Many New Zealanders warmed to Carol Hirschfeld when she began presenting the TV3 News with John Campbell nearly 20 years ago. But her media experience encompasses a good deal more than that. Her career started after a degree in English at Auckland University, followed by the short, sharp journalism training course that ATI (now AUT) used to provide.
That led to work as a cadet reporter, initially in Taupō, for Radio New Zealand — and then sub-editing for the Auckland Star and TVNZ. Through the years, she has reported, fronted, directed or produced a number of TV programmes, mostly current affairs, including riding herd on Campbell Live for four years.
Then there was her switch to the Māori Television Service (MTS) as the head of programming until, just over a year ago, she went back to RNZ again — this time as the Head of Content.
It has its challenges, as she tells Dale Husband. But, in her case, it’s not for want of a thorough apprenticeship in the media.
My father is an Australian who came to New Zealand in the mid-1950s. His people were wheat farmers from South Australia. His grandfather was from a Prussian line, and his grandmother was a Geista. Originally her people were from Bavaria. Very German.
My great-grandfather and great-grandmother moved to Western Australia where my father was born. He was born Karl Hirschfeld, but the story goes that they misheard his name and he was registered as Charl Hirschfeld.
Hirschfeld is really a German-Jewish name, as I understand — and it means “deer field”. We get our surname and our height from that Prussian-German side of the family. Dad is 85 this year. Still living independently.
He met my mum, a wonderful Ngāti Porou princess, in Otahuhu. Pretty much, once they met, that was that. They were married for 17 years until, sadly, my mother died prematurely at the age of 36 of a cerebral haemorrhage.
Dad tells a lovely story about seeking my mum’s hand in marriage in 1956. That meant taking the bus to Rangitukia on the East Coast where my mum was born and where her mother was. As with many older people, Dad’s early memories have become more vivid as time goes on. And I find that, when we ask him to tell the story of going to Rangitukia, he comes up with more and more detail as he gets older. So my sister (Linda) and brother (Charl) and I find it fascinating talking to him about that early contact with our extended whānau.
And your mum? And your people in Rangitukia? I’m assuming that some of them are still there.
They are. My grandma was a Kaa. She was the eldest of her line in the Kaa whānau. My mother was the eldest as well — and her father was a Takoko. But he died when he was only 26. In a car accident. So my grandma was a solo parent for a while. Then she remarried.
Mum left the Coast when she was only 15. She must’ve been an extraordinarily resilient person. She came out of a community where she wouldn’t have spoken much English at that time. This was probably the late 1940s and just going into the 50s. And she moved to Wellington and got herself a job.
Eventually, she moved to Auckland. She was part of that urban drift where Māori were leaving traditional communities and trying their luck in the city. I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage she had — having to establish herself in different communities, in different cities, and among people where she was a minority. It amazes me.
Losing your mum when you were only 10 must’ve been hard to cope with.
For any child losing a parent when they’re young, the hardest thing is the idea or concept of mortality. Obviously, it changes your childhood because this is one of the greatest lessons of life. You learn that life means you’ll lose somebody you love. But, when I look back, I can see that, as a child, you tend to just move through the situation.
I found it difficult in my 20s though. I really missed my mother. I think it’s because, as you’re going into adulthood, not having somebody who can be your navigator is tremendously tough. I’ve got two kids. My son is nearly 21, my daughter is 15. I feel incredibly lucky to be a mum. And I remember, when my daughter was born, I felt it was wonderful to be a mother of a daughter. Having lost my mum, I’d somehow felt the circle had been completed.
I wanted to have an extremely close relationship with my girl. Of course, it’s wonderful to have my boy as well. But it was something quite special to have that mother-daughter relationship in my life again.
I’m really lucky though. I have a sister who’s only 17 months older than me. And, in some ways, we became each other’s mother. And not having a mum meant we were very, very close.
And a word about your two children?
Our son, Will, is going back to university. My husband, Finlay Macdonald, is a journalist as well, but no matter how much we’ve tried to dissuade Will away from the media world, he’s very much interested in going there. And he’s going to finish a Bachelor of Communications at uni this year. Our daughter, Rosa, is Year 11 at Western Springs College. It’s an interesting time of life for us — and I’m being highly challenged as the mother of a teenage girl. But it’s a fantastic journey.
Now, let’s turn to Indonesia where I know you’ve spent some time. I’ve been touched on occasions by their gentle ways. And at other times I’ve been taken aback by their not so gentle ways. I wonder how the country and the people influenced the type of person you’ve become.
I think that Indonesian experience, as a 14-year-old, had a huge effect on me. After my mum died, my dad was casting around for something different, and he eventually got a job as an electrical engineer in Indonesia — and he decided to take me and my sister with him.
My brother was at university, so he stayed behind in New Zealand. But this was 1977, and my sister and I were coming out of the suburbs of Auckland. We knew nothing about Indonesia or the culture. We’d been in a closed, little world.
I can remember stepping off the plane in Bali and going through extreme culture shock. That lasted for about a year. Not speaking the language. Absolutely everything different. And we lived off the beaten track because we were on Sulawesi, an island next to Java.
In the city where we were living, there were something like a million people — and we were part of a tiny, tiny expatriate community of only 200 people. I found it overwhelming to begin with. My sister and I were brown-skinned, with black hair and very tall. So a lot of Indonesians assumed that we were part-Dutch, part-Indonesian. They found us interesting, and they were very welcoming to us.
I did learn some Indonesian while I was there, and I eventually took the language at university here in Auckland. So I kept it up for a while. My father eventually married a Javanese woman and that meant the language stayed alive at home, which was fantastic.
When you travel as a teenager and you’re thrust into these unusual situations, it can’t help but have a major effect on you. For me, it opened my eyes to the wider world — and to travel, which I loved then and continue to love. After a year of living there, I fell in love with Asia. And with the tropics. It was a fascinating experience.
How did your dad manage to foster your sense of Māori identity? Did he make an effort to ensure that your taha Māori was nurtured?
Dad did it for us by keeping a close relationship with my Aunty Kura, my mum’s sister, because my mum and Kura were extremely close. But what was fascinating about my father, a white Australian, is that he grew up with virtually no brown people around him at all. And, for some reason, as a result of that, he grew up without any sense of discrimination. He just didn’t see a person’s colour. And he continues to have an openness to different cultures that I don’t see in many people. So one of the ways he’s fostered our taha Māori in us was by being open. He sees people as people.
Sadly, Kura isn’t with us now. But she was a wonderful woman and we were really close to her. We’re still close with our cousins too. Karen Fox, a Land Court judge in Gisborne, is one of our cousins.
Let’s turn to the media — and to what drew you to that world. For instance, who influenced you to take that path?
My greatest mentor has been my father. And I guess one of the reasons I wanted to become a journalist was that my dad would come in at the end of the day, and he’d devour the newspaper. He’d read it from cover to cover. For him, news was, and continues to be, a really important part of his life. It’s how he makes sense of the world. It’s what informs him to make the decisions he makes.
When I saw that as a child, I thought: “I want to be a part of that world.” I could see the significant role that journalists have in helping ordinary, everyday citizens make decisions about their lives. And I came to realise that clear, independent information is needed for a functioning democracy. So, he sparked my interest.
Along the way there were various writers who impressed me. One in particular, was Tony Reid, a feature writer and a former editor of the Listener. He was a wonderful writer and I feel privileged now to count him as a friend.
There were other influences too, such as doing English at university and, before that, at a high school in Australia, having an English teacher throw a copy of Rolling Stone to me and urge me to read this “new kind of journalism” and this “new kind of voice”.
Your husband Finlay Macdonald is an accomplished writer — and I get the impression that he has a better handle than most journalists on the inter-cultural dynamics in New Zealand. Is that your impression too?
Yes. I think you’re right. He has what I’d describe as a very muscular intellect. To my mind, he’s one of New Zealand’s very few public intellectuals, if that doesn’t sound too high-falutin. He cares a great deal about the way that we, as a people, are striving to find our identity and what makes us a country, a nation with diversity and unity. These are issues that interest him. And he articulates his views and the contradictions really well.
You’ve held a number of important positions in television, and now you’re playing a significant role in Radio New Zealand. So you’ve been able to gauge the development of Māori broadcasting, pretty well from its infancy. What do you see as the biggest challenge for Māori in the media?
I think the biggest challenge is to have that Māori voice in mainstream media organisations. And one of my concerns, since I came to Radio New Zealand a year ago, has been how to integrate an informed Māori viewpoint into the fabric of our news. I want it centre and forefront in our bulletins all through the day, and on our website, rather than it being off to one side.
We need to make sure that we have young, well-trained, Māori journalists coming through — and being encouraged all the way through. It’s a big challenge. I can see that, here at Radio New Zealand, we’ve got a long way to go. We need greater diversity all through the organisation. And, at management level, the onus is on us to make that a reality.
Before you switched to RNZ, you worked at Māori Television. So I imagine there were some positives from that experience.
Huge positives, some of them simply by working alongside so many young Māori. It was a huge education for me. I guess that, having lost my mum when I was young and then burying myself in a mainstream media career, I hadn’t experienced a lot of te ao Māori — and working at Māori TV gave me that opportunity. So I saw a complexity in Māoridom that I hadn’t seen before. And I saw, most importantly and really starkly, how mainstream media failed to represent Māori perspectives at all well.
To be honest, Dale, It was a shock. I’d sat somewhere else for a long time. And I’d had a different viewpoint because of where I was positioned. But my time at MTS changed the way I thought about things. And it certainly changed my attitude about how I want to operate in a mainstream situation now.
Do you think that your work at MTS and now at RNZ has affected the priorities of Will and Rosa? Perhaps they too will be concerned about how Māori and other Polynesian people are represented in the media. And maybe their strong taha Māori gives you some reason to feel optimistic about the future.
Absolutely. My son and my daughter take a lot of pride in being Māori. They grew up in our household where that wasn’t strongly emphasised, but then it became a focus when I was at Māori Television. My experience there has shaped their perceptions of me and of themselves as well. And I’m excited to think that they’ll take that pride in being Māori into whatever spheres they work in.
Neither of them speak the reo, I’m ashamed to say. Like their mother. But what I do love is that they have a huge openness to what makes them who they are, and where they‘ve descended from. I think it’s exciting to contemplate where they’re going to go in their lives with that.
And where is Carol Hirschfeld heading with her life?
One of the things I’m hoping to do is get back to AUT and keep going with my reo lessons. I managed to complete one paper when I was at Māori Television. I’m looking forward now to moving on to my second paper. It’s tricky though. The job I’m doing is a big job. And I’m loving it. But I guess what really excites me about it, is how public broadcasting is changing.
The challenge is how my colleagues and I can engage with as many New Zealanders as possible using the new tools and technologies that we have available. It’s a fascinating situation. And you’d know from your own experience that, when you don’t have all the money in the world to do what you’re doing, it often makes you creative. Having to think strategically about how we can make that connection with New Zealanders excites me a great deal. Where I’m working now is a good place to be — and I really do love the mission in front of us.
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