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Pop CultureNovember 16, 2015

Television: A TV Current Affairs Warhorse Describes The State Of It All



In a very recent interview, the CBS journalism legend Dan Rather opined that, “Journalists, Politicians and hangmen always do their best work after midnight.” I should like you to ponder that thought while I get on with the business at hand. The John O’Shea memorial address.

John O’Shea died in 2001 and in spite of the 14 years since his passing, he is remembered fondly by many here at this conference. His name and reputation as the founding father of the New Zealand Film Industry lives on. It is supported by the body of his work as a producer and a director, which manifestly demonstrated his abilities to translate into dramatic stories, the essence of many things that are of significance and value in New Zealand life. His vision encompassed the braided rivers of this country’s Māori and Pakeha cultures. He was among the first to use the language of film to explore the uneasy interfaces where racial, historical and received values merge and diverge. O’Shea also had an eye for spotting talent and it was he who encouraged and nurtured the talent of Barry Barclay.

I speak to you today to honour his memory and his achievements. I also ask those of you who knew John O’Shea to remember some of the things I have been told about him. Almost everyone says of John O’Shea that he was first and foremost a warm and well-read man with the raconteur’s gifts of vivid metaphor, striking simile and quotes from a wide variety of eclectic sources. This proud, Irish kiwi with his stuttering presence had an endearing but occasionally, annoying way of turning up at so many odd times with fantastic ideas and grandiose pitches for funding projects. Pitches, sometimes in the form of semi-coherent visions, written on scraps of paper produced from his pockets like disjointed episodes recalled after waking from a dream. Vale John O’Shea, who devoted 50 years of his working life to our industry. It’s a long time by any reckoning.

It is also a span of years which I can now perhaps appreciated, personally, as I celebrate the beginning of my 51st year in the business of making television. Just a few days ago I observed the passing of my seventieth year. “Observed” – was the right word for it too. It was definitely not celebrated – maybe not even that welcome – because there is not really all that much to celebrate when you reach the Biblical span of three score and ten, plus one!. One is no longer a sexagenarian. One realises that there is nothing remotely “sexy” about being a septuagenarian. But It can be a fine time for one to take stock and survey the diverse paths taken and to look down the road ahead to see what further intersections must be negotiated and maybe to spot the location of the final “stop sign”.

I am lucky to be still employable and still to be working in an industry which I love. I must have some good qualities – but one of them is definitely not “resignation”. I have never resigned willingly, from any role I have played or post I have held. It has always been a either a case of being fired or else promoted. Sometimes both in pretty quick succession. But whatever my remaining good qualities may be, they are still recognised by a few. and to those few I am grateful. My governors at Top Shelf Productions, Vincent Burke and Laurie Clark, who still trust me to produce shows where a degree of editorial nous, journalistic judgement and the basic skills of resource and people management are required. I am greatly indebted to Vincent and Laurie and to my close colleagues who produce Media Take for Māori Television. For the past two years and more they have supported me and encouraged me to continue working with them; even from the cardiac ward of Auckland Hospital where a busted leg and a series of medical mishaps almost saw me off the planet just a few months ago.

My initial injury was completely self-inflicted. My mate Tainui Stephens summed it neatly up when he accused me of being too tight-arsed to hire a younger and more agile person to clean the leaves from my clogged guttering. My old producer mate, Colin McRae, marvelled at the arrant stupidity of the 69 year old goat, who ascended the ladder against spousal advice. His advice, and good advice it is, is that anyone over 25 who even tries to mount a ladder needs psychiatric help. Other (less-kindly) souls have suggested that the only things that blokes of my advanced age and moderate experience in the television business can do with any degree of competence is to try to find a new career fronting daytime TV commercials or infomercials. And we all know there are some fine examples there to follow. Our former, fearless, scam-buster Kevin Milne makes a good fist of selling top-grade, nylon carpet in a land where woolly sheep abound. Keith Quinn perennially annoys wharf fishermen by attempting to flog pre-paid funeral plans while the snapper are running. And by the way, next time you watch that TV commercial check out the percentage of live fish being landed. Most of the buggers in the chilly bin needed a piscatorial funeral plan in place a day or two before the ad was filmed! For train-spotters there is just one lively snapper wriggling at the end of the line. The other two already have well-advanced, rigor mortis.


My 50 years making television in Australia, in Britain and in New Zealand have encompassed what some like to call the “Golden Age” of this industry. I won’t belabour this point and please believe me when I say that I do not suffer from that authentic Downton Abbey- Style nostalgia that makes me hanker for the clatter of horses hooves on cobble stones, the clink of milk bottles in dawn’s crisp air and the tuneless whistle of the milk man. But nostalgia aside, it is important to pause and take stock of just how far we all have come in my time in our business. When I started, as a 20-year old, cadet journalist with the ABC in Sydney, television was not quite a decade old in Australia. It was a world of relatively primitive technology. We shot our stories on black and white film. The older (and very grumpy cameramen) had worked for either Cinesound or Movietone newsreel companies, shooting 35 millimetre. A few had shot feature films like Charles Chauvel’s 40-Thousand Horsemen and Sons of Matthew. They regarded 16 mm as an amateur format and themselves as fallen angels, tossed into a new medium called television. We shot a hell of a lot of “B roll” on Bell and Howell or ST Arriflexes. Fully-blimped sound cameras and early model Nagra tape-recorders were only just coming on stream. Thank God the ABC also employed a great cohort of young film cameramen. They were enthusiastic and creative and some destined for international greatness. I was lucky to work with men like John Seale, Don McAlpine and Dean Semler who all managed to escape to Hollywood and eventually win Academy Awards for their well-honed craft skills.

As for the journos: we regarded ourselves as journeymen and craftsmen. We were trying to become professionals in what was not really a profession. It was a trade. Journalism schools were a future development and we had to serve an apprenticeship. We wrote our scripts on typewriters anxiously waiting for the unseen film rushes to emerge from the laboratory. We worked in smoke filled editing and control rooms. And got short shrift for our mistakes. Again the older sub-editors and roundsmen were guys who’d had their careers interrupted by a war and many had emerged with some problems, grumpiness was the least of it. And there were some grievously, wounded souls. PTSD we call it now. Most had short fuses, addictions to tobacco and the booze. There were many with, broken marriages and a few self-destructed. But these men – and they were nearly all men – had abundant talent and skills to pass on to ignorant young pups like me.

My very first TV interview was with an Australian Air Marshal who had just returned from Washington after purchasing the RAAF’s F-111 jet bomber fleet from General Dynamics. The corporation – not the man. I was told to interview the distinguished aviator, a very decorated war hero, but given no detailed instructions beyond that. The grumpy old newsreel veteran wielding a camera and the sound guy set up some very cumbersome and very bright lights. We sat down and they told me they “were rolling”. I was primed and ready and launched into a series of what I considered to be fairly well-informed questions about the speed and range of the aircraft, its bomb load, the fact that its wings swung in and out for sub-supersonic and supersonic flight etc. etc. The camera kept rolling – relentlessly and I kept asking … desperately. Then, finally, just about the time I was about to ask how many wheels it had, and if it came in different colours, the unhelpful old bugger behind the camera announced loudly that “We were out of film, son.” Air Marshal Sir Valston Hancock arose and left the room somewhat exhausted by his interrogation at my tender hands. Then the cameraman said “hasn’t any bastard ever told you to say “cut”. He followed this by telling me I was a stupid shit, who had just wasted 400 feet of film.

I was still smarting from rebuke this when another – even angrier man back at the ABC studios – rang on the battered Bakelite phone and suggested that I was a dopey, little prick who had shot 10 minutes and forty seconds of valuable film when one minute, thirty was required. “In future, if you have one – dickhead, Just ask three questions and do some back-cuts and a wide shot”. “And if you can’t do that you might as well just piss off and get a job counter-jumping at Farmers.” It was brutal but good advice and I learned a very basic lesson. I also missed a great story which emerged 30 years or so, later when a release of Federal cabinet papers revealed that the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies and his bellicose advisers had bought the F111’s to bomb Djakarta and to even deliver a nuclear bomb they intended to borrow from the yanks or the Brits. Thank God, Soekarno got rolled and confrontation ended peacefully.

Film was the main medium as early videotape editing was almost hit or miss, with two inch tapes, ten second rolls to speed and no digital time codes. Satellites, live crosses and intercontinental inserts from foreign countries were all developments that arrived in the 1970’s just as TV Current Affairs blossomed while angry young men and a few talented and impertinent young women began to question the wisdom of the elders. We felt that we had got into something bigger than ourselves and were ready to take on the world.

I went on to have a very satisfying and varied career at the ABC working in all the Australian states and in PNG before independence. I rose through the ranks and became a producer then Executive producer and eventually head of News and Current affairs in Tasmania, Manager of TV in Queensland and Federal Head of the 7.30 Report.

But I finally lost patience with my fellow Australians over the issue of racism. I had reported many stories from the outback on the plight of Aboriginal people. They had — and still have — my profound sympathy. Aborigines and their unique culture had survived and flourished for 40-thousand years in a harsh and unforgiving land. Less than two hundred years of white colonialism had reduced them to beggary. Their terrible plight, living on the fringes of an alien prosperity was a story worth reporting. But it was one I discovered that was unwelcome by my compatriots. I was asked why I did so many “black-feller stories” and advised by the wise men who ran TV news that such reports just didn’t rate.


As I moved to the top of the tree in ABC Current Affairs, I survived my controversial appointment of the first black woman to ever front an early evening current affairs show. Her name was Trisha Goddard and she was a terrifically talented presenter and interviewer who went to have her own show “Trisha” on BBC TV. Nonetheless I was pilloried as was poor Trisha Goodard by the likes of Ron Casey and Alan Jones who were the demagogues de jour on Australian commercial talk-back radio. The storm of protest was weathered but the support I received from ABC top-management was less than whole-hearted, so I decided it was time to jump ship.

I joined the Nine Network at an inopportune time, just as Alan Bond was driving it over a cliff and decided for a number of reasons – including the pervasive racism of my compatriots – to look elsewhere. Providence decreed that TVNZ rang me and asked if I was interested in crossing the ditch.

When I arrived in New Zealand in 1989, TVNZ had just moved to the Television Centre in Auckland and Avalon was still a thriving production hub. TV3 was just about to broadcast and I had been headhunted from Channel 9 in Sydney to produce Paul Holmes. Holmes was beginning his rise to become the pre-eminent kiwi exponent of early- evening current affairs. But Paul and I were never destined to hit it off. His ambition and my ideas for the Holmes programme were so divergent that I was fired after just seven weeks. My career in New Zealand was off to a flying start or at least had been kick-started.

I moved down to Wellington and joined Frontline just in time to be involved in the fiasco which involved the broadcast of the now infamous programme Pro Bono Publico – For the Public Good. For those who missed this episode in April 1990, or who may have forgotten, For The Public Good was an hour long expose of how the Labour Party Funded its campaigns at a time when ruthless Roger-nomics and Richard Prebble’s selling of the so-called “family silver” – public assets like rail, coal, the post office, the BNZ etc. etc. were launching New Zealand into a neo-conservative future of which we all now intimately and inextricably involved – for better or worse. The handling of the fall-out from the controversial broadcast was definitely not TVNZ’s finest hour. Defamation writs fell like a winter hail-storm, as the great and good sought to restore their reputations. After all how outrageous could be the allegations and these snide suggestions that some significant state assets had been sold at bargain rates and that certain well known businessmen no longer living, or now living in foreign places, benefited in the process?

The producer of Frontline was dismissed as were the reporter and the journalist who had compiled the scurrilous report. A special BSA committee was convened and the programme was summarily found to be seriously in breach of the relevant standards of veracity, balance and fairness. TVNZ decided not to contest any of the numerous defamation claims and they were all eventually settled to the complete satisfaction and enrichment of those who were so grievously offended.


It had been a salutary lesson to be taken on board by all journalists. And it was. Frontline lingered at Avalon under my oversight until the end of 1990. But the following year, the programme was taken up to Auckland and given a different mandate. Things were never the same and today, I still believe that that the Pro Bono Publico episode forever changed the face of news and current affairs broadcasting in New Zealand. It is a view which is shared by quite a few members of my profession. Just last year after we had recorded an episode of Media Take I was chatting with two of our panelists Finlay MacDonald and David Slack and we mused on how infrequently – if ever, nowadays – any politician or public figure subjected to media attention, seeks to launch defamation proceedings. Such actions are now, extremely rare. From the days to the fourth Labour Government brandishing their writs we now have ministers and senior civil servants who will not expose themselves to journalistic scrutiny. Or whatever process, these days, passes for holding the powerful to a count. Ministers now, almost invariably, manage to dance rings around the Official Information Act and even out-manoeuvre the ombudsman on occasions.

As I see it, there are two reasons for this. First, no journalist, editor or media organization is now capable or even willing to indulge in deep and intrusive scrutiny of the motives of the government and to make the connection with day to day policy action. Such analysis is time consuming and it also costs too much at a time when we all told, “we have to do more with less”. Shrinking budgets and staff cuts encourage us to look cursorily at what the powerful do and to then move then on without questioning too much, why they did what they did. Long-form, current affairs is now an almost extinct genre in New Zealand. Recently TV3 announced the end of 3D citing poor audience figures. Sunday on TV One has been slashed from a commercial hour to a commercial 30 minutes. Too little time is now available to expose or examine anything of substance in any sort of depth or detail.

The second reason the powerful get away with so little scrutiny is the rise and rise of media communications and professional spin-doctors. We who still describe ourselves as journalists are a beleaguered band, vastly outnumbered by platoons, battalions and armies of ministerial, departmental, and corporate communications staff. When we, as journalists, acting on behalf of the public, ask for the facts and the motivation, they routinely seek to frustrate our quest. There is obfuscation and grudging compliance which delivers messages and facts which have been filtered and flavoured and presented in ways that cause the least controversy and no public outrage. They, the comms men and women, now call the tune and most scribes dance to its measure.

I personally believe that being on the “dark side” means that these communications experts have struck a dubious bargain. Often they are asked to make cosmetic repairs and fixes to bad policies and decisions. Then their role is often no better than shoddy tradesmen applying polyfilla and paint to hide cracks and flaws in the fabric of impressive and expensive facades built with taxpayer funds or corporate cash. Some, I must sadly assert, are little better than paid liars. I have yet to record and cannot remember an occasion where a communications specialist has cried “enough” and become a whistle-blower or martyr to the cause of truth and openness. It is no secret either, that the comms people get paid much better than the journos.

If you doubt anything that I am saying I do recommend that you read or re-read Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics. The Prime Minister claims he has not read it while meanwhile the police, with the willing assistance of the Westpac Bank feel free to troll through Mr Hager’s private affairs in search of some supposed crime. I believe his only offense was good journalism, which upset too many people and threatened their previously unchallenged grip on the levers of power in New Zealand.

In career terms journalism is now in the shit-can of professional choices. My son, who is a senior manager with Microsoft, frequently reminds me of my lifelong, career folly. The journalism jobs are becoming scarcer and the pay is generally lousy as media organizations shed experienced (and expensive) senior staff and hire younger, cheaper recruits from the various media and journalism training schools. They keep churning them out, weighed down by student loan debt, buoyed by false or exaggerated expectations of journalism as a career. I see a parade of eager young faces willingly multi-tasking and working for peanuts.

Look around a radio or TV newsroom (a little less so in print media) and you will see a majority of young females. Guys are not queuing up for the journos’ jobs, so much now. The women are statistically likely to be about 25 years of age, certainly under 30. More often than not they will be blonde (as nature intended) and their ambition will be to get a shot at anchoring the show. Given the rates of pay for beginners, the young journos are often subsidized in their careers by mum and dad. So, we are developing a cottage industry for pulchritudinous beginners who come from private schools and better-off families. Almost invariably, such young folks are believers in the kiwi meritocracy and the all powerful God – Mammon: the God of television advertising. The golden calf of New Zealand is a Friesian Holstein owned by Fonterra. Gone are the days when young people of very diverse backgrounds and often humble circumstances could seek a meaningful career in journalism. Now, it is too often a half-way house to a better paid job in PR or communications. This is not good for this country’s democratic system. The main driver of a free society should be the ability for people to speak out. But now only a very few diverse and questioning voices are heard and the orthodox and heterodox views are shunned. They have been supplanted by a bland, mindless and consumer driven consensus. Money now is almost entirely the measure of all things in Aotearoa.

In our parliament we have a dominant group of people who try – and who largely succeed – to avoid logical and open debate on important issues. They demonstrate open hostility to intellectual curiosity and even willful ignorance of factual evidence in their quest to shut-down troublesome critics. The current government has relied greatly on these tactics. It is a style of politics based on power, information control and impression management.

The journalism that is being now practiced almost everywhere is unlikely to be able to see through the smoke and mirrors. The essential, bull-shit detectors just aren’t being installed in the new model journos.

If your ambition is to become “Barbie” to an older, “Ken”, to dress like a fashion model, chances are you will have some success in the brave new world of journalism. The curse of the old Frank N. Magid and Associates formula of double-headed, double-breasted presentation lives on like the curse of the Mummy and no one is willing to drive a stake through its heart.

The nature of what we now call news is changing too. TV3’s main early evening News bulletin is preceded by a fatuous, mad-minute of gossip and garbage compiled by somebody who used to peddle tittle-tattle fof the NZ Herald. This is a person whose ethics and credibility were questioned in that role. But apparently nothing succeeds like excess. So her carder is blooming. But one might ask, “Who or what audience is this farrago of rubbish meant to attract?” Can anyone derive any useful information from the quick stock-show montage of cellulite and plastically-enhanced celebrity bodies. It is trashy and second-hand slander of people famous for being famous in concentric circles? TV3, which generally has a better sense of news and a better news bulletin, is suffering declining ratings.

Just consider the 6 pm news on both main broadcasters. The hinge upon which programmers like to swing the audience. But get three or four stories into any network news programme and you are again in celebrity click-bait territory. After the disasters, crashes and crime and a burst of once-over-lightly politics you are back into the Kardashians, the All Blacks every move (on and off field) and other largely unimportant stuff designed to entertain and divert rather than deal with serious issues.


Occasionally we do get a good investigation. TV3’s 3D managed to expose major shortcomings in Air Safety Investigations by excavating the remains of a sky diving aircraft in which nine people were killed. It was a genuine scoop of great public interest. TVNZ ignored it entirely and after a few days of stone-walling, the Air Safety Investigation Authority and the Minister managed to make the story disappear. Sadly, a beat-up where a reporter used false-pretenses and dodgy documentation to buy a gun and the widely mis-reported story equating the carcinogenic properties of bacon, sausages and red meat to asbestos and cigarettes smoking managed to survive many days longer in the news cycle. In the case of the gun-buying reporter I would suggest that there was a serious breach of journalistic ethics and standards. The cancer scare story, involving sausages and preserved meats demonstrated a persistent inability across many media outlets to correctly interpret scientific data. The serious coverage demonstrated a persistent, slack-jawed, unquestioning credulity. A few made light comedy of the killer sausages and the toxic bacon which was probably a better way to treat such a silly story.

The influence of network news consultants is pervasive too, in the writing and construction of news reports. Jargon and cliché inhabit the language. Anything good or estimable warrants the mandatory use of the possessive pronoun “our” as in “our Defence Force”, our netballers etc. Never, you may notice, do they refer to our criminals and seldom to our politicians. There is a pervasive lack of elegant variation in the writing of news and current affairs. Government initiatives, plans, new buildings and even Bill English’s budgets are universally, ”unveiled”. They are never announced, foreshadowed, presented, laid out or framed by any other synonym that might suit the sentence. Listen carefully to a news bulletin and you might hear the swish of falling veils. Whenever there is a siege or hostage situation the terrorist or gunman is “holed up”, never barricaded, besieged, surrounded etc. Anything given away, freely given, is “for free” not just simply “free”. Aircraft are almost invariably referred to as planes or sometimes jets. Ships and boats, two distinct types of vessels are all “boats”, in most newsrooms. No one has bothered to explain that a ship is a craft sufficiently large to carry boats (that is lifeboats) while a boat is a small vessel. Banality bolsters bathos in report after report. Breathless live-crosses have reporters telling you that “behind me… over there behind me… something is going on or has happened”. Get out of the way I say. Show me don’t just tell me. John O’Shea, a lover of elegant language, would be turning in his grave.

I will not belabour the points I have been making. We can do things better and that’s the point. The examples I have given are self evident and I have raised them as diminishing landmarks in a panorama which I am viewing through the rear-vision mirror as we race down the information super-highway. Where we are going in future and how we will get there are the most important questions that we now confront. They are questions that will, no doubt, be the subject of much informed speculation and conjecture in some of the sessions here as this SPADA conference proceeds. What I am saying today is that we also need to cast out eyes backwards from time to time. And we need to examine current norms and practices. Whatever new frontiers we reach and whatever new platforms and technologies we embrace we must not lose sight of how far we have come and what struggles we endured to get to where we are.

In our haste to embrace new things and to engage with new audiences, we need to keep hold of that which is valuable and to test if our own values still resonate. Good ideas, inquiring minds and great communication skills are the bedrock. In our search for corporate success, audience numbers, youthful audiences and all the other modern corporate goals we must remember that our most important role in this society is to examine and to explain what’s happening and to probe the motives and ambitions of those who seek to guide us in directions of their choosing. The process of democracy relies on the useful information that we can deliver to the public of New Zealand.

My remarks have been largely directed at the practice and craft of journalism. It is vital that journalists still have the will and the ability to practice their calling. Editors and network executives need to give them the scope to probe, to investigate and to expose who did what, when they did it, where they did the deed and above all why they did it. Who, What, When Where and Why remain the touchstones.

For those whose work is more imaginative and creative, many of the same things hold true. Be it drama, documentary, observational documentary or even comedy and satire we must continue to challenge and inspire audiences. We need less orthodoxy and much more heresy. Be sceptical. Don’t follow any party line.

The character, Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet sums it up:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

To which Laertes replies:

Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord.

I should note here that many scholars of the immortal bard have noted that “To thine own self be true” is Polonius’s last piece of advice to his son Laertes, who is in a rush to catch the next boat to Paris, where he’ll be safe from his father’s long-winded speeches.

It is a good place for me to end my remarks in this sometimes prolix address which commemorates the late John O’Shea. A man who remained true to his own lights, unorthodox, unafraid of the big questions. He remains exemplary as well as unforgettable and unforgotten.

Thank you.

Edit – Tuesday November 17, 1.27pm: the original version of this speech referred to problems with Air Safety Investigations work on the skydiving crash as being by TV3’s Story. It was in fact 3D. It also referred to eight victims, there were in fact nine.

Keep going!