Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Sir Paul Holmes 1950 - 2013: The Passing Of A Conservative Champion

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.


Peter Hooper said...

Your positioning of Sir Paul as a conservative may upset some, but your view is one I would agree with.

Sir Paul did have a skill I admire, and I know this because of how a friend of mine was treated by Sir Paul when he appeared on NZ television on Sir Paul's show. My friend was seeking to give voice to a liberally framed social program, and his experience of Sir Paul was one of a kind, patient and gracious host. Now there is a skill, to be able to leave a person with a memory of being managed kindly, all the while remaining well positioned, as you say, the voice for conservatitism as common sense.

Cam said...

The content of my email to today's edition of Radio NZ's Nine to Noon show:

RIP Paul Holmes, and my sympathies to his grieving loved ones.

However if you are starting to anlayse the legacy of Mr Holmes as a broadcaster, with Gavin Ellis today, I would like you to consider the following hypothesis:

That NZ's high profile interviewers, incl. Holmes, have been complicit in the controversial changes to our nation over the past 25 years.

Why? If I was a politician advocating the policies of Rogernomics say - a regime still holding sway today - I would welcome being interviewed by a relatively soft touch like Holmes (and others). While you get emotive indignation from the likes of Holmes, you will get poor engagement with the root causes, and hence interviewees escape true accountability.

While OK on the details of an issue, Holmes and other interviewers too often failed to get to grips with the root causes of the issues. This is because there is a poor grasp of the ideas that underpin policies (in the case of Rogernomics: neo-liberalism, neo-classical economics). Bundles of such ideas, the bedrock of ideologies such as Rogernomics, are the true drivers of policy and their resulting outcomes i.e. the issues and cases that Holmes would cover on his shows.

I would maintain that interrogating these deeper ideas is a key task for an effective Fourth Estate. Holmes was one of several who clearly failed on this count.


Not as sophisticated and well written as Chris' post granted. The comparison with Bruce Jesson is appropriate and telling. Good work.

Anonymous said...

I only knew Holmes's public persona, which I loathed. He may well have been a lovely person and a humanitarian in his private life, but he was partly responsible for the sad state of New Zealand journalism today, and as you correctly state, a right wing megalomaniac. My favourite memory of him is his interview with those two stupid girls who ran away on a fishing boat years ago. They answered him with monosyllabic grunts. They deserved each other.

johnw said...

Excellent commentary.Although I'm sorry he died in such a manner. He was first and foremost an entertainer, there for his own egotistical ends. I don't think he left the world as a better place, in spite of the eulogys

Anonymous said...

Thanks - I so needed this after the maddening tosh of the last week.

Anonymous said...

Nice, Chris. Good Kiwi slagging off ended with a grin and a handshake.

Anonymous said...

Let's imagine the hikoi had taken place a year or two ago. Do you think for one moment Holmes would have uttered anything like his closing comment back in 2004?

Pdogge said...

I remember well his glee on the night of the 2008 election ,trotting round the roof of TVNZ ? and interviewing the bimbo's who all mouthed their thoughtless "Time for a change' mantra, over and over. He really was delighted. For sure he was a happy conservative...

markus said...

Yep, astonishing that the Labour Party, for a time, seriously entertained the idea of recruiting Holmes as a List MP.

But, then, also astonishing that the Alliance (and someone as astute as Matt McCarten for chrissakes !) once seriously entertained the idea of taking on Winston Peters as Party leader.

ak said...

Onnit Anon 5.24. The Hikoi was a major embarrassment and direct attack on Helen Clark, hence the simpering and "heartfelt" cheerleading by this vain and needy wee tool of Money.

With the reaper nipping at his heels, his true race-face was exposed in all its gruesome glory in his recent column in the granny. Last-gasp grab at populist acclaim, final tinny rattle of just another dry dag on the tory rump, gone and soon forgotten.

Gaetano said...

Thanks for helping me understand why I could never connect with PH. I found his interviewing style quite painful. However, I did enjoy him on his Intrepid Journey to Yemen. The locals seemed to take to his big personality, and there was a cute goat that saw him as a protector. I'm sorry he wasn't able to bring the goat back with him. I would have liked him to raise public awareness about what lovely, sensitive and intelligent animals goats are.

Unknown said...

Wanted to wait a few days before commenting: He can kiss his knighthood on the arse! A talanted radioman and television frontman. How can you be a broadcaster when the company does the broadcasting?
The man was talented and stupid at the same time. Won't see his like again. Yeah right! Sorry Paul, but you were too much a dickhead to be taken seriously. The rest are a bunch of wallies too.

jh said...

He received a lot of praise from Kiwibloggers - says it all I think. He was an oil that smoothed the status quo.