Angus Gillies: My time working with news boss Mark Jennings

  • 25/02/2016
Mark Jennings (Getty)
Mark Jennings (Getty)

By Angus Gillies

Because this is February 2016, I figured I should write something about the resignation of Mark Jennings to put on the Newshub website.

More and more these days we wake up in the morning and wonder how our website’s doing. And after 27 years in charge of the 3 News TV operation Mark is resigning, in part, so that a new person can come in and guide what’s now known as Newshub further into the digital age.

And that is wholly in keeping with the reasons why Mark has been such a great leader for so long -- he would always put the needs of the news operation first, above everything else, and he is the perfect mix of humility and will.

The first time I had anything to do with Mark was in late 1994 or early 1995. I had been working for Julie Christie at Touchdown, field directing for a programme called Moro Sports Extra, which had just been canned.

I was taking any freelance work I could get and was actually making more money than I ever had in journalism, writing magazine articles and doing sub-editing shifts for The Truth and the Sunday News newspapers.

Mark called me and said the 3 News sports presenter Tony Johnson had told him that I could strengthen the writing of their sports department if they gave me a job as a reporter, so he wanted to meet with me and talk about it.

My response to Mark was exactly the same as it had been to Tony when he’d called the day before. “Aw, I’m not sure if I want to continue with TV. I’ve just spent 18 months doing 70-hour weeks at Touchdown and now I feel like I’ve escaped from a cult.”

I told him my first child was on the way and I wanted to be able to see him.

Mark assured me that while 3 News expected their staff to work hard they didn’t believe in burning them out.

“I’ve never stood in front of a TV camera,” I said.

“Okay, come into TV3 and we’ll give you a camera test.”

I did that. The cameraman Tony Smith took me up onto the balcony and got me to recite something that Jennings had printed out for me.

This was a total shock. I thought they were just going to ask me questions and I would answer them, but, no, I had to remember something and deliver it to a camera. I had to do a performance -- basically perform for the camera -- which suddenly struck me as one of the weirdest, most unnatural things a human could do, or at least what a human like me could do.

And I was right. I couldn’t get the words right. I started chain-smoking nervously between each take. We tried a new location, the third floor garage, which is now the location for the Newshub newsroom.

Tony called his then-wife Kim Hurring over -- she was a reporter and was just returning from a shoot -- to give me some tips. Between them they got me to deliver the words correctly. They couldn’t get me to give a good performance, but we at least got the words right.

That tape became an underground classic at 3 News. It was so excruciatingly bad it was compelling. I must admit I’ve never seen it, having skilfully managed to avoid it ever since.

A friend Paul Yurisich said he almost put it on the Christmas Bloopers tape one year, but decided it was too bad even for that and he just couldn’t bring himself to be that cruel.

Anyway, a few days later, Mark called me again. He wanted to offer me a job. So I went back to TV3 and Mark’s PA collected me from reception and took me down to the newsroom.

The first person I saw as I stepped out of the lift was Tony Smith, the cameraman. He laughed at me and said, “I never in a million years thought I’d see you again.”

Suddenly, any thoughts of trying to push Jennings for more money disappeared. I figured, “If he offers me anything I’ll take it.”

As soon as I sat down in Mark’s office he sat across from me at his desk, rattled his car keys in his hand nervously and gave me his trademark giggle. “I’ve watched the camera test with our main producer Mike Brockie,” he said.

“Not great is it.”

Jennings gave me a half-smile. He had the courtesy to hold his tongue when all he really wanted to say was, “That’s an understatement.”

Eventually, he said, “No, it’s not great. But Brockie and I reckon there’s a glimmer of hope there. You look okay on camera and you just need to sort your performance out. At the moment, we’re more interested in strengthening the writing. We’ve got plenty of performers, we need some writers.” Maybe even then they figured we might be able to train this guy up to be a producer one day.

Mark didn’t sell it to me like that. He said everyone started low but if they shone on camera their money could rise quite quickly, and you never really knew who was going to shine. People could surprise you.

I considered myself the type of guy who could surprise people. So I signed up for $12,000-a-year less than I’d earned the year before. I now realise that Jennings can tell with a glance whether someone’s got what it takes to be good on camera and he only needs half a glance to know if they’ve got star quality, which is something else again.

So for the next 21 years I worked with Jennings as my boss, mainly as a producer of sport, Nightline, Campbell Live and eventually the 6 o’clock news. And we had very similar attitudes towards news.

 We would both do whatever it took to get the pictures to air and worry about the consequences in the morning. More than once at quarter to six, I poked my head into his office and said, “TVNZ’s got great pictures of this. They’re going to lead with it. It’s the best story around today. You okay if I nick them and give them a credit?”

He’d always say, “Yeah, nick them,” and he’d usually follow that up with, “They owe me a favour for nicking some pictures off us last week.”

The other thing is that when Jennings was anywhere near the producer’s desk, money suddenly wasn’t an issue. It didn’t matter if he’d been lecturing everyone to cut spending for a month, if he was involved in a story, suddenly there’d be choppers and freelance camera people approaching the scene from all angles.

I remember one negotiation when I was on the chief of staff’s desk and Mark was filling in as news producer. Yes, the boss did that. He’d also write the Melbourne Cup report every year and occasionally cherry-picked himself a potentially award-winning news story to cover.

But this day he was producing and I was on the phone to freelance cameraman Murray Job, who was at the scene of a crime. I think a policeman had been stabbed at a domestic incident and there was a siege, and Murray -- who was the only cameraman there -- had got the whole thing on camera and had decided to conduct a bidding war.

He came back to me saying, “I know you offered me $400, but TVNZ’s just offered me six hundred.”

I called over to Mark, “Can I offer him $800?”


A few minutes later, Murray rang back. “TVNZ’s offered me $1000.”

I said to Mark “TVNZ’s offered him $1000.”

“Offer him $1500.”

I said, “Murray, Mark says I can offer you $1500. But if you go back to TVNZ and try to get more you will never do any more work for 3 News again.”

Murray and I occasionally recall that conversation when he’s in the newsroom, and wonder how high Jennings would have gone to get the pictures.  

Jennings was like a rock in the newsroom and while One News was going through what staff there referred to as “the clubbing of the seals” every November, it was very rare for anyone on 3 News to lose their job.

Even when famous cost-cutter Ian Audsley was brought in from Australia to sort out 3 News a few years back and canned Sunrise, TV3’s first foray into morning news -- as quickly as Audsley could usher staff out the front door, Jennings was working like the underground resistance, ushering them back in with new job titles.

I didn’t realise what made Jennings so effective as a leader until I had a short stint away from 3 News in late 2007. I had a go at real estate and started reading business books. One of them was called Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Jim said the most successful companies were not led by loud, exuberant, charismatic people. They were led by quiet, self-effacing, humble chaps who deflected all success onto their staff. It hit me like a lightning bolt. What I was reading sounded like an in-depth description of Mark Jennings.

They’re called Level 5 leaders and, unlike their less-successful peers in the business world, they carry no airs of self-importance. Describing one CEO, Collins writes: “His awkward shyness and lack of pretence was coupled with a fierce, even stoic, resolve toward life.”

At the top of a pyramid that climbs from highly capable individual, to contributing team member, to competent manager to effective leader -- and finally up to Level 5 executive is the definition: Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.

That is Jennings.

When I heard he’d resigned it felt like the floor just suddenly caved in beneath me. He’ll be impossible to replace. But he’s not being replaced, because Jennings is a TV guy. His role is going to be filled with an expert in online news, Hal Crawford.

The third distinguishing feature of Level 5 executives is that they have very good succession plans. They set up the business so that the success continues after they leave. So we’ll just have to trust that he knows what he’s doing on that count.

Also, by-the-by, these Level 5 characters enjoy great loyalty from their staff.

And that’s probably why, even after he’s resigned, I’m still working for him on my day off.