Good morning, good morning, good morning! It’s a sunny day today in Wellington and this morning we are going to……”
Before I went to school this was how many a morning started when my mother had the radio on and listened to Aunt Daisy while completing all those chores that mothers have when they have pre-schoolers. Aunt Daisy was a broadcasting phenomenon in the 1950s and in that era before the cult of celebrity took grip on New Zealand, she was a widely known and greatly loved figure.
Not only did she broadcast her daily programme, she wrote a cookbook or two, a book of “Handy Hints” which I have and which is encyclopaedic in its scope. Above all she was a character.
Then there were others, Selwyn Toogood comes to mind. An effective broadcaster across radio (quiz shows, hit parades, general programmes and so on), he made the transition to television with both quiz shows and “handy hint” panel shows.
There were many others including Colin Scrimgeour (before my time!) who were greatly famous for their role – in his case in having the government jam his radio station when he was thought likely to be about to urge listeners to vote for the Labour Party.
None of these kinds of broadcasters can be summed up in terms of comparisons to broadcasters of today. The way they worked, the technology they had (or didn’t have!), the stiff formality of all media in those days, the respect for people’s privacy and dignity, the concern for high standards of language use – all these factors circumscribed the way they worked on the media and the kinds of people they were.
All this has come to mind as the media over the past several months has tracked the tragic decline from good health through to the too early death of Sir Paul Holmes. When the media become concerned about one of their own they know no limits and one simply excuses the excesses as emotion over-rules normal practice.
He has been described as New Zealand’s greatest broadcaster of all time and I wonder about this. He certainly was a remarkable character with as much confidence as he had talent across a wide range of things. But the claims are a little over the top. Like all people who enjoy success, they do so on the shoulders of those who went before. He came to talkback radio and was able to mould the “breakfast session” traditions, well established by people like Phil Shone and Merv Smith with the still relatively new talk back radio potential pioneered by the likes of Gordon Dryden, Eccles Smith, Geoff Sinclair and Tim Bickerstaff and Sir Bruce Slane. I think that the last one there, Sir Bruce Slane, a well regarded legal figure actually used a pseudonym since some practices of the past still prevailed and it was not totally acceptable for a lawyer to be doing this.
Then there is the issue of current affairs. Sir Paul Holmes was not only the brightest star in the current affairs constellation over quite a period of time but, for the past ten or so years, pretty well the only one. Radio has been better in this regard than television. A serious discussion with him at the helm was a serious discussion. Well informed, well prepared, quick on his feet and faster with his tongue, he stood alongside those he interviewed and it was often good television or radio. But the last twenty years of current affairs barely bears comparison with the previous twenty years when a stable of commentators seemed to make television the go-to place for intelligent discussion of what was happening in New Zealand. Of course the success of Muldoon and Lange and their governments handed them plenty to get stuck in to and they did this with energy and at the time a ferocity that was there with Paul Holmes but with no-one else.
A mark of greatness is perhaps the ways in which a gap is filled when such people move on. There has been no explorer / adventurer / philanthropist to replace Sir Edmund Hillary and there might never be one of his ilk again. The wisdom of a Sir Paul Reeves is badly missed in these fractious times. There aren’t many to step up to fill the gap left by Sir Paul Callaghan, a rare talent.
To be sure, Sir Paul Holmes left large gaps when he moved on. Mark Sainsbury never captured the magic that sustained the eponymous Holmes Show, Mike Hoskings suffers by comparison in the breakfast slot while Jack Tame is a very poor out-of-depth substitute on Saturday morning radio. And Seven Sharp just beggars belief – not current affairs, not adult, not intelligent, low level humour…. Children’s’ television? No, it can’t be, children demand more intelligence and better humour.
Holmes was one who took the cliché out of being “a hard act to follow’.
We have people who do well, athletes, rugby players, musicians (some of who would be considered “great”) and lots more but our sense of proportion in our judgments is often distorted by the media that wallows in its power to create greatness. Does not the extent to which the weekly magazines immerse themselves so deeply in the trivial and with people who are famous simply because we are told they are famous, somewhat astonish? Greatness is not a crowed place and the media might reflect a little more on who might already have got there before they dish out the accolades.
Reflecting on the past, not just the last few minutes relatively speaking, is not a bad thing. Perhaps perspective requires this. Do we get this right in education? Could we name our great teachers and educators? The ones who really made a difference? It would be worth giving this some thought at this time when the media is obsessed largely with the negative when it comes to education. The agenda will be set by them if we do not set a different one.