Monday, December 29, 2008

Holmes: egotistical to the end

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 24.)

A funny thing happened on Monday morning. For the first time in 22 years, the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who wake up each day to Newstalk ZB, the country’s most popular radio station, didn’t hear Paul Holmes.

New Zealand’s highest-profile broadcaster stepped down from his breakfast throne last Friday – encouraged to do so, evidently, by his bosses, who presumably thought it best that he quit while he was still ahead. Holmes will continue to broadcast on Saturdays but his coveted Monday-Friday timeslot has been taken over by Mike Hosking.

Holmes is not only New Zealand’s best-known broadcaster but also, arguably, the most egotistical. And he remained so to the end.

In his regular column in the Herald on Sunday the week before he quit, Holmes subjected himself to something called the Proust Questionnaire. He apparently found the revelations about himself fascinating and, being Holmes, naturally assumed his readers would be similarly enthralled.

The questionnaire consisted of questions such as “what is your current state of mind?” (to which Holmes answered “mellow”); “what is your most treasured possession?” (“My CNZM – Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit”); “what is your greatest regret” (“not leaving my job in 1993 and going into Parliament”); and “what is your most marked characteristic?” (“my honest, relentless sense of humour”).

What’s notable here is the Holmesian disregard for the convention that it’s for others, not us, to judge our personality and character. Many of us possibly think, privately, that we’re fascinating people, but it takes an exceptional ego to take that extra step and go public about it. Holmes cheerfully defies all the New Zealand stereotypes about modesty and humility.

Note also the assumption that the voters, no doubt delirious with gratitude, would automatically have elected Holmes to Parliament. I seem to recall also that he once toyed with the idea of standing for the Auckland mayoralty.

Holmes’ hubris was almost his undoing when he quit TV One for Prime several years ago, apparently confident that his legion of viewers would follow him. They didn’t. His successor, Susan Wood, inherited his audience virtually intact, thereby proving that it was a combination of the 7pm timeslot and TV One’s hold on viewers, not Holmes’ magnetic presence, that made his show such a ratings success.

There is a flipside to Holmes’ conceit, however. As is often the case with big egos, he appears deeply insecure.

Journalist Carroll du Chateau noted this in a New Zealand Herald article marking Holmes’ departure. As Holmes showed her to the door of his home after she had interviewed him, he asked her: “Do you think they like me? You know, do people like me or not? What do you think?”

Du Chateau wrote: “It is a stunningly personal question that reflects the inner vulnerability of our most influential broadcaster. No, he is not an egotist; he is, at heart, a little kid rattling around an enormous Remuera mansion with three small dogs and a cat, wanting to be liked.”

While it certainly seems true that Holmes yearns to be liked, I respectfully disagree with du Chateau about whether he is an egotist. I think he unquestionably is. It’s just that big egos are often, paradoxically, fragile and desperate for affirmation.

It may seem astonishing that at this stage in his career, an extraordinarily successful man like Holmes still needs to be told he’s a success. But in my experience, many high-profile people crave reassurance that they count for something. It’s not enough, somehow, for them to be at peace with themselves internally; they need the endorsement of the crowd. It’s their validation.

Another way such people assure themselves of their importance is by surrounding themselves with other important people. It’s surprising how many well-known New Zealanders are compulsive name-droppers, anxious to impress others by telling them about the high-flying people they rub shoulders with.

There was a hint of this, too, in du Chateau’s article on Holmes, when she mentioned the prominent photos on a sideboard at his home showing the broadcaster with important people such as Bill Clinton and Kiri Te Kanawa. I seem to recall too that when Holmes remarried a few years ago, the guest list at the lavish ceremony was a Who’s Who of VIPs, including the then prime minister.

Personally I don’t think it’s healthy when journalists become as big as the people they’re reporting, and even less so when they count them as personal friends. But it’s important to remember that Holmes, although he carried out journalistic functions, was not a journalist by training. He came to TV journalism via a background that included theatre and talkback radio. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he blurred the line between journalism, with its traditional principles of objectivity and detachment, and entertainment.

That he has journalistic skills, however, is unquestionable. Personally, I prefer Holmes the writer to Holmes the broadcaster.

Noses were put out of joint years ago when he won the Qantas award for newspaper columnist of the year, but there was no question that he earned it. He’s a fluent, assured and perceptive writer, and if he finds himself getting bored making olive oil at his Hawke’s Bay estate he could do worse than nurture this talent.

His profiles of party leaders, written for the New Zealand Herald prior to the election, were sympathetic and revealing, teasing out aspects of the politicians’ personalities that political reporters had left unexplored. I thought it was some of the most interesting journalism of the campaign.

Even so, there was almost as much information about Holmes in those articles as there was about the people he was supposedly covering. Only Holmes could write an article about Jeanette Fitzsimons in which he managed to refer to the difficulty of piloting his giant Bentley – of which he seems inordinately proud – up the Greens co-leader’s tortuous driveway.

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