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Noelle McCarthy on making a podcast about immigration (and creating a new NZ citizen)

Noelle McCarthy and John Daniell talk about the challenges – eg Winston Peters – they confronted in creating their new series for RNZ, Slice of Heaven.

There are few more vexatious issues than immigration. Particularly in the wake of recent political ruptures around the world. Particularly in an election year. In a new podcast for RNZ, Noelle McCarthy and John Daniell have ventured boldly into that hornet’s nest, talking to immigrants, economists and, inescapably, to Winston Peters, the leader of the NZ First party, for whom the subject has long been a central campaigning plank.

Broadcaster McCarthy, a native of Ireland who arrived at RNZ via bFM and Newstalk ZB, is herself an immigrant. She has not, however, sworn allegiance to New Zealand’s London-based Queen, and so, unlike her fiancé, the writer and novelist Daniell – who also holds a French passport after living there for a couple of decades where he was a professional rugby player – does not hold New Zealand citizenship. She’s also trumped in that regard by their newly arrived daughter, Eve, as she explains in the opening episode of Slice of Heaven.

The Spinoff caught up with Noelle, John and Eve around an open fire on Saturday morning at their Auckland home.

The Spinoff: My first question is, is this the biggest publicity stunt of all time, to have a baby in order to promote your podcast?

John Daniell: Ten months ago we were working on it.

Noelle McCarthy: I got such a shock when I went on Kim Hill’s show, actually, because she was so interested in the baby, she wanted to talk about the baby. We had all these talking points ready and then suddenly it was, “Oh, the baby! Tell me about that.” It was just timely.

John: We were very lucky in lots of ways. You had a very good pregnancy –

Noelle: But it also was interesting in terms of the subject matter. I was thinking a lot about it, because I’ve never become a citizen of New Zealand, and every so often I would think about it, especially when I was on Radio New Zealand and talking to New Zealand, you’d think, I’m coming to participate here, I need to be a part of this society. But I never did it. And then, thinking I would have a child who would have a different nationality to me. That’s very strange. It’s a strange feeling. And then, John’s situation – you’re a citizen of a different country as well. So between us we have three different nationalities.

And the thing is I don’t feel Irish. Ireland is not where I live. I live here and I work here and I’m connected to New Zealand, and now I have a child born in New Zealand. But becoming a New Zealand citizen – I don’t know what that would change. Everyone I talked to said it does change something.

But you weave all that into the story of the podcast – even Eve gets a mention.

Noelle: We were just thinking about the logistics of [passports and travelling]. It’s funny, the feedback we got from the first episode, at least three people I think texted RNZ to say: No, you can actually go through a different queue, as family, together, you won’t have to put down the baby. People were really concerned.

I think there are probably lots of people like us. We’ve certainly talked to lots of people who were from different places and who were making their lives here. But it’s different for children –

Eve: Hurr!

Noelle: It’s different for that next generation, because they go to school here, and they have that connection, culturally, to New Zealand, that I don’t think their parents necessarily have.

You mention in the podcast that you’re alert to the fact that your experience, as a white, Anglophone immigrant, is not the same as many other immigrants. Did that come into sharp focus as you were talking to people?

Noelle: I was aware of it anyway. I thought about my talkback period, when I was on Newstalk, just the way people wanted to connect with me was all based on the fact that I was Irish. And then when you look at the history of immigration here, with traditional source country policies, knowing that I’m from a country and a culture whose members traditionally have been welcomed here. You know, you’ve set down a historical precedent for it, whereas, when I talked to Dipen from India, he was having a totally different experience, a lot of it due to where he came from and how he was treated when he got here. I was aware of that.

Your experience, John, in France, was interesting as well, when you were getting citizenship.

John: Yeah. I got fast-tracked, because I was with the rugby team. French bureaucracy, particularly in the south of France, is a delightful mix of well intentioned corruption and flagrant passes given to the right people.

Eve: Hurr!

John: I remember turning up to the town hall to do the application and there was this massive queue, mainly of north Africans, and they took me to a little side room and it was all done in five minutes. And I remember feeling slightly guilty about it, but once you’ve been through that French bureaucracy… But that sense of two-speed, if not more, for different immigrants – it isn’t just New Zealand.

You talk in the first episode about being ambivalent about gaining citizenship, Noelle, in part because you have to pledge allegiance to the Queen. Where are you now on that, do you think you will at some point? Do you think having now a daughter who is a New Zealand citizen changes your level of enthusiasm?

Noelle: I think, more than anything, it’s not so much Eve, it’s time as well. And the people we interviewed after the citizenship ceremony [in episode one] really nailed that. There was that Scottish woman, Ros, who was saying, this is my turangawaewae now, and I have a child here now. And after a certain amount of time passes you do feel like this is home, and this is the home that you choose, rather than the home you were born in. And I’ve always felt very lucky to have two places, Ireland and New Zealand. I suppose getting citizenship would tie it up in a ball, really. It would make it easier. But what interests me about it is what Oscar Kightley said, which is that [getting citizenship] was far more emotional and meaningful than he’d thought it was going to be. I found that in the course of us making this. I thought a lot about my relationship with New Zealand. Because my story is any immigrant’s story insofar as I came here on a working holiday visa and I stayed here because of the opportunities. Just about everyone we talked to had a different version of that. We’re the same, I think. We’re here because we can do interesting work here and we like living here.

John: Things have evolved and are evolving really quickly, as far as the citizenship goes. Julie Fry, the economist, I think she asked Noelle if she was a New Zealand citizen, and said she had just become an American citizen, because you never know how quickly things are going to change.

Noelle: She’s got four kids. She worked for the Treasury in the UK and here as well, and now she’s in the US. Initially they moved, I think, because her husband got a job there. And she didn’t take citizenship for ages, and eventually she did, because of the kids. And she said none of them were predicting Trump, they had no idea that was going to happen, and now she’s hugely grateful, because, you know, she couldn’t bet on it. Which gave me pause. It’s not like I think that would necessarily happen here. But things won’t always be the same.

It’s clearly a very timely issue. In the week just gone, the Department of Statistics announced record net migration – and we’re deep into an election year.

Noelle: But statistics are never just statistics when you’re talking about immigration, are they? We found that. Everybody talks about the difficulty of reading these statistics.

John: Economists can take the same material and see it from a different point of view. Michael Redell, for example, is making a name for himself as an immigration sceptic, on an economic analysis. He says he just don’t have the data to prove one way or the other, and other people will say, actually we do…

Noelle: …You just don’t want to see it. But it’s even deeper than that – and we have this in episode two, talking to Shamubeel Eaqub – in the sense that, are economists even the best people to decide this. Shamubeel says absolutely not. Because it’s so much bigger than that, it’s cultural and it’s social. It’s emotional and psychological and all of those things as well. Because it’s about people. One of the things that Paul Spoonley said to us right at the beginning, which we found really interesting, is that people are volatile. They don’t do what you expect them to do. So the history of immigration is a history of unintended consequences. You know, we had all these Korean businessmen who were given visas on the basis that they’d contribute to the economy, and then a whole lot of them just decided to play golf. Which is fine – and then in a few years you get Lydia Ko. So you never can tell.

And Winston. You interviewed him obviously at a certain length for episode two. How did that go? He sounded kind of tetchy, I guess he always does.

Noelle: It had taken us a long time to get that interview set up, because we were dealing with his people and they wanted to know exactly what we were talking about and what the angle was going to be and why we wanted to talk to him. We put in all the time to do all that, so it was a month or five weeks in the making. And in the meantime suddenly he’s on Q and A and he’s on The Nation and, you know, he’s everywhere. In fairness to him, when we did the interview, he gave us a half hour, which was great. We talked about everything. The fourth episode – the one that John is writing at the moment – is about the Carrington development on the Kerikeri peninsula, which is in his electorate, and it’s a massive Chinese development. So I started off asking him about that, and I think that turned him, for sure. I think he felt I was trying to trap him by talking about the Chinese development. I had to keep asking the same question, because he wasn’t answering it.

And we did the rest of the interview, back and forth, back and forth, it was all fine, and then right at the end…

Eve: Gah!

Noelle: … he said, I just want to say what a shame it is that you’ve brought such a closed mind to the interview, and you’ve wasted taxpayers’ money. It was the Trump and Marine Le Pen comparison that really sent him off. I said, are you happy to line up with that sort of xenophobic populism. He said, you know I’ve been around for a lot longer, but at the end he came back to that, and he said, I know what you’re doing, you’re lining me up with Trump and Le Pen and I knew you were going to be biased from the beginning. I said, you can’t say I’m the first person to draw the analogy.

Given the timing of the series, I’m interested to know how much the election played into your thinking and, I suppose, whether you now feel, having done it, that it is possible in a febrile political atmosphere to have a mature debate about immigration.

Noelle: That was the whole point of why we wanted to do it.

John: We were talking about it when we wrote those short pieces for The Spinoff after Brexit, then there was Trump, and that sense of not really having a handle on what was happening, and definitely that idea of immigration being used as a wedge issue overseas, that had become weaponised, and divided populations in this really unhealthy way. I don’t want to get all Barack Obama about it or whatever, but we’ve got much more in common than we have that’s different. But all these guys are looking for differences. They’re looking for a little fissure, and then they turn that into a crack and then they blow it apart and suddenly everyone’s pointing at each other saying: these fuckers! That seems like a really unhealthy place to be. Particularly for New Zealand, which has the potential to be so positive.

Noelle: We did a lot of interviews, a lot that we won’t have space to use, but the interesting thing for me was the level of anxiety that people had, even though New Zealand doesn’t have those problems that Europe has, or America has, in terms of open borders, or masses of refugees, and we don’t have anywhere near the same level of problems with assimilation of immigrant communities. And yet, people are anxious. Are people anxious because they’ve been told to be anxious, or because they genuinely feel anxious that there’s not enough to go around?

John: It really feels like that’s been a created environment. Paul Spoonley says it and pretty much everything we say bore it out: the more contact you have with immigrants, if you’re a white New Zealander who’s afraid of the way things are going, the more contact you have with immigrants to see they’re actually just like us, stop being so afraid …

Eve: Gleurgh.

John: … and it’s the further away from Auckland that you kind of see the sense that something’s not good, and I think that’s what people are hearing through the media, as much as anything, and not getting that contact. It was the same thing being played out in France. The little village where I was living, which was…

Noelle: Idyllic.

John: …picture perfect or whatever, voted 40% National Front. It was older people, for whom the world had changed and moved on from what they understood, and they were afraid, and it’s not like they were any danger or anything.

Noelle: It kept coming down, especially looking at politicians who exploit that, to the narrative. It’s all about the narrative: tell me a story that I can believe in. Tell me a story that I want to believe in.

But the other problem is people who have those feelings, that John talked about, who feel marginalised for whatever reason, being told you don’t be racist, don’t say that, you’re not allowed to have those feelings, that just sort of concentrates it, drives it into a clump. I think that’s definitely what you saw happen with Brexit and Trump.

John: People feel even more put upon. And there is a big generation of New Zealanders who grew up thinking about the world in a certain way. When I was at school, who discovered New Zealand? We were told it was James Cook or Abel Tasman. Nothing to do with Māori. So that way of looking at the world has changed, and continues to change, mercifully, but if you were brought up in that world, not everyone has necessarily been brought along with the change. And it seems to me you need to hold out a hand.

Making a series like this must be a very different discipline to the interview-based live radio that you’ve mostly done, Noelle. It seems almost something closer to writing a book.

Noelle: That was how we ended up working together. Because when I did the one on ageing [A Wrinkle in Time] last year, I needed another pair of eyes on my script all the time, and I was doing it as a sort of pilot project last year, so there wasn’t a unit or someone I could go to, so because John was able to do that …

John: You were told that was what you needed.

Noelle: Yeah, I rang up the guys from Radiolab and said: What should I do? How do I do this? And they were like, Well, you know, we usually start doing a workable edit at maybe draft 30 of the script. And I actually started shaking. I said to them, Ohh-K.

John: We were very nervous. When Paul Thompson [RNZ boss] asked you to do it, you were –

Noelle: “I can’t do this!” I’d never done this. Live is different. Live, you’re just in it and you go and you get your own momentum.

John: And then it’s done, right.

Noelle: It’s much more ephemeral.

John: So for this, we talked to 60 different people. You have to do research, understand what you’re talking about, get the whole thing, interview the person, and then that’s only the start of your story.

Noelle: I found that very difficult at the beginning, because I was all about the interview. “Nailed it. Job done.” But the Radiolab guys, I asked them if there’s one other component I need to have, if there’s one other person, what is it? And they said, you’ve got to have a script editor. You have to have another pair of eyes. Anyone who is a good editor or a good writer. And John’s job was a lot easier, last year, because I’d give him a programme, and he’d listen to it, and go, “No. No. No. Change that.”

John: Oh, I don’t know –

Noelle: There was a lot of “No, no, no.” And this year it’s different because he’s writing it as well, so sometimes I go, “No, no, no.” Which is fun.

John: It’s that much more complex. It was good to have started on ageing, and have a little bit of a handle for how to do it. Immigration is such a thorny and kind of terrifying subject. Even talking to you now, I’m nervous about putting across the wrong thing – it’s not as if we have the hubris to think we can solve it.

Noelle: That’s the one thing we kept saying to each other – do not be that person. Because it’s so complicated. It’s always shifting.

John: You turn it and look at it from a different angle, and it’s always going to be slightly different, depending on where you’re standing.

Edited for length and clarity and what have you.


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