Brian Edwards Media

Arrival of “The Nation”

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One should welcome the arrival of a second real current affairs show, and I do. It is probably kinder not to review the first episode of any new programme, but TV3’s The Nation made a proficient start on Saturday. Host Stephen Parker was understandably nervous and can be expected to relax into his role in coming weeks.

I have grown to respect Duncan Garner’s down-to-earth, no-nonsense analysis of politics, but his interview with Steven Joyce suggested he was more interested in prospecting for headlines than in cross-examining his guest in any detail. He had too many topics and too few supplementary questions, so that the effect was of someone saying, “Try this on for size then!” in the hope of scoring a newsworthy answer. There were none, and when Garner did persist, he ended up flogging several dead horses. It was clear, for example,  that Joyce was not going to say whether Jim Bolger was going to be sacked from his job as Chairman of KiwiRail, and there was very little point in returning to the question again and again. Joyce is not merely unflappable, he appears to have graduated from the Winston Peters School of Advanced Non-Answering. 

The panel did rather better with him than Garner. Stephen Parker and the Dom Post’s  Vernon Small asked most of the questions, but  I’m a particular fan of the effervescent Deborah Hill Cone’s in-your-face, take-no-prisoners style of interviewing. For example:

“You didn’t really give us any answers did you? Very cagey there, but I guess I’m wondering, you know is there actually gonna be any private sector investment in the ultra fast Broadband, because to me I don’t get any sense from the private sector that they’re going ‘we’re gagging to put some money into this’, and if they thought there was a business case they’d have done it in the first place.”

She was right. Joyce really hadn’t answered any questions and was”very cagey”.

This first episode of The Nation offered more variety than its counterpart on TV1 with segments on business and the arts and a revealing examination of our surprisingly limited right of access to the nation’s beaches and waterways.

In production terms, we were mercifully spared Q&A’s distracting, multi-coloured kinetic panels, but the appalling direction and camerawork on The Nation more than made up for it. It’s more than 30 years since I completed my television director’s course at Avalon, but I do know that a shot with acres of nothingness on the talent’s (interviewee’s) left and the interviewer’s head and hands just peeking into the right side of the frame, is not a good shot. Having mastered the wide shot, The Nation’s director might now consider moving on to the medium shot and medium close up.   We know you’ve got a big studio to play in, but the MCU really is the basic building block of the studio interview.

Do I think The Nation is as good as Q&A? Not yet. There really is no substitute for the masterly Paul Holmes as programme host. The wry and pithy question/answer section with which he begins the programme really is a delight and the least equivocal commentary on the week in politics anywhere.  Whether as host or interviewer, Paul brings colour and personality to the job. Even without the nerves, I doubt we will see that from Stephen Parker.

Q&A also has Guyon Espiner and Therese Arseneau.  When he controls his instinct to badger and interrupt his guest, Espiner is a superb political interrogator. In sheer intelligence and command of subject he outshines anyone else in the field. His interviews are truly ‘in-depth’ and have produced more stories for One News than you could throw a stick at. From time to time he meets his match. He could make no headway with Helen Clark and watching Geoffrey Palmer take the legal scalpel to his questions on New Zealand’s current position on whaling was pure viewing fun. But such occasions are rare.

I disliked Therese Arseneau when I first saw her on television. Her voice and look  both irritated me. And maybe there was just a hint of xenophobia. What was a North American doing  explaining New Zealand politics to Kiwis? But my respect for her has grown. She has an encyclopaedic knowledge of her subject,  presents in a highly accessible way and seems to go right to the heart of the matter. I find myself saying, “Gosh, that’s right. That’s it in a nutshell.”   

So Holmes, Espiner and Arseneau are all hard acts for The Nation to follow.

Still, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. For those of us who believe that discursive,  in-depth television coverage of politics is essential to the proper functioning of democracy, the arrival of The Nation is really good news. All we need now it to have it and Q&A moved to timeslots where more than 3 percent of the electorate can see them.  

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16 Comments:

  1. The ratings were pretty bad: http://www.throng.co.nz/nation/nation-debuts-dismal-ratings

    I couldn’t understand why they went to an ad break before they had any real content. A little disappointing I thought.

    Agree that Duncan Garner was fishing for a headline. I really hope that’s not a true representation of where both Q&A and The Nation are heading with them each trying to out headline each other.

  2. Paul has been an interesting production in himself recently.

    In the tail end of last season and every episode so far he has shown a slightly crazy bluster – usually with the invisible producer voice in his ear.
    Also he’s shown a slight misogynist attitude towards his female panel members. A good example would be here – in part 1 from last weeks episode when he asks his female panel member about “some powerful global woma conference” she attended (also I like Mike Moores shock) –
    http://tvnz.co.nz/q-and-a/q-and-s2010-e7-video-3405585
    Unfortunately the don’t put on ondemand with baselines so I can’t get her name.

    As for The Nation, we’ll see how it goes, the set seems a little impersonal for a show about more than just politics.

  3. What was a North American doing explaining New Zealand politics to Kiwis?

    Did you blush a little bit when you typed that, Brian. :) I’ve got to admit I’ve always found something deliciously irony-deficient about that bitch being flung at Arseneau. After all, we have quite a lively export industry in journalists who wash up from Fortress Wapping to Doha, and apparently do a pretty damn good job despite being foreigners.

  4. Interesting, as always, to read your views Brian. Don’t forget we’ve got Jon Johansson sharing the role with Therese – TWO great, pithy, connected, researched and independent political scientists.

    Simon, the expert panel member you’re trying to recall was Jane Diplock, the head of the Securities Commission in New Zealand. One of NZ’s more powerful women who had come on the programme from the Global Women conference that was under way on Waiheke that weekend.

  5. blockquote>I disliked Therese Arseneau when I first saw her on television … But my respect for her has grown.

    There was this fantastic moment during the election night coverage when TVOne’s revolving table of panelists included both Therese and Michael Laws. Therese had contradicted Laws on some point and was explaining her analysis and for one wonderful moment you could see the look on Michael’s face as the realisation that she was much smarter than he was dawned on him.

    As for The Nation – it had one great feature for me – the complete absence of Paul Holmes (whose Question … Answer segment is some of the most insufferable television there is), and the investigation I liked, but the arts story, not so much. And while I think the panel asking questions added to it, it shouldn’t have. For someone other than the interviewer to be asking the tough or interesting questions suggests that the interviewer either isn’t good, or wasn’t briefed.

    • blockquote>I disliked Therese Arseneau when I first saw her on television … But my respect for her has grown.

      We’ll have to disagree on Paul’s contribution. I find it amusing and provocative. I thought Garner’s questioning was weak, as I indicated, but a panel has a different function from an interviewer. The interviewer’s job – in theory at least – is to ask probing but disinterested questions; Panelists, on the other hand, can comment and judge. The two are complementary.

  6. “…and for one wonderful moment you could see the look on Michael’s face as the realisation that she was much smarter than he was dawned on him.”

    It doesn’t take much to outsmart this small-town mayor — especially, when it comes to Therese Arseneau, whose knowledge reservoir runs deep. Law’s intellect is redolent of the dull-flickering light bulb, whose filament is about to burn out, but somehow just manages to linger on, flickering.

    As for Paul Holmes’ interviewing technique, it can best be described as “adequate”. His finest moment, in broadcasting, came and went with his glorious reference to the — useless — Kofi Annan, describing him as a “cheeky darkie”.
    The trouble with Paul, is that he is never quite able unable to sublimate his ego. His eponymous-titled book (with the oversized head-shot on the dust cover), his Des O’Connor-type warblings (which went straight to the CD Bargain Bin). And, now, a tome for his “Herald on Sunday” articles: adequate and competent, but no great “turn of phrases” to make it anything other than “ordinary”.
    He’s sure to enter the pantheon of “Greats”, but it will be to a quiet corner, designated: “Tribute to Self”.

  7. Just watched the second episode of “The Nation”. Garner still needs some work and Parker could have moderated the panel better. I fast-forwarded the art piece because its just not for me. But that item on divisions within the Act party and leadership issues really was astoundingly good. Honestly I could watch five hours of such pieces that how good it was. Reminded me how political issues was reported by TV news in the past.


  8. This first episode of The Nation offered more variety than its counterpart on TV1 with segments on business and the arts

    Just confirmed it for myself this week. The first episode of The Nation did not have a segment on business.

    Rather, the Sunday morning repeat had a segment on business to fill in the extra time that was available because TV can’t sell ads on a Sunday morning. This segment of Michael Wilson presenting repeated stories from the business news of the week doesn’t air during the Saturday morning live showing.

  9. re Merv: And, now, a tome for his “Herald on Sunday” articles: adequate and competent, but no great “turn of phrases” to make it anything other than “ordinary”.

    Merv you are surely mistaken. Paul Holmes’ analysis of Winston Peters’ brain , and his advice for fellow interviewers for example are some of the funniest things I have read:

    ‘The Peters brain is an eternally mysterious wonder to anyone who is not Winston. It is a dangerous, unnavigable labyrinth which you enter at great peril. Go in there and you will not emerge alive.’

    ‘We ( interviewers) try to keep our questions ( for Peters) short. A long question gives his brain time to morph and then all you will see is the comet trail ahead of you, swirling in a foreign night of dark tunnels, swinging doors, hanging cobwebs and lonely screams of the dead who came before….Let a question drag on and death is certain. You will feel the brief beauty of freefall before becoming a lake of blood and tissue. ‘

  10. re Meredith: Utterly depressed at reading this. I’ve described Peters’ rambling replies as “verbal sludge”. You don’t try and navigate your way through it. You take him head-on. Seriously, if I could interview him, I’d dismantle him piece-by-piece.
    He’s not that clever, it’s just that you guys make him look like he is, because of (sorry), your inherent sense of fear and inadequacy, which he can see — and smell — as he walks through the front door. Harden up, Girl!!!

  11. Merv, you miss my point. I am praising Paul’s writing which I suggest is anything but ‘ordinary.’

  12. What I’m saying is, is that Holmes’ descriptive writing of Winston Peters’ persona, rings hollow. All it does is reinforce the “Wriggler’s” grating narcissism. I bet, if Winston happened upon this, he’d be chuffed. And that’s what “depresses me”. Because it comes by way of abject self – deprecation, replete with the intimidation and fear factors. Winston makes his interviewers appear inept, by their conferring this undeserved aura of beguiling mystique upon him. The guy isn’t that smart, he just makes his interviewers look dumb.

    You might be enthralled by his so-called “imaginative” word-pictures — “dangerous, unnavigable labyrinth; foreign night of dark tunnels, swinging doors, hanging cobwebs and lonely screams; becoming a lake of blood and tissue”.

    To me, the language is evocative of a young teenager’s scary storybook. Sorry, it’s just “ordinary”.

    Paul Holmes does have his creative moments, but you won’t catch me worshipping at his “Writing” altar.

  13. I am warming to ‘The Nation’ probably because it doesn’t have Paul Holmes on board. Duncan Garner and Stephen Parker have improved since the first outing, but still need to hone their skills somewhat yet. I thought the interview with Dr Mark Prebble was worthwhile viewing. Unlike some of the previous comments – I think the arts segment is great. Just loved the interview with the tenor Simon O’Neill, the piece on the rebuilt Auckland Town Hall pipe organ and the look at the Helensville artist who works with corrugated iron. I’ll keep watching it. I always watch for the colour of Duncan Garner’s tie – I find it’s usually red when he gets stuck into the Government and blue when he has a go at the opposition!

  14. “Paul Holmes does have his creative moments, but you won’t catch me worshipping at his “Writing” altar.”

    Good! More kneeroom then for me!

  15. Meredith: Good! More kneeroom then for me!

    Creative and cute. I will bow to that :)