Sea­son of change: Why Hi­lary Barry was open to an ex­cit­ing new chap­ter

No longer the ‘new girl’ at TVNZ, Hi­lary Barry has set­tled into her Seven Sharp role with her warmth and wit still firmly in place. She tells Phoebe Watt what she’s learned about tak­ing a leap of faith

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Hi­lary Barry is glow­ing, and it doesn’t take long to find out why. “I’ve just been do­ing Michael Bublé!” Ex­cuse me? “Well, I did him a while ago, it’s a good story, ac­tu­ally.”

We’re sit­ting in the ground floor café of TVNZ’s

cen­tral Auck­land of­fices; I press record on my iPhone and set­tle in.

“I flew 12 hours to LA, straight from Seven Sharp to the air­port. Slept sit­ting up so I didn’t ruin my hair, and did my makeup on the plane. Got off the plane, changed in the toi­lets and in­ter­viewed him an hour later, then turned around and flew home again.” She takes a sip of berry smoothie. “Did my own makeup on the plane!” she re­peats. If your days are ded­i­cated to ground-break­ing cli­mate change re­search or per­form­ing life­sav­ing op­er­a­tions on in­fants, you might not think this sounds all that above-and-be­yond. Nev­er­the­less, there are plenty of peo­ple on TV with fewer cre­den­tials than the woman sit­ting in front of me, who are, one sus­pects, a lit­tle more high­main­te­nance. Hi­lary Barry is no diva, and it’s at once noth­ing and ev­ery­thing you’d ex­pect from New Zealand’s most ex­pe­ri­enced fe­male news­reader.

“At 48!” She later ex­claims. “The old­est woman on prime-time tele­vi­sion at 48. That’s not old!” In­deed, but we’ll get to that.

An in­dus­try vet­eran at 49 (she cel­e­brated her birth­day in De­cem­ber, a few weeks af­ter our in­ter­view), Hi­lary’s sharp-tongued, quick-wit­ted yet play­ful brand of broad­cast­ing is at home on TVNZ 1’s mag­a­zine-style show Seven Sharp, where every weeknight she and Jeremy Wells present a mix­ture of light cur­rent af­fairs and con­sumeror­i­ented in­fo­tain­ment – “news you can use,” she says.

T his lat­est role fol­lows a pe­riod of in­tense change for Hi­lary, who spent 23 years at ri­val net­work Me­di­a­works be­fore cut­ting ties in 2016. Af­ter a brief, but bliss­ful, four months off, she took on the re­lent­less early morn­ing starts at TVNZ 1’s Break­fast be­fore shift­ing to Seven Sharp in Jan­uary 2018. Last year also saw ad­just­ments in her fam­ily life, with old­est son Finn, 18, leav­ing for univer­sity. Not sur­pris­ingly, she’s hop­ing 2019 will be “a year of con­sol­i­da­tion”, where she can sit back and en­joy her more set­tled cir­cum­stances, and re­flect on the lessons she’s learned about cop­ing with up­heaval. These lessons keep com­ing, af­ter all. Speak­ing to NEXT to­wards the end of 2016, she ex­plained the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to leave Me­di­a­works, which fol­lowed a se­ries of high-pro­file sack­ings at the em­bat­tled net­work, in­clud­ing that of long-time col­league and friend John Camp­bell, and first boss and men­tor, news chief Mark Jen­nings.

A time of up­heaval

“I just felt like I was in this con­stant griev­ing process, and I couldn’t take it any more. I ac­tu­ally couldn’t take it. It was time for me to go, to pre­serve my own san­ity,” she said of the ‘dream job’ that, for that last year, sim­ply wasn’t.

Im­poster syn­drome

N

ow, two years later, the dust has well and truly set­tled, and hav­ing had the time and nec­es­sary dis­tance to prop­erly process that pe­riod of her life, Hi­lary has some new words of ad­vice for women who might be find­ing them­selves in a sim­i­lar work sit­u­a­tion.

“Be­lieve in your­self,” she says. “Of­ten we stay in these jobs be­cause we’ve been there for a long time and it’s all we know, or we’re jug­gling fam­ily or other things and the sit­u­a­tion suits those things, and all the while you’re just feel­ing mis­er­able. Have con­fi­dence in your­self. If your job is mak­ing you feel a way you don’t like feel­ing, you’ve got to get out of there.” She checks her­self. “It’s all very well and good to ver­balise that, I know. It’s very hard to prac­tise be­cause we all have so much self-doubt. I still do! I’m not racked with self-doubt, but there are still those oc­ca­sional voices in my head that go ‘I re­ally don’t think you’re do­ing a very good job of this. How did you get this job? Are you re­ally qual­i­fied?’” Wait, does Hi­lary Barry get ‘im­poster syn­drome’? “Yes! She does. I al­ways want to do a good job so

I put a lot of pres­sure on my­self. And when you’ve been around as long as I have, the au­di­ence ex­pects you to be su­per pro­fes­sional and ut­terly com­pe­tent. So the pres­sure is com­pounded.”

As if im­poster syn­drome wasn’t enough to deal with, ‘new girl syn­drome’ added to the anx­i­ety of be­ing back at work.

“Mov­ing to TVNZ was like chang­ing schools,” she laughs. “When you change school you’ve got to make a whole bunch of new friends and that’s scary, even in your 40s, get­ting to know new peo­ple. But once you do – and it doesn’t even take that long, drink­ing with them helps – it’s fan­tas­tic.”

Need­less to say, she has no re­grets about the de­ci­sions she made dur­ing this tu­mul­tuous time.

“I wish I could go back and re­as­sure my­self that ev­ery­thing would be okay. I think I knew in my heart of hearts that it would, but it re­ally has been. My work fam­ily over there [at Me­di­a­works] will al­ways be my fam­ily. The lovely thing about com­ing here is that my fam­ily just got big­ger. And now it’s hard to re­mem­ber what I was so scared about. So that’s what I’d say to my for­mer self, and to oth­ers. Don’t be so scared about the fu­ture.”

Shift­ing times

I t doesn’t hurt that for a self-con­fessed fan-girl like Hi­lary, the Seven Sharp gig is prob­a­bly one of the best in the busi­ness. High­lights of the year have been do­ing Michael Bublé (of course), and a num­ber of other celebrity in­ter­views, in­clud­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton and Jane Fonda. The lat­ter was, ap­par­ently, the more in­tim­i­dat­ing of the two. “Only be­cause I knew Hil­lary Clin­ton, be­ing a politi­cian, would be charm­ing in the way that

politi­cians are. With Jane Fonda, I had a feel­ing that if she wasn’t re­ally en­joy­ing the in­ter­view she’d tell you so. Plus, she’s 80, and she has an in­cred­i­ble warmth but also the kind of for­mal­ity and pro­pri­ety that 80-year-old women have.”

A lighter style of news than what she’s used to, and a far cry from its pre­de­ces­sors Close Up and Holmes, Hi­lary says that Seven Sharp is em­blem­atic of a ma­jor shift in what au­di­ences want. With our smart­phones al­low­ing us up-to-the-minute ac­cess to break­ing news, we’re tapped out by 7pm. We need some­thing that makes us smile.

“So it’s our job to do that,” she says. “We present up­lift­ing sto­ries. It doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that every story is happy, but we like them to be hope­ful, re­lat­able, or at the very least, sto­ries that aren’t go­ing to de­press peo­ple. There’s been ex­ten­sive re­search done and this is what peo­ple want,” she ex­plains. “And in this cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment, it’s adapt or die.”

Some changes have been harder than oth­ers to adapt to. In an in­ter­view with The Lis­tener in 2017, Hi­lary chas­tised her­self for los­ing her com­po­sure dur­ing John Camp­bell’s on-air farewell. In mid-2018, a news­reader in the US was sim­i­larly over­come on a live bul­letin about chil­dren be­ing sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies at the Mex­i­can bor­der. Apol­o­gis­ing for her be­hav­iour on Twit­ter, the news­reader was met not with crit­i­cism, but praise, by a view­ing pop­u­la­tion that in the face of so much in­hu­man­ity, was seem­ingly loath to con­demn the news­reader’s gen­uine hu­man­ity. So what’s Hi­lary’s take? In to­day’s world, does ‘pro­fes­sion­al­ism’ put a jour­nal­ist in a

par­tic­u­lar cat­e­gory? Does ab­so­lute ob­jec­tiv­ity make one out of touch?

“I have that clas­sic broad­cast­ing train­ing of not be­ing emo­tion­ally in­vested in sto­ries, just de­liv­er­ing news im­par­tially,” she says. “So when I show emo­tion I do kind of groan in­wardly, be­cause I know the tra­di­tion­al­ists watch­ing will go, ‘For good­ness sake, you’re the news­reader, get a grip.’ That be­ing said, I am just my­self on air, and I am an emo­tional per­son. And I do get choked up rel­a­tively fre­quently. Hav­ing spent so many years be­ing taught to do things in a cer­tain way, I do feel slightly guilty when a lit­tle bit of ‘me’ shows through. But I don’t beat my­self up over it. I guess I’m kind of some­where in the mid­dle of the spec­trum of old-school jour­nal­ism and this new world that we live in.”

Kiwi con­tra­dic­tions

I

t makes the job eas­ier, says Hi­lary, that New Zealan­ders are, on the whole, “a na­tion of peo­ple who are kind to one an­other”. She has one bone to pick, how­ever, and it’s not a new one.

“I’ll tell you what,” she says, fired up at how scan­dalised peo­ple were when she was cast on Break­fast op­po­site Jack Tame – 19 years her ju­nior. “The au­di­ence largely did not han­dle it. And that’s on them. TVNZ was re­ally brave in many ways to team up Jack and me. They took that bold step. But the au­di­ence feed­back was re­sound­ing – peo­ple couldn’t han­dle an older woman pre­sent­ing with a younger man. And truly, shame on them. They tell us they’re open-minded but they’re so used to the for­mula they found of a the younger re­v­erse woman dif­fi­cult and to an deal older with.” man that

Au­di­ences were more re­cep­tive when Jeremy Wells took two weeks’ leave from Seven Sharp and Anika Moa – brash, tat­tooed, Maˉori, gay – filled in.

“I think peo­ple liked the dy­namic. It was dif­fer­ent, and it was a lit­tle bit risky. But again, it shouldn’t have been! It shouldn’t have been dif­fer­ent, it shouldn’t have been break­ing new ground. In 2019 we should not be fight­ing to make this an okay thing. And it’s not the broad­cast­ers, they’re the ones go­ing, ‘Let’s try some new stuff, let’s team up two women, let’s put an older woman with a younger man, let’s give these things a go.’ And yet, there are still those view­ers for whom chang­ing the ar­range­ment that’s been around for decades is just too much.”

If there’s one change that Hi­lary is look­ing for­ward to in 2019, al­beit with some trep­i­da­tion in her voice, it’s turn­ing a year older. “I’ll be 50 in De­cem­ber, so I’ll be spend­ing a bit of time con­tem­plat­ing what that means.” She perks up.

“Ac­tu­ally, I think I might have a whole year of cel­e­bra­tions. Per­haps one per month… no, sev­eral!”

With that on her plate, it’s prob­a­bly just as well she and hus­band Michael will have only their youngest son – 16-year-old Ned – at home. As any­one who fol­lows her on Twit­ter will know, there’s enough stress and an­guish in par­ent­ing just one teen. Hi­lary kept fol­low­ers on ten­ter­hooks in Novem­ber as we waited in sol­i­dar­ity for Ned to tell her how one of his NCEA ex­ams went. “Six­teen year old cur­rently be­ing writ­ten out of the will,” she wrote when, 30 min­utes af­ter the exam fin­ished, she’d still heard noth­ing. The play-by-play we’d been get­ting un­til then ended, and one won­dered whether the news was not great.

“Oh no, in the end I didn’t post an up­date be­cause when he got back to me it was such a non-event. He just texted ‘good’. Un­be­liev­able! They’re so blasé.”

As strong as her ma­ter­nal in­stincts are (hav­ing chil­dren was al­ways a life am­bi­tion), she draws the line at be­ing ‘the mother of the na­tion’. Though an hon­our, she thinks the be­stow­ing of this ti­tle upon her in re­cent years is not only very pre­ma­ture, but quite pos­si­bly ac­ci­den­tal. “I feel like some­one got con­fused one day and called me that, think­ing I was Judy Bai­ley,” she laughs. “I’m not old enough to be the mother of the na­tion!” She has some al­ter­na­tive sug­ges­tions. “Friend of the na­tion? Drink­ing buddy of the na­tion? Mate? Aunty?” And makes an­other valid point. “Who’s the fa­ther of the na­tion? Dear God, don’t let Jeremy be the fa­ther of the na­tion.”

More to learn

A ll that be­ing said, men­tor­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of jour­nal­ists is, in her mind, one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of her job. “I get right amongst them in the news room. Or if we’re out do­ing a story for Seven Sharp, of­ten one of the younger pro­duc­ers will come along so we’ll talk through strate­gies and what we’re do­ing and what worked and what didn’t. I love that sort of stuff.” A key piece of wis­dom for fledg­ling journos? “Be­ware of Google,” she says wryly. “It makes ev­ery­thing a lit­tle too easy. We used to do a lot more fact-check­ing back in the good old days.” (An aside: both Hi­lary and her pub­li­cist will be pleased to know that af­ter us­ing tran­scrib­ing soft­ware to process the au­dio for this in­ter­view, and it at­tribut­ing to Hi­lary a num­ber of un­men­tion­able slurs, I con­ceded that tech­nol­ogy is not al­ways our friend, and pro­ceeded to man­u­ally tran­scribe the slur-free ver­sion from which I am re­fer­ring now). Still, she’s not some old cur­mud­geon, griev­ing for the death of jour­nal­is­tic “I think when in­tegrity. every­one’s Adapt got or die, a mix re­mem­ber? of ex­pe­ri­ence it’s good to share that,” she says. A per­pet­ual stu­dent of sorts, there’s one thing Hi­lary has yet to mas­ter. Or even at­tempt, as it were. “I I re­mind am ab­so­lutely her that set she on said learn­ing the same the in cello.” her pre­vi­ous NEXT cover story. “I did! And have I? No. But don’t you worry, that’s still my life am­bi­tion.” I tell her I’ll check on her progress in 2020. “I will have done it by then. Oh, I ab­so­lutely love the cello.” She starts ges­tic­u­lat­ing. “It’ll hap­pen and you can have the scoop. When I take my first cello les­son you will get the scoop.” Stand by for up­dates.

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