The veteran Australian TV reporter and weatherman was starting a new job abroad as a prime-time news anchor. But decades of on-camera presence couldn't prepare him for this gig, mouthing the party line for an imposing state-run TV network with armed soldiers posted at the entrance gates.
He was reading the news in communist China.
"I stared into the lens and mentioned the Communist Party and I almost lost it," he recalled. "It was a routine story about some move the regime was making. But I remember thinking to myself, 'I can't believe I'm doing this.' "
Maher is the first non-Chinese news anchor for state television's English-language station, CCTV International. He speaks almost no Mandarin, but that's of little concern to his bosses.
He was hired in 2003 as the station introduced a Western face to shake its image as a stodgy government mouthpiece, famous among foreigners for its wooden presentations and sometimes-tortured English. Maher anchors the news up to four times a day for millions of viewers worldwide, including the U.S. Critics say Maher isn't a reporter at all, but a shameless government yes-man who gives all Western journalists a bad name. Maher answers bluntly: He says he simply doesn't care.
Maher made his mark as a sort of Aussie Willard Scott, an eccentric weatherman who ad-libbed his reports by using map pointers such as carrots, scepters and an ice cream cone. Maher has given the weather standing upside-down and once poured a cup of water over his head during an Australian heat wave.
He came to China on a whim after his wife died from a brain tumor in 2001. Since then, he's become a minor celebrity who has also written a series of articles for government-run China Daily on his fumbling efforts to learn the language and culture. This year, the illustrated columns have been turned into a book, published in English and Chinese.
But his fame lies in his CCTV broadcasts. With a solemn face and precise delivery, the graying Maher (who will say only that he is in his 50s) reports the Chinese version of events on everything from relations with the United States and Taiwan to the nation's annual crop yields.
If there's a hole in the story, don't expect Maher to fill it. He knows, for instance, he can't utter the phrase "mainland China," which censors believe suggests acknowledgment of an independent Taiwan.
During a recent broadcast on the impact of the controversial Three Gorges Dam, he reported only the government's assurances that no environmental damage was being done, with no mention of warnings from the West that the massive project could become an ecological disaster.
"It's a matter of acceptance," said one station official, who declined to be identified. "If you like working here, obey the rules. If you don't like the rules, get out."
Maher is among three dozen foreigners at CCTV-9, performing roles such as editing and checking grammar. But he is by far the most visible. Fans use his broadcast as an English tutorial. Many monitor what kinds of ties he wears, even the pen he uses. He has received mail from as far away as Van Nuys, from someone who wanted his autograph.
His broadcasts reflect the emerging global media now blurring the lines between politics, language and nationality. CNN, the BBC and other international networks feature foreign reporters and anchors. But the trend is also affecting networks considered fringe players on the TV journalism front.
Al Jazeera has a team of English-speaking reporters from 45 nations, recruited from many of the globe's major networks. In diversifying its news reports, CCTV officials say they hope their foreign reporters will help provide a more credible Chinese perspective on world affairs.
Media experts call the move a public relations ploy.
"It sounds like an effort to lend a whiff of Western-style credibility to their news operations, in a superficial way, without having to actually adhere to high standards such as fairness, independence, balance, public service and accuracy," said Neil Henry, a UC Berkeley School of Journalism professor.
"But a propagandist is a propagandist, no matter what one's race or country of origin."
Maher hears from his critics -- from irate e-mail writers to the foreigners he meets. "One writer said there was no excuse for what I was doing. And Westerners on the street will ask how I feel about being a mouthpiece for the Chinese government."