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Cool Story #5 – Morning Report’s “A Mystery in Ophir”

An occasional series commending excellent New Zealand reporting. This time: missing small town millions on Morning Report.

Every week day I listen to Morning Report on Radio New Zealand – sorry, RNZ*. When I don’t, I feel vaguely uneasy – like I don’t quite know what’s going on in this country, and might be missing something of vital importance. On Saturdays and Sundays I miss it, and find myself scrolling through its podcasted segments, in search of my anchor.

At its best – which is most of the time – it feels like New Zealand’s newsdesk. Susie Ferguson and Guyon Espiner gel well, without being too matey, and mixes strong in-studio interviews with pieces from the organisations’ bureaux, scattered throughout the country, in a way no other organisation can justify in this era.

It also nearly always asks the right questions of the right people. Last week saw a brilliant example of that, when Espiner conducted interviews around the family which has stunted the growth of their severely disabled daughter, and the relevant authorities.

It’s a complex issue, an ethical and moral muddle, but one in which the law and authorities seemed – to my mind at least – to have gotten hopelessly lost. Espiner navigated it sensitively, but without flinching. Brilliant radio.

This morning there was a very different kind of segment, a masterpiece, I think, of Southern Gothic feature reporting. It was staged in Ophir, “one of the smallest and coldest towns in New Zealand”, and involves a millionaire engineer, a 1934 Bugatti, a Masterchef contestant and a long-term squatter.

It covers the story of Bob Turnbull, “an eccentric engineer”, and the co-inventor of a key jet-boat engine, who died in 2012, leaving his fortune to a trust intended to benefit the towns of Ophir and Omakau. “Bob himself was not fond of spending money,” says the local postmaster of the old tightwad. As a result, he died very wealthy, and in possession of an extraordinary collection of classic cars, worth many millions.

It’s a magic story, reported with deftness and curiosity by Peter Newport, of Radio New Zealand’s Queenstown operation. He goes to find out what happened to the money, and those cars, and finds a tangled mystery lurking in the isolated township. “We were told in very uncertain terms that we were not welcome in Ophir,” says the journalist of the story’s central figure. “So, obviously, we paid him a visit.”

 

You should too. Listen below:

* For the record, I’m in favour of the change – if RNZ stays Radio New Zealand it is destined to die, and cannot really defend its existence.

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