Simon Dallow

Simon Dallow

Kia ora, Simon. A great many New Zealanders have got to know you because of all the years you’ve been on television, letting them know what’s in the news each day. But I doubt if too many of the viewers are aware that, although your whakapapa is mainly British, there are whakapapa Māori links as well.

Kia ora, Dale. I didn’t find out about that for many years. In fact, I was about 20 when I first heard. And I learned of the connection when there was a phone call to an overnight talkback show. The caller was Nan Payne (who turned out to be a cousin). She’d been told by a dying relative that Ernie Asher, who was from a very prominent Māori family, had a missing family. And she was given a deathbed commission to find them. So Nan put a call into a talkback radio show. And then an anonymous caller left a message saying she should contact my dad. And that’s when the connection began.

So it turned out that I was not just English and Scottish by background, but also Māori and Jewish.

That’s quite a story. What was the reaction in your family when you found out about that whakapapa?

I remember we were quite excited. But it was particularly important to Dad. He’d never known his mother’s family, but had always suspected they were Māori. And finally he had confirmation. Our family had lost track of the Asher connections because my dad’s mother (Doreen Maxwell) had been adopted, and so had her mum.

And that seemed to conveniently hide the truth.

Doreen’s mother (Ida) had an affair with a much younger Ernie Asher (he was 16), and their child was a scandal that adoption masked. But Dad and his brothers had actually met their grandfather a number of times. Doreen would regularly take them into town for a haircut — and the person cutting their hair was their grandfather, Ernie, even though the relationship was never mentioned. It seems as if it was intentionally suppressed.

Understanding your heritage and whakapapa can be very moving. All of us want a sense of belonging, and gaining that knowledge is grounding and reassuring. But it can also be intimidating. You feel a bit like an impostor and not quite the real deal.

We made some connections and discovered a bit more. And then, about 10 years ago, I was approached to make a documentary about my journey of discovery. (It was called The Missing Piece and screened on TV1 in November 2011.) We researched historical documents and Native Land Court titles, visited historic sites and cemeteries, discovering new things all the way. My tūpuna, Rahera te Kahuhiapo, was a central figure, and her story eventually led me to Ngāti Pūkenga and her namesake, Rahera Ohia, who I still consider my spiritual guide and mentor.

It was an amazing, life-changing experience, eventually culminating in the extended Dallow family being welcomed on to Te Whetu o Te Rangi marae in Welcome Bay in Tauranga and becoming part of Ngāti Pūkenga ki Tauranga. I still try to get there at least every year for iwi events and occasions.

I remember a kaumātua wanted me to kōrero on the marae, but I just didn’t have the confidence. Nor the skills. I still feel that acutely. He passed away a year ago but I remember his words — and it’s still there as a challenge for me.

I’d always been interested in te ao Māori. I tried to teach myself te reo when I was in primary school. (Yes, I was a strange child, in hindsight!) I couldn’t understand why, as a New Zealander, you wouldn’t be interested in this unique part of our heritage.

Well, because of my links with rugby league — firstly through my grandfather Steve Watene, who captained the Kiwis — I’ve been very aware of the Asher whānau. Especially George and Ernie Asher who played a big part in establishing Māori rugby league.

It’s fascinating to hear that because I thought they were a very little-known story. But there was, of course, also Opai Asher who was the best known of the Asher brothers. He was an All Black and a Kiwi as well. And he got his nickname from a famous steeplechaser because he used to beat tacklers by jumping over them.

Now, what about your more immediate whānau? Like your dad, Ross Dallow. That name rings a bell for me. What has been his line of work?

Dad was a cop. He was a policeman for most of his career until he retired and then became a Waitakere City councillor. He was a policeman through and through, but also an athlete. Shot put and discus, mainly. I grew up around athletic tracks with my brother and sisters. And the sandpits we played in for many years were long jump pits.

But dad was a thrower. He threw against Les Mills and Robin Tait, who were two of the great names in New Zealand athletics. So these people were a couple of the constants in my life from an early age. Dad did a lot of weightlifting too. He was a big guy — a commanding and almost intimidating presence.

Mum was Denise (Goomes). She grew up in Southland and joined the navy, before meeting Dad at an inter-services athletics event. She was a traditional mum until my brother, the youngest of us four kids, started school. She looked after us and did an amazing job. While Dad was off saving the world from crime and injustice, she was the spine of the family, always seeming to be there and providing a loving and stable home life. She passed away about five years ago, but Dad’s still going strong.

I’m number two in our lineup. I’ve got an older sister (a year older than me) and then there’s a five-year gap to another brother and sister just over a year apart. I was born in Rotorua. But we mostly grew up here in Auckland. I went to St Peter’s College and Liston College.

Were you into sports at school?

I was a bit of a journeyman sportsman. Played some rep rugby at grade level and rep athletics. Number 8, mainly. I came up against Zinzan Brooke and Michael Jones at under-21 level, and realised I simply couldn’t cut it at their level. So the tall, skinny number 8 became a tall, skinny centre/fullback instead, playing for the love of the game until I was 40.

In those school years, sport was everything. It was the whole reason to exist really. You lived for Saturdays. I think, for a lot of kids, particularly ones out our way in West Auckland, sport was what kept them on the straight and narrow. Dad had a habit of taking in some strays that he might’ve encountered in his police duties, and getting them in to athletics. There were a couple of great success stories — kids who turned around. One of them is now running Adidas America.

You mentioned Les Mills and Robin Tait, two of our great athletes. Did you pick up much from them?

Didn’t see a lot of Les in the social sense. But Robin was very much a constant at our house. He was a bit of a lost soul. What I saw in these guys was the competitive instinct. You had to win. Leave nothing on the track. Leave nothing on the court. You put it all out there. So I find it hard to subscribe to the theory that sport is all about participation. It may be part of the Olympic ethos, but the reality is, you play sport to win. And do your best. But you’ve also got to learn humility and grace — and how to deal with defeat.

Moving on to tertiary education. I see that you turned to law long before broadcasting.

Initially, I wanted to be a pilot. My second week of school was when man landed on the moon. I still remember that as a very inspirational moment. And, probably like so many other kids, I thought: “Oh, I’d love to be an astronaut.” I kind of followed that right through until secondary school and, in my last year, I sat the exams for the Air Force. I couldn’t afford to pay for flying lessons, so I was going to join the Air Force and have a career there.

But, two weeks in, they did more accurate testing and found out my femur was too long. So, if I had to eject from a trainer, I would’ve lost four millimetres off my kneecap — which was kind of a deal-breaker. My legs were too long, so I had to do something else.

A lot of my mates were going to do accounting at university. I was still competitive and thought I’d go one better and try law. Plus, there’s actually another element to that decision. You’ve got to remember that Dad was a cop. He was prosecuting people.

I guess in some ways I liked the symmetry — but had probably also taken on Dad’s belief in true justice. It’s just that I could see that some people weren’t getting justice, that society wasn’t truly fair or meritocratic. And I thought practising law could give me the opportunity to level the playing field. I was taking this naive, ideological stance that I could help save people from the justice system.

You had quite a bit of Police firepower in your whānau, didn’t you? With your dad being the District Commander in West Auckland and your uncle Graeme getting to the rank of Assistant Police Commissioner in the early 80s. And I understand that your dad also had quite a bit to do with improving relations between the Police and Māori and Pasifika communities around that time.

Dad had a number of difficult roles. Gang relations was the most memorable. I remember being picked up from rugby games, and Dad saying he just had to stop in and see someone on the way home. Often that turned out to be a gang headquarters, where we’d be let in and I’d sit in the car slightly terrified while Dad had his meeting.

Race relations were incredibly sensitive at the time. Dawn Raids in particular had heightened awareness of social injustice. I think Dad went in open-minded but with an inevitable police-oriented perspective, and then discovered so many good people doing their bit to improve minority communities that it changed his outlook and appreciation for those who try to improve society. That’s had a lasting impression on me.

So how did you end up in TV? It’s quite a shift from a courtroom to fronting a television show.

Well, I worked as a barrister and solicitor and as a litigation lawyer in Auckland during the 80s. Then I decided to go overseas and take a similar job in London. But, when I got to London, the employment and the legal landscape had changed. And the only line of legal work they were offering me was to do with bankruptcy and solvency — winding up companies and making people bankrupt. I’d done a week or two of that, in my internship in Auckland, and it was just awful. Soul destroying. So I thought: “No, I’m not going to do that.”

Then I ran into a guy who’d been working as a Contiki tour guide in Europe. That sounded to me like it could be fun. So I did a training course and spent the next six years as a tour manager in Europe. It was an incredible experience.

I just loved being in Europe. I love the contrasts and the history and all that sort of thing. But there was another element. When I was a lawyer, I’d become adept at speaking in court. Speaking to a jury or, more especially, to a judge. Needing to think on my feet. But then, as a Contiki-trained tour manager, I was standing up and facing the group — not just sitting in my seat reading off notes. You had to know what you were talking about. And you had to be able to point out what was coming when you had your back to it. You had to know everything to the nth degree.

With the tour-guiding, you’re in the coach facing 53 people. There are 13 rows, four-wide, five in the back seat. And that’s an ideal group for broadcasting experimentation. For instance, doing a night tour of Paris, I might push the language a bit. Try something provocative to see how people reacted. Try pushing different buttons and observing what made them respond. And the lessons I learned from that experience, I think, was one of the greatest assets that I brought to broadcasting. I developed a reasonable sense of how people react to what is being said — and to how it’s said.

Let’s leap forward from those Contiki days to your role as a newsreader on Television One where you’ve been presenting and observing a host of stories. And I imagine that, from time to time, like with Waitangi Day, you’ve felt that there are stories which you’ve felt could well have taken a different tack.

Well, I think that, within the mainstream media, there’s a great willingness to understand Māori issues. But there’s an uncertainty and a fear — particularly a fear that they’ll get it wrong. In journalism, you can’t operate with fear or favour. And that leads to some confusion.

I think it’s very important to have dedicated Māori reporters. And, at One News, we’ve always been better at covering Māori issues when we’ve had a Māori-round reporter. As we did with Tini Molyneux, and now with Yvonne Tahana. People who are immersed in, and understand, the community. Some of the criticism of the coverage of Māori stories is overreaction. But Māori issues have been treated patchily by the mainstream media.

We need a broad cross-section of people examining the issues in society to be able to get a broad cross-section of viewpoints. Otherwise you end up being quite stereotyped.

You’ve covered a whole lot of stories. How many years have you been there, mate? Twenty years or so?

Oh, stop it.

Okay. Fifteen years then.

Well, 22 actually.

In the course of your 22 years, you, like a growing number of your colleagues have been taking some care with Māori pronunciation? Who’s helped you with getting that right?

That goes back to Whai Ngata, right from the beginning. When I was at school, trying to teach myself te reo, I was getting snippets of words here and there, and building my vocab over time. But constructing language, I find really difficult. I’ve done a 10-week night course in te reo. Really just a beginner-level offering. I haven’t done any more because of the level of commitment and time required to do it properly.

I encourage everybody to master the vowel sounds. It’s not that difficult. If you’re going to show respect for the language, at least pronounce it correctly. There have been presenters who haven’t made the effort. I’ve heard them say: “Who cares?” But they’d be annoyed if their name was mispronounced.

For society to improve, everyone needs to show greater respect for others. I think that’s a given. You can’t have anybody believing that they’re superior. There has to be an evenness. And there needs to be a wider understanding of New Zealand’s history and the Treaty of Waitangi.

Over the years, you’ve worked on, and presented, any number of stories — some of them really moving. I wonder which ones have made the most impact on you.

Some of them do hit you very emotionally. The Child Warriors of West Africa, right at the very beginning of my career was one. And the atrocities in various places around the world. The Bosnian War. Having been to those places, some of those stories have hit me hard — and you struggle to understand how people in the modern, so-called civilised era can treat each other like that.

In terms of the stories back here though, I found a couple of tangi very moving: Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral and Dame Te Ata’s tangi. Te Ata’s tangi was really big for me. That was an amazing experience. I’d had the privilege of meeting her a few times and she was such a wonderful woman.

But I guess the defining news story for me would have to be Christchurch with the earthquakes. I raced down there on the day of the quakes, both times. The two big quakes. And the first one was like going through those World War II newsreels of London and the Blitz. You know, driving in to the city, getting inside the cordoned area and seeing these old buildings just crumbling on to the ground.

But the second time around, it was harder. I spent about a month there, immediately in the aftermath of the quake. Dead bodies and body parts. It’s pretty hard to strike from your memory. You realise this is another human being. There’s a whole life represented right there — a life cut terribly short. And the survivors were just traumatised, clearly in shock. The eyes of the walking wounded will never leave me. And there was this feeling of helplessness because there was so little you could do.

People would recognise me from television — and they’d come and ask me: “What do I do?” The first time someone asked me that, I didn’t have a clue. So I found out where there were refugee centres and how people could get there. I’d say: “You’re going to have to get a taxi,” because taxis were still operating in certain parts. They’d say: “I haven’t got any money. I haven’t got anything. I can’t even go into my house. I was just outside.” So you give them a few bucks and try to help them on their way.

But the helplessness and despair of people in the midst of a tragedy … dealing with shock … dealing with trauma. That’s … umm … yeah … that will stay with me for a long time.

Simon, thanks very much. You’ve been very kind. But, finally, what are you looking forward to? Can we anticipate another 15 years or more of you on the screen?

[Laughs] I think that, when you’re working in broadcasting, you can’t afford to anticipate too much. Things are always changing. And, look, I’ve never wanted the focus to be on me. In fact, I had to sit down and talk to myself about even doing this interview. I try to avoid that side of things because I’m a newsreader and, as a lot of people say, you’re just reading an autocue. Well, there’s a little bit more to it than that, but I don’t want to be in the way of the story. I don’t want to be the story — or the personality.

One of the problems these days is that, in all forms of media, there is more opinion than fact. I just want to present the facts, and let people judge the facts for themselves. The Internet has not just been a game-changer in every industry but it has been hugely influential throughout the media. And one impact is that it has encouraged tribalism.

Tribalism has always existed — people gravitating to one side or the other. But the Internet now gives them plenty of outlets where they can find voices and experiences and opinions that reflect their own. So we end up with an increasingly tribal approach. It’s a very black and white approach to the world.

In reality, there are nuances and shades of grey to almost everything and everybody. And, rather than just stereotyping people as black or white and bad or good, we need to look hard and appreciate those shades. Otherwise we won’t ever have an inclusive, open-minded and tolerant society.


© e-tangata, 2015

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