Hard News by Russell Brown


The Next Act

My first encounter with Paul Holmes was inauspicious. It must have been 1992, and I was waiting to board a plane at the Ansett terminal in Auckland when another flight arrived and he and Hinemoa emerged from the airbridge.

Hine and I go way back and we'd shared a squat in London. She greeted me warmly and went to introduce me to Paul, but he had already marched on, not even lifting his head. I got the impression that this Paul Holmes was a bit of a prick.

It would be years before I discovered that Holmes could actually be a very engaging fellow. In 2005, when I was trying to write jokes for him and Mike Hosking in a hopeless TV news quiz -- an experience notable for the aching absence of chemistry when the two men were in a room together -- he'd occasionally suggest we should duck out for a yarn. He'd offer a cigarette and ask me what I was up to. He seemed genuinely interested to know.

The year before, I had written a not-entirely-flattering profile of him for the Listener and discovered that he was a tremendous interview subject: frank, game and generous. Paul Holmes did not live an unexamined life. He clearly thought about himself a lot. That much was evident in his final interview, with Janet McIntyre for Sunday.

I understand why some people felt uncomfortable watching the interview with a dying man, but I found it compelling. There could be no doubt that Holmes, as ravaged as he was, wanted a final accounting.

Much of the rest of his unprecedented public departure from life seemed weird and uncomfortable. Week after week of pre-obits culminated in the mild farce of a visit from Kim Dotcom -- and that photograph. But the big German was an archetypal Holmes favourite, the battler against the system. I wrote this in the 2004 story:

The irony is that Holmes’s virtue is his vice. He accepts the proposition that he instinctively warms to people he perceives as battlers against the system. I read him a list of such people: Alison Annan, Christine Rankin, John Banks, Jim Sprott, Lesley Martin, Nick Smith in his contempt case …

“Very good,” he says. “I do instinctively stick up for people being ganged up against. But that also applies to somebody who might be getting nowhere with the bureaucracy over a leaking house, say. But yeah, and I sometimes enjoy taking the contrary position.

“I do not know what happened, why the powerful end of the Establishment turned on Christine … Rankin. Christine Rankin is a person with whom I have a cordial relationship and nothing more. But I never did find out what anyone found in her that was so loathsome. I still don’t know what Alison Annan has done to make the education establishment turn on her."

Annan, the rogue principal of Cambridge High School, actually did plenty. She gamed the NCEA system to make herself look good and, worse, bullied the most vulnerable children and parents. Her behaviour towards an autistic boy and his father, which I covered in the story, was despicable.

Holmes couldn't see it. He was attracted to people he saw as like himself -- battlers against the bureaucracy. And more even than most men of his generation, he believed that if he felt something, it must be right. I think this belief was at the heart of his best acts, and his worst. His embrace of  Eve van Grafhorst, the little girl with HIV, genuinely helped change the perception of AIDS in this country. He made us feel proud to have included her. On the other hand, there was his dreadful, fulminating Waitangi Day column in the Herald, the low point of a second round as a newspaper columnist that didn't have many highs.

This is why all the Father-of-the-Nation burbling these past few days is wrong. He wasn't universally loved. At the time of the Listener story, there was something of an insurrection in the TVNZ newsroom, where many journalists regarded him as basically out of control. Even years later, on Q+A, he took advantage of a pre-recording to throw a tantrum that astonished those present.

He could hardly have been otherwise. For 15 years, Holmes worked mornings and evenings, as Newstalk ZB's breakfast host and as TV One's 7pm star. The pressures of broadcasting, especially live broadcasting, are sometimes immense: being "on" takes its toll and people deal with it in different ways. Some, like Mark Sainsbury, seem to have perfected the art of leaving it all behind when they exit the building. Holmes carried it everywhere.

His former boss at Newstalk, Bill Francis, once explained to me why he always defended his hosts when they lost the plot. Most of them were "edge personalities" and that was central to their ability to perform talk radio. Outbreaks of senselessness simply came with the territory. You don't have to be mad to do the job, but it helps.

Holmes didn't just work in radio and TV, he shaped them in his own image. When Brent Harman hired Holmes to replace the much-loved Merv Smith at 1ZB, he wasn't there merely to fill the seat, but to lead the shift to the Newstalk format itself. Its success was his success.

Similarly, when Holmes launched on television, he took a new format (albeit one with a long history across the Tasman) and made it his own. He did so in part by frequently letting you know you were watching a television programme. What the TV viewer never sees is that there are perhaps a dozen people out of shot, doing their jobs so the host can do his. The host is supposed to pretend they're not there, but Holmes would  quite often refer to them.

I'm in no doubt that watching Holmes influenced what I did when I eventually got in front of the cameras. I suspect John Campbell would offer a similar acknowledgement. (Holmes's frequent churlishness about Campbell should be regarded as a form of compliment.)

Holmes entered both radio and TV at their critical junctures of commercialisation and deregulation. We'd had strong, journalistic figures in both, but they were part of an era where the audience took what it was given. Holmes began the era of trying to give the audience what it wanted, which might not be particularly high-minded. He was comfortable as the centre of attention at the time when TVNZ, as a matter of strategy, set out to turn its presenters into celebrities.

And what a star he was. At its height, the nightly audience for Holmes could approach a million viewers. But those were different times and that isn't going to happen again.

Until about 1996, when the internet started to go mainstream, programmers and marketers generally regarded the mass, middle market as the only one worth pursuing. Niches mattered less and a man on the telly could capture the heart of the nation.

Three or four hundred thousand still watched Close Up to its end, but TVNZ found itself with a format that not only never worked as well without the man around whom it was built, but one that was created in a different era. Campbell Live has addressed the changes in the market by being hipper and brainier, leavening the emotional impact of its advocacy journalism with internet-age savvy, and settling for a smaller, more targeted audience. Close Up didn't seem to know what it wanted to do.

And so, in a remarkable twist of fate, the show that officially retires the Holmes format launches tonight, as if it had been waiting for Holmes himself to leave the building. The genesis of Seven Sharp has been troubled -- Ross Dagan, the head of news and current affairs who ordained it, announced he would be quitting and taking a job back home in Australia before it even got to air.

It appears that the troubled culture of TVNZ's news operation was too much for Dagan, and yet this is the dysfunctional management environment in which the Seven Sharp team has had to create a new flagship show. It clearly isn't easy. The industry gossip last week was that two producers had walked out on the programme, but I'm assured that's untrue.

And yet, there are talented, motivated people working on Seven Sharp. I gather they're happy with their final rehearsals and at least once it's on air we will have a merciful end to the pronouncements of various commentators about what they think the show will be like.

The pressure must be enormous, not only for creative success but in the ratings. I wish them well. And should they fail to set the world on fire on day one, it's worth recalling that when a gabby, unconventional broadcaster called Paul Holmes was fetched up from Wellington to front the new ZB a quarter of a century ago, the first thing that happened was a screaming nosedive in the ratings. For a full year, the change looked like an awful mistake. But, as we all know now, it turned out pretty well in the end.

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