John Campbell: the woo-hoo man

by Diana Wichtel / 10 November, 2012
Tirelessly enthusiastic, somewhat eccentric and occasionally bulldoggish, John Campbell is putting energy into the crusade against child poverty.
John Campbell

The scene: an office in the dim reaches of TV3 that appears to be inhabited by a teenager with odd musical allegiances and hoarding issues. It turns out to be the workspace of John Campbell. It’s tiny. He shares it. He has taken us to the show’s bustling, unglamorous Auckland headquarters to introduce everyone – his colleagues have the air of people who get this a lot – and to see where it all happens. What’s happening at the moment is the reinvention of John Campbell as Man of the People.

Campbell Live, a commercial beast, is just as likely as the next current affairs programme to do a searing exposé of Mary Poppins. But the show has been attracting notice, in an era of “and now, this” news, for its stubborn, rolling investigations of Christchurch, child poverty, Kim Dotcom … and for its advocacy of the radical notion of feeding New Zealand’s disadvantaged children. “This is our eighth year. There are fewer committee meetings and fewer contributions from on high,” says Campbell. “I want to say on the record now that contributions from on high are absolutely welcome and valued and all that shit,” he adds, with a veteran of corporate television’s reflex arse-covering, “but now we’re just doing our own thing.”

Brian Edwards, who can dish out a Campbell kicking, congratulated the show last year when it introduced its inspired Caravan of Complaint, initially to give the people of Christchurch a voice. Or as Edwards advised, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” The caravan is still deployed on a range of topics.“It’s about us not getting in the way. There’s no script and down the barrel. People like it. Now when we do it, people turn out.” Another approving blogger has named Campbell his New Zealander of the Year with three months of 2012 yet to run. Some remain unimpressed. Herald columnist John Roughan labelled the show “little Fox”, for what he sees as one-sided reporting. “They’ve made it their mission to side with people against power,” he chided. To which Campbell replied, on TV3’s Media3, “Am I not meant to give a shit?” Like the show’s campaigning style or not, such signs of life are welcome at a time when gritty primetime current affairs seems endangered.

When we crowd into Campbell’s cave, it’s a more personal item of advocacy journalism he wants to show us: his star-struck story about his favourite band, New York indie popsters The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. He’s meant to be in serious-news-guy mode. He can’t help himself. Campbell’s story features an ageing fan boy (himself) meeting the band for wine and Pineapple Lumps. The reporter, in obligatory suit, sits awkwardly amid the hipsters on a picnic rug. The piece includes clips of two gigs, during which some dolt in the audience is going “Woo! Woo! Woo-hoo!”, like a ground proximity alarm seconds before impact. “That really embarrassing guy,” reports Campbell, “it’s me.” Paradoxically – he says he’s an intensely private person – it’s probably only Campbell’s public profile that stopped the other concertgoers from throttling him. Still, it’s good to find that, at 48, with a daughter and son, 11 and nine, he retains his trademark volcanic enthusiasms.

He raises his interview with Valerie Adams after her gold medal presentation, when he greeted her with “Come here, you gorgeous woman!” The fireworks stood no chance against the fizzing wattage generated by Campbell. “So I’m standing there holding the mike and grinning from ear to ear, really stoked, at precisely the moment they cut to me and I look like a sort of 14-year-old who’s just scored the winning try for the first 15 or something,” he recalls. Actually, he looks like that quite a lot of the time. “Anyone who’s not moved by that at some level is missing something, in my opinion,” he says in his defence. “It’s just the human response to being there. Isn’t it?” There can be few less cynical people in television; in the world, possibly.

Though he’s less likely to greet an interviewer, as he did when I first spoke to him in 1997, with “Of course I’ll talk to you, you delightful creature!” He’s more wary. He’s been under attack lately. And people have always had fun with his theatrical manner. For years most stories about him had the default headline “Maa-arvellous!” In the excellent TV3 sitcom, The Jaquie Brown Diaries, Brown, sometime Campbell Live protégée, recreated him as the hapless McHuntly (don’t say it fast). “Yesss,” he exhales. “I have mixed opinions on The Jaquie Brown Diaries. Because for the last six months on our programme Jaquie, every time you walked past her desk, was closing a word file.” She told them it was about some generic show. At which point alarm bells rang? “No! No! I believed her!” From memory, McHuntly ended up homeless in Grey Lynn Park. “Probably only a matter of time,” muses Campbell.

He is, dare I say, somewhat eccentric. “Yeah, yeah. When people take the piss out of it, that’s me. It’s not the job. It’s just me coming through in a human way at live moments when I’m not able to manufacture a wall between me and the TV persona,” he sighs. Well, people make fun of even such austere British broadcasters as Jeremy Paxman. “People are vicious about Jeremy Paxman,” says Campbell, brightening. That’s television. People watch shows like Campbell Live for information, entertainment and, occasionally, to see the host crash and burn. “Yeah, all of that stuff,” agrees Campbell. “And I can oblige on any front.” There was the misjudgment over the use of an actor in the Waiouru medals thief scoop. “Yeah, we f---ed that up.” There was the irascible interview with “Moon Man” Ken Ring over his Christchurch earthquake predictions. Campbell had been in Christchurch, working long hours. “Ken Ring didn’t go to Christchurch. He didn’t see how on the rack and desperate and exhausted and vulnerable everyone was.”

Campbell did have a valid point about the anxiety caused by what many saw as pseudo-science. “Yeah, I had a valid point with a Gatling gun. I should have just shut the f--- up and let him respond. But I didn’t. Instead I behaved like a big barking dog.” Brian Edwards blogged outrage. Ironic, coming from the man who all but invented the studio interview as blood sport. “I saw Brian in the supermarket recently,” muses Campbell, “and he was really lovely.” No hard feelings, then. But Campbell Live continues to polarise. “If school meals become a new entitlement … it will be a costly triumph for one-sided television,” wrote Roughan, in a sort of backhanded compliment to the show. There are signs that the success of its “Lunchbox Day” for KidsCan, along with other initiatives, may have softened Government thinking.

Campbell Live has also stuck to Kim Dotcom. Its “who knew what, when” story in October was admired. “July is a really fascinating month,” says Campbell, of the saga, “because our most senior politicians are engaging with US politicians who are central to the prosecution of Kim Dotcom at almost every level. Tim Groser, Chris Finlayson, Simon Power, John Key – they’re all meeting these people and it’s just a staggering series of coincidences that none of them discussed this operation, which by that stage New Zealand police were working on.” It’s a story that has grown bigger than the man at its centre. “You have the GCSB illegally conducting surveillance and the Prime Minister not knowing about it, and you think this is really weird shit. Why were we doing that? Now, actually, that’s not a story about piracy and copyright crimes. That’s a story about how we behave in the world.” So is Christchurch. Covering the quakes, says Campbell, helped the show locate its mojo.

John Campbell in 1991

“After the earthquakes everyone went down and treated that event like spot news. Then everyone went back but we stayed and stayed.” Digging in became the modus operandi. “Suddenly it made sense to us all. And then milk prices – we went in to bat. And more recently child poverty and the issues surrounding that. Everyone finds it the right fit and no one at the moment is saying, ‘Yeah, that’s all very well but you haven’t interviewed Brad Pitt lately.’” It makes a change from the days when, in the battle for TV1’s hard-to-budge audience, there was, he says, “an enormous amount of second-guessing internally. People would say, ‘We want it to be more folksy. Maybe John should take his tie off.’ It was counter-intuitive. We weren’t playing to our strengths.”

Now, he says, it feels good. “We were really careful to not do a Corngate and fail to take people with us by attributing blame, because that’s a different story,” he says, of the child poverty coverage. “It’s a situation that’s decades in the making, so nobody deserves to be absolved of responsibility. But whoever’s to blame, it’s not the children.” The investigation into proposed Canterbury school closures has produced results. “We identified errors of fact in the ministry’s work. The ministry has now come out and said yes, they were errors of fact. So they did great work down there,” he says, of his colleagues. Jibes like “little Fox” don’t bother him too much.

“Rather than respond on a level of fact or rationality, they just say, ‘Oh these people are lefties from way back’, and everyone can go, ‘Right, we don’t need to take that seriously. Piss off.’ Fox is a master of it and, ironically, that’s what Roughan is doing in that column, I thought,” he says. “People only dislike it when the advocacy is for something they don’t agree with. What I’ve noticed is, online and in politics and at dinner parties, everything is very tribal now.” He rejects notions of political bias. “The first child poverty stories we did were with Natasha [Utting] around the issues that see Middlemore Hospital full of bronchiectasis and stuff, which is overcrowding. That’s going back to when Labour was in government.”

Helen Clark, post-Corngate, famously dubbed Campbell a “little creep”. Politicians remain difficult to inveigle onto the show to give their side. “Gerry Brownlee almost always fronts and we have had a couple of extremely tense interviews. Whatever you think of Gerry Brownlee, I actually admire that because he understands that there are responsibilities attached to his role.” The sort of dogged investigations the show is doing may have something to do with the reluctance of some politicians. “I think it does.” The normal news cycle moves fast. “So you put in a bid for a minister and the minister thinks, ‘Shit, this is the first night they’ve done this. They’ll know nothing.’ It’s not going to be a robust or informed question line. We’re sticking to stories. It makes it a tougher interview.”

There are inevitably complaints about overly aggro interviewing. “There are times when I have just got it spectacularly wrong, but if I’m regarded as an aggressive interviewer, then we don’t really know what aggressive interviewing is … Politicians understand entirely that they’ve got to survive [for] somewhere between four and six minutes,” he says. Sometimes it’s interrupt or endure the party political broadcast. “Then you can actually see the emails coming in saying, ‘Shut up, John. Who do you think you are? Let him answer the question.’ And you actually want to say, ‘But he’s not! He’s not f---ing answering it!’” If he blows it, he knows. “And I will be bummed out, maybe for the entire night or I will even have that three-in-the-morning experience where I will wake up and think ‘Shit, I wish I hadn’t done that.’”

Still, the ease and scale of the commentary can be daunting these days. Everyone’s an electronic critic. “People will write things like ‘I really hate him. He’s a dick.’ And I think, ‘You’ve never even met me.’” He tries to be philosophical. “What I have to understand is you can’t have a public life without people having an opinion of you. If you’re in the kitchen and it is hot, there’s no point in complaining about it.” ‘I’m a work in progress,” announces Campbell at one point. The same could be said of the state of early evening current affairs. Close Up is outski, its replacement rumoured to be hardly heavyweight.

John Campbell

“I find it really upsetting that the state broadcaster isn’t configured to be a public broadcaster and successive governments are to blame for this,” says Campbell, invoking Marian Hobbs’s now-defunct charter. “What the hell did that mean? There was an A4 page-and-a-half of well-meaning tea-towel homilies from Kelburn saying: ‘You must be a good broadcaster.’ But actually the first requirement under the act within which they existed was to pay a dividend. People were saying, ‘Show me the money.’ And what we know is that if you are required to be craven in pursuit of a dividend, then you lower the bar,” he says.

“I think we’ve collectively gone through a terrible period of doing that. There was real confusion about what the audience wanted, and it seemed to me there was a kind of collective, visceral sense of when in doubt, aim low.” The media madness that greeted David Bain’s acquittal comes luridly to mind. That sort of carry-on certainly left a yawning void waiting to be filled with something different. And Campbell probably wouldn’t still be gracing our primetime screens after more than 20 years in the business if he wasn’t so … different. When we speak, the New Zealand Television Awards are looming.

Campbell Live and its host are nominated in several categories, including Investigation of the Year and Best News and Current Affairs Presenter. Nice. But how long can you keep doing a show with your name on it? “For as long as you possibly can,” he says resolutely, determined to keep treading his unique, precarious journalistic line between watchdog and woo-hoo. As for the rumours that surface from time to time of the show’s imminent demise, “They’ve been surfacing for eight years now,” roars Campbell. “I dunno,” he says. “We just keep making it.”

CAMPBELL LIVE, TV3, Weeknights, 7pm.
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