Robert Penfold: From Campbelltown to the Berlin Wall

Robert Penfold reporting on location

PHOTO: Nine

As Nine’s most trusted foreign correspondent prepares to hang up his microphone we find out what life has really been like on the road.

Robert Penfold is a true gentleman. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the television industry who has a bad word to say about him. Even his fiercest rivals would have to agree the man has worked hard but played fair during his 43 years working for Nine News.

Producers and reporters were caught by surprise when an e-mail from news boss Darren Wick landed in inboxes around the country advising Penfold would be stepping back from his duties in July.

In the e-mail Wickie, as he is known, praised Robert’s character;

The legacy he has created is without comparison in any Australian media company. His leadership, mentoring of younger reporters and cameramen, experience and story judgement are a combination that has established our U.S. Bureau as the best in the business.

But, well above what he brings to the table as a journalist, it’s Rob’s decency as a human being and his compassion and concern for his colleagues that make him an exceptional individual.

Robert Penfold as a reporter in the ‘70s

PHOTO: The Campbelltown-MacArthur Advertiser

I could not agree more with this sentiment. I had the pleasure of working with Rob when I was at Nine and I’ve always looked up to him as someone who came from my home town of Campbelltown and made his mark on many Australian’s.

When I spoke to Rob shortly after his resignation had been announced (you can listen to that interview in the player below), I could tell he will miss the daily grind of the job but he also seems to be relishing the opportunity to spend more time with his family;

“I felt it was time to step back, a little at least. You know I'm a grandfather now, which I'm very proud of, and we're enjoying that. And Shar and I just want to spend a little bit more time out there, sort of getting around. Maybe traveling a lot more, as well.”

Nine has been smart and they’ve asked Robert to stay on in a mentoring capacity part time. He will also file occasional feature stories for the network.

Rob has been the voice of news and taken us to some of the biggest events in the world as they were happening, including the fall of the Berlin Wall;

“We had gone over there a couple of days before, thinking that there was a bit of an uprising happening, perhaps, in East Germany. Not knowing of course, as no one did, that the Wall would be tumbling down. It was only in the middle of the night, actually, that I actually got a phone call from Sydney saying, "Wow! It's amazing to think that you are there where you are.",

The news was spreading around the world, but Rob wasn’t aware of the situation yet as he had been in his hotel room;

“This is pre-mobile phones, of course, I said, "Yeah, it's incredible." Because you know, as a journalist, when people ring you, you always pretend, at least you know a bit about something about what's going on. So I bluffed it because I didn't want them to think I didn't know. "To think that they're knocking down the Berlin Wall while you're there ...". And I'm going, "Yeah, it's incredible!" I opened up the curtains of the hotel room, and we were quite near the Berlin Wall at the time, and actually saw people running all over, everywhere. I said, "Don't worry, we're on to it, and we're going to get some good stuff here. But, we're just getting the camera ready to go."

Within 24 hours Rob filmed one of his most iconic pieces to camera, standing on top of the Berlin Wall which was in the process of being torn down;

The next day, I was actually, literally, standing on top of the Wall, with all the young East German soldiers, heavily armed, looking up at us, thinking, "Should we shoot them?" Or whatever. They put fire hoses on us to get us off, and then eventually they gave up.

During his 43 years working for Nine the requirements have changed for reporters. Once upon a time a story would only need to be prepared for the main 6pm news and possibly the TODAY show. Now a reporter sent to a major news event will start reporting LIVE from 5.30am Australian time for the Early News, then the TODAY show, TODAY EXTRA, followed by the Morning News. It’s not uncommon to then pre-record some crosses for afternoon news services before writing a story and doing a possible live cross for the 6pm news (which is most likely the middle of the night from the locations Rob reports from);

“Things have changed dramatically. Whereas in the past, it would have always been just a one shot for a 6pm piece. And these are the demands that are put on young journalists these days. And not the reason, I'm stepping down, but at the same time, I have my old mates who are all ex-reporters saying, "Man I would love to be ... I want to get back in." And I say, "I'm sorry, old boy. Once you're out of this business, you could never get back in, because you could never adapt to what the demands are these days."

In my chat with Rob for the TV Blackbox podcast we barely covered his career yet during our short conversation I heard about him being forced to drive wounded Yugoslav soldiers to a Slovenian hospital and how he came across the dead, naked body of Mafia boss Robert Trimbole. This is a man who has seen it all and now he finally gets the chance to travel the world with his wife, Shar - without the need for a bullet proof vest!

If you follow any journalists on Twitter you will have noticed the outpouring of love for Rob since his announcement and we can only add to the praise this great man so rightfully deserves.

You can see Robert Penfold daily on Channel 9’s news programs.