Hard News by Russell Brown


The Advocate

The 7pm TV current affairs slot seems like such a fixture that it's easy to forget that Close Up and Campbell Live have only faced each other since 2005, after Paul Holmes precipitated a reshuffle by decamping from Holmes on One to his ill-fated show on Prime.

3 News chief Mark Jennings saw an opportunity, and moved his newsreading duo, John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld -- who'd been there since 1998 when they were drafted to fill in for John Hawkesby -- into the key roles of presenter and producer of a new current affairs show. To the chagrin of a generation of New Zealand children, Campbell Live replaced The Simpsons at 7pm on weeknights.

The fixture is about to break. Close Up is to be discontinued, along with the employment of its host Mark Sainsbury, in favour of a new show that may, say the pundits, dispense with even the pretence of current affairs-style gravity. This shouldn't be entirely a surprise. Close Up's ratings, while still generally ahead of Campbell's have been dwindling nearly as much as its sense of purpose.

On the other hand, Campbell Live has been positively bristling with purpose this year. Whether it's the Christchurch school closures or child poverty and school lunches, Campbell is a programme that looks like it knows why it's there. In a slot that can easily default to lazy, consumer-PR-driven stories, Campbell Live is flourishing through advocacy journalism.

Not everyone approves. In an extraordinary New Zealand Herald column, John Roughan slated Campbell Live as "this country's little Fox [News]," -- but from the left -- a programme whose creators "made it their mission to side with people against power and express the pain and frustrations of those on one side of a problem."

Actually, popular current affairs very frequently "sides with people against power" -- it's pretty much baked into the format. Paul Holmes -- fondly if haphazardly remembered by Roughan -- did more than anyone to help make it so in this country.

When I interviewed Holmes for the Listener in 2004, he was happy to affirm that "I do instinctively stick up for people being ganged up against."

For Holmes, that often meant, paradoxically, powerful people who'd struck trouble with the system: Holmes had unabashedly positioned himself in support of Cambridge High School principal Alison Annan, Christine Rankin, John Banks, Jim Sprott, Lesley Martin and Nick Smith (then the subject of contempt proceedings). 

Holmes' rationale for his support of Annan still strikes me as extraordinary:

"She came in with her husband, and I walked into the makeup room and said, ‘How are you?’ She is surprisingly gentle and nervous. I leaned against the counter while Alison was getting her makeup on and said, ‘Why did you go for 100 percent on the pass rates?’ She looked at me with fire in her eyes and said, ‘What good is failure?’ And I felt something. This told me a lot about her. I hate people failing, too."

Holmes later called me to rephrase his thoughts on the question:

"The people you mention are also some of the most interesting people I’ve met. And I met them when they were in the firing line. I’m interested in people in the firing line, possibly because I’ve been in the firing line myself."

Holmes was interested in people he saw as like himself. With the odd exception -- Kim Dotcom -- Campbell typically (and, I suspect, quite consciously) positions itself on the side of people who look like its audience. The result, Roughan argued, is that "The public are helpless victims, their personal interests always fair, their behaviour beyond reproach."

Roughan was not alone in his contempt for Campbell Live's style. A good two thirds of the comments under his column on the website are with him.

"You are right," typed one commenter, "the problem is the likes of John Campbell play on people's emotions to typical [sic] the lower educated people who they can get riled up."

Others weighed in to declare Campbell Live "biased", "unbalanced", "like a soap opera".

Perhaps there's some truth in the criticism. When Campbell reporter John Sellwood accompanied a group of West Coast miners on their mission to Wellington, to beg a reprieve for Spring Creek, the question of whether the government should subsidise coal didn't get a look in. Sellwood was part of the mission, rather than an observer of it. He even cried on camera. (NB: John has been in touch to say that he did not in fact cry. Fair enough.)

But where I think Campbell Live's approach is vindicated is this: In his column Roughan complained (incorrectly, as it happens) that the programme had made no attempt to seek the official rationale for the government's sweeping plan for school closures and mergers in Christchurch.

"It is possible the criteria for closing or merging so many schools across the city will not stand critical examination," Roughan wrote. But if that were the case "television programmes would be tearing the reasoning apart. The fact they don't want to know tells me the rationale is probably sound."

If there's anything in this, Roughan is saying, it'd be all over the news, wouldn't it?

In the event, Natasha Utting delivered a report that showed the draconian schools plan not only did not stand up to critical examination, but was based on deeply faulty data. The Minister of Education refused to submit herself for interview by Campbell and sent along ministry CEO Lesley Longstone, who, in the course of a grilling, admitted that at least some of data that guided the ministry's plan was simply false. The story was duly picked up by Roughan's own paper.

I'd call that a result. And I think the programme can fairly say the same about its campaign on school lunches, which went a long way past reporting. Campbell Live, along with TV3's regular charity partner, the media-savvy KidsCan, ordained Lunchbox Day, a promotion that raised more than half a million dollars. Should journalism merge into fundraising like this? Does that really change anything?

In this case, it appears that it has, at least a bit. The Weekend Herald led its front page on Saturday with this story:

Food programmes for hungry Kiwi schoolchildren may soon get a boost from the Government to top off an overwhelming public response to recent media appeals.

However much John Roughan fuliminates, I suspect John Campbell and his colleagues will have seen that as a vindication and an illustration of their purpose in being there. They'd be justified in doing so.


I've conducted an extended interview about these things with John Campbell himself, for this week's Media3. We'll run about half of that on the show and put the whole thing online.

Also this week: I'll chat to Shopping Channel CEO Alastair Duff about how his business works.

As ever, you can join us us for the Media3 recording at the Villa Dalmacija ballroom, 5.30pm tomorrow.

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