Thursday, February 14, 2013

A few thoughts on Paul Holmes

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 13.)
I NEVER met Paul Holmes, but we had a few things in common. We were only three months apart in age and grew up within 50 kilometres of each other: he at Haumoana on the Hawke’s Bay coast, I in the Central Hawke’s Bay farming town of Waipukurau.
We both spent our working lives in the media, although he with infinitely greater fame and impact. Reading friends’ and colleagues comments’ about him following his death, I think we would probably have got on well. He was obviously loved by many of those who knew him.

I was not a habitual viewer of Holmes’ TV show and didn’t hear a lot of him on the radio, but it was impossible to live in New Zealand during his years at the top and not be aware of his influence in national life.
I did read his newspaper columns, which I thought were very good. In fact I preferred his writing to his on-air persona.

I wrote in Holmes’ defence on at least two occasions when the po-faced enemies of free speech wanted him silenced. The first was over his reference to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a “cheeky darkie” – an attempt at ironic humour that went down the wrong way – and the second was over his angry column about Waitangi Day protesters, as a result of which the Press Council (wrongly, in my view) upheld complaints against him.
My defence of Holmes had little to do with whether the opinions he expressed were correct. It was all about his right to say what he thought – a fundamental principle in a free society that we undermine at our peril.

All that unavoidable exposure to the ubiquitous Holmes led me to form a few conclusions about him. And while convention decrees that we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, enough time has elapsed since his death to allow a more balanced assessment of him than has been evident during the past two weeks.
The first point to be made is that he was clearly a very talented broadcaster with his own idiosyncratic style and the confidence – audacity, if you like – to follow his instincts. Regardless of whether you liked that style, and I was mostly indifferent to it, his immense popularity attests to that.

But his contribution to New Zealand broadcasting appears to have been exaggerated in some of the tributes paid to him, often by people too young to know the relevant history.
To hear some of his associates talk, it’s as if no one had conducted tough, incisive television interviews before Holmes came along. People forget that the real trail-blazer was Brian Edwards in the late 1960s, followed by people like the upstart Simon Walker, who gamely refused to be intimidated by the great bully Robert Muldoon.

Holmes’ youthful former boss on Newstalk ZB even credited him with pioneering talkback radio, perhaps not realising that stations such as Wellington’s Radio Windy and Auckland’s Radio Pacific and Radio i were running talkback formats back in the 1970s (remember Gordon Dryden, Geoff Sinclair and Tim “Punch a Pom a day” Bickerstaff?). The old NZBC had experimented with talkback even earlier.
People also overlook the fact that Holmes was gifted with a large, ready-made audience when his TV show made its debut in 1989. A substantial proportion of the population were habitual viewers of TV One and tuned in nightly to the news at 6pm. Whichever programme followed the news was bound to inherit that large group of passive viewers who, to this day, show an extraordinary reluctance to change channels.

The importance of that TV One viewing habit was underscored when Holmes, in a blaze of publicity, defected to the rival Prime network in 2005. He clearly expected his fans to follow him, but they didn’t; they stuck with One. It turned out to be the channel, not the host, that commanded their loyalty. Holmes’ Prime show was an ignominious failure.
That misjudgement on Holmes’ part suggested that he over-estimated his own pulling power. Big egos come with the territory in broadcasting – you could almost say they are a pre-requisite – and Holmes was no exception.

I always felt, rightly or wrongly, that he was trapped by his ego. He seemed addicted to the limelight and the trappings of celebrity, living much of his life in public. His marriage to Hine Elder was a media event attended by a dazzling array of notables, including the country’s leading politicians.
Even in his last weeks, when he was plainly dying, he seemed unable to resist the siren song of television. Some people I know felt distinctly queasy watching that last interview with him on the Sunday programme. They said it felt intrusive.

I wonder whether it was ego that drove him to work such long hours – mornings on the radio, evenings on television. There’s a price to be paid for all that compulsive exposure, and Holmes recently admitted he wasn’t there for his children when he could have been. Who knows whether that was a factor in his adopted daughter Millie going off the rails?
He also revelled in his friendships with powerful and important people. Call me old-fashioned, but I get uneasy when someone in the field of journalism becomes too chummy with politicians and power-brokers. They should keep a respectful distance from each other.

Big egos are often also fragile egos, and there was evidence of that too.  Interviewed by the New Zealand Herald when he quit his breakfast radio show in 2008, Holmes anxiously inquired of the reporter, Carroll du Chateau, whether she thought people liked him. She concluded that at heart, he was a little kid wanting to be liked.
Big egos can be precious, too, and even vindictive. When journalist Wendyl Nissen wrote a critical review of that very first Holmes show in 1989, the one in which American yachtsman Dennis Conner stormed out, Holmes took the highly unusual step of complaining to her editor at the Herald. He was angry that she had accused him of sensationalism, and apparently put it to her boss that she might have been motivated by malice.  

Nissen feared for her job, yet Holmes recently admitted what had been obvious even then: that he had set out to goad Conner into walking out because it would be great publicity. Nissen’s review was more accurate than she knew – yet Holmes had her carpeted by her editor.
I am genuinely sorry that Holmes has died and I feel sympathy for his grieving family, friends and colleagues. But no purpose is served by whitewashing his memory. A man who thrived on controversy in life could hardly expect unquestioning adulation in death.


Vaughan said...

Eccles Smith was another robust talkback host.

If I remember correctly he was on Radio I and was active in this role even before Gordon Dryden.

Richard McGrath said...

Nicely put, Karl, and I admire your defence of free speech on behalf of Paul Holmes.