It's hard now to grasp what a sensation it was in 1970 when a young TV interviewer called Brian Edwards seemed to have resolved the postal workers' dispute that was threatening to paralyse New Zealand's communications. If our expectations of television aren't exactly higher these days, we're more jaded about its power.
The interview (which you can now see for yourself on NZ On Screen) took place on a current affairs show called Gallery, whose journalists had lately jousted with the government and the establishment to an extent with which New Zealanders were not familiar.
The dispute itself is a period piece: the government had allowed internal pay relativity between clerical and "trade" staff in the Post Office to fall absurdly out of whack. While action in pursuit of pay rises loomed, the government and the Post Office Association somehow contrived positions which prevented them talking directly to each other to avoid industrial action. And so on September 7, the 20,000 clerical workers cut their work by 80% -- toll operators who had been handling 50 calls an hour took only six.
Two days later, David Beatson introduced Gallery thus:
Another day of stalemate in the Post Office dispute is drawing to a close with both Government and the Post Office Association talking to everyone about why they haven't been able to talk to each other. The government insists it will start talks if the Post Office Association stops the go-slow; the Post Office Association will stop the go-slow if the Government will start meaningful talks. And as this exercise in tail-chasing goes on, the country's postal communications system is becoming increasingly chaotic.
The programme had been able to get Mr Reddish, general secretary of the Post Office Association, and Mr McCready, the Postmaster-General, to agree to a joint interview with Edwards on Gallery, its producers hoping that they might thus break the deadlock. Edwards described what then took place in his 1971 book The Public Eye …
At 8.55 Edwards, Reddish and McCready were having coffee together in the green room and studiously avoiding any discussion of the issue which we had come together to discuss; at 9.10 we were seated in the studio watching a filmed backgrounder to the dispute which the Gallery team had put together during the day; at 9.20, live before the nation, the confrontation began.
By 9.30 we had achieved almost nothing. With Mr Reddish continuing to insist that his Association would not call off the go-slow until it had received an assurance that Government was prepared to enter into “free, frank and full” negotiations, and Mr McCready adamant that the Government would not be intimidated by direct action, the discussion had degenerated into a free-for-all of abuse and recrimination, calculated to open old sores and revive past history, rather than to resolve the present dispute. With less than seven minutes of air time left, I could see Gallery’s chances of making television history disappearing into the mists. This is what happened next:
(Editor's note: I've cut out the transcript right up until the last 30 seconds, where I'll let Edwards' account continue)
INCREDIBLY, ANOTHER WRANGLE OVER THE HANDLING OF THE WHOLE ISSUE. MORE PAST HISTORY, MORE RECRIMINATIONS. THIRTY SECONDS TO GO.
EDWARDS: Can I stop you both! Would you agree that we have reached some common ground now and that the situation is perhaps a little more hopeful than it was fifteen minutes ago?
REDDISH: I would think so.
McCREADY: We both think so.
REDDISH: Well if Mr McCready and the Government, and I’ve talked to Sir Keith Holyoake, a man I respect very much ... but we want a fair deal in negotiation. And we’ve got a case in common justice and we want it dealt with on that basis.
McCREADY: Well, you’ll get it.
REDDISH: It’ll be a change!
EDWARDS: Thank you both very much.
As they left the studio, Messrs Reddish and McCready were still at one another’s throats. Though we had succeeded in bringing them together for the first time in the Gallery studio and though it now seemed possible that the programme had been instrumental in helping to resolve the dispute, neither Des nor I were prepared at that moment to do any chicken-counting. That feelings between Mr Reddish and Mr McCready still ran high, was all too evidence and of course the General Secretary of the Post Office Association had done no more on the programme than to state that he would go back to his executive and “recommend” that consideration be given to calling off the go-slow. It was much too early for self-congratulation.
I arrived home shortly after 10.30, opened a beer, lit a cigarette and put my feet up in front of the “telly” to wile away the seemingly interminable half-hour that remained until the late night News. At around 10.45, much to my irritation, the telephone rang and I dragged myself from the luxuriant warmth of the living room into our draughty and unwelcoming kitchen where the telephone was located. At the other end, a voice unknown to me asked if this was Brian Edwards and I said that it was.
“Ah, Dr Edwards, Walker speaking ...”
“Walker, Minister of Broadcasting ...”
“Oh yes, look, I'm sorry. It’s a very bad line. Do you think you could ring back again in a couple of minutes and it might have improved?”
“Hello, Dr Edwards. Walker again. Is that better?”
“Yes, much better.”
“Good. Dr Edwards I have the Postmaster General here. He’d like a word with you.”
“Hello Brian, McCready speaking. I thought you'd like to be the first to know that the go-slow is over ...”
And so it was. At 10.30, the President of the Post Office Association had advised the Prime Minister that the go-slow would be called off at midnight, and he in turn had conveyed this information to the House. I'm not entirely sure whether it was pleasurable shock or whether some thwarted industrial agent provocateur in the Post Office was trying to get his revenge, but the enormously generous words of congratulation from the Postmaster General and the Minister of Broadcasting emerged curiously faintly from the telephone earpiece. At any rate, I got the gist of it and there was rejoicing all round.
We had done it! We had created television history! Only once before had anything even remotely similar happened anywhere in the world, when, in 1962, the late Richard Dimbleby nearly got the British Minister of Transport and the railwaymen’s union chief into negotiating mood on Panorama. Nearly! We had done it! Or had we? To convince myself that it was not all an illusion brought on by the excitement, the beer and the overheated living room, I made a beeline for the television set, on which the News was just beginning. And there, sure enough, it was: “The Post Office go-slow is over. The decision to call off the go-slow at midnight tonight followed a confrontation between the Postmaster General, Mr McCready, and the General Secretary of the Post Office Association, Mr Ivan Reddish, on the television programme Gallery ...” I abandoned the beer in favour of a stiff scotch and sat up into the early hours of the morning persuading a weary but tolerant wife, who really needed no persuading, that I was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
You have never seen such headlines: P.O. ENDS GO-SLOW – DECISION FOLLOWS CONFRONTATION ON TV PROGRAMME; DISPUTES SOLUTION – IT’S In THE BOX; TV CONFRONTATION ENDS GO-SLOW – NOW IT’S FULL AHEAD AT P.O. It was the same throughout the country. Only the Christchurch Press, in a singularly mealy-mouthed moment, managed to see the end of the dispute in isolation from the programme. Elsewhere, leader-writers, editors and critics seemed determined to give credit, and more than credit, where credit was due:
The Post Office go-slow ended last night after a dramatic confrontation on the television programme Gallery with interviewer Brian Edwards in the star role of industrial conciliator.
He stripped away the ill-feeling and historical side-issues obscuring the views of the Postmaster-General, Mr McCready, and of the Post Office Association Secretary, Mr Ivan Reddish. And when the scales fell they were negotiating ...
Television interviewer Brian Edwards was being facetiously tipped as a new Minister of Labour around Parliament Buildings this morning after last night’s Gallery programme in which he was instrumental in ending the go-slow ...
Brian Edwards managed to stretch the Marshall McLuhan doctrine “the medium is the message” further still in Tuesday’s notable Gallery programme when he showed the medium as the mediation. Thanks to his persistent efforts the Post Office national go-slow was shown in its most ridiculous light and agreement to negotiate secured virtually on the spot ...
OTAGO DAILY TIMES
There were those who went still further:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. All hail, O Brian Edwards!
Last night on Gallery, alone and unafraid, in one of the most dramatic confrontations we’ve ever seen on New Zealand television he ended the Post Office “strike”.
Brian Edwards can be as modest as he likes about his remarkable performance on Tuesday night ... The fact remains that he did it and he probably saved the country millions of dollars ... There would be one or two people the community has honoured with knighthoods and orders who have done less to deserve them.
The community is grateful; what about something tangible to show it?
The success of Brian Edwards on the Gallery television programme, which resulted in ending the Post Office go-slow, could lead to startling developments.
For instance, switch on the television set and catch the latest show, Strike Buster.
We are just in time to hear the announcer say: “Here he is, your industrial conciliator and mine – Brian Edwards!”
The studio audience thunders its applause as Mr Brian Edwards springs before the cameras.
The beaming announcer says: “This week’s line-up of industrial problems for Strike Buster includes the Swizzle Stick Makers Union versus their employers, the management of the Pretty Party Hats Corporation and their workers and the Society of Park Leaf Rakers meeting the chairman of Parks and Reserves ...”
Will the redoubtable Brian Edwards manage to work more miracles?
Saint, knight, miracle-worker? Hardly! In this case the “modesty” was genuine, for when the first flush of success had faded from my cheeks and when the “dramatic confrontation” had been subjected to a little sober consideration, it dawned on me that this triumph of television conciliation had probably less to do with the conciliator than it had with the medium itself. That we had managed to pull off this television coup was a tribute perhaps less to my persistence in dragging the parties back and back to the central issue than to Des Monaghan’s initiative in getting them together in the first place, to their maturity in backing down publicly from what seemed non-negotiate positions and, most important of all, to the uniqueness of a situation in which the processes of conciliation were conducted under the watchful eye of a disgruntled and inconvenienced public.
It was a situation which left little room for displays of temper or pique, which highlighted the stupidity of stubbornly hiding behind irrelevant slogans and past history, and which forced the parties to adopt a more reasoned and more responsible stance than might well be the case behind the closed doors of the average negotiating room. It was, in brief, public pressure which did it, and I made the point forcibly to the dozens of reporters who got in touch with me on Wednesday morning.
The public itself, to whom the credit was really due, refused, however, to see it that way and their interpretation of events was graphically depicted by cartoonists everywhere who had me not only negotiating industrial disputes at home, but mediating between the parties in the Middle East and at a number of other international flashpoints.
Amid all the rejoicing the point was not lost on a number of thinking people that the very success of the Gallery programme was itself an indictment not only of industrial relations in New Zealand, but of the failure of the accepted processes of arbitration and conciliation. As Mr Reddish himself said a couple of days after the programme: “It’s a crying shame that industrial relations have got to the stage where differences have to be settled before a television audience. Have our industrial relations deteriorated to such an extent that we can’t sit down and thrash out our points of view?”
Editorial writers everywhere were asking the same question and coming up with pretty well the same answer. It was “a crying shame” and through “government by Gallery” had been effective in this instance, it could scarcely be recommended as a precedent for the handling of future industrial disputes. Aside from the cartoonists, only Truth was sufficiently impressed by the Gallery coup to see television as a likely panacea for future industrial trouble:
A mickey-mouse way of solving industrial disputes? Sure – but it got results the other day after an enfeebled government had proved it was either unwilling or powerless to get to grips with yet another labour problem.
And next time essential services are disrupted because of a labour dispute, let’s get the warring factors on the idiot-box again.
Meanwhile, back at the Post Office, staff had switched from go-slow to quick-time in a valiant attempt to clear the mountains of mail and the backlog of telegrams which had accumulated over the previous two days. At the Auckland Chief Post Office alone they were faced with 3,000 overdue telegrams, 12,000 bags of overseas mail and a million articles to be sorted. Telephone and toll operators were working like dervishes, while counter staff coped patiently with queues of rather less patient customer anxious to complete the thousand and one transactions that can only be completed at a Post Office.
Their burden was made just that little bit heavier by hundreds of telegrams, letters and phone calls addressed to that man of the hour, Brian Edwards. In the Evening Post Neville Lodge made the point nicely with a cartoon which showed mail-room workers almost buried in letters, dashing phrenetically to and fro, with one exclaiming: “And on top of the flippin’ backlog, a whole flock of flippin’ letters for Brian Edwards – flippin’ ‘thank you’ letters, I’ll bet!!” You can bet your boots!
I must have been utterly unbearable that day – leaping from telephone to telephone, tearing open telegrams, beaming all over my face. “Thank you very much! You’re too kind! Oh no, I appreciate it!” By lunchtime my colleagues were almost weary of my all-too-modest disclaimers as they were of saying, “It’s for you,” and I generously offered to go for a walk and to leave them in peace. It was a particularly feeble excuse and was immediately seen through: “Going to any Post Offices?” “You’ll find Lambton Quay pretty crowded at this time!” “Don't forget your sunglasses!”
Covered with confusion, I beat a rather embarrassed retreat into the streets of Wellington and a public reception that lacked nothing but the ticker-tape. The Duke of Windsor, in the days before his unhappy and short-lived reign, took to bandaging his right hand and shaking hands with his left during his many goodwill trips throughout Britain and the world. It was part of the price of popularity. On 09 September 1970, a television interviewer in New Zealand, who in terms of fame and stature ought not really to be mentioned in the same breath, got an inkling at least of what it must have been like.
I make no apology for having relished the day and the experience to the full. Fame, success and popularity in the television business are more transient by far than the sway of kings and princes, and I see no reason why they should not be enjoyed. “Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may ...”
Perhaps, too, I was aware that nothing would ever match this day again, that it was the finale, the climax of almost five years in New Zealand television. I think it was on Friday that Tahu Shankland, Controller of Television Programmes, rang me to say that approval had been given for the making of a pilot of The Brian Edwards Show. How, after all, could they refuse the hero a chance at least for even greater acts of heroism!
About ten days later I received from a friend in Hong Kong a greetings telegram which read: “Have heard of your success. Congratulations. You realise, the only way now is down.”