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Career

Three's Tova O'Brien on her dream career and what they really talk about in the press gallery

Tova O’Brien is living her career dream, leading Three’s all-female political team in parliament. She spills on reporting from Europe’s hot spots, landing in jail and what they really talk about in the press gallery.

It isn't easy finding Tova O'Brien. First, you have to get past numerous security guards and a metal detector. Then there's a rabbit-warren of corridors that lead deep into the Beehive which, on this sunny weekday, is a blur of red-eyed, over-caffeinated politicians and staff.
It's a different story in Newshub's loud, fun and laughter-filled press gallery office. This is girl power at its best – the first time in Three's history all three political reporters are female.
"They're brilliant women who are incredibly smart but also have a huge brain for politics," says Newshub political editor Tova of her staff – Jenna Lynch and Anna Bracewell-Worrall. She's not the only one who thinks so: last year retiring MP Chris Finlayson called the team "young, clever and classy".
While most of their office conversations pivot around politics, food is also a hot topic.
"We've started a Wellness whiteboard to help us eat better and have more balance in our lives," says Tova with the knowing laugh of someone whose workday usually runs from 7am-7pm, and whose evenings are spent attending parliamentary functions and chasing down politicians and press secretaries.
"This job can be exhausting but it's also hugely exciting," admits the 37-year-old. "Everything comes back to this place, because what goes on here affects every New Zealander. Real change can be effected from this building, but politicians, who are paid by the taxpayer, need to be called out on what they're doing or not doing to make that happen."
Tova is tall and elegant, with the kind of frame that's perfect for the Kate Sylvester dresses she favours. But it's not her wardrobe she wants to talk about. The self-confessed political geek is fizzing about the 2020 election, her first as political editor.
"Leading a team of women I admire and respect is going to be awesome. We'll relocate to Auckland and follow politicians around the country on the campaign trail. It's going to be long days and very little sleep, but I can't wait!"
Tova at the Beehive, where she heads up Newshub's political team.

Trial and error

It's fair to say Tova has had a good few years. In 2015, she was shoulder-tapped to cover the trial of controversial Kiwi cricketer Chris Cairns, who was accused of match-fixing. It meant relocating to London for two months, which not only meant a career coup but it also allowed Tova to spend more time with her English grandmother who was terminally ill.
"I would be at court all day and then catch the train to visit her. I was also fortunate enough to be there for her funeral and to comfort my mother who's lived in London for 18 years."
Things didn't run so smoothly on the professional front, though, with Tova getting arrested for filming in a restricted area outside the courthouse. "Neither my camera operator nor I thought we were breaking the law by putting a GoPro outside the main filming area. It was a genuine mistake but the police turned up, arrested me and put me in a cell."
What was even more mortifying was the outfit Tova was wearing that day. "It was the biggest day of the trial and I wanted to look my best so I wore a pink, short dress. I didn't imagine I'd be wearing it in a prison cell!" Her mother bailed her out of jail and Tova was eventually given a telling off by a judge. But ever the consummate professional, she didn't miss a deadline, using notes kindly donated by fellow Kiwi journalists to file her live reports. Tova obviously impressed because a year later, when the coveted Europe correspondent role came up, she was a shoo-in.
Sipping a coffee (black, no sugar), she admits it was a tumultuous time to be in Europe: during her stint she covered everything from the Brexit vote and the Grenfell Tower fire to terrorist attacks in Brussels, the UK, Barcelona and Nice.
"It was horrible because at one stage, I was covering so many terror attacks, it was becoming the new normal. I can remember reporting from Barcelona, where someone drove a van into pedestrians, killing 14, and looking down to see that I was standing in a pool of blood. You never get desensitised to something like that."

Tova’s music man

Interviewing celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston ("a total professional who gives perfect sound-bites"), Dame Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, along with a revolving cast of sportspeople, was much easier.
Tova might still be there, had the political editor's job not come up when her former boss, Patrick Gower, moved on. "This is the only job I'd have moved back to New Zealand for. I still miss London."
At every step of the way, Tova has been supported by husband Nathan (Nato) Hickey, 40, a musician and TV editor. The pair met in a Wellington bar in 2006 when Tova briefly returned from the UK, where she was working in hospitality. "Nato was on a date but he abandoned her to come and talk to me!" The pair quickly became friends, then something more, and had a long-distance relationship for six months.
"I came back to Wellington to be with him and we've been together ever since." They got married in 2016 in London, so her husband could get a UK visa. "I never thought I'd get married but we had to so Nato could join me in the UK."
The couple rents an apartment in Oriental Bay with enviable views across the harbour, but are currently looking to buy their first house. "We're desperate to get a dog so we want our own place," says Tova, showing me her Instagram feed, which is filled with rescue dogs she'd love to adopt.
Rare downtime is spent walking, eating out and going to gigs, especially to see Nato's band Beastwars ("They were nominated for two Vodafone NZ Music Awards last year," she says proudly). Although she does cook, Tova claims it isn't a strength. "I do, however, make a mean paella from an Ottolenghi recipe."
Tova was born in Papua New Guinea, where her British journalist mother met her Kiwi dad, a helicopter pilot. They moved to New Zealand when Tova was six months old and separated when she was three. She was raised by her lesbian mother in Wellington, and had a "really happy childhood".

Turning point

"But I was a bit of a ratbag at school because I struggle with rules, especially arbitrary ones like how you should wear your uniform."
She started, but didn't finish, a psychology and film degree at Otago University and spent the next few years ping-ponging around the world, including to Melbourne and London where she managed restaurants and bars. It was in 2006, while making coffee at a Wellington cafe, that Tova had a light-bulb moment. "I realised all the things that were important to me – people, storytelling and righting injustices – coalesced in journalism."
She completed a journalism qualification at Massey University and was working at Radio Active when she called a friend of a friend at Three to ask if she could check out the newsroom.
"But they thought I was calling about a job that was going, so I ended up being interviewed for it."
Tova started on the assignments desk, quickly moving into reporting for various breakfast and late-night news programmes.
Having learned over time to ignore critics ("the block function on Twitter is my friend!"), she reckons she'll hang around the press gallery for at least the next two elections.
"I'm not sure what I'll do after that, because where do you go when you've done your dream job?"

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