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.