Carol Hirschfeld

opens up to Judy Bai­ley


To look at Carol Hirschfeld now you would think she’s al­ways been sure of her­self. Beau­ti­ful, con­fi­dent and serene, she is one of New Zealand broad­cast­ing’s high achiev­ers.

Over re­cent years she has moved from the grind of hands-on daily cur­rent af­fairs on Camp­bell Live to man­age­ment roles, first at Maori Tele­vi­sion as head of pro­gram­ming and, for the past two years, as head of con­tent at Ra­dio New Zealand.

But Carol has of­ten strug­gled with self-con­scious­ness and in­se­cu­rity.

“You know what it’s like Jude,” she tells me. “Be­ing tall. You stand out and feel un­gainly.” She is a wil­lowy five foot 10, or 178cm. (I’m sim­i­lar… but not so wil­lowy!)

At school she stood, lit­er­ally, head and shoul­ders above her peers. “I feel bet­ter about it now though,” she grins. “Look at all those won­der­ful tall sportswomen we have.” She tells me later in a text, “Tall girls never for­get those early years!”

The in­se­cu­rity, she thinks, stems from los­ing her beloved mum, Ngawiki, when she was just 10 years old. A brain aneurysm claimed her. “Overnight she had a headache, the next minute she was dead,” re­calls Carol, the pain of that loss still so fresh in her mind.

“Los­ing a par­ent when you’re young, you come to un­der­stand mor­tal­ity at an early age. You re­alise that things end – sig­nif­i­cant im­por­tant re­la­tion­ships – and that sets you up for great in­se­cu­rity.”

The loss of her mother is some­thing she talks about of­ten with her sib­lings. Carol is the youngest of three chil­dren born to Ngawiki and Charl Hirschfeld. Ngawiki had left her re­mote East Coast home of Ran­gi­tukia when she was just 15, for the bright lights of Welling­ton, where she worked as a nurse aid be­fore mov­ing to Auck­land. There she met the dash­ing Charl Hirschfeld at a neigh­bour­hood dance. It was love at first sight.

It wasn’t easy be­ing a mixed race cou­ple in 1950s New Zealand. The young cou­ple of­ten en­coun­tered racism. “They were once asked to leave a gar­den bar in

How­ick,” Carol tells me, “be­cause they were a mixed race cou­ple. When we asked what their re­ac­tion was, they told us they just poured their drinks out and left.”

They also found it tough to find rental ac­com­mo­da­tion be­cause of the race is­sue.

Ngawiki was flu­ent in Maori, but she never spoke te reo in front of her chil­dren. “She was part of that gen­er­a­tion that was en­cour­aged to speak English,” says Carol. “It makes me sad now. Mum was flu­ent in the di­alect of her area. It’s a di­alect that’s dy­ing out now. I would have loved to speak to her about it but it never oc­curred to me at the time.

“So many years later I of­ten re­flect on what a brave woman she was to leave her close-knit com­mu­nity and strike out on her own. Mum was very much alone. There weren’t many Maori friends close by. Of­ten she was the only Maori mum.”

That brav­ery and courage is some­thing she has passed on to her youngest daugh­ter. “She def­i­nitely taught me, with­out me be­ing con­scious of it, to have the courage to take risks, to leap out of my com­fort zone. And that the dif­fi­cult times are ab­so­lutely when you learn the most.”

Carol, too, ex­pe­ri­enced racism as she grew up. “Kids can be so harsh and tough. We were the only Maori kids at our pri­mary school in Ep­som. At high school one of my best friends was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl. Her boyfriend once de­scribed me as black and said how unattrac­tive that was. I spent half a day in the toi­lets sob­bing my eyes out. When I told my brother, who is five years older

(he is also named Charl and now a bar­ris­ter in Auck­land), he said: ‘Don’t ever let any­one make you feel in­fe­rior again. If it ever hap­pens again, laugh in their faces.’”

The mem­ory prompts Carol to share one of her favourite quotes, which is from for­mer Amer­i­can First Lady, Eleanor Roo­sevelt:

“No one can make you feel in­fe­rior with­out your con­sent.

You must do the things you think you can­not do.

The fu­ture be­longs to those who be­lieve in the beauty of their dreams.”

After Ngawiki’s death, Charl went on to raise his chil­dren alone. He changed his work­ing hours and learnt how to look after two lit­tle girls and a teenage son. “He even had to learn the sim­ple things like how to comb our hair,” Carol re­mem­bers.

“Dad has a strong sense of so­cial jus­tice. He is the most in­de­pen­dent per­son I’ve ever met,” she laughs. “My sis­ter and I joke that he brought us up to be solo mums. He’d tell us, ‘You must do it your­self.’”

Her fa­ther is now 85 and is, she tells me, her great­est men­tor in life. He is still teach­ing his chil­dren life lessons as they watch the way he ages, sets goals and in­sists on con­tin­u­ing to be self-suf­fi­cient.

Charl took his fam­ily to In­done­sia with him when Carol was in the fourth form. An elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer, he was work­ing on a govern­ment project. There was no suit­able in­ter­na­tional school nearby so even­tu­ally, at 15 and 17 re­spec­tively, Carol and her sis­ter, Linda, were sent home to com­plete the sixth and sev­enth forms alone. She leans for­ward as she tells me this, wide-eyed, in­cred­u­lous that her fa­ther should do such a thing.

“I think about my own son, and how im­por­tant I think it is to be there for him.”

Carol re­mains ex­tremely close to her older sis­ter. “She moth­ered me re­ally, from a very early age.”

It was her fa­ther who first ig­nited her pas­sion for news and cur­rent af­fairs. “Dad was a news junkie. After work he’d come home and ab­sorb ev­ery sin­gle de­tail in The Auck­land Star (Auck­land’s evening pa­per at the time). From him I learnt that jour­nal­ism must be im­por­tant, sig­nif­i­cant and rel­e­vant to people’s lives. I thought it must be an in­ter­est­ing job.”

And so it has proved to be. Carol dropped out of school dur­ing the sev­enth form and set her sights on get­ting into what is now the Auck­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion course. “There was a cur­rent events quiz they made me do but I hadn’t read a sin­gle pa­per and I failed pretty much ev­ery ques­tion,” she grins rue­fully. “So I went off and com­pleted an English de­gree at univer­sity then fin­ished off with a diploma in jour­nal­ism.”

Her first job in the me­dia was at Ra­dio New Zealand, so she has now come full cir­cle.

Re­call­ing her first ex­pe­ri­ence of putting a story to­gether for the news she says, “I’ll never for­get the po­tency of how that felt.”

She loves her cur­rent role. “When you’ve built up a body of work that be­comes sig­nif­i­cant, then you are in a po­si­tion to help others see how their po­ten­tial can be re­alised. I’m look­ing at where I can add value. I bring ex­pe­ri­ence from the fac­tory floor.” BELOW: Carol’s mother Ngawiki. Carol ad­mires the courage her mum had, strik­ing out on her own at a young age, and cop­ing with racism for be­ing in a mixed mar­riage.

Mum was very much alone. Of­ten she was the only Maori mum.

She sees Ra­dio New Zealand’s chal­lenge as reach­ing the ma­jor­ity of New Zealan­ders and stay­ing rel­e­vant. She wants to reach a wider au­di­ence – one that’s younger and more di­verse – through the com­pany’s dig­i­tal of­fer­ing. “The multi-me­dia ap­proach to news is some­thing we need to em­brace even more and Check­point has been a great ex­am­ple of that.”

Check­point, RNZ’s driv­e­time news and cur­rent af­fairs show, is fronted by her for­mer on­screen part­ner, John Camp­bell. Carol was re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing him to Ra­dio New Zealand after TV3 axed Camp­bell Live in 2015.

Her part­ner­ship with John was, in her words,“an ex­tra­or­di­nary stroke of luck”. Theirs was one of the most suc­cess­ful pair­ings in New Zealand tele­vi­sion his­tory – firstly as on­screen news­read­ers and then when Carol took the helm of the brand new Camp­bell Live, pro­duc­ing the show while John re­mained out front. “You have to have a level of trust and gen­eros­ity with each other. There’s got to be chem­istry.”

She has been coura­geous through­out her long ca­reer, tak­ing risks. “You’ll never have op­por­tu­ni­ties if you don’t take a risk,” she tells me sagely. It was a risk to leave Camp­bell Live at its zenith and join Maori Tele­vi­sion. She saw it as a way to in­te­grate Te Ao Maori, or the Maori world, into her life and to ex­plore what it is to be Maori. “Be­cause I’m so work ori­ented, I had to do this through my work,” she ex­plains.

It was her first op­por­tu­nity to work in man­age­ment, as Maori Tele­vi­sion’s head of pro­gram­ming. The chan­nel, she says, has show­cased some­thing that is at the heart of New Zealand cul­ture and made it avail­able to non-Maori.

“I didn’t want to be­lieve there was a blind spot in the main­stream me­dia about what’s hap­pen­ing in Maoridom, but there is,” she says firmly. “What sur­prises me is the lack of cu­rios­ity many New Zealan­ders ex­hibit. So many people miss out by not ex­plor­ing Maori cul­ture… even just place names and the story be­hind them.”

Carol met her hus­band, re­spected jour­nal­ist Fin­lay MacDon­ald, when she was 25. He was 26 and work­ing for the New Zealand Lis­tener. “I thought he was older be­cause he was work­ing for the Lis­tener – a se­ri­ous jour­nal­ist,” she laughs. “I never thought he’d be in­ter­ested in talk­ing to me.”

Ap­par­ently he was! They’ve been to­gether for 30 years and have two chil­dren. “Hav­ing a spouse in the me­dia has been a god­send,” she con­fides. “He un­der­stands the pres­sures and is more than a lit­tle tol­er­ant. We have many more dis­cus­sions about my work than his. I think the fact that we’re in dif­fer­ent ar­eas of jour­nal­ism is one of the things that makes our re­la­tion­ship work.” Fin­lay is still in print.

Her lat­est role has been tough on the fam­ily, par­tic­u­larly, she says, on daugh­ter Rosa, who is 16. Carol is away for much of the work­ing week in Welling­ton. “I am end­lessly thank­ful for [my chil­dren’s] gen­eros­ity in let­ting me pur­sue this. I’ve been miss­ing in ac­tion for huge swathes of their child­hood.”

Fin­lay, though, has been a great sup­port. “He re­or­gan­ised his whole ca­reer when I was pro­duc­ing Camp­bell Live, so he could work nine to three.”

Carol is proud of her chil­dren. Her son Will is now 22 and fin­ish­ing a com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­gree ma­jor­ing in ad­ver­tis­ing. “He is en­tre­pre­neur­ial, fas­ci­nat­ing and opin­ion­ated.” Both he and his sis­ter Rosa are, Carol says, highly en­gaged with the world around them, think­ing about it and its fu­ture.

Her ad­vice to them, and in­deed any young per­son, is to al­ways be open to learn­ing. It may, she says, in­volve things that are un­com­fort­able at times. “Find the courage to do some­thing you think is im­pos­si­ble.”

As she walks me out of the RNZ of­fice I tell her I’ve al­ways ad­mired her courage. “I don’t know if it’s courage, or pig­head­ed­ness,” she laughs, “but I won’t be beaten.”

Carol cred­its her “news junkie” fa­ther with in­spir­ing her pas­sion for news.

LEFT: Carol and her hus­band, jour­nal­ist Fin­lay MacDon­ald. The cou­ple has been to­gether for 30 years. BELOW: With her part­ner in broad­cast­ing, John Camp­bell.

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