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Mike McRoberts – why I wanted to quit

When Mike ocRoberts agreed to write his memoir, he didn’t realise it would save his career. Because at the age of 45, the TV3 news presenter and globetrotting reporter was ready to quit journalism.

“Maybe it was a midlife crisis, but TV is a really tough industry to work in at the moment – it has been for a couple of years now. I thought if I was going to make a change, it seemed like the right time,” he says. “I’d been approached about writing a book before and always felt I was too young, like I was saying it was all over, but it wasn’t. This time it felt right, in part because I was coming up to my 10-year anniversary at TV3. So I signed the book contract, which had a completion date of June.”

But a week later, on February 22, Mike got the news that his home town of Christchurch had been hit by a 6.3-magnitude earthquake. “What happened in Christchurch changed everything,” says Mike, who is married to fellow journalist Paula Penfold, with whom he has two children, Ben (11) and nine-year-old oaia. “Part of my disillusionment was not knowing how my role would fit in 10 years. Would there still be a need for someone to tell stories or read the news? What happened in Christchurch reminded me how important that is.”

It’s a typical example of the heart-on-sleeve honesty the public has come to expect from the man who has been nicknamed “The Brown Jesus” – a moniker he dislikes. His calming presence and natural empathy in disasters and war zones earned him the title, but he says being straight-up is simply his nature.

“I try to be honest with Ben and oaia about what I do, which is pretty hard,” he says. “I do worry about how it affects them, but we’re pretty lucky we have kids who take it in their stride, for the most part. When I had to fly straight to Japan after Christchurch, Ben cried himself to sleep that night – after three weeks of being away, Dad wasn’t going to be around for another week. That was tough.”

But for every heart-wrenching story Mike has about not being there for his kids, there’s a positive one to follow.

“In 2009 I had to go to Gaza, where there was a pretty fierce battle going on. I sat the kids down and told them I had to go because innocent people were being killed, and if enough people got to hear about it, there might be a cease-fire. We’d only been there a couple of days when a cease-fire was announced. I rang home to tell the kids, and Ben was so excited, he said, ‘Well done Dad! You did it!'”

In fact, for someone who’s away so much, the devoted father is very clued-up about his kids’ thoughts and feelings. They, in turn, are clearly impressed with their dad. “Both kids have a wonderful sense of justice and compassion – Hilary [Barry] recently went to northern Kenya to report on the drought over there, and oaia organised a school fundraising day,”

Mike smiles proudly. “They dressed up in African outfits and together they raised $75, which is great.”

But while Mike’s family are hugely supportive of his job, it’s not always easy. “There have been times Paula has found it tough, as anyone would,” he says. “She’s amazing, though. She recognises what it means for me to do it and what a difference it makes to me personally to be in this line of work.”

He recalls her reaction when he had to leave yet another family holiday to go to Haiti when the earthquake struck there. “Paula wasn’t happy at all that night, but by the next morning she knew I had to go. often she just needs that space.” But, he says, on the whole, she gets it.

“I got caught in a massive riot in Pakistan once – the footage of me talking to camera with shots and tear gas going off behind me is played on TV3 quite a lot! And while a lot of journalists just got out of there, I rang Paula and she told me everyone was talking about it and that I should stay.

It made a huge difference to me, not just to get her thumbs up, but to get a thumbs up and a push in the back. It means a lot.”

But while Mike and Paula run a pretty tight ship and their modest Auckland house is spotless and well organised, he reckons their child management can be a bit chaotic. “oh, it’s shocking sometimes!” he laughs. “There have been crazy times. once Paula had to go away for a story and I was in Jerusalem, and I had to ring a taxi in Auckland to find out if they had a car seat so they could pick up the babysitter, who couldn’t drive, who could then go and get the kids from childcare!”

But despite the chaos, it’s clear Mike’s world revolves around his family, and it’s because of them that he worked so hard to make his book worthwhile.

“I don’t expect I’ll write many books, so I wanted this to be a good one,” he says. “The dedication is to Ben and oaia, because I thought about them a lot when I wrote it. other kids at school tell them when I’m somewhere dangerous and that I might get shot or something. I’m hoping that at some stage they will read the book and understand why I was away from home.”

And the career? Back on track, thankfully. “Writing the book, I revisited a lot of issues I’d tucked away and forgotten about for a reason,” he says. “There were afternoons I’d be sitting there in tears as I put it all together.

But what happened in Christchurch and writing this book reminded me that storytelling is a privilege, and although I’ve had moments recently of thinking ‘Is that it?’, I do a job that I love and one that needs to be done. I’m pretty lucky, really.”

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