Last December it was announced that TV3’s flagship investigative current affairs show 3D was being cancelled, and 13 of the show’s 16 staff were to be made redundant. Former producer Eugene Bingham describes the show’s final months and the emotional aftermath of its cancellation.
It was a Monday, the day before the wolf finally lunged.
Just on the other side of the open plan office, Paul Ego and Jeremy Corbett were standing on a desk wearing black suits, black ties and the confidence of a couple of old comedy pros. Technically, they were standing in the publicity department. On this day, it felt like they were stomping all over my desk, within the 3D team.
One of the many geographic quirks of the abomination of a building at 3 Flower St, MediaWorks’ Auckland mothership, was that for 2015 the journalists of 3D were squatting next to the publicity and marketing department on the fifth floor. We’d initially been told it was a temporary arrangement during the construction of a new, modern newsroom, known as the “Newshub”. In the end, we lived out our days next to the good people whose job it was to put the company spin on the axing of our show.
We bore them no ill-will, they were only doing their jobs. Just as, on this day they were helping the comedy duo of Ego and Corbett film a promo for the 7 Days show, TV3’s runaway success. Surely there’s a punchline for this juxtaposition featuring the stars of the golden child of a programme and the company’s unwanted orphans.
In the background of the promo shoot, others in the office were supposed to be looking like they were carrying on as normal, as if having two tall dudes in black suits standing on desks was normal.
For one particular shot, the director needed the real-life extras to look a little more enthusiastic. Ego, an expert hand at working an audience, chipped in to help out, exhorting them to liven up a bit.
“Come on, guys, some people don’t have jobs – some of you are in this room but don’t know it yet.”
He was jesting, of course, and had no idea how right he was. Within earshot were a group of people who were soon to be gone.
The next day, 13 of the 16 3D staff were cast aside.
The Wolf of Redundancy crossed our threshold at 2 pm on December 1, when the venerated, long-time head of TV3 news and current affairs, Mark Jennings, gathered us in a boardroom to break the news none of us wanted to hear. It was ferocious, it was brutal, and though it was hardly unexpected, it was nonetheless surprising when it bit.
Weeks earlier, when the review of the programme began, Jennings told us that if 3D was axed, it would be the end of long-form current affairs on TV3. You could sense this was a burdensome task, part of killing off a genre of television he’d worked on himself. Jennings had been a producer on 60 Minutes in its early days on New Zealand screens. He features in one of the most compelling pieces of current affairs television ever to appear here, part of a crew who dramatically walked into the Gloriavale community more than 20 years ago when reporter Mel Reid broke the remarkable story of the isolated Christian church.
Though Jennings’ emotions were palpable, we never did find out how the decision sat with the chief executive, Mark Weldon – throughout the process, we never saw him once.
Redundancy is hardly uncommon these days. For workers, it’s the scourge of a modern economy, prowling the corridors of companies everywhere. In the last two years alone there were mass lay-offs at Fonterra, Sanford, the Department of Corrections, Vodafone, Spark to name a few.
As the child of a Glenbrook steel mill employee, I grew up with the word – redundancy, redundancy, redundancy…it was a frequent fear depending on how the fortunes of the steel industry were fluctuating.
And over the years, I covered more than enough stories of company lay-offs – at timber mills, dairy factories, manufacturing plants.
Bearing witness to it is one thing; it’s still a jolt when it happens to you. And ours was a public execution – it’s a cruel twist to have your friends and family read in the media that you’ve been given the flick; actually, through a cock-up the company later apologised for, news of 3D’s likely demise became public via a MediaWorks press release issued while we were still in a meeting about the review of the programme – we hadn’t even had a chance to tell our partners what was happening.
The wolf had lurked outside the door of 3D for months, stalking around reminding us of its brooding presence with clues that we weren’t considered long-term prospects. Other programmes had bus billboards, we struggled to even get story promos on primetime. Favoured projects were lavishly praised on Weldon’s weekly “MediaWorks Hangout” – the internal TV bonanza he fronted – while we never earned a mention. And then the most obvious sign of our looming fate – we were shunted from 6.30 pm on a Sunday to 9.30 pm on a Monday. It felt like we were the trash bag set down by the door, waiting to be put outside in the morning.
Read more of The Spinoff’s coverage of 3D:
The thing is, when you love your job as much as we did, you ignore the inevitable, pretend it won’t happen. Especially when it feels like you’re making a difference. And, you know, work can be distracting when you’re busy helping get a guy out of prison for a murder he didn’t commit, uncovering evidence that forced an official investigation into a fatal air crash to be re-opened, exposing bullying in the Fire Service, revealing scientific breakthroughs that should change the way educators and parents educate kids about porn. Stuff like that.
And, sure, it’s not as if any of us were under the impression we had embarked on a career that was particularly secure. In 1991, when I was attempting to become a cub reporter, applying for jobs all over the country, I was inundated with replies… rejection letters, to be precise. Some of them were swift and perfunctory. Some were kind. One in particular, resonated – more so now, in light of recent events. “I’m sure you will find journalism a rewarding profession once you settle into a job,” wrote Bob Howitt, the legendary editor of what was then Rugby News, in a type-written letter. “The sadness is that so many well-qualified journalists have been made redundant, victims of the downturn in the economy.”
And it’s true. I remember those days – newspapers like the Auckland Star and the Auckland Sun shut their doors, plenty of good journalists lost their jobs, other wannabe reporters took the hint and found other careers. Perhaps I should have too.
Howitt was right though in another respect: when I did find work, journalism was a rewarding profession. I still think just that.
Even though the wolf was never far away.
Over the years I’ve witnessed countless colleagues lose their jobs, victims of economic decisions which have immense personal impacts. Once, as a union delegate, I sat in a tiny room as a newsroom manager told a veteran reporter, a man who had started out in the job as a boy, that his time was up. The old-timer’s grief was palpable and infectious. We wept, us all.
For another friend and colleague, redundancy from the Herald was not the curse it was to others. It changed his life forever, for the better. From his happy place, he messaged me when he heard what was happening to 3D. His missive was simple: “Man up.”
I will, I promise I will. Soon. Once I’ve cleared some detritus from my head.
The effects of what was going on became most obvious to me on the Saturday before the end. I was running an off-road marathon, grunting up and down the hills, through the bush and along the trails of Auckland’s stunning west coast. On this particular day, though, I was enjoying none of the Instagram-worthy vistas. Unlike.
Early on I realised that I’d never felt so tired or weighed down in a race. I nearly pulled out because I kept stopping to walk and struggling to breathe in that way you do when you catch your breath so you don’t cry. And then I realised I was lumbering under the weight of all the baggage from the previous month – the meetings, the fears, the inevitable. About 15 km in I gave myself an upper cut and decided I wasn’t going to quit because of them, because of the wolf on my heels. But for most of the way, it was all I could think about and that made me angry and sad and frustrated and rejected. Normally, those things make me run faster, but on this day it made me ache and slowed me down like never before. It wasn’t until later on in the race when I was so tired my mind was incapable of thinking that I finally started to run properly and that I actually started to enjoy myself.
I confided all this in a guy who very kindly had sent me a message to say he hoped I was okay, Mal Law. Within the ultra-running community in New Zealand, Mal is as famous and revered as they come. Last year he tackled the formidable High Five-O challenge, running up 50 peaks in 50 days, along the way raising half a million dollars for the Mental Health Foundation. It was humbling to hear from Mal, although that’s the kind of guy he is.
And after he’d listened to what I’d experienced in the marathon, his reply was typically zen.
“All you felt out there was entirely natural and, I believe, healthy. Good on you for persevering. Take joy from the idea that you might have more trail time over the next little while. After all, what do accountants and bank managers know about true happiness eh?!”
Thanks, Mal. You’re right, of course. And I have enjoyed much more time on the trails these last few weeks.
I’m never going to outrun the wolf but I’m hoping that somewhere along the way I’ll get the chance to stare him straight in the eyes. I know who you are and I’m not afraid any more.
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This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.