Channel 7’s mild-mannered reporter Denham Hitchcock proves you don’t need a suit (or cape) to perform courageous deeds.
Whether he’s chasing a story in a danger zone or a new fitness PB, Sunday Night reporter Denham Hitchcock is a real-life Clark Kent
IF DENHAM HITCHCOCK’S assignment du jour were to compile a report on his own life, how would he start it? Perhaps it would be in the surf at Sydney’s Dee Why in the summer of 2016, when he glanced to his right across the break and noticed a woman on her board. “She was paddling around in a Brazilian bikini, which is eye-catching,” recalls Hithcock. “She was surfing with another guy, and I was just hoping he wasn’t her boyfriend.”
Except, it’s not Hitchcock’s style just to sit there hoping. That kind of passiveness . . . well, it doesn’t get you anywhere, does it? “So I waited for him to catch a wave, then I paddled over and said hello.”
The beauty turned out to be Mari Borges, a (single) Brazilian expat and hostel manager. She and Hitchcock hit it off, bonding over a shared love of fresh air, exercise and salt water. “We’ve been inseparable,” says Hitchcock, who was 40 at the time. They’re getting married next February.
It would be a decent opener, and it would speak to Hitchcock’s don’t-die-wondering approach. But it’s a mite too soft and sentimental for a journalist
of his ilk. This isn’t a bloke who shadows the dressmaker before a royal wedding. This is Sunday
Night’s toughest operator, who’s in his element reporting from a Middle East battlefield or buttonholing a slippery murder suspect.
So though it’s painful, Hitchcock would more likely hark back to something that happened a long time ago – when he was 14, in fact, and enjoying a summer scorcher on the Hawkesbury River with his dad, Kevin. Young Denham, home from boarding school for Christmas, had tied a rope to a branch and the pair were swinging out over the water and dropping in.
Then disaster struck. On a downward swing, Kevin’s foot clipped the bank, throwing him off kilter and sending him headfirst into the shallow water. Watching on, Denham was at first unconcerned when his father failed to resurface. “I thought he was joking,” says Hitchcock. “I was getting ready for him to spring out of the water and grab me.”
As the seconds ticked by, however, it became frighteningly clear his dad wasn’t fooling around. The boy started duck-diving into the mud-coloured water. On his third plunge he caught a flash of his father’s white trunks on the river floor. He pulled him to the surface and hauled him on to dry land. “He could breathe and he could speak, but he couldn’t move anything else,” says Hitchcock, whose yells for help brought other family running to the scene.
A chopper would transport his father to hospital, where doctors confirmed a catastrophic injury. Kevin Hitchcock – 39 at the time and news director at Channel 10 – became an incomplete quadraplegic that day. It would be four months before he came home.
Over lunch in a cafe beneath the Channel 7 building in Sydney’s CBD, Hitchcock reflects on the consequences of that event with the impassive air of . . . exactly what he is: a seasoned television journalist who’s pretty much seen it all.
“Short term, I grew up very quickly. I became the man of the house a lot earlier than anticipated,” says Hitchcock, whose youngest sister was a newborn at the time. “I was quite a rebellious kid, but all that stopped on that day.”
Longer term? “Partly because of my job I’ve been able to put it into perspective,” he says. “My father’s still here. I still get advice from him. I go around and cook him dinner every Sunday night. So I still consider myself fortunate.”
The idea that his father’s accident would have justified the son floundering in life irritates him. “Bad things happen to good people,” he says. “It’s the way of the world. But it’s how you deal with it that sets you apart. You can’t use it as an excuse. I’ve seen too many people do that.”
Hitchcock is good, blokey company – quick with a laugh that reveals his perfect white teeth, never short of a rollicking anecdote. But he can also seem preoccupied, invariably with some loose end attached to his current project.
Today, that’s the inside story of the huge police operation that thwarted a homegrown terrorist plot in 2005. While that effort put 18 men behind bars, many of them are now free (prematurely, Hitchcock feels) and working as tradies. Hitchcock’s planning to “bounce” one of them in Melbourne in a couple of days. That’s televisionspeak for accost on the street without warning, camera rolling.
Hitchcock is the epitome of the intrepid reporter. It’s hard to imagine him getting out of bed for a story that didn’t, to some degree, put his life in peril, or at very least send his heart racing. For Sunday
Night, where he’s into his fifth year,
“Bad things happen to good people. It’s how you deal with it that sets you apart”
he’s ridden a racehorse at full gallop across a paddock to highlight the dangers of being a jockey; flown a motorised paraglider over the Barrington Tops National Park searching for a crashed plane; “taken a pounding” over a few rounds from UFC heavyweight Mark Hunt; twice gone to Iraq, where he was shot at by snipers and pursued by grenade-bearing drones.
They’re just four examples of a fearless approach to his craft that could make other journos feel faint twinges of inadequacy. “The perfect story for me makes a difference,” says Hitchcock. “It goes beyond entertainment, beyond the cataloguing of events.” It’s a lesson for you and me in not going through the motions. You spend half your life working. Strike a blow.
THE WRITE STUFF
The man was always going to be a journalist. His dad saw to that, reading him classics like Moby Dick at bedtime instead of Winnie the
Pooh or Jack and the Beanstalk, and getting Dickens into his hands when Denham was still in short pants. This permeated the boy’s prose style, which in turn confused his teachers. “One comment was something like, “I’m wondering what Denham is reading at home
because this seems like it was written by someone in the 19th Century’,” recalls Hitchcock.
His dad loved fine writing, but first and foremost he was a news man. “So we’d sit and watch the news,” says Hitchcock. “And then we’d watch the big current affairs shows. We’d talk about them, dissect them. And he’d give me little writing assignments. So there was really no doubt where I was heading.”
Hitchcock landed his first job at 18, answering phones and filling the biscuit barrel at Channel 7’s Today
Tonight. But with Hitchcock’s initiative that was never going to last. Every spare moment, he worked the phones. “In the first six months I would have brought three lead stories to them.” The boss promoted him to researcher: “You’re incredibly young,” he told Hitchcock, “but you’re wasted answering phones.”
From there, he hasn’t looked back. Talent, doggedness and ambition earned him jobs in London at Reuters TV and Channel 3’s breakfast show GMTV. He worked for Channel Nine for 14 years, four of those as its La-based foreign correspondent. He covered Barack Obama’s second inauguration, back before the world went mad. He’s nailed every role, but
Sunday Night is a perfect fit. “At the end of the day, sometimes you’ve had a front-row seat to history, and sometimes you’ve just had a shot of adrenaline that sets you on fire.”
You’ll have noticed by now that Hitchcock is in ridiculously good shape. Better shape really than any dedicated journalist is entitled to be in. Better shape, possibly, than any journalist in the history of journalism. That may sound like rank, tabloid-tv hyperbole. Until you see him in the flesh.
His secret? Well, he says, it’s part luck: it just so happens he loves doing the things that create a granite-hard physique.
“Look, I’ve never had a personal trainer, never had someone guide me through routines or tell me what I should be doing,” he puffs between sprints at dawn at Sydney’s Dee Why beach. “I love being outdoors. I love physical exercise. And I do the workouts I do because I like the way they make me feel.”
When at home in Sydney, those workouts are a combination of heavy-duty weights sessions (dominated by tri-sets, the middle set a brutal cardio hit), soft-sand running and surfing. But the point to make here is that Hitchcock often isn’t at home. He spends up to six months of the year interstate or overseas on assignment, often with no access to a crummy gym, let alone a glorious shoreline.
Right there would be his excuse to let the exercise slide, but he never does. Don’t give him this ‘no-time’ crap. Or ‘no space’. “If you have two square metres to work in you can do 12 push-up burpees every minute for 10 minutes and I guarantee
“Eighty minus your age. That’s how long you’ve got left. So the clock is ticking. Make it count”
you that will be one of the hardest workouts you’ve ever done.” It’s the same with food: he craves the stuff (meat, eggs) that makes muscle, and has no interest in the sweet delights that your body will store as fat. “Even as a kid my birthday cake was a roast lamb with candles in it.”
The sprints done, Hitchcock plunges into the freezing surf. This is a winter’s morning. The air temp might be 8°C. But he strides out five minutes later looking reborn. “Your body’s drawn to the softest options – the most comfortable couch, the tastiest food,” he says. “But really it needs to be shocked now and then.”
It’s obvious Hitchcock doesn’t want to dwell on the shape he’s in. For one thing, “I’m by no means a health nut. I still drink. Friday night is tequila night for me and my girl. We go out and party.”
And besides, there’s so much more to life than the size of your deltoids. Perhaps as a consequence of his dad’s accident, certainly as a result of being a frequent eyewitness to tragedy, Hitchcock’s overpowering drive is to make the most of his years on Earth.
“Eighty minus your age,” he says urgently. “That’s roughly how long you’ve got left on this tiny, 14-billion-year-old planet in a corner of an infinite universe. So the clock is ticking. Make it count!”
What does that mean? “It means approaching that girl. It means if there’s a job you want, go for it. It means surfing Teahapoo. Don’t die wondering. Because you don’t have time to fuck around.”
COVER GUY: DENHAM HITCHCOCK PHOTOGRAPHED BY JASON IERACE
MEAT-HEAD: “AS A KID MY BIRTHDAY CAKE WAS A ROAST LAMB WITH CANDLES IN IT.” OCTOBER 2018