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Chris Ford: Sir Paul Holmes 1950-2013 - an even sided appraisal of our preeminent broadcaster

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

I was wondering what to write in regard to Sir Paul Holmes especially in the wake of his expected passing.

I note that on my Facebook feed today, some of my left-leaning Facebook friends have chosen to remember (and denigrate) the racist, conservative, right-wing Holmes that we knew - that of the "cheeky darky" and infamous Waitangi Day 2012 Herald column fame. Other friends who are apolitical have expressed sadness at his passing.

First of all, let me outline the fact that I, for one, always pay due respect to those who have died (except in exceptional circumstances - I wouldn't pay my respects to a political dictator of any political hue, for example). That's why I want to pay my respects to Sir Paul's family, friends and colleagues at this sad time.

Having said that, I want to provide my own honest, balanced assessment of Holmes' contribution to this country.

On the plus side, he ended "Pommyness" within our broadcasting culture. He was one of the first broadcasters to ditch the BBC trained accent and speak with a recognisable Kiwi one. At least in that regard, Holmes paid due homage to our egalitarian heritage. 

When he went over to television, his Holmes show brought populist, American-style current affairs into our living rooms. In the infotainment age heralded by broadcasting deregulation, Kiwi broadcasters had to reinvent (or dumb down) news programming to fit within a more commercialised format. Clearly, TVNZ back in the late 80's needed a good, effective talking head to front their new flagship nightly news show using this format - Holmes fitted the bill perfectly.

Whatever my left-wing FB friends might say about Holmes, the show that bore his name was a format that perfectly fitted with the man himself. Using this format, not only did the stories (or what passed for them) matter but the presenter himself did too. Evidently, in Holmes, TVNZ left behind "old school" presenters like Ian Johnstone and Philip Sherry who merely introduced the stories and then let the stories doing the talking in favour of the "new school" who would not only introduce the stories but play an active part in them.

Speaking personally, as a disabled person, I highly praise the good work he did with our Paralympians. I remember well the women's magazine cover in 1992 featuring Holmes alongside my friend and one of that year's top Kiwi medallists, swimmer Jenny Newstead. That and his being the first journalist in New Zealand to cover the Paralympics when disability sport wasn't considered that prestigious or sexy is something I do have to praise him for. He will long be remembered for his contribution to the Paralympics movement in New Zealand.

But his racist statements are something that many of me and many of my leftist friends won't forget. While he regretted his comments about UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (and apologised on air for them), he did regret (but not apologise) for publishing anti-Maori comments in his New Zealand Herald column marking Waitangi Day 2012. Overall, I believe his conservatism was there for all to see at the end. I believe that most of our preeminent broadcasters are conservative despite right-wing claims that our media are full of Bolshie Labour/Green/Mana lefty sympathisers. Towards the end of his life, at least Holmes more or less came out and proclaimed what he believed in and didn't choose to hide anymore behind the veneer of so-called media neutrality. 

In regard to Holmes, I think the Tumeke blog earlier this week summed up what I believe Holmes reflected - he views of the sometimes socially conservative, sometimes (even unconsciously) racist and/or monoculturalist Middle New Zealander.  In other words, he didn't represent or seek to appeal to people like me or the Bomber Bradbury's of this world. He really appealed to (and indeed originally came from) Middle New Zealand - the group that believe in the need to end so-called political correctness and the concomitant need to restrain social liberalism and its adherents. Not only did his success come down to being able to speak in the New Zild (sic) accent (as John Key does) but an ability to appeal to Middle New Zild's hopes and fears. He not only spoke their language, he thought the way they did. I have to concede that this was his talent - the success in appealing to this viewer and listener demographic.

And that's why Holmes is being lauded today. For good or ill, he did not change the face of broadcasting singlehandedly - rather the face of broadcasting itself changed and his was the face that reflected that change perfectly. 

RIP Sir Paul Holmes.





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