 Minutes piece ‘Suicide for Sale’, working with reporter Sarah Hall. The story dealt with assisted suicide and the death of Audrey Wallis, whose suicide had been assisted by an American woman whom she paid to come to New Zealand.
Penfold’s work as a reporter hit the headlines in 2010, when she broke a story about Stephen Wilce, chief scientist of the NZ Defence Force, who had grossly mislead recruiters when first applying for the job. “We didn’t have any evidence as such that he’d been lying, so we needed to get that for ourselves directly,” says Penfold.
Posing as a recruitment consultant, Penfold was covertly filmed meeting with Wilce, who gave information about his work history which was then used to expose many of his claims as either grossly exaggerated or entirely fabricated. When the story went to air Wilce immediately resigned, and the Defence Force launched an investigation, after claims that concerns about Wilce’s past had been raised a few months before.
In 2012, after reading an article in The NZ Herald about an innocent man who had spent nearly 20 years in prison, Penfold and producer Eugene Bingham began looking into the conviction of Teina Pora, who had been convicted of the rape and murder of Susan Burdett in 1994. “I’m not sure we quite realised then what we were getting ourselves in for.” Over the coming years the pair would continue to investigate what Penfold has called “the biggest miscarriage of justice in New Zealand history”. Thanks in part to the evidence chronicled by 3rd Degree and the Herald, Pora’s case was taken to the Privy Council in London, where his conviction was quashed in March 2015.
Penfold’s work became news again in 2014, when she interviewed Tania Billingsley. Billingsley had gone through the process of having her name suppression lifted, for a 3rd Degree interview about Malaysian diplomat Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail, who had been charged with burglary and assault with intent to rape. He was then allowed to leave the country without being tried. He later returned to NZ, and was sentenced on a charge of indecent assault.
In late 2015 TV3’s parent company Mediaworks cancelled 3D. But Penfold was not ready to give up journalism. In February 2016 it was announced that Fairfax Media had hired Penfold, along with her 3D collaborators Bingham and editor Toby Longbottom. The job sees the team working on further pieces of investigative journalism. In a comment on Twitter, Penfold wrote “It's exciting. The brief is wide and it's all about the journalism. #dreamjob”.
In 2018 Penfold joined Alison Mau in the #MeTooNZ team investigating workplace harrassment. The following year a Stuff video investigation into slave labour in the tuna fishing industry won the Voyager Media Award for Best Innovation in Digital Storytelling. Penfold worked on the story with Bingham, Longbottom and cameraman Phil Johnson. The team were nominated for the same award for a story on the pharmaceutical industry.
Profile written by Simon Smith; updated 8 July 2019
‘Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham - The Past, Present and Future of Journalism’ (Radio Interview) Radio NZ website. Interviewer Wallace Chapman. Loaded 26 January 2016. Accessed 8 July 2019
‘Stephen Wilce - exposed on 60 minutes’ (Radio Interview) Magic website. Interviewer Andrew Patterson. Loaded 15 September 2010. Accessed 8 July 2019
Eugene Bingham, ‘“It was ferocious, it was brutal, it was hardly unexpected”: Eugene Bingham on the end of 3D’ The Spinoff website. Loaded 17 February 2016. Accessed 8 July 2019
Kim Knight, 'Tania Billingsley: No regrets about speaking out' - The Sunday Star-Times, 13 July 2014
Paula Penfold, ‘Media: What We Lost When We Lost 3D - Paula Penfold’s History of the Teina Pora Investigation’ The Spinoff website. Loaded 2 December 2015. Accessed 8 July 2019
Paula Penfold, ‘Investigation over Stephen Wilce’s ‘wild claims’’ Newshub website. Loaded 8 September 2010. Accessed 8 July 2019
Paula Penfold, ‘Woman at centre of Malaysian diplomat case speaks out’ (broken link) Newshub website. Loaded 9 July 2014. Accessed 15 March 2016
Ellen Read, ‘Fairfax Media hires Paula Penfold, Eugene Bingham, Toby Longbottom’ Stuff website. Loaded 29 February 2016. Accessed 8 July 2019
Phil Taylor, ‘’Innocent man’ in jail 20 years’ The Weekend Herald - 19 May 2012
'Paula Penfold’ Twitter page. Accessed 8 July 2019