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Editorial: Sir Paul Holmes (1950-2013)

The charismatic broadcaster changed the face of prime-time broadcasting in New Zealand.

Paul Holmes
Sir Paul Holmes, photo Jane Ussher/NZ Listener archives

We weren’t quite ready for Paul Holmes when he barged into our living rooms in 1989 – but we were considerably less ready to lose the brash, brainy and sentimental broadcaster when he died last week.

Holmes, who changed the face of prime-time television in this country, instinctively grasped what American and British news gurus had been laboriously mining from focus groups and polls for years: that news and current affairs must engage with the viewer on a personal and thoughtfully nuanced level if it is to survive the ratings wars. Those who initially accused him of ego-driven populism came to eat their words.

Before Holmes, current-affairs anchors were sometimes celebrities, but only in a remote, worshipful sort of way. This theatrical upstart, as he first seemed, blurred the lines between news and entertainment, journalism and personality. And somehow, in his hands, that didn’t seem such a bad thing.

Although celebrity culture imported into the news can be obnoxious and distorting – witness the media fear and loathing surrounding Seven Sharp before it was even on air – Holmes showed the two could be melded to great benefit.

He made current-affairs television exponentially less of a chore for the viewer. He assumed co-ownership with “our people”. He could be whimsical and irreverent, while still posing the tough questions. He proved that hard news could be leavened with lighter “colour” items without dumbing down the whole. He sometimes used up too much oxygen – but woe betide the bureaucracy or business that played foul with those less able to stand up for themselves. His brand became synonymous with sticking up for the vulnerable individual. Public-relations experts constantly warned political and corporate clients to test their actions by asking, “How would this look on the Holmes show?”

That he remains controversial is probably because he spearheaded the “journalist as part of the story” movement, but Holmes was one of the few who got the balance right. He had the wit, confidence and above all the empathy to pull it off. Few others have sufficient charisma or authority to convincingly inject themselves into the story the way he did, yet most these days insist on doing it, anyway.

Holmes’s charm allowed him to get away with murder at times. His “cheeky darkie!” admonition of the former United Nations head ought to have been a career-killer. But by then, we knew him well enough to understand that he wasn’t a racist and to accept that what he lacked in his urge to shock and show off was a reliable inner filter.

He openly buddied up to the famous and powerful, even inviting to his weddings those from whom, in his influential position, he ought to have remained aloof. But he got away with it simply because he was able to achieve rapport with pretty well everybody he came across, and this showed on screen. He never lost sight of the person behind the persona when he interviewed a public figure and he rejoiced in giving “our people” – he would never think of them as “ordinary” – equal billing on the show.

Holmes was admirably upfront about his own foibles. Without any of the PR connivance now so common, he rode the publicity wagon up to the peaks of women’s magazine adulation and down through the troughs of career doldrums and bad behaviour. He would talk about his highs and his lows, never putting up the shutters when he was in a period of disgrace. His sometimes chaotic personal life, replete with injudicious drinking and capering, was an open book.

Misled by his origins as an actor and disc jockey, Holmes’s detractors always ran up against the fact that he was better-read than most of the people he dealt with. Behind the genius for populism was a slew of passions for subjects such as history.

But it was his feeling for the underdog that has furnished many of the past week’s eulogies with memories of kindness. Frustrated when TV bosses would not fund him to cover the Paralympics, he wrote the cheque for the expedition himself. His spirited coverage made the Games a TV crowd-pleaser that bosses now dare not skip.

Few people leave such a distinctive personal and professional legacy. And even fewer manage to have been quite as maddeningly loveable as Sir Paul Holmes.

More on Paul Holmes

The Listener’s very first Paul Holmes interview
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2012
Interview with Paul Holmes from 2006Subscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
Paul Holmes leaves TVNZSubscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
Paul Holmes faces criticism after “cheeky darkie” commentSubscriber contentIcon definitionSubscriber content
Paul Holmes: a terrific vulnerability
Kim Dotcom goes to Sir Paul's place - in pictures
From our achive: Paul Holmes: the running man