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Pam Corkery’s brave return ‘Why I came out of hiding’

The straight-talking Kiwi believed the time was right to hang with a gang once more

For decades, popular journalist and broadcaster Pam Corkery was on our screens, talking on our radios or in Parliament.

But in recent years, New Zealand has been Corkery-free since the 66-year-old took herself off to Brisbane, Australia and found other things to occupy her. Yet that hasn’t stopped her maintaining a keen interest in our current affairs and keeping abreast of everything that has been happening in her home country.

Which is why she is back on our screens after 14 years. In 2008, she did a two-part documentary called The Gangs, which gained her unprecedented access to gang life. She has returned to the topic after feeling concerned that gangs were increasingly in the media.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading and seeing about the gangs in New Zealand,” says Pam. “So much had changed since our documentary and instead of decreasing in numbers, there were more gangs than ever.

“I thought, ‘This is nuts. We’re going through the whole gang drama again.'”

She rang her friend Laurie Clarke, who was the producer and director of those first documentaries, and suggested it might be time they took another look.

The result, The Gangs… 14 Years Later, is full of new information around what’s going on in our gang culture, much of which we haven’t heard about.

Gang members gave Pam unique access to their world.

“We get into the corruption going on inside the gangs,” she explains. “We’re talking white-collar corruption involving real estate agents, lawyers and accountants, and then the other countries coming into this country’s gang culture. It’s terrifying.

“Customs told us that we’ve got to get over this belief that New Zealand is not corrupt. Because there are real estate agents washing money here. An accountant went down for a couple of years for helping a gang. Any drug that comes into New Zealand has been aided by people no one will ever see.

“I felt like a virgin who’s never had a drink when I did the documentary this time around. I was constantly saying, ‘Oh, my God!'”

Pam’s trademark humour has made her a huge hit with fans in New Zealand, and it’s also possibly a factor in the acceptance and unique access she got to various gang members for her two-part documentary.

While some people she interviewed chose to hide their identity, most were happy to trust her to tell their story and face up to her in front of the cameras.

So how did she secure their trust?

“Mum said to me once, ‘Whoever you’re talking to, think to yourself, I wonder what it’s like to be them?’ and that’s really the end of the story.

“I don’t promise anything. I just go and listen,” tells Pam. “And also, I’m not a patsy interviewer around this. I’ll take the p*** if they say some-thing stupid.

“I did refuse to eat kina at one event when it was pretty obvious that I was expected to and it had been put out specially forme, but I said it was a line too far.”

There’s also the fact that Pam is not a tall woman and is often dwarfed by the massive male gang members she’s interviewing. Was she ever scared?

“I was afraid once when we went to a Mongrel Mob headquarters in Porirua,” she reveals, “and there’s two men in the car, the producer and the camera guy, and we couldn’t see if anyone was there and we realised that someone was going to have to go in – and they were both looking at me.

“So there I am running inside with all these bulldogs barking at me, so that freaked me out.

“But I wasn’t really scared at all because a lot of people think they’re going to see the devil when they meet with gangs, but they’ve got no horns. A lot of them are very poor and they’ve had difficult lives.”

Pam says the gang members she talked to were easier to interview than the police.

“There’s no jargon. They say, ‘I’ve agreed to this interview, here we go.’ They’ll tell us about having been in prison and everything, but they won’t tell me about crimes they might be doing this week. They are refreshingly open and many of them are very eloquent, well read and have a great vocabulary.”

Pam says that her age and being a woman helped too.

“The nice part about being a wee bit older is that you get automatic respect from many of the indigenous gangs who are Māori or Pasifika,” she says. “The politeness overwhelms you.”

Her empathy and kindness also helps as an interviewer.

When one gang member breaks down and cries, she quickly apologises, and gently reaches over to rub his arm and comfort him as he talks. The man was sent to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands because his parents thought it would be better for him.

Go-getter Pam’s keeping up her radio work, while also trying her hand at fiction.

“He was bounced around four different homes, treated terribly and he got a prison leg because he sought out other wayward kids like him for company. He said to me, ‘How am I going to get a job now?’ He thinks about suicide every day.”

Pam also caught up with gang members she had interviewed 14 years ago when they were just teenagers, and she helps viewers realise that many of these young men end up in prison over and over again. For many, it’s the first time they’ve had regular meals, a bed to themselves and a TV in their rooms.

“There are so many young kids being patched up, and then there are those who have had such a terrible start in life, sometimes due to the terrible treatment of them by the State as teenagers, that they are simply looking for fellowship. Pure and simple.”

Pam’s own life has had its ups and downs. She has talked openly about her addiction issues, has now been clean for 13 years and does some work in this area alongside her partner Kerry Fraser, who is an addiction counsellor.

For a while, Pam made easy headlines with her decision to open up a brothel named Pammy’s for women in 2010, and then working as a press secretary for Laila Harré and Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party

in the 2014 election.

After that, Pam found that in New Zealand, she was unemployable. “It possibly wasn’t the wisest thing to get involved with Kim Dotcom’s party,” she admits, “because after that I couldn’t get any work. I was blanked.”

Getting involved with Kim Dotcom’s party brought trouble for Pam.

Ten years ago, Pam and Kerry made the decision to move to Australia, where they’ve found not only work, but also happiness. “Recovery has taught me how to give and receive love. I was always very self-protective and not very giving. And it’s really nice,” says Pam. “Kerry and I have lots of laughs, and we work with the principle of ‘just for today’.

“The worst we get to is my bloke will say to me, ‘Pam, for just one day get lost!'” she laughs. “We’re mates, good mates and it’s great.”

When Pam made the decision to come back to New Zealand to make these documentaries, she says it was great to get back on the road again, but admits it was tough.

“It was really tiring and with Covid, it took a long time to get people and work around all those lockdowns,” she says.

When the Weekly talks with Pam, she’s in Aotearoa briefly to chat about the documentaries and she’s staying with an old friend who has cancer. It’s typical of Pam that she would combine talking about her work and caring for a friend in the one visit.

Back in Brisbane, Pam keeps up her work as a foreign correspondent, not just for our national radio station RNZ, but also for many news sources internationally. And she’s enjoying finding time for her own writing.

Pam and Kerry couldn’t be happier. “We work with the principle of ‘just for today’.”

“With my writing, I’m shifting from fact to writing fictional pieces like screenplays. I’ve had to work really hard on freeing that imagination!”

While she’ll never give up working, Pam likes to be able to cherry-pick things that interest her. She thinks there’s another good documentary in our prison system, for instance.

As someone who has worked as an MP in government and now made four documentaries about gangs, Pam might have a few ideas about what our country needs to fix the gang problem, especially during the election cycle this year when the matter will emerge as an issue.

In the final documentary, she says that gangs are here to stay and we need to find ways to minimise the harm they cause, “while addressing the core reasons for why they exist and flourish. The poverty, unemployment, inequality particularly among Māori and Pasifika. Only by doing that will we see meaningful change.”

Pam believes these are problems that go back so far in our culture, like abuse in care during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, which her documentaries look at.

“It’s an old Tory trick – National always wheels out the gangs and wants to put them in manacles, that sort of backward thinking,” she says. “But when I was interviewing one gangster, he started saying ‘just for today’ and using all this recovery language. Turns out he had been clean for eight months and seven days, so they are working on themselves.

“Obviously, there’s crime involved, but when you look at the average wage in some of our poorest areas, they are getting barely $20,000 a year. What can we expect from them?”

Pam says it comes down to people who don’t feel part of us.

“And they make that point by wearing very loud jackets that everyone can see. But the real criminals arguably are walking up and down the street and we don’t recognise them.”

The Gangs… 14 Years Later is available to watch on ThreeNow.

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