Conservative Champion: Over four decades of broadcasting to suburban and provincial New Zealand, Sir Paul Holmes never tired of presenting his inherited prejudices as the very essence of common sense. With his death the forces of conservatism have lost a powerful spokesman.
THE DEATH of Sir Paul Holmes has been received with genuine dismay and grief by conservative New Zealanders. Like the many progressive Kiwis who mourned the death of left-wing writer, Bruce Jesson, in 1999, the forces of conservatism understand that they have lost a formidable champion. At Sir Paul’s funeral, as they did at Bruce’s, mourners will hear the tributes of many illustrious New Zealanders and murmur: “We will not see his like again.”
To read that Sir Paul was a champion of the Right may startle many of his admirers. The man, himself, would have bridled with characteristic theatricality at such a description. Throughout his long career Sir Paul had worked tirelessly to perfect his public persona as the Kiwi “Everyman”. Inspired by that other gargantuan egotist, Charles De Gaulle, Sir Paul would likely have insisted that “Holmes is not of the Left; Holmes is not of the Right: Holmes is above!”
But it was precisely in his “Man of the People” costume that Sir Paul’s usefulness to the forces of conservatism inhered. Over four decades of broadcasting to suburban New Zealand, Sir Paul never tired of presenting his inherited provincial prejudices as the very essence of common sense.
In London and Vienna, the precociously clever boy from Hastings may have rubbed shoulders with all kinds of sophisticated cosmopolitans, but he was careful to avoid the contagion of their critical intellectualism. His hatred of intellectual “elites” was life-long and visceral. Sir Paul’s voracious appetite for information was almost entirely dedicated to defending his listeners’ and viewers’ right to be wrong.
The contrast with Bruce Jesson, one of New Zealand’s rare public intellectuals, could hardly be starker. Bruce devoted his life to dissecting and exposing the hollowness of New Zealand society. He investigated the cosy networks smothering its business community; attacked the Labour Party’s and the trade unions’ narrowness of vision; and castigated the universities for their failure to act as New Zealand’s critic and conscience. Bruce was the implacable foe of New Zealand’s provincial mediocrity – most particularly of its ingrained anti-intellectualism and its spineless deference to the contrived hierarchies of monarchy. Even had a Labour Government been brave enough to offer him a knighthood – Bruce would never have accepted it. He died a convinced and proud republican.
Progressive Champion: The contrast between the left-wing public intellectual, Bruce Jesson, and Sir Paul Holmes could hardly have been starker.
Sir Paul has been hailed as a broadcasting wunderkind and identified as the leader of a revolution in radio and television current affairs. Had he been the inventor of talk radio and personality-centred current-affairs television such titles might have been justified. More accurately, Sir Paul should be remembered as the broadcaster temperamentally best suited to providing the “infotainment” product that the new, commercially-driven radio and television networks were demanding. In this endeavour his ability to stroke the prejudices and inflame the grievances of suburban and provincial New Zealanders is justly celebrated.
As his audiences grew and his unique broadcasting talents propelled him into the extremely influential 7:00pm time-slot, Sir Paul and TVNZ’s Holmes Show found themselves in an extraordinarily powerful political position. Inevitably, the forces of conservatism lost little time in exploiting that power.
In October 2000, for example, Sir Paul and the Holmes Show lent the weight of its influence to a campaign supposedly organised by young and talented Kiwis driven offshore by the policies of the Labour-Alliance Government. In reality, the “Generation Lost” campaign was the work of the Business Roundtable and its public relations firm. As I wrote in The Independent Business Weekly of 11 October 2000:
“Mr Holmes has declared that he did not know of the Business Roundtable’s involvement when his show went to air last Wednesday evening. If this is correct, then Mr Holmes should immediately resign his position as the nation’s premier broadcaster. No one with the years of journalistic experience that Mr Holmes boasts should have accepted [the campaign’s] advertisement at its face value. The blatantly anti-government message at the heart of [the] campaign would normally have sent alarm bells ringing throughout Television New Zealand. To put [it] on air without checking the bona fides of [its] claims to political neutrality was an unforgivable lapse of professionalism.”
I continue to wonder how many of the other politically-charged causes championed by Sir Paul over the past two decades were of similar unacknowledged and highly-dubious provenance.
It would be remiss of me, however, to close without recalling Sir Paul’s extraordinary response to the 2004 hikoi opposing Labour’s Foreshore & Seabed Bill.
A lesser man (and a more convinced right-winger) might have used the day’s tumultuous events to further inflame New Zealand’s already tender race-relations. Instead, Sir Paul ended the programme’s coverage with these words:
“No New Zealander, frankly, could have watched proceedings today without a sense of pride, without being gripped by the heart, could have watched it – without love.”
Requiescat In Pace, Sir Paul Holmes.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 February 2013.