Celebrating 50 years of the 6pm news with Wendy Petrie and Simon Dallow

For Simon and Wendy, who are about to celebrate 14 years on screen together, the news is everything.
Simon Dallow and Wendy Petrie

When 1 News hosts Simon Dallow and Wendy Petrie say the news never stops, they really mean it – but it’s not often they find themselves at the epicentre of it.

As the Weekly catches up with the dynamic duo to mark the 50th anniversary of network news in New Zealand, the pair are reeling from two of the biggest news stories to break in recent weeks – the potential sale of TV rivals MediaWorks, and the devastating SkyCity fire that interrupted transmission of TVNZ One programming.

Slightly out of breath with a strong whiff of smoke trailing behind her, the ever-composed Wendy is a touch late for our chat, forced to hurry across town on foot after car access to the TVNZ building was blocked.

“It’s been a bit of a dramatic afternoon!” she exclaims.

“The news is right in our backyard at the moment, isn’t it!”

Despite the drama, it’s clear that for the ever-enduring Simon and Wendy, who are about to celebrate 14 years on screen together, the news is everything.

“You’re constantly looking forward,” nods Simon (55).

“We feel a huge sense of responsibility − it’s a privilege to bring people the news and you always want to get it right.”

Simon and Wendy say to do their job they need to, and do, have the utmost trust in one another.

Times have certainly changed since the inaugural network news bulletin was broadcast on November 3, 1969.

Fronted by the legendary Dougal Stevenson for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, it was the first time Aotearoa had one centralised news bulletin.

The need for one had been highlighted a year previously when bureaus in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin struggled to obtain footage of the Wahine ferry disaster due to the cyclone that caused the tragedy.

In those days news time was family time, both Simon and Wendy remember.

Only five years old when that first show aired, watching the programme with his dad kick-started Simon’s life-long obsession with current events.

“My father was, and still is to this day, a dedicated watcher of the six o’clock news,” says Simon, adding that watching the evening bulletin with dad and former police officer Ross was a daily highlight during his years growing up in Auckland.

“He worked a lot of shift work, but when he was home six o’clock was the news. It’s one of my earliest memories.”

He continues, “Dougal Stevenson was my news idol when I was a kid – he was the man! And, he was literally the man reading the news.”

For Wendy (48), catching the programme had to work around her sport practices, but just like Simon, it was an opportunity to connect with her family.

“Like most New Zealand households, it was the thing to do – sit down and watch the news as a family each night. I was quite sporty, I was often not around, but when I was, I loved watching the 6pm news. It was just one of those things that we did; it was a great way to come together as a family unit.”

From these typical Kiwi childhood experiences to now, decades later, Simon and Wendy have become one of the nation’s most-loved presenting pairs.

From fresh-faced rookies chucked together for the first time the same day they read their first bulletin to today, they enjoy a great friendship and a tight bond, having supported each other through all manner of personal and professional highs and lows.

“It’s like a dysfunctional old marriage,” jokes Simon. “And I say that with the greatest respect! We know how each other will react. We know

each other’s strengths and weaknesses, I think.

“The best thing about working with Wendy is that she’s always upbeat − she’s never down, she’s such a happy person and she has a very positive effect on everyone.”

Adds Wendy, “Yeah, we sense what each other’s going to do in the chair before the other one does it – I might think, ‘Oh, I’m reading this story’, and actually Simon’s supposed to be. But he’ll know from the way I’m sitting in the chair or the way that I’m breathing that I think it’s me! You definitely need to have trust in each other in this job.”

Simon and Wendy debuted as on-air presenters back in 2006.

Both Simon and Wendy remember huge nerves before their on-air debut – although Simon’s memories primarily centre around the fact that he and Wendy were both wearing pinstripes, and the ensuing panic when producers realised it was probably a bit much.

“It’s a very shallow memory!” he laughs.

“Suddenly every-one’s in a fluster… and I can’t even remember if one of us changed! I remember my first day at TVNZ far better – I started as a newsreader on TV2’s Newsnight, a Marcus Lush-driven vehicle. I was so nervous. And then, in 2003, half a dozen of us were let go – Richard Long, me, Jim Hickey left of his own accord, and Mike Hosking left for the first time. If you haven’t left TVNZ, you haven’t really been there!”

It was in 2006 that Simon and Wendy were matched after Mother of the Nation Judy Bailey left the network. Both admit they were terrified about taking over from the much-loved presenter.

“I remember walking past Judy for the first time and I was almost tiptoeing,” tells Wendy with a smile.

“And, oh God, more than that, I remember once when I was filling in for her and driving into her carpark. It had a sign on it – ‘1 News Presenter’, and that was almost enough for me to reverse straight back out and drive home! That was a big moment for me.”

Adds Simon, “Judy’s shoes were enormous, and they still cast a huge shadow, if I can mix my metaphors! She’s a wonderful woman.”

To top that all off, Wendy had just given birth to her second child, Olivia, only five weeks previously.

“But I just knew that this was something I had to do,” she says of taking up the job.

“It was a big commitment, sure, but it was also an incredible opportunity that I couldn’t miss.”

For Simon, presenting the news wasn’t plan A – or even plan B. Before embarking on the traditional OE, he started his professional life as a lawyer and was part of the legal team that helped create TV3.

“Which is why I have very, very strong empathy for those guys,” he says of his colleagues across the channels, who are facing uncertainty due to the proposed sale, or potential closure, of MediaWorks’ TV arm.

“I feel a lot of connection to TV3. I wrote part of its original programming strategy, parts of the essence of its DNA in the beginning. It has risen before; I’m confident it will rise again. Although, with the changing nature of broadcasting and proliferation of platforms, it is a bigger challenge.”

Before embarking on a career in media Simon trained as a lawyer.

This is a sentiment Wendy echoes, adding that many members of the public don’t realise that while they’re competitors, everyone’s mates, no matter which network you work for.

And there have been many instances of the two channels lending a hand when covering big overseas stories – such as when Newshub presenter Mike McRoberts fashioned her a “makeshift umbrella” so she could finish her live cross when reporting from Gallipoli, Turkey, in 2015.

“When we catch up after the news is over it’s, ‘See you for dinner later; what restaurant are we going to catch up in?’

“It’s such a small industry, everyone knows everyone. As much as we’re rivals, we’re also great friends. I really, really feel for them. It’s horrible for every-one. We like the competition!”

Of course these days, the way we watch the news has changed dramatically – on smartphones or other devices, and from places such as buses and trains.

What hasn’t changed for the dynamic duo is their passion for presenting, and it’s responding to breaking news stories that really fire Simon and Wendy up but also cause them the most heartache.

Christchurch on March 15 − we had all sat down for our 2pm meeting, and we’d had initial reports of multiple shots fired in Christchurch,” remembers Simon.

“Over the next four minutes, more and more people are coming up to us and saying at least four people were dead.

“I went off to make-up, and 10 minutes later we were on air. I didn’t have any idea of the scale of it, none whatsoever. I was learning about it as it was happening, live. That’s my preferred scenario, really, to encounter something that’s live and reactive. When things hit the fan you work around the clock as necessary.

“I was on air for five hours, live, without a break. Five minutes after I came off air [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern confirmed the number of dead. And you’re going, ‘What has happened?’

“You know, when there’s an earthquake, a natural tragedy, you can kind of make sense of it because you know we can’t control it. It’s the stories of human evil that go beyond our understanding of humanity, they leave us asking, ‘How the hell did we get here?'”

For Wendy the news presenting role was “an incredible opportunity that I couldn’t miss”

But no matter the horror of the subject matter they’re reporting on, the pair maintain their job is to deliver the news as dispassionately as possible, which, they both admit, can be immensely tough.

“It’s our job to give the nation perspective and clarity, and what the news means for New Zealanders,” says Wendy.

“It’s a big responsibility − there are so many stories that are one-sided on social media now. That’s why the six o’clock news is more important than ever, with people getting a barrage of social media content and trying to make sense of it, especially young people.”

And for the record, New Zealand, Simon and Wendy don’t just turn up to present the news, as they’re so often asked – nor do they memorise the entire script of a bulletin. And yes, it’s definitely live!

“Those are definitely the common misconceptions,” Wendy grins. “I wish I just turned up 5.30pm!”

Simon laughs and tells, “We’re in the office working from about 1.30pm – we have a big team meeting at 2pm with everyone. Our afternoons are all-go from then.”

Oh, and there’s one more set secret, Wendy reveals, that tends to shock people when they see her out and about – her hair!

“It’s just one of those funny little things, but I have very curly, sort of sheep-like hair,” she admits with a laugh.

“I feel very sorry for the make-up team every day when I wander in with my mop and they have to do something with it to make me look half decent!”

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