Outgoing Morning Report host Susie Ferguson (Photo: Lee McCauley RNZ / additional design Archi Banal)
Outgoing Morning Report host Susie Ferguson (Photo: Lee McCauley RNZ / additional design Archi Banal)

MediaOctober 7, 2022

Early nights, scary trolls and bias claims: Susie Ferguson on leaving Morning Report

Outgoing Morning Report host Susie Ferguson (Photo: Lee McCauley RNZ / additional design Archi Banal)
Outgoing Morning Report host Susie Ferguson (Photo: Lee McCauley RNZ / additional design Archi Banal)

After eight years, the Morning Report co-host is moving on from one of New Zealand’s most high-profile media gigs. Stewart Sowman-Lund asks how she’s feeling about the shift – and what she makes of detractors’ claims she’s a government mouthpiece.

Susie Ferguson is ready for a lie-in. 

After eight-and-a-bit years co-hosting Morning Report, paired with two different broadcasters during that tenure, she’s switching off the 4.30am alarm. Now, Ferguson’s readying to enter a new era at RNZ in a role that, though largely mysterious at this stage, will see her as both a presenter and reporter in some capacity.

It was a pretty swift rise to the top for Ferguson, who had been at RNZ for under five years when, in 2014, aged 36, she was given the call-up to become Morning Report’s next co-host. Of course, her media career was already a success by this point. She’d been a reporter for the BBC and had covered events from around the world, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, before migrating to New Zealand. Initially paired with Guyon Espiner, then Corin Dann, Morning Report with Ferguson at the helm has remained one of the country’s most listened to and venerated media products – although listenership noticeably declined during the second year of the pandemic before climbing back in 2022.

So how does she feel giving up one of the highest profile jobs in New Zealand media? “I feel fine. I feel that my time has come. So I actually feel quite content,” she tells me over the phone. Ferguson’s just come off air from one of her final shifts when I call and admits to being a bit tired. She’s more anxious about any “surprises” from her RNZ colleagues to mark her last show than about what’s coming next in her career. 

It’s been about a year since Ferguson first privately revealed her intention to leave Morning Report, telling the network’s chief executive Paul Thompson in September 2021 while much of the country was dealing with the interminable Covid-19 lockdown. “I said to him, ‘I think I’m getting to the point where I’m not gonna be able to do this very much longer’. We kind of talked it through in very broad general terms at that point. And then it was just before Christmas last year that I saw him again, and I said ‘It’s time now, I’ve definitely got to that point’.”

It took another six months before anything was made public, and then a further two months before the final day arrived. A successor for Ferguson has not yet been confirmed, though smart money would be on Midday Report host Māni Dunlop, who has been the go to fill-in on the breakfast show this year.

For a lot of people, eight years doing the same job would feel like a lifetime, but Ferguson says following on from Geoff Robinson’s 36-year stint in the role makes it feel more like a blip. “He’d done it for more years than I’d been alive at the time, or some kind of mad statistic like that.” That said, it’s the longest single job she’s ever held. “I started with a baby and a preschooler. I now have a kid on the point of going to high school and an almost 10-year-old. My life has changed in a bunch of other ways. I’ve gloriously hit menopause – I say gloriously, it’s been a nightmare. I just feel it’s long enough and I think it’s time for somebody else to have a crack.”

Susie Ferguson interviewing former prime minister Bill English. (Photo: RNZ)

While Ferguson’s time as co-host has undoubtedly earned her a lot of fans, she’s also been the subject of some pretty vile vitriol online. The Covid-19 pandemic and its associated disinformation surge has seen those in our media, most often women, become targets for faceless online trolls. Ferguson agrees that women in media “unfortunately” have a tougher time than their male counterparts, even in New Zealand. “I still park in a different place to everybody else who comes in on the early shift because I need a secure car park because I’ve had direct threats,” she says. “I think that sort of tells its own story really, doesn’t it? There are other women I know of who work in the organisation who have secure car parks. I don’t know of any men who have car parks simply for the reason that they’re secure.”

Alongside the threats and trolling, Ferguson’s tenure has coincided with growing online commentary that Morning Report, and Ferguson in particular, have swung to the political left. That critique has heated up as the government prepares to merge our two public media outlets, RNZ and TVNZ, into one mega organisation. The Public Interest Journalism Fund, launched by the current government, hasn’t helped either. 

Writing for The Spinoff in 2020, Duncan Greive commented on “stark” differences in the treatment of prime minister Jacinda Ardern and then National leader Simon Bridges on Morning Report. Earlier this year, Greive again examined RNZ’s treatment of a National Party leader, this time Christopher Luxon when interviewed about his unannounced Hawaiian holiday. “What makes the interview more unfortunate is that it feeds into what is already a well-established perception on the right that RNZ is more inclined to look favourably upon Labour and the left,” wrote Greive. “And that Ferguson on Morning Report is the most egregious example of this lean.”

Ferguson, though aware of the claims that RNZ has become a Labour government mouthpiece, says she’s not convinced the perception is “rooted in reality”. But reality or not, it’s been enough to see Act’s David Seymour boycott Morning Report and create a particularly frosty, at times downright hostile relationship between the programme and former National leader Judith Collins. Is that an indication that the political shift is real, I ask Ferguson. “Or is it a question of the politician’s personality?” she replies. “I’m not sure it’s as straightforward as saying ‘Oh, it’s a move to the left or the right’.”

Ferguson is well aware of the claims that she herself is to blame, or at least partly responsible, for that perceived political shift. Her co-host Corin Dann, a former TVNZ political editor, is rarely subject to similar claims of partisanship. Nor is the network’s political editor Jane Patterson or her team of press gallery reporters (David Seymour, for example, commended Patterson when defending his decision to boycott Morning Report). “I’m aware [of those claims] because I read the media,” says Ferguson. “I’ve never, at RNZ or indeed previously, had my impartiality questioned by anyone within my organisation. I’ve never been pulled up in front of the head of news, and I’ve had three different heads of news in this job. No one’s ever questioned my impartiality.”

For her final show this morning, Ferguson was surprised with farewell messages from two politicians: Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins. The prime minister thanked Ferguson for bringing “such great integrity” to the role of interviewer. Collins, while wishing Ferguson the best, added: “I don’t think I really enjoyed our interviews… I just wish that you would let me finish everything I wanted to say and not interrupt with those pesky little questions.”

Christopher Luxon “passed” on the opportunity to provide a message.

With the move away from presenting, Ferguson joins a growing list of our most senior broadcasters who have hung up the microphone for a return to the field. It’s a trend – though that’s not a word Ferguson would use – that can loosely be traced back to Newshub’s Patrick Gower moving from political editor to national correspondent in 2018. He was later followed by his colleague Amanda Gillies, along with TVNZ’s John Campbell and RNZ’s Guyon Espiner. “I suppose it’s a way of hanging on to people,” says Ferguson. “Certainly with the morning stuff, which obviously Guyon and John have done previously … I could only get up and do this job day after day for about eight years, as it turns out.”

There will be things she misses about the job, not including the early weeknight bedtimes and 4.30am alarm. As a “news tragic”, Ferguson says she enjoyed walking into the newsroom before most people were awake and “getting a jump on the news”. It was the variety that kept things exciting, she explains. “I’m not very good at doing the same thing every day, which I know might seem like a funny thing to say when I’ve done Morning Report for eight-and-a-half years, but it’s always different. There are always different people to talk to. Pretty much every show I’ve done, there’s always been a surprise. The show that you walk into at 4.45am, when you look at the rundown and you see what there is, I can only think of one time where the show as it looked then was the show that actually went to air.” 

That one-off occasion also coincided with Ferguson contracting a vomiting bug from her child – and marked the only time she was thankful for a lack of breaking news. “I threw up at ten to six and I did the programme and in between every intro that I read or after every interview I had to put my head on the desk. It was horrendous. I just kept thinking, please no breaking news today.”

Inevitably, breaking news will continue to play a part in Ferguson’s career after today, though she’ll likely be the one reporting on it from around the country rather than crossing to it from a warm studio. She’s excited about whatever comes next – especially the prospect of being able to go out after dark on a work night. 

I end our interview with arguably the most clichéd question in the book: what advice does she have for her successor? “Enjoy it and make it your own,” she says. “But also, go to bed early.”

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