AnalysisMay 22, 2015

Campbell Live: What this Means for MediaWorks, and for Our Media


When big name broadcasters have left their networks in the past it has been chasing vast sums of money, or with the kind of smugness which can only come from knowing you’ve just received the most golden of handshakes. The godly authority of their bully pulpits seemed to mean never worrying about job security.

So the sight of Campbell essentially begging to be allowed to continue his work these past few months has been rare and strange. His timeslot, his tenure, his star power all suggest an anchor and asset whose value would be incalculable to his parent company. Yet he has been treated more like an ageing athlete whose body has started to break down, or band that just isn’t cool anymore. Like someone to whom status and contracts demand you go through the motions, but that any neutral observer would say is finished. Their actions suggest he’s ready to join Bill Ralston or Brian Edwards or Gavin Ellis – former media titans now content to call the game from the sidelines.

It’s logical – most broadcasters only have a relatively small window in which their momentum and status match up in a way which works for a mass audience. And like most people in most industries, when it’s time to go, you kind of know. And most will grudgingly accept that.

Only, Campbell was a long way from that point. In fact, watching him these past few weeks, he seemed to have the energy of someone who’d just been given the wheel. Facing execution, he and all around him redoubled their efforts to find stories which mattered and present them in a style which resonated. It was beautiful. If, as we were told, the show was truly under review, the unprecedented response would have been enough to give even the most calculating of executives pause.

As we now know, it did not. Campbell Live couldn’t have fought harder or rated higher during this risible “review”, but it wasn’t enough. The decision had clearly already been made – the show’s vigour simply made it more difficult and embarrassing to execute. Now whoever is wheeled in to front the two-host, four-day-a-week replacement will have the air of scabs crossing a journalistic picket line, and should be more heavily compensated as a result.

What’s interesting about this moment from a media standpoint is how long it’s been gestating. During MediaWorks’ impressive and gaudy launch new season launch last year, Paul Henry drove a pretend car, yet John Campbell and his Mazda were nowhere to be seen. All summer we saw Henry floating in space, Art Green’s glistening torso and endless dystopian X Factor billboards at every central Auckland intersection. John Campbell, meanwhile, made do with a beard, a waistcoat and a new typeface.

The contrast in resourcing was staggering. As a company which exists to sell advertising and sponsorship, MediaWorks well knows that if you fail to market a product, it’s far less likely to succeed. Ironically, when word leaked out that it was planning to remove it from our televisual shelves, its popularity exploded in the ultimate grass-roots social media campaign. Campbell Live became the Lewis Road Creamery Chocolate Milk of broadcasting. Proof, if any were needed, that the audience wanted to buy what John Campbell was selling.

Which was what, exactly? Last night’s show was a pretty good example. In half an hour he covered the new budget, commending his supposed enemies in National for raising benefits beyond inflation for the first time in decades. He was up after midnight and again before dawn to illustrate the strain on a working mother in South Auckland, who does just that every day.

Ali Ikram wandered around central Auckland gently poking fun at public art while at the same time watching it do exactly what it’s intended to – breaking the monotony of people’s day and a enlivening a city’s streets. We then watched the Syrian refugee crisis unfold firsthand, with teenagers selling battery-operated kittens on Turkish streets to try and care for their brothers and sisters, all orphaned by ISIS.

It was diverse, involving, evocative and entertaining. It was imperfect, too. Campbell’s immense wells of empathy overflow from time to time, and have him ignore elements to a story which, however uncomfortable, demand weighing.

Ika and Soane have four children and a mortgage – that is not and has never been easy. It demands sacrifices of exactly the type they’re making. Similarly, to say that Ika works an 19 hour day is somewhat misleading. She works 12 hours, and cares for her children in between times. This is not to say that domestic labour isn’t ‘work’ – it absolutely is – but the repeated refrain of a ‘19 hour work day’ would be commonly understood as something quite different by most people. Her day as it stands is hard enough – it doesn’t need exaggerating for effect.

Similarly, a piece on the different costs of a basket of groceries in Australia versus New Zealand was largely redundant. The difference amounted to $12, and was nearly entirely explained by our applying GST to food. In fact, given the differences in economies of scale Australia can leverage, and the greater buying power of their dollar it was more surprising that the gap was so small.

Who gives a shit? Every journalist carries their flaws and biases. The best we can hope for is that they’re counterweighted by some good we can do from time to time. And Campbell’s extraordinary sincerity and humanism, delivered night after passionate night, are about as profound and public as we could hope for. From the moment I first became aware of him, in the late ‘90s, he’s been a talismanic figure – absolutely a man who attracted me to journalism, or whatever it is I do. I don’t watch the show every night, or even every week. But still, when a big news story breaks and a hard interview is required, I want it to be John Campbell asking the questions.

But he’s so much more than just a good hard interviewer. He and his small team, buoyed by his indefatigable enthusiasm and leadership, have delivered a show which for more than a decade has reported on the lives of ordinary New Zealanders. The show was their champion and their voice. And it will soon be gone.

In its place will be something more prosaic. It will likely be opinion driven – I’m not complaining, so’s this website – and with smaller and less well-resourced staff. It could well be very good, as there are many extraordinarily talented broadcasters left around MediaWorks. Credit to the company – regardless of how this has been conceived and handled, no one recruits like them. Duncan Garner’s name has been put forward – his everyman persona and bulldog stance would be terrific in a talk-driven show. Hilary Barry’s woefully under-utilised on The Paul Henry Show. Patrick Gower is a human wrecking ball. Guy Williams smarter and more politically and socially aware than he is given the chance to show. So too is Rose Matafeo.

One thing I fervently hope is that it’s not Paul Henry. Not that I have any issue with him, particularly. His show is endearingly berserk, and in the process of figuring itself out. But you couldn’t park a kid’s scooter between his perspective and Mike Hosking’s. Both have barely met a government policy or minister they don’t like. Both exist on a spectrum somewhere between disdain and disinterest for the Ika and Soanes of this country.

And that, in the end, is the biggest part of the loss we’ve just experienced. With Campbell Live goes a strong, sober, considered voice asking those in power – of either stripe – whether it’s doing all it can to help those who need it most. So the biggest loss is for the plurality of our media. Because ZB is entirely right-leaning, and RadioLive that way from morning through midday. Their drive show’s a wash – Garner’s greatest strength is his political inscrutability.

One carries the chirpy Breakfast and Hosking Rants in its key opinion slots. Without Campbell, the last high-profile private broadcasting outlier is gone. Radio New Zealand is all that’s left, if you’ll pardon the pun, and, much as I love it, the largest part of the country literally doesn’t know it exists.

Now, it’s not MediaWorks’ responsibility to balance the media. They have one job, and one job only: keeping their new shareholders at Oakbridge Capital happy. No quarrel with that. Much as I’ve found the latest season of X Factor the single most depressing viewing experience of my life, I generally find MediaWorks the most impressive of all our big media companies.

And despite this mess, I still do. Because they’re doing something. They have a strategy, and they’re making hard decisions, working their asses off and living with the consequences. That is so much better and more vibrant than standing pat and going down with the ship. Some of what they’ve done has sucked, some has been brilliant, most is TBC. But they’re out hustling, and I will never have a problem with that.

I do have a problem with this, though: at its most fundamental level it’s a ridiculous waste of human resource. Now, we don’t know what happened inside. How sincere their overtures to Campbell, how much he was willing to concede. But we do know that Campbell was in his absolute prime, had built and galvanised a terrific team and proved over the past few weeks that us complacent goons on couches would rally around the show rather than let it slink away. Truly, the intensity of and response to this campaign has made that to save TVNZ7 look like a Facebook group and a couple of angry beers.

And still, through obstinacy or fear, MediaWorks couldn’t back down or find a new home. So they’ve lost a unique and special show which has provided some of the most dogged and persuasive reporting of the last decade.

And we all lose in that.

Keep going!