John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Serious TV should make us sit and think

Current affairs needs to speak to an audience that can think

The serious journalistic abilities of Duncan Garner (left) and Guyon Espiner are blunted by the demands of  3rd Degree . Photo / TV3
The serious journalistic abilities of Duncan Garner (left) and Guyon Espiner are blunted by the demands of 3rd Degree . Photo / TV3

Guyon Espiner and Duncan Garner have done some intelligent television in their different ways. When they teamed up on TV3 for a programme billed "a new kind of current affairs", I looked forward to it.

An interesting, important, well-informed and forcefully argued programme would be a new kind of current affairs on television these days and since this one was to be called 3rd Degree, that is what I imagined it would be.

How quaint of me. This is the age of smartphone journalism, made for an audience on the move. It's not for people who sit and think.

TVNZ lets the presenters of Seven Sharp sit but not think too much. If they get into a serious interview the producer quickly puts up inane reactions from Facebook.

TV3 no longer allows its presenters even to sit. Espiner and Garner came on screen this week standing at the end of the desk in the studio that John Campbell now prowls every night.

Their opening story came from New Plymouth where an earnest young family man had got offside with practically the whole town and its police by zealously performing his chosen occupation: wheel-clamping cars.

For his own protection he had taken to wearing cameras that had recorded his frequent verbal, and sometimes physical, altercations with car owners and the programme was happy to screen them all, some more than once.

Film of real-life confrontations has a morbid, meaningless fascination. So much low-level law enforcement is digitally recorded on camera these days that programmes on border security, fisheries patrols and the like have become routine.

But serious current affairs has to have a point and after indulging at inordinate length in the clamper's footage, 3rd Degree offered one.

It decided the New Plymouth police were the villains of the story because they'd been telling the clamper's victims his work was "unlawful".

Garner and Espiner concluded the local police didn't know the law, and they were particularly disgusted that when the zealous clamper once caught a police vehicle an angry officer made an unprofessional threat.

The story was potentially more interesting than any of this.

The police did know the law. In one of the incidents shown, a constable tried to explain to a car owner that the clamper was acting under the authority of the business that controlled the parking space and their dispute was an issue of civil law, not one that police could resolve.

The cops encouraged the car owner to go ahead and remove the clamps if he could while they watched.

What happened was clearly of no concern to them unless things turned violent.

Obviously this is not an easy element of law to explain to aggrieved and angry people on the street but it could have been usefully discussed in a television studio. Civil law enforcement by the likes of wheel-clampers, tow-truck drivers and debt collectors raises interesting issues about authority and how it should be handled.

Too often, probably, these functions are performed by heavy, fearsome characters who don't need very much in the way of verbal skills and sweet reason. The 3rd Degree story was potentially valuable because the clamper was not one of those. He was an ordinary-looking bloke who wore shorts and a sunhat.

Put him in a uniform and he could have been a council parking warden. He would have been fine. He had a strong, stubborn, self-righteous streak, as anyone would need in his job, but he remained resolutely calm and reasonable in the incidents shown. Mayor Harry Duynhoven criticised his way of dealing with people but couldn't say precisely what was wrong with it.

The man's only problem, I think, was that he lacked the usual sources of authority. He had neither the uniform and paperwork of a council warden nor the tattoos and leathers that help towies enforce parking restrictions in the private sector. In the end he quit.

The programme raised another couple of questions, neither of which it asked. What firms had given the clamper the contract for their carparks and what did they think of the town's reaction to him? More generally, is there a need to regulate this business?

To give someone the power to tow or clamp a car and pay himself whatever he can demand for the vehicle's release, is not exactly a civilised procedure.

If these questions occurred to the producers of 3rd Degree, they must have been considered not interesting enough for viewers who have drifted to the internet for news and current affairs.

A couple of those viewers started watching this programme with me.

They knew after the first few clips from the wheel-clamper's hat camera that the item would have nothing more to offer them, and left the room.

Television needs to sit down and think hard.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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