'Oh c'mon mate': Guyon Espiner kept us on the edge of our seats

8:04 am on 3 May 2019

First Person - As Guyon Espiner wraps up his final day presenting Morning Report, Alex Perrottet takes a look back at the highlights and unforgettable classic moments from the past five years of working with him.

After one of the most notorious media stand-ups in New Zealand's political history, Guyon Espiner found himself in possession of Winston Peters' infamous NO sign, which he used to respond to reporters' questions about his party's political donations.

Peters had flicked it to him across the table in defiance once the presser was over. It was later framed and raffled off for more than $10,000 for the families of the Christchurch earthquake victims.

The long-running feud between Peters and Espiner has been woven into the fabric of the country's political consciousness, but perhaps the final stitching of it happened in the lead-up to the 2017 election. It was Espiner who suggested Morning Report run special 20-minute leaders' interviews in the Checkpoint video studio in the weeks leading up to the election.

Jacinda Ardern was the fresh-faced leader of Labour, having taken over from Andrew Little during the campaign. Not too many months earlier she had been in the same studio for the Mt Albert by-election debate. Bill English and James Shaw also featured, but the Peters interview lead the online hits.

In preparation, we had prepared a new NO sign in case he needed to use it, just to have a familiar prop nearby.

It wasn't needed.

There's plenty of gems in that interview, such as Peters asking his staffer to fetch a letter from Helen Clark that he keeps in his car boot, which Peters says proves he wasn't sacked from her government. It was political theatre and we were on the edge of our seats. Espiner deservedly received a Gold New York Festivals Radio Award for his trouble.

But the interview was structured simply around New Zealand First's website, and the policies that were listed there for all the public to see. Espiner took Peters through the costings of the policies one by one, and very quickly it all fell apart.

"Well it might say that on the website, but it should have been corrected," offered Peters, prompting that famous "Oh c'mon mate" from Espiner.

Anyone looking for any information on the New Zealand First website after that interview are still waiting - the site was taken down for a considerable time and when a new one was launched, the policies were gone.

When listing the qualities of a good interview, the exercise might make it appear a complex thing. But perhaps the hardest thing is simply to decide on a single topic, research it well enough, and persist with it. That's what Espiner has consistently done in the five years in the small studio on Level 3 of Hobson St in Auckland. His persistent approach didn't just niggle the politicians on the other end of the table or the phone line, but at times, the producers in his ear, waiting for him to wind up so the next story could fit in before the pips.

But Espiner was never going to let anyone off the hook, no matter how long it took.

Indeed, watching Espiner from the other side of the glass window was like receiving a masterclass in broadcasting.

Despite his obsession for politics, he is able to switch mood and chew the fat with a musician or challenge an All Blacks selector, or restrain himself from taking a story about a proposed cat curfew to its ridiculous conclusion.

He would give it his all behind the mic, and once the throw to the news was done, he was in the control room in a flash, sitting on the couch and continuing the interview as if I was the talent and hadn't hung up yet.

You know you've really found the ideal job if you can be there well before 5am, have your head in the right place and also be energetic and passionate about what you're doing. Oh, and then, speak for some of the time (what really should not be considered a controversial fraction of time) in another language.

There were times when I couldn't focus to do the simplest of jobs, like preparing notes on what's on the front pages of the newspapers, because I was standing next to a worked-up Espiner practising his lines of inquiry about 20 centimetres from my ear, with a searching look as if expecting me to jump into persona and engage in combat. I soon learnt that that indeed was part of my job description, and I enjoyed our early morning spars.

We'd wind up after the morning meeting with some ideas about tomorrow, and he would almost always say "Thanks mate, we'll do it all again tomorrow eh?"

The Auckland newsroom and studios can be a lonely place in the wee hours of the morning, with the bulk of the Morning Report team working away in Wellington. Even if you know you're talking to the nation, face-to-face human interaction is appreciated, and in the desolate control room before the programme hired a digital producer and Matthew Hutching showed up, it was always good to know that Espiner was up for a conversation - at anytime.

I'm convinced he has three compartments in his brain, as I've seen him interview someone, talk down the line to Wellington, and carry on a conversation with me all at the same time. He lulls you into a false sense of security and you have to be careful not to respond to him when he's in the middle of a question on air. Inevitably it did happen a few times, but he rightly acknowledged that it was probably his fault.

So Espiner is moving on, but politicians are certainly not off the hook.

Where he's next taking his energies will truly test whether Ardern's promises of the most transparent government ever is a sincere one.

There's many excellent investigative journalists in New Zealand but this one won't take NO for an answer - even if it's written on a big sign.

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