Meet Tova O'Brien, the journalist who slays

I talk to the political reporter whose interview with fantasist politician Jami-Lee Ross has gone viral


The interview has almost seven million views already.

It’s wonderful to watch: New Zealand political reporter Tova O’Brien getting stuck into Jami-Lee Ross, a grifter we’ve all been forced to deal with here in New Zealand as he campaigned for a place in parliament.

He lost — dramatically — him and running mate Billy TK Jnr basing most of their campaign on QAnon adjacent conspiracy nonsense, with some “5G will kill you” splattered on the side like old snot.

As I’ve written earlier, their entire campaign was based on targeting vulnerable, scared communities.

Before his latest effort, Jami-Lee Ross had left the National Party (another huge loser in our election) last year, as an alleged predator.

So watching Tova O’Brien’s interview felt — timely.

It’s a truly cathartic experience watching a journalist doing something we’ve almost forgotten they can do — shut the lying down.

Here it is, if you missed it:

Twitter avatar for @NewshubNZNewshub @NewshubNZ
Jami-Lee Ross is out of Parliament after Saturday's election results The Advance NZ co-leader joined @TovaOBrien on @NewshubNationNZ and was asked if he has any regrets - see the full interview unfold. #Decision20 Image

There are so many great moments. The most satisfying is Tova simply not letting him speak further, when he starts to lie about COVID-19 being no more harmful than the flu.

Instead of just letting him lie — she doesn’t. Madness!

You can’t help but think of the number of lies Donald Trump tells daily — and openly — and wish there was another way to deal with it.

There are other great moments, too — including Tova’s “You’re dreaming” comment towards the end.

It’s wonderful stuff.

First it bounced around New Zealand —

Then it bounced around the world, catching the attention of many heavy-hitters who, I imagine, are sick of seeing American politicians avoiding the same treatment.

Glenn Greenwald, the American author and journalist behind The Intercept (most well known for his reports into global surveillance) had this to say:

This from Owen Jones, Labour Party activist, author and Guardian columnist:

Writer and film director Bilge Ebiri:

And New York Times writer Taylor Lorenz, who writes some of the best pop culture investigations I’ve ever read:

I was excited about all this, so I texted Tova and said “can you please talk to me about this for my newsletter” and she said “Hey Davey it’s crazy I can do if not too much just flying will try to do soon”.

She is one of the busiest people I know so I kept it brief.

Tova, I opened Twitter today and your interview with Jami-Lee Ross is everywhere. Bilge Ebiri, Glenn Greenwald and Owen Jones to name a few. Is this cool or is this cool?

To have an interview register on the radar of some of the journalists I most admire is incredible. Around the world we’re all going through covid together and the problems with misinformation are real for us all.  

Can you please let me know what your head was like going into that interview. It felt like you had spent literally years watching this man lie and you had sort of had it. But I might be wrong. You tell me.

I’d just come back into work after a five hours of live telly for the election special the night before.

I didn’t know we had Jami-Lee Ross booked, and when he sat down and told me to be nice to him before we went to air I went off piste from the planned questions.

I’ve covered a lot of stories relating to Jami-Lee Ross and knew this would be the last. I wanted to give him the opportunity to acknowledge the people he’d hurt in his time in politics. 

Note: I did not know the word “piste” — so if you’re an idiot like me, here you go:

piste (/piːst/) is a marked ski run or path down a mountain for snow skiing, snowboarding, or other mountain sports. This European term is French (“trail”, “track”) and synonymous with ‘trail’, ‘slope’, or ‘groomed run’ in North America. The word is pronounced using a long “e” sound so that it rhymes with “beast”.

Okay, back into it…

When that clip ends, I am on the edge of my seat wanting to know what happened next. Was he just ushered out while you did your next interview, or did you get to chat further?

I shook his hand, said “thank you” and he walked off. 

You did something quite special I think which is resonating with people where you simply told someone not to lie on air and wouldn’t let them. It’s so novel, but it shouldn’t be, you know? Do you agree? 

I think it’s beholden on journalists to call out inaccuracies and misinformation whenever we hear it — particularly when the consequences are so dangerous to public health.

Just quickly, I want to deviate into something else.

It’s cool to see Tova’s stuff doing so well here, because she takes a lot of shit doing her job (being part of the press gallery isn’t just a job, either. You’re embedded. It’s 24/7. You live and breathe it).

Here’s what I want to talk about:

In New Zealand, as we went into COVID-19 lockdown, we had these daily COVID-19 press conferences that were broadcast nationwide.

It was the first time many people got to watch a press conference happen. Some tuned in on TV and the radio, many more on Facebook.

Usually, press conferences are just “experienced” by the people in the room. There are press conferences for politics, crime, sport and entertainment.

When I started in journalism as an entertainment reporter, I was sent to do a story about Burt Bacharach, but ended up doing a story about the press conference itself (forgive me this is over a decade old):

Many press conferences are more serious. If there’s a high profile murder case, the police call a press conference so their message can get out to the most media, all at once. This isn’t just a New Zealand thing obviously, it’s a model used all over the world.

Whatever form it takes, a press conference is a time for the media to ask whatever questions they want, all together.

Each network films the same event — and then back in the edit booth they each choose what they want to go to air.

So while the Government was presenting the latest COVID-19 updates to the nation, many reporters asked their questions.

Including Tova O’Brien.

The people of New Zealand were in shock:

If you tuned in, outside of the world of journalism and news, some journalist’s questions did seem abrasive and shocking.

Some seemed misplaced. Some seemed rude. Some seemed repetitive.

But out of all the reporters, Tova got the majority of the abuse on Twitter. It was constant, brutal, and mostly from dudes. Kelly Dennett wrote wonderfully about that abuse here.

But the thing is — this wasn’t a public event. Tova wasn’t MCing a town hall meeting, or doing a Q&A event for the public.

There were very specific things that needed to be extracted from officials. Sometimes this lead to stories. Sometimes it lead to nothing. But that’s part of the job. The probing, the questioning, the circling around things 20 times.

Newsroom’s political reporter Marc Daalder summed it up well at the time:

“Honestly thinking the Q&A section shouldn’t be streamed because people just don't understand what the purpose is.

Despite the incessant condemnation of journos’ questioning during pressers, since March, there’s been next to no criticism of the actual reporting (articles, broadcast segments, etc.). Which is pretty telling - the questions are not the final product.

To clarify, I’m referring specifically here to Covid-19 reporting by the people in the press conferences. One would think that, if Jason and Tova were such crappy reporters just out for a soundbite, their reporting would have come in for the same criticism as their questions...”

So with Tova’s current interview doing the rounds, before we finished out chat I wanted to circle back to that shit she got earlier in the year.

Because I think it’s important.

Part of what we experienced during lockdown were these daily government press conferences about COVID-19, broadcast live, nation wide. You were getting stuck into our leaders with very specific questions for the stories you were working on. The public isn’t used to press conferences and some people got really stuck into you on twitter about how terrible your questions were!

Our role as press gallery journalists is to give people outside parliament a voice inside it, to hold MPs and the government accountable and to explain to people why what happens in parliament is important and relevant to them.

Those questions we were asking were on behalf of the public — health workers afraid because of a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), people grieving who couldn’t be with their dying loved ones, pregnant women scared about having to give birth alone.

The questions and the stories helped strengthen the covid response. 

Just finally I feel like none of us live in a bubble — who are the journos and interviewers you look to for ideas and tips? Like I feel like for me growing up it was Louis Theroux. And still is probably haha. What about for you?

There are so many journalists around the world I admire who I watch and read and listen to but right now after such an epic and protracted election campaign I’m drawing all my strength and inspiration from my team. We spitball ideas, support each other and just generally get a lot of joy writing together and working with each other. 

Thanks Tova. Keep slaying please.

I’ll round this out by saying I think Tova O’Brien is doing one of the most kick-ass jobs in New Zealand.

She’s fearless.

One second she’s being abused en-masse, the next everyone is going “oh wow great job”.

I guess my point is, you don’t magically end up doing a killer interview with a fringe conspiracy fear-mongering politician. That stuff takes work, dedication and technique.

And a track record. And Tova is one of our best questioners — and now as the world has seen — she’s one of the world’s best. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

I think that needs to be celebrated and emulated by others, in this time when the truth is slipping further and further away.