Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Paul Holmes really did have that golden touch

Paul Holmes. Photo / Supplied
Paul Holmes. Photo / Supplied

Sir Paul Holmes must have laughed wryly last week when reports of the fast-tracking of his investiture ceremony overshadowed news of Television New Zealand's latest desperate plans to reconquer the 7pm current affairs slot he once ruled for so long.

The state broadcaster's outgoing head of news and current affairs Ross Dagan said the new "flagship current affairs show" would be fronted by not just one or even two presenters, but by a troika - one of them a professional comic - offering an "unsurpassed" mix of experience, strong journalistic pedigree and ability to entertain.

In his heyday, Sir Paul was all of the above with one hand tied behind his back, and not just nightly on television, but reprising and progressing it all on his popular radio breakfast show as well.

Even now, a decade after his leap from TVNZ into the quicksands of Prime, his charismatic powers continue to work their magic on those he once interrogated.

Home from New York for a holiday shortly before Christmas, former Prime Minister Helen Clark phoned Sir Paul to check on his health. Soon after, she contacted her successor to suggest that if he had any plans to knight the ailing broadcaster, then he'd better not dawdle.

It seems the paperwork had already been prepared, but no date set. John Key took the hint and added his name to the already completed New Year's list, ringing Holmes on Christmas Day with the good news.

And they say politicians have no heart. Ms Clark had abolished imperial titles more than a decade ago on becoming prime minister, only to see them restored in 2009, after Mr Key pushed her out of the Beehive. Worse, he'd invited all those who had missed out during the Clark era to trade in their non-titular honour for a knighthood. Most did. Despite this, both politicians put the past to one side to enable the broadcaster to tick off a key item on his bucket list.

A week or so later, Governor General Sir Jerry Mateparae joined in, agreeing to bring the vice-regal circus, complete with kneeling stools and swords, to Sir Paul's Hawkes Bay residence for today's ceremony - a very rare exception to normal custom.

Just why such a self-made success as Sir Paul feels the need to go through such anachronistic royalist play-acting beats me. But if these amateur dramatics make him happy in his present circumstances, then why not.

As broadcasting "stars" go, his only other local rival for the crown would surely be Aunt Daisy, who ruled the morning airwaves for 30 years up until 1963, mostly on the Government-owned commercial ZB radio network. Like Holmes, she was a household name - but she was only on radio. Sir Paul was a daily fixture on ZB for 22 years and TVNZ for 20.

A product of, and a beneficiary of the commercialisation of state broadcasting, he had his critics, and made mistakes - "cheekie darkie" jumps to mind. But when you're commenting on the news in the public spotlight for more than two decades on a daily basis - the odd blooper is surely forgivable.

The politicians, who were his bread and butter fodder, obviously thought so. It's hard to imagine a government of either colour refusing as general policy to appear on the Holmes show.

They wouldn't have dared.

Yet the present Government - or several ministers - seem to engage in the tactic on a regular basis as far as various radio and television shows are concerned

Critics of the Holmes show complained it lacked gravitas, that it represented the dumbing down of current affairs. They had no idea of what was round the corner.

Looking back from this end of the telescope, it now seems something of a golden age.

His salary might have been obscene, but at least Sir Paul regarded politics and public affairs as issues to be treated on a serious basis.

Since his departure, state television's commitment to public service news and current affairs has spiralled downwards. Last year, TVNZ's flagship current affairs show Sunday was lopped down to half an hour, to make way for a 13-week season of entertainment show New Zealand's Got Talent.

Sunday is supposed to be back for the full hour this year - but can we be sure a cooking or house renovation contest won't come along mid-year to take its place?

Meanwhile, my colleague John Drinnan reported yesterday that the new current affairs show Seven Sharp, which is to replace Close-Up, which itself replaced the Holmes show, will serve up tiny "bite size" segments. Up to eight different topics in the 30 minute show.

When you subtract seven or more minutes for advertisements, that's just over two minutes a topic.

Even Aunt Daisy, with her legendary 200 words a minute delivery speed, would have been hard-pressed to deliver sensible commentary under these restraints.

This is the show, Mr Dagan says "will tell compelling stories in a refreshing way that will engage New Zealand viewers ... with smart thinking, different viewpoints, and plenty of laughs along the way,"

Looking back, we had that once. It was called the Holmes show.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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