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Duncan Garner’s frightening secret: ‘I couldn’t even tell my mum’

The broadcaster is so grateful he’s still around to share his horrifying story
Duncan leaning on a glass railPhotos: Babiche Martens

At Christmas last year, Duncan Garner headed up north to do what he always does when things become tough… go fishing. 

The past five years have been difficult for the journalist after leaving two high-profile jobs, getting divorced, then having to sell his home and move in with his mum Sue. 

“I was also getting close to turning 50 in March, so I had a lot to think about,” says Duncan. He was looking forward to some time in the Hokianga and hauling in some fish. What he couldn’t have known was that he was about to have a near-death experience.

“I put my boat in the water down by where the wastewater comes out. It’s supposed to be treated, but I had a little cut on my leg, which later blew up,” he tells. 

Duncan took himself to Rawene Hospital, where he was given oral antibiotics that worked for a while.

At last, life is on the up for Duncan.

“I got rid of it, but then it relapsed,” he says. “I had to head home, so I thought I’d go to a Warkworth doctor to see what they thought. Then I was put on an IV drip because they thought it might have been a blood clot. The blood test showed a clot, so the doctor was really freaking out . Apparently I could have been dead in 24 hours.”

Duncan was rushed to a radiologist, who spent an hour trying to find the clot but couldn’t.

“So they put me on an antibiotic drip for three days and then diagnosed serious cellulitis, which is a bacterial skin infection,” he says.

“My blood pressure was through the roof because I was fighting the infection, and it was touch and go for a while there. I could have lost my leg or died if I had left it any longer.”

Duncan admits he is the last person to go to the doctor and this infection was a wake-up call.

“I put my leg up for four days, my son Buster was in Fiji and I was a bit sad. So that was pretty much my whole summer.”

Duncan shares a home with his mum Sue and son Buster.

He decided not to tell his mum. Having moved himself and Buster into her three-bedroom apartment a year ago, he felt she had enough on her hands. 

At 77, you’d think that Sue might be a bit surprised to have her son and 13-year-old grandson living with her. But it’s clear she adores them both.

“Buster was born just a few months after Duncan’s father Grant died 14 years ago and he has been special to me ever since,” she says.

While both Sue and Duncan joke about how they drive each other nuts with their shared living arrangement, the love is strong between the two. Sue says she’s so proud of everything Duncan has achieved in his life. She was determined to support him through the rough patch he has endured. 

Sue also knows how to get some me-time. She’s heading off for a month in Australia with some friends and to visit Duncan’s twin sister Rachael.

Duncan and twin sister Rachel sitting in front of a birthday cake
Celebrating his eighth birthday with his twin.

Not many people know that Duncan has a twin. With the immense energy the broadcaster displays both on and off air, you have to wonder what it’s like having two of them in the room! “They’re not really that alike, but they’re both lovely,” explains Sue.

Duncan is eager to tell a story about how he is the taxi driver in the house, providing pick-ups and drop-offs for both Sue and Buster.

“The other day, one of Mum’s friends sold her house for a very good sum. They all went down to the Viaduct for lunch to celebrate. I dropped Mum off and didn’t get the pick-up text until 8pm,” he laughs. “One of her friends was so sozzled, she thought my name was Alan – and Mum wasn’t much better!”

Duncan has recently emerged from a five-year divorce battle that left him emotionally drained with a $150,000 lawyer’s bill. In the process, Duncan had to sell his house, which is why he and Buster are living with Sue.

“I’ve been looking at buying a business,” he reveals. “I looked at a lawnmower business for a while and then hit on getting a laundromat. Did you know they are very profitable?” But while he scans business-for-sale ads, he’s working full-time on his new-look podcast, which launches this week.

Duncan’s former feature interview podcast Editor in Chief has morphed into a different, more newsy style of podcast going out live at 7.30 each morning.

“This will be news of the day,” he says. “You wake up and it’ll be bang, bang, bang… Things you need to know waking up to the day.”

It’s a fit that suits Duncan, with the podcast going out on rova and all other podcast platforms. He will also be on every other channel he can think of. YouTube, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Facebook, TikTok – he aims to get everyone listening.

“There’s a big market of commuters going to work. Hundreds of thousands of people sitting on public transport, carrying their phones with them,” says Duncan. He believes that the days of tuning into radio or a television to hear the news are over.

On his podcast with Lloyd Burr and Melodie Robinson.

“I was pushing TV3 in 2007, when the Apple iPhone started to come out, to develop content for it,” he tells. “I was blogging and on Twitter, setting up political polls, talking to people online. Well, that’s here now. We get everything we need, including news, on our phones, not sitting by the radio or the TV at six every night.”

Duncan also believes in the power of online opinion pieces and he’s writing a weekly piece for the New Zealand Listener online.

Is that enough to keep the notoriously fast-paced Duncan Garner busy?

“The podcast takes more work than you might think,” explains Duncan. “I write the whole thing, prepare for interviews and I have very high standards – you don’t want to be a plonker,” he laughs. 

It’s very clear that this year, unlike the past five, is bringing Duncan hope and joy, something for a while he was worried he’d never feel again.

“I had some very dark days when everything crashed around me, with The AM Show over for me, then my TodayFM radio show shut down, then dealing with the divorce and going to court,” he says. “It got me down, I won’t lie. There were days when I thought I’d be better off not here.”

With The AM Show’s Amanda Gillies and Mark Richardson.

Duncan says he never lost hope, but he hadn’t realised how draining the divorce would be. Especially when paired with having to ask himself if he could ever afford another house or find another job.

“One day you have a house, a marriage and a job – lots of stuff,” he says. “And then suddenly something just clicks and you’ve sold your house, you don’t have a marriage, you’ve moved in with your mum and you’re trying to piece together jobs.

“What happened here? It’s whirlwind stuff. I had worked my a*** off for that stuff that I no longer had.”

Duncan says he found a way out of his dark period quite quickly. He has known people who have died by suicide and has seen the aftermath that their loved ones deal with.

“I know of people who have taken their lives and it’s just traumatic,” he says. “When I was younger, I used to babysit a boy up the road and he took his life at 16. I saw the hurt his parents went through.

“I went to counselling and I learned to walk away from stuff. And besides, I have Buster – I couldn’t do that to him or my other kids.”

With family, clockwise from bottom left, Sue, Rachael, Joanna and dad Grant.

Duncan has another child, Max, who’s 15, from a brief relationship. He also has two daughters from his previous partnership with journalist Mihingarangi Forbes – Peti-Paerau, 23, and Te Ahipourewa, 20.

“My daughters are both strong women and very straight with me,” says Duncan. “They tell me to get more sleep, to eat better and they take no nonsense from me. I’ll get a text, which will tell me it’s time for a father-daughter night out,” he laughs.

It’s clear that this hard-hitting journalist, who spent 17 years in Parliament and whose picture outside 10 Downing Street in London has pride of place in his mother’s house, is dealing with life and seeing his way through the hard knocks he’s recently faced.

“I think you’ve got to resist the urge to be all doom and gloom, and think that you are owed a living in the media,” he reflects. “I’ve learned that in journalism, you’ve got to make your own luck.”

Duncan says he has relationships going back years with many people in the media industry. While things are tough at the moment, there’s still room for good ideas and most certainly quality news shows like his podcast.

“I’m definitely in a much better space, but it’s been hard,” he says. “I talk about my dad Grant in most of my interviews and there’s a reason for that. He was a good man and he died too young at the age of 62.

“He’s my dad and I still carry him in my heart. Time does heal, but it’s the moments like these last five years I could have really done with having my dad around.”

Duncan Garner: Editor-in-Chief Live kicks off Monday, May 20 from 7.30am on rova or wherever else you listen to your podcasts.

Young Duncan standing in front of the 10 Downing Street door in London.
The longtime parliamentary reporter at London’s iconic site.

Help is here

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 (to talk to a trained counsellor about how you are feeling or to ask any questions)

Anxiety NZ – 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)

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