The shock resignation of Hilary Barry from Mediaworks represents a bigger blow than any of the other high profile TV3 newsroom departures, says Duncan Greive.
Last night, just before 9pm, news broke that Hilary Barry had become the latest and biggest casualty of the Mark Weldon era at Mediaworks. It’s a cataclysmic event for the organisation, a multi-pronged nightmare with implications stretching from dawn to dusk and across all platforms.
Barry is the most universally beloved figure in New Zealand television, a woman who managed to embody everything TV3’s brand once stood for – smart, funny and relatable in a way that TVNZ’s slightly aloof figures have struggled to match. Yet if the rumours of her recruitment to One are true – and it seems near-certain – then this is one of the most audacious and admirably ruthless coups in recent broadcast history.
Every prior departure could be sold as part of a rejuvenation process – Mediaworks as a sports franchise in rebuild mode: trading ageing assets, doubling down on young talent.
You can imagine the thought processes: John Campbell? Earnest old-fashioned leftie – gone! Paula Penfold and investigative journalism? That doesn’t sound very snackable – gone! David Farrier? Speccy nerd – gone! Mark Jennings? He hired all those idiots – gone!
The point is that each and every one was, in some ways, a departure which Mediaworks executives either wanted or could live with. They could still frame the whole situation as a modernisation exercise. What seemed to get lost for Mediaworks bosses was that those people were friends and colleagues for Barry, and the heartless way they were cut affected her deeply.
Indeed, viewing staff solely as tradable and disposable assets, and not as human pieces of a newsroom ecosystem, seems to be a key failing of ex-NZX boss Weldon’s understanding of his organisation’s culture.
So while the prior events in TV3’s red wedding could be watched without major distress by senior executives, Barry’s departure represents a major narrative rupture.
‘Renewal’ was only plausible so long as she was there. In a position renowned for ego and a cool distance she cut an immensely sympathetic figure – laughing like a drain at times, weeping unselfconsciously at others. Even though the contemporary newsreader can feel like an attractive autocue robot – at least, that’s what you feel is wanted of them – she had bags of personality and even a moral compass which would flare up whenever needed.
I twice saw her present the Canon Media Awards, the first at incredibly late notice, as John Campbell had been summoned to David Cunliffe’s house (it sounds so quaint, but was really less than two years ago). She boiled over with wit and mischief, really lighting up the room. I don’t think anyone there would have failed to come away thinking “she’s wasted on the news”.
TV3 knew it too – and adroitly placed her alongside Paul Henry on Paul Henry, a true casting masterstroke. The pair had terrific chemistry, and she allowed him to conform to his natural troublemaker role. Her sheer proximity meant that there was both a brake and implicit endorsement by a person we knew to be of unimpeachable character. If it was OK with Hilary, it was OK with us.
The resignation could not have been worse timed. After a solid year of tumult, things were starting to look like less of a war zone. The Newshub brand had launched and bedded in. Paul Henry has just turned one, and started to really hit its stride both in form and in ratings. Same goes for Story, whose audience had stabilised and grown after launching into the void left by Campbell Live. Indeed, the news broke just a couple of hours after the debut of The Friday Story, a promising panel discussion to fix the gaping hole on Friday.
Weldon and Mediaworks could have forgiven themselves for thinking the bad times were over. Now the channel’s heart is gone and they’re plunged into chaos anew. Shockingly, abruptly we’re about to witness the end of the stellar Barry-McRoberts combo – the greatest newsreader combo of this era.
It’s not irrecoverable. The channel’s incredible recruitment machine means talent like Samantha Hayes and Kanoa Lloyd are on hand and likely to be promoted. And in the past the likes of Hawkesby, Bailey and even Holmes have left channels without the world collapsing.
But Hilary is a rare talent, and far from being on the down curve, it feels like she’s still discovering what she can do – rounding into her prime, rather than at its peak.
This era too, is markedly different: audiences are atomising and another bad year might make the already difficult task of a profitable exit for Mediaworks’ owners, Oakbridge Capital, entirely impossible.
The ramifications are not quite on the level of the loss of Home & Away, but they’re close. For TV3, and her very large and loyal audience, she leaves a gaping hole they’ll already know they cannot fill. For Mark Weldon, Mediaworks’ embattled chief executive, this loss is one he will find very difficult to bear.