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Sophie Baird, the woman fighting for your consumer rights since ages ago.
Sophie Baird, the woman fighting for your consumer rights since ages ago.

Pop CultureFebruary 24, 2020

The underdog bites back: Meet the consumer crusader behind Fair Go

Sophie Baird, the woman fighting for your consumer rights since ages ago.
Sophie Baird, the woman fighting for your consumer rights since ages ago.

After 43 years on the telly, Fair Go knows exactly how to stick up for Kiwi consumers. Tara Ward talks to Sophie Baird, the woman changing New Zealand, one consumer complaint at a time. 

For over four decades, Fair Go has been our saviour. They’ve defended us when we’ve been ripped off, chewed up and spat out by dodgy tradies and big business bullies. They’ve championed the underdog and given power back to the people, like the victims of this water filter scam and the bloke who just wanted his landline to work. Their fearless reporters have righted consumer wrongs, confronted rascals and ratbags, and worked out if our Weet-Bix is too soggy. Fair Go is the superhero we all need, especially when we can’t open a jar of salsa

Fair Go is a charming mix of hard-hitting, helpful and humorous, and executive producer Sophie Baird reckons that’s the secret to the show’s success. Each week, Sophie leads the Fair Go team into battle, working to empower and educate New Zealanders about our consumer rights. Ahead of Fair Go’s return to TVNZ1, we talked to Sophie about the show’s greatest wins and strangest complaints, and how one stubborn El Paso jar brought the nation together. 

I was thinking that Fair Go is our national hero, because I’m still fuming about Cadbury destroying their marshmallow Easter eggs, and then I discovered your story about it.  I thought, this is the current affairs I need in my life. 

I was irate, because that’s the only Easter egg I like. Not only are they coming out ridiculously early in the year, and then to be trying to say “it’s two eggs in one”? No! It’s two halves of an egg. It was a personal mission, and it was funny, because the team was like “it’s not that big of an issue,” and I was like, “oh, it IS an issue”. 

I love how Fair Go treats those small issues as seriously as the big stuff, because the little things can become huge in our everyday lives, right?

Totally. We keep saying to people, nothing is too big or too small. There’s been so many big wins and huge payouts in Fair Go, but it’s also the little wins for us, the ones that don’t have the big price tag attached. In the ‘70s there was an episode where two old ladies in the audience counted how many bits of hokey pokey were in an ice cream tub.

That’s legendary.

Their fingers got very numb, but 43 years later, we’re still talking about how many biscuits are in a packet. Because people do care. You feel like you’re getting ripped off, and we value that. We know it’s not a million dollar issue, but it’s still an issue. 

There’s such weight in the threat to take someone to Fair Go. How does it feel knowing that Kiwis trust you to fight their corner, when no-one else will?  

It’s incredibly humbling. Most of our team come from a news background, where you go out on the street with news, and people generally don’t want to see you. You go out with Fair Go, and people think you’re the bee’s knees, and it’s such a feeling of privilege. 

You have to respect it, so we’re incredibly thorough in getting both sides of the story.  You don’t want to go in to bat for someone who possibly isn’t telling you the full story, or equally, it’s a small business and you’re going to do more harm than good. The brand is so strong and New Zealand’s a small country, so we think, how do we balance this out? We’ve got some power here and, like a superhero, we don’t want to misuse it or it’ll disappear. 

Fair Go is in its 43rd year and still rates so well, even though it’s a show about complaining. What’s the show’s secret sauce? 

In my opinion, it’s about New Zealanders, for New Zealanders, with a brilliant balance between confrontation and comedy. You can see Anna Burns Francis storming down someone’s driveway with the cameras rolling, or Gordon Harcourt getting punched, and you also see the funny side when Hadyn Jones does something ridiculous with his moustache. So, you have a balance. You educate, you empower, you entertain, and for every light-hearted piece we do in a show, we do three hard ones. 

It’s tough to keep evolving. You don’t want to do the same stories again and again, but it seems there’s always an insurer trying to get out of something with a loophole, or big businesses not giving great customer service. That keeps us going. That’s a bit grim, isn’t it? If everyone acted with kindness and did the right thing, we’d have no Fair Go

How many complaints do you get? 

About 400 emails a week, and that’s what makes it so tough. People get angry when we don’t take up their complaint, but we just can’t. We have to think, does this affect a lot of people? Does it involve a lot of money? Is it someone terrible, or is it a big business? You have all these things in play, and we try and balance that with complaints. 

We couldn’t do it without New Zealand’s support. It’s a funny place to be, because other shows go “oh that’s a big deal, let’s do a story on it,” and we can’t. We have to wait for someone to complain.

Let’s talk about those complaints. What are some of your more unusual victories? 

There was the treehouse that breached building code and the Dunedin City Council said it had to come down, until Fair Go got involved and it quickly changed, because it’s a treehouse. There was a woman who came to us because her prosthetic leg was considered baggage by an insurer, or during our 40th anniversary, we found an old complaint from a boy who said he wasn’t getting lollies in a lolly scramble and it wasn’t fair. There’s lots of things that make us laugh.

What about the most powerful stories?

There were two that stood out for me in 2019. We got some great resolutions, we changed insurance rules, and we got people some big payouts. But there was one about a lady called Lila, whose builder and architectural designers had come to an impasse and her house wasn’t being built. She was desperate. She had nowhere else to go, and we helped get her house back on track. It was life changing for them. You forget what amazing thing that is, when you’re focused on baddies all the time. 

Vodafone had that shocker when they kept sending bills to a lady whose husband had died. She was fed up, so we went into bat. It led to this brilliant snowball with other people saying they’d had the same service, and Vodafone finally fronting. Now they’ve set up a special bereavement team, so this doesn’t happen again. Then you go, yeah, that’s the power. That makes you feel good at the end of the day. 

My other favourite was changing the speed limit outside a school in Te Puke, which Hadyn Jones did. They’d been trying for 19 odd years to change it, and it goes on Fair Go and two weeks later, sorted. That’s not anyone being ripped off, but that’s cool. Talk about fair go! 

There’s power in the door knocks too, right? That moment when your team surprises someone and confronts them about what they’ve done. 

It’s especially powerful, and not something we do lightly. We go through legal checks to make sure we’ve given them every chance to respond, but often they’ve gone underground, so customers just want answers. Even if they make big promises and don’t fulfill them, at least we can show their face and say “avoid this person”. It’s about education. 

Other times, people have been incredibly good to doorstop, asking us when they’re going to be on the telly. Mate! You’re a ratbag, and you want to know when you’re going to be on TV? Brilliant. Only in New Zealand. 

They’ve got to tell their mum about it. 

That’s it! I’ll get mum to watch. 

What stories really hit a nerve with viewers? 

‘How to open a jar’ took me by surprise. A lady wrote in and said she couldn’t open an El Paso jar lid. The response was incredible, so we did a follow up with tips. It was one of those things that you wouldn’t think people care about, but they do. There’s a thing, some little tool you can use. 

Wow. So people sent in tips on…how to open a jar? 

Yep. I was like “here’s another one, team!” Jarkey, that’s what it’s called. Anything to do with bus lanes seems to get people really wound up. But opening a jar!

Other than the jar situation, what makes you proudest about working for Fair Go

Making a difference. Changing people’s lives, just by making a TV show. It’s a genuine honour and privilege to empower New Zealanders to expect better and to demand better. It’s awesome, and it’s a team effort. We’re a teeny tiny team, but we all work hard, because we’re passionate about it. 

It’s about having a team who listens, and thinks about how to do things in a creative way. We’re telling stories, great stories, and I don’t think that will change. I hope in another 43 years Fair Go will still be top rating, and that New Zealanders will still love it. I don’t know if we’ll ever get tired of complaining. 

Or of opening jars. I need a Jarkey, immediately. 

I’ll send you mine.

Fair Go returns to TVNZ1 tonight, Monday 24 February at 7.30pm.

This content was created in paid partnership with TVNZ. Learn more about our partnerships here

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