by Helen Martin
Rochelle Gillespie had always had a hankering for a rural life and three years ago, after she found the perfect place online – a beautiful, 120-year old relocated house on a couple of acres – moved from Waiatarua to Helensville with husband John and their three school-age children. Local connections quickly formed through meeting the families of their children’s school mates and through Rochelle’s community involvement, which includes positions on the Kaipara College PTA, Helensville Women and Family Centre, the Kia Timata Ano Women’s Refuge and work for the Helensville District Health Trust.
For John, who is head of TVNZ’s News and Current Affairs, country living is the perfect antidote to the stresses and responsibilities of a high-powered urban job.
Raised in Christchurch, he and his siblings were encouraged to choose their own path although, John cautions, “Dad was a dentist and, with all the horror stories we heard, we weren’t going there”. Despite “sharing the performing gene” with his twin brother, sister and parents, John had always wanted to write. After moving to Australia and earning his way in a variety of odd jobs, he eventually opted to study journalism, mostly television-based, at Charles Sturt University in Sydney. Graduating with a BA, he worked in radio for a while before returning to Christchurch to take up a position as a journalist at Canterbury Television (CTV), an independent station which had just been established. In that job he met Rochelle “across a crowded newsroom” and worked his way up to the position of news editor.
In the 20 plus years John has worked in New Zealand television he has had many roles. When TVNZ bought out CTV he and Rochelle moved to Auckland, where she found work as a reporter for Independent Radio News, and he became a producer on the Breakfast Show, which began in 1997. Later, Rochelle was a weather presenter on Breakfast for two years.
John’s other jobs at TVNZ have included researcher and associate producer on the current affairs show Assignment, where he enjoyed working with and learning from the likes of Kerryanne Evans, Rob Harley and Rod Vaughan. He was also head of daily shows (e.g. Tonight, One News and Breakfast) and executive producer on Fair Go, a position he loved. “I worked on that show for five years with a very good team – they made the hard look easy. Kevin Milne was the presenter and doing stories about people preying on the vulnerable made me become quite cynical, but the show helped a lot of people. It still does. The great thing was that it was advocacy journalism - Kevin taught me you could take a stand.”
While his team gather and deliver content online and on air, as Head of News and Current Affairs John has overall responsibility for staff and programmes, with tasks that include making sure programmes are hitting their ratings targets and looking ahead at content and strategy. The big challenge for television news now is that the landscape, which was very straight forward when John began his career, has changed hugely in a short time and the competition with online news feeds is fierce. “I do have a sense that journalism is under siege, both here and around the world. Print and television are less popular than they were when I began my career. Because most people see or hear the news during the day the challenge is to make television’s presentation of it relevant.”
John loves his job. “Like most jobs it has its stresses, but there’s a buzz with news and producing it is a lot of fun. I like the team and I like the craft of visual storytelling; both the emotional and the intellectual sides of it. The audience needs to be able to trust that you’re fair and balanced too – I think that integrity is really precious. I don’t see a lesser place for journalism despite the efforts of Donald Trump and others to attack and discredit it. In New Zealand now there’s a greater distrust of institutions, including media, but I’m confident that the truth comes out.”
Away from the office John is a keen musician, playing guitar, banjo and ukulele, recently teaming up for regular jam sessions with local music guru Nick Roberts with their band The Hired Hand. As father of three busy kids his chauffeuring services are in hot demand (“they all want to go somewhere different”) and he spends as much time in the weekend in the garden as he can manage, enjoying the chance to relax among the plants.
John says he and his family have fallen on their feet coming to Helensville. “It’s an amazing community. The people are fantastic – open and honest and friendly. There’s something very real about living here. We’re very lucky.”