Carole de Colville, one of the first women to work as a field reporter in national current affairs television in Aotearoa New Zealand, died recently in Australia. Her colleague and friend from that time, journalist Alison Parr, remembers her impact.
Carole de Colville was an unmissable presence. Tall in stature, with an impressive intellect, she verged on formidable. An Australian, she worked in radio when she first came to New Zealand. There she won an award for outstanding journalism with a feature on the dynasty of business tycoon James Fletcher. A fellow broadcaster from those days remembers Carole’s “humour and energy and superb bullshit detector”.
At the beginning of the 1980s she left radio for television. And it was there we met, both hired as field reporters for the current affairs show, Close Up, a forerunner of longer current affairs programmes like today’s Sunday. Our office was in Lower Hutt, in the Avalon glass tower, and Carole drove to work from Wellington each day along the motorway in a yellow sports car she called ‘Malaria’.
Before us there had been only a handful of women reporting for national current affairs, impressive outliers in a role then dominated by men. There was a residual sense that we were best suited to covering topics like health and education – seen then as the domain of women. But neither of us stayed in our assigned lanes for long. Over the next five years we joined our male colleagues working the full range of stories, feeding the fast turn-around of a hungry show, broadcasting weekly.
On the whole we were treated with respect and accepted as equals, but there was one major story of the time that Carole and I did not get to work on, at least at the sharp end. When the divisive 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour led to ugly protests and retaliations, it was left to the men to witness and record the street battles between protesters, police and rugby fans. Maybe the TVNZ bosses thought they were protecting us. Whatever the reason, on the day of the first Wellington test match Carole and I holed up in her central city home, drinking, smoking and worrying about our colleagues and their camera crews somewhere in the thick of it, ‘out there’.
As with all our stories on Close Up, Carole’s reflected the social and political history of the times. Among the many topics she covered were the battle to contain the AIDs epidemic, the National government’s attempted foray into open-cast coal mining in the Waikato, the appointment of Sir Edmund Hillary to the role of New Zealand High Commissioner in India, and the re-election of David Lange as Prime Minister in 1986.
There were stories that reflected the attitudes of the era. In an interview with Franz Paul Decker, a resident conductor with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Carole was contemptuous when the German maestro explained to her that women could not conduct because “their breasts would get in the way”.
Towards the end of her time in Close Up she covered a series of stories in the Pacific, examining the political life of countries including Fiji, Vanuatu and Kiribati. And in 1985 Carole travelled to India for perhaps her toughest assignment, the aftermath of the devastating Bhopal tragedy, when a chemical leak from a pesticide factory killed tens of thousands of people. She never talked with me about what happened there, what she saw, but I had a sense she was profoundly affected by it.
When she left television Carole disappeared from New Zealand. She returned to the Pacific, to Fiji, where she lived and worked as a journalist – and where she had a longed-for child, a daughter, Apikali. From there she went on to work in the Solomon Islands. We had only occasional contact. Eventually she returned home to Australia where she disappeared in a different way, betrayed by her fine and independent brain as early-onset dementia took her from us.
Her time in Close Up made Carole de Colville a well-known name in 1980s New Zealand, however today there is little trace of her. Internet searches reveal almost nothing compared with entries on most of her contemporaries in broadcasting journalism. But she should not be allowed to disappear again. Carole deserves to be in full sight, on the record, as one of those who claimed a place for women journalists to front current affairs television – who helped clear a path for all those who so confidently and rightfully have followed.