Journalist Rod Vaughan was a familiar face on New Zealand television for over 40 years, filming and presenting investigative pieces for a range of news and current affairs programmes.
Vaughan grew up in post-war Britain, initially on the island of Jersey. Later, in a village in the south east of England, he lived with an aunt who was housekeeper to renowned actor and musician Ivor Novello. Vaughan’s early passion was flying: as a teen he attained the rank of sergeant in England's Air Training Corps youth organisation, piloting gliders and a range of light aircraft.
Vaughan's family moved to Auckland in 1964, when he was 17. Soon after, he started in journalism, completing a journalism course at Wellington Polytechnic, and working for a variety of newspapers including The NZ Herald and The Dominion. Then he returned to the UK to write for Portsmouth's Western Morning News.
Back in New Zealand in 1968, Vaughan began work with the state broadcaster, then known as the NZ Broadcasting Corporation. After a year in the newsroom, he won a role as a reporter on popular magazine programme Town and Around.
After completing an in-house course in television production, Vaughan's first project as producer was a half-hour documentary on rising poet Sam Hunt. He later became a producer for documentary series Survey, until the slot was cancelled in 1972.
Vaughan was then tasked with creating a show to replace another current affairs programme, Gallery. Vaughan assembled an on-air team which included Ian Fraser, Keith Aberdein, Guy Salmon, David Beatson and satirist John Clarke. The resulting programme, Nationwide, went on to generate significant controversy in its first year — on account of Fraser's confrontational interview with the Shah of Iran, and content (including Clarke's sketches) that provoked the anger of the Norman Kirk-led Labour Government.
Turning his focus to investigative journalism in 1978, Vaughan then embarked on a career which would see him become a fixture of current affairs broadcasting for the next 37 years on prime-time programmes such as Holmes, Frontline and Assignment.
Vaughan made an impact via a range of investigative assignments. His investigations included an in-depth piece on 500+ abuse claims lodged against Department of Social Welfare care institutions from the 1960s to the 1980s; a much acclaimed piece which revealed wrongdoing in New Zealand's fishing industry; an award-winning Assignment story on the booming Irish economy, and Vaughan's 17-year effort to obtain permission to film on Mururoa Atoll, site of France's nuclear testing programme, which finally succeeded in 1991.
Vaughan travelled extensively, filming international stories across the globe, often in emotionally-charged situations: like the lead-up to South Africa's first post-apartheid elections in 1994, and a report from the edge of Pakistan, 24 hours after the 11 September 2001 attacks (his TVNZ bosses felt it was too dangerous for the crew to cross into Afghanistan). Vaughan has described the task of "chasing a good story" in a remote destination as "hugely addictive".
His persistence and initiative often gained him access to stories and subjects thought to be beyond reach. In the late 1980s, following the collapse of investment company Goldcorp, Vaughan tracked supposedly destitute CEO Ray Smith down to a United States resort; in the mid 1990s he interviewed the famously inaccessible Major General Sitiveni Rabuka, in the lead-up to his third military coup in Fiji.
This doggedness also led to a career-defining moment on 9 July 1985. While working for TV2's Eyewitness News, Vaughan was assigned to track down Bob Jones for an interview, following his unexplained decision to put the New Zealand Party (then the nation's third-largest political party) into permanent recess. Finding Jones fishing in the backblocks of the Tongariro River, Vaughan's team were filming as Jones unleashed some choice words of abuse, struck cameraman Peter Mayo to the ground while Mayo continued filming, then punched Vaughan in the face, breaking his nose. Vaughan recounted what had just occured in a single take, despite his blood-drenched face. After getting the story on air with roughly 20 minutes to spare, Vaughan could be safely despatched to a doctor. He later required plastic surgery.
The incident has since become part of New Zealand television history. The two men later publicly reconciled, with Jones even agreeing to appear in a video for Vaughans 50th birthday in which Jones took a return punch (although it was delivered by a stand-in).
In 2003, shortly after celebrating the 35th anniversary of his tenure at TVNZ, Vaughan's role at the public broadcaster was axed. In his autobiography Vaughan argues that he was one of a number of experienced journalists ousted by TV One in this period, as part of efforts "to capture a younger audience to offset the inroads that TV3 was making in the all-important Auckland news and current affairs ratings". Ironically, Vaughan moved to TV3 within a fortnight. He did eight years full-time, filing stories for 60 Minutes.
In 2012 Vaughan completed Bloodied but not Beaten, which provided insights into the realities of TV journalism. The Otago Daily Times called it "an excellent compilation of the noteworthy investigative assignments" Vaughan had delivered. Around the same time he finished writing the book, Vaughan was dropped from TV3. Since then he has written for NBR, The NZ Herald and The Listener. In 2018 he hit the headlines again, when he successfully landed a two-seater plane on a field after the windscreen blew out during a flight.
Profile written by Chris Gilman; updated on 3 June 2020
Rod Vaughan, Bloodied but not Beaten (Auckland: David Ling Publishing, 2012)
Karina Abadia, 'Curiosity on Camera' (Interview) East & Bays Courier, 22 August 2012
Clark Isaacs, 'TV news hounds losing the scent' (Review of Bloodied but not Beaten) - The Otago Daily Times, 29 September 2012
Michele Hewitson, 'Michele Hewitson interview: Rod Vaughan' - The NZ Herald, 18 August 2012
Samantha Motion, 'Big Read: Rod Vaughan on plane crashes and life, and near-death experiences, after TV' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 10 April 2018