No show without Punch?

by Russell Brown / 02 October, 2004
As the rumblings of the critics grow louder, Paul Holmes insists he is better than ever.
Let's get this out of the way now: Paul Holmes cannot understand why "suddenly this year it's been fashionable to speak about my retirement. Why!? I'm 54 years old! The ratings are excellent, and on the whole, I think I'm doing some of the best work I've ever done."

I point out to him that Merv Smith probably thought much the same thing until, 17 years ago, a young turk called Paul Holmes tipped him out of his flagship 1ZB breakfast show. Holmes laughs.

"I do think about that. But no, I know enough about that situation to know that the circumstances are quite different. There appears to be no challenge to the ZB ascendancy in the morning, as there was then. And the audience reception of Holmes here at TVNZ has been excellent. They're exciting programmes to do, good programmes, they're beautiful programmes. Beautiful opportunities."

Brent Harman's move to usher in 1ZB's Newstalk format by hiring a gabby, unconventional broadcaster from Wellington was astonishing in 1987, and looked more so as Smith decamped to Radio I, where ratings soared. But it was the beginning of the older man's twilight, and of the sun shining on Paul Holmes.

And yet, the last year and a half has been clouded by controversy. Last year, Holmes attracted 12 complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Authority - more than twice the number for any other year. Three complaints sprang from a single morning's breakfast radio, on March 23. And then, in October, there was "cheeky darkie", a bleak morning on the radio that still horrifies him. He can't bring himself to say those words, referring to it only as "that business".

Amid reports that his current television contract runs out at the end of the year, a growing number of critics and commentators are publicly urging TVNZ to call time on the 15-year Holmes phenomenon.

NZ Herald columnist Gordon McLauchlan has weighed into Holmes three times in the past year, frustrated that TV's only daily current affairs programme is merely, he thinks, a star vehicle. "He is a gifted showman, but has none of the professional rigour of a journalist," McLauchlan wrote last October. "His preparation is usually sketchy and inadequate."

In June he added that the show "continues to decline to a level bordering on the ridiculous" and last month, after the John Banks/Dick Hubbard debate, said that if it had been "an audition by someone looking for an interviewer's job, Paul Holmes would have received a rejection letter".

Holmes's response? "Gordon is a fool."

There is something about Holmes and journalists. There was an audible gasp from the crowd at the Qantas Media Awards in 1999, when Holmes was named best newspaper columnist. Actually, his old columns read pretty well - especially now, in the year of too many celebrity pundits. On the day of the interview, Holmes is looking forward to beginning a new column, in the Sunday Star-Times, as the result of a personal approach from deputy editor Donna Chisholm. A day later, the column is cancelled - caught in the competition between Holmes's bosses APN (part-owner of the Radio Network and publishers of the new Herald on Sunday) and Star-Times publisher Fairfax.

That will add to the chatter among journalists, for many of whom - including some in TVNZ's newsroom - this year's talking point has been that Holmes is out of control. That he must be reined in. He must go.

"Really?" says Holmes. "They dream it, I live it."

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."

But Holmes's sympathy has meant that some of those people have lately enjoyed soft interviews on the national broadcaster's current affairs flagship. Holmes's interview with Martin was the subject of an official complaint about balance. And some TVNZ news staff were unhappy at what they regarded as an overly cosy chat (first question: "It was the job you loved, is it like a divorce?") with Annan after her apparent resignation.

"What happens down in the newsroom is for them to worry about, what happens on the Holmes programme is for the Holmes programme to worry about, frankly," says the host. "I mean, people have always had opinions about whatever I do. And I do things to the best of my ability, and even if I like someone I remember I've got a job to do. I still asked Alison Annan the hard questions. But she is a remarkable person, Russell."

Gavin Marriott, whose special-needs son was effectively prevented from attending Cambridge High when Annan told him she would have no allowances made for him, might feel differently. As the father of two sons with the same condition, Asperger Syndrome, it certainly offends me.

"That was his view? Well, there you go. No one's a saint, but everyone's got the right ... everyone from time to time needs a defender. But I sympathise with you on that, if that is the case. Do you know, Russell, I'm going to take a stab and say that I do not believe that was the reason that Alison Annan wouldn't have those kids at that school? I can't believe she thinks like that."

And the rumour of prior communication between Holmes and Annan?

After the Kofi Annan furore: "I got a card out of the blue from Alison that said something like, 'from this Annan, best wishes for the year'. People often assume that I have friendships with these people, but I don't. I have relationships of cordiality. I don't know most of these people from Adam, but I do have views, and those might not be the views of the gang in the newsroom."

Holmes's own team wasn't best pleased recently when, the morning after the Holmes interview with warring Auckland mayoral candidates John Banks and Dick Hubbard - which his producers had tried hard to make balanced and impartial - Holmes praised Banks's "incredible record" to his radio listeners. Banks put a transcript of the tribute on his website.

"Do I like Banks? I know Banks can be a real smart little bastard. And yet there's something about him that makes me smile. You'd feel the same if you were honest. I'm a person with opinions. I will observe the fairnesses, I will observe the correct grammar of the current affairs interview."

And yet, it is still the case that someone he perceives as representing bureau-cracy will get a different tone of interview from Holmes, and perhaps, like Creative New Zealand's Peter Biggs, be outright roasted.

"That's a valid perception. So sue me. If I listened to every journalist up and down the country about how I should conduct my breakfast programme and the television programme, I don't know what I'd do. I try to be fair, and if I'm favouring someone ... I can't really hide myself, that's another thing about me. But within that I believe I'm professional."

But it does clearly trouble Holmes that his Annan interview might be seen to have shown favour. He raises the topic again three times in the interview.

"She came in with her husband, and I walked into the makeup room and said, 'How are you?' She is surprisingly gentle and nervous. I leaned against the counter while Alison was getting her makeup on and said, 'Why did you go for 100 percent on the pass rates?' She looked at me with fire in her eyes and said, 'What good is failure?' And I felt something. This told me a lot about her. I hate people failing, too."

In a phone call a couple of hours after the interview, he reaches for a better conclusion: "The people you mention are also some of the most interesting people I've met. And I met them when they were in the firing line. I'm interested in people in the firing line, possibly because I've been in the firing line myself."

It might also be ventured that the individuals to whom Holmes warms are generally those who are dragged, or drag themselves, into the limelight. Although the caregiver at the centre of Nick Smith's contempt case was silent, vilified, unable to have her side of the story told, Smith sat nodding on Holmes as the host suggested to him that the Family Court was chiefly interested in its own reputation.

Holmes often engages people - and he has always been frank about it - by provoking an emotional response. But he has rarely, if ever, I point out, talked about making people think.

"I wouldn't be so pompous or so grand as to say I want to make people think. I actually don't have the self-importance to say to people that I, Paul Holmes ... I wouldn't have the pompousness to say that, frankly. I just assume that when people laugh or cry or get angry, they're doing some thinking. Of course, I want to make people think, but I don't want to say my great intellect is now going to put together the options that will really cause you to sit down and really think this out. That's bullshit, don't you think?"

Yet, he isn't above telling his audience how to feel, as he unabashedly did in inviting viewers to "prepare to go ballistic" in advance of what proved to be a woefully unbalanced and inaccurate story in 2002 about some land near Tauranga registered as "wahi tapu", or sacred to Maori, by the Historic Places Trust. Reporter Duncan Garner later claimed that Holmes had rewritten his intro against Garner's wishes. It was the host and his programme at their baying worst. Does he regret it?

"Regrets are no use. I might now have framed it a different way. I have an ability to tap into the mood of a nation. And if it made a few people watch, then I have no regrets. And it was four words in 17 years of television."

And the story?

"All news media get things wrong or get the wrong end of the stick from time to time. What we didn't get wrong was a sense of growing unease - which I think Don Brash later identified."

With Holmes, there is an extent to which you can't argue with success. No one would have thought that his programme would still be on air 15 years after the Dennis Conner interview. Not for the first time, he has bounced back from a dip in the ratings: the show has recovered very strongly in Auckland in the past year, and quite strongly in TV1's target 25-54 demographic.

For all viewers five years-plus, Holmes' average weekly rating is an 18 - equating to 673,000 viewers a night. The biggest episode of the year - Shrek the sheep's big night - attracted more than 800,000 viewers. But today's rating is still some way short of the 25 percent of the potential audience Holmes attracted in 1991, and the show pulls only 8.4 percent of viewers in the TV2-friendly 18-39 demographic.

The fact is, Holmes wouldn't be easy to replace. It is harder than it looks to build a waystation for the national experience, as Bill Ralston's predecessor Heaton Dyer discovered when he hauled resources out of Holmes and Assignment to create the shining edifice that was Sunday. Sunday's host - and once hotly touted Holmes successor - Mike Hosking struggled to connect with an audience the way Holmes has done for so long.

Holmes once rapped Hosking while the latter was interviewing him on TV for his lack of life experience, and there may be something in that. After a brief career as a young shock-jock, Holmes disappeared to Europe and Canada for years, working where he could, drinking, meeting people. He agrees that that experience out in the world has had a lot to do with the broadcaster he has become. Holmes has also had a better look at his own mortality than most of us. He has faced death five times: in a serious car crash at the age of 23; a 1987 helicopter crash in which a TV cameraman died; the cancer; a horseriding accident where he was lucky to escape with a broken leg; and a dodgy situation reporting for Holmes from Kosovo.

It has been character-building. But most of what he's done, he's done at least twice.

"I know what you're saying," he acknowledges. "What's new, what keeps you ... it's just that every day is new. I think I've had a fairly rich journey, but I don't feel that I'm going in a continuous loop. There are issues that come up and I think, been here before ..."

To put it another way, is there anything he wants to do that he hasn't yet?

"I'd love to write another book. I love testing myself under real pressure. I'd love to act in a movie."

But for now ...

"Whatever I'm doing and whatever I've done over the years must work, because we're pulling 700,000 people a night to the programme. It's extraordinary. In any other part of the world, that would be seen as wildly successful. Here it has to be examined and picked over, and regarded suspiciously ...

"Am I populist?" he asks his own question.

Well, yes.

"Yes, yes, of course I am. When it's convenient to be so."

Holmes is in many ways a radio man who has strayed onto TV. Much of what upsets some people in his TV show passes without comment in the editorialising Newstalk radio format, which leans more on vigorous opinion than detailed research or delicate equivocation. He is also likely to have a longer run on radio than TV - also, he's only a year or so into a $2 million five-year contract with Newstalk.

But his TVNZ boss, Bill Ralston, says he has no plans to change what goes out on TV1 at 7.00pm every weeknight. He dismisses grumbling in his newsroom: "There's always a rivalry between news and the Holmes team. They're great internal rivals. Neither is well known for saying good words about the other.

"I think [Holmes'] ratings are stronger than we've had for several years, and that's one of the indicators. I think they're breaking stories a lot more than they did in the past. There's got to be acknowledgement within that that you're getting a quality product, and I still think we're getting a quality product out of Holmes. Obviously the viewers think so, too."

As I'm finishing the story, I get a couple more calls from Holmes. He's concerned about the case of the special-needs child in Cambridge. I explain to him what I know of it, and point out that the rather less glamorous schools my children attend have been highly supportive.

I later discover I have voicemail from Holmes. He has called Annan about the Marriott case, "and she says it's bullshit. She denies it. She says, in fact, the man was offered a position and decided not to enter his child at the school. She said it's bullshit."

In the few hours left before deadline, I'm unable to reach Marriott - it's school holidays. But he went through the case in some detail in an interview with Newstalk ZB's Larry Williams, only three days after the Holmes interview with Annan. Although he might in theory have been able to enter his son at Cambridge High: "In my case, on enrolment, after explaining that my boy had minor special needs, I was advised to go to another school, and I was then told he wouldn't be enrolled as a special-needs child, I was told he couldn't have an individual education plan, I was told that they wouldn't cater for his individual needs, I was told he would be treated just like any other student. I was told if he does any of the minor things according to his condition, a few detentions would sort that out. I was then told if he didn't fit in, he would have to go."

To treat an Asperger's child in this fashion would be not only unwise, but actively negligent and a breach of the school's responsibilities. To offer enrolment under such conditions is effectively to make no offer at all. Marriott said that he had letters from Annan, confirming that his son could be enrolled, but on the condition his special needs would not be acknowledged, which had been shown to Dame Augusta Wallace.

Marriott's son buses to school in Hamilton, where he has prospered. Marriott says other families in a similar position moved out of Cambridge. Sadly, he says that some other Cambridge parents have told him to "keep" his special needs child in Hamilton.

It's a good story. A classic Holmes story, even. It didn't get told. And perhaps that's what happens when makeup room intuitions are allowed to direct a current affairs show.
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