Brian Edwards Media

I argue that Campbell Live’s ‘Stone Wall’ and ‘Caravan of Complaint’ serve democracy well.

Campbell Live has introduced a new feature on the programme. They’re calling it ‘The Stone Wall’ and it will display the names and photographs of Cabinet Ministers, from the PM down, who decline invitations to appear on the programme.

The idea isn’t entirely new. For a long time Fair Go had a ‘Wall of Shame’ which served much the same purpose. Malefactors who refused to front in the studio had their  name and photograph displayed on the wall, until they learnt the error of their ways and made an appearance.

I objected to the Fair Go version because people and companies who had sorted things out to the complainant’s satisfaction still had their name and photograph posted on the ‘Wall of Shame’ where it remained till they relented and turned up. This had absolutely nothing to do with fairness and everything to do with television’s requirement for pictures and conflict.

Paul Holmes used to have what you might call the ‘Empty Chair of Shame’. The chair was reserved for evildoers who had been invited to appear on Holmes but had declined. The conceit behind the empty chair was that hope springs eternal and that the invited guest might just change their mind and turn up. The camera (and Paul) returned frequently to the empty chair to indicate that hope was fading fast (and to further humiliate the no-show).  

So how fair is Campbell Live’s ‘Stone Wall’? I guess the answer is that it depends. Cabinet Ministers are extraordinarily busy people and will frequently have legitimate reasons for not being able to turn up at 7pm for an interview with John Campbell or Mark Sainsbury or anyone else. They may also from time to time have other reasons for not wanting to appear, including that this is simply not a topic they’re willing to discuss. Democracy does not require politicians to commit hara kiri for the entertainment of TV viewers or John Campbell’s ratings.

But democracy does require politicians to be answerable to the electorate, and the broadcast media now provide the major platform for that to happen. Campbell Live cannot summon any Minister of the Crown to appear, but if a Minister repeatedly refuses to turn up to answer questions about topics within his or her area of responsibility, the programme is entitled to draw attention to that fact and we, the viewers, are entitled to conclude that the Minister is on weak ground or has something to hide. Not only the programme, but the programme’s audience as well, is being given the Ministerial fingers.

The key word here is ‘repeatedly’. So it seemed to me entirely appropriate that Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, who has repeatedly – I think she’s now in double figures – refused to front on Campbell Live, should have the dubious honour of being the first Cabinet Minister to feature on the programme’s ‘Wall of Shame’. Not a good look in election year.

And while I’m at it, a huge bouquet to Campbell Live which in recent weeks has become a crusader on behalf of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed in this country. Through the ingenious device of ‘caravan democracy’, the programme’s ‘Caravan of Complaint’ has given citizens a voice on everything from the scandalous and indefensible deportation by the Department of Immigration of a successful and much loved Kapiro garage owner, to the frustrations suffered by dozens of Christchurch earthquake victims at the hands of the EQC, to Thursday’s budget. This is great stuff. Well done, Campbell Live.  Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

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  1. “The conceit behind the empty chair was that hope springs eternal and that the invited guest might just change their mind and turn up. The camera (and Paul) returned frequently to the empty chair to indicate that hope was fading fast (and to further humiliate the no-show).”

    Then again, the “evildoers” may well have refused to have anything to do with someone who was, and judging by his crude and simplistic Saturday morning radio show and his risible Q+A interviews, still is neither serious nor credible.

  2. I read somewhere ( sorry can’t quite remember) this week where the Govt has decided that Morning Report is a lost cause and now decline nearly every invitation to appear.

    Seems that they consider other media just as amenable as Radio National. Why should TV3 not be in the same boat?

    BE: “Seems that they consider other media just as amenable as Radio National.” Meaning? Surely not the old canard that RNZ is a Left Wing front?

  3. Campbell did good? Imagine!

  4. Perhaps a year ago the question of non-appearance on Morning Report was put I think to Sean Plunket and the answer was that a count was not made but that Key had only appeared a very few times, I think 4-5 the year to date.
    Mr Key has no trouble making time for photo ops but too busy for substance. He did appear on Close-up on Thursday night to answer questions from a couple who were testing the Cost of living/budget. Sainsbury kept interrupting the dialog but Key didn’t come near to answering the concerns anyway. Flim flam..
    Perhaps a counting board like a cricket scoring board could just tick over for each non-legitimate refusal. (Mmm. Define legitimate?)

    BE: Not very satisfactory, I agree, but at least the ‘flim flam’ told you somelthing about the interviewee.

  5. I don’t accept that we are entitled to conclude that a politician has something to hide or is on shaky ground if they refuse to front for an interview of the John Campbell type.

    A better argument is that they do not wish to be party to a dishonest charade which only the interviewer believes is God’s work.

    Take the recent budget – not because I am espousing a particular view of the economic arguments but because it is a good example.

    The interview might commence with the proposition that the government is heartless in making cuts to get the deficit down. The politician would attempt to explain the much more complex argument that running a large deficit will result in the gnomes losing confidence in us, thereby resulting in interest rates going up and with them mortgage rates, and as a result cancelling out the benefits of running the higher deficit.

    The politician would not be able to complete the argument before the interviewer would say something like “but that doesn’t change the fact that you are cutting vital services”.

    There is no integrity in this. It is remarkably easy (as the above example indicates) to reduce complexity, nuance and context to facile propositions that make it impossible for the interviewee to respond adequately.

    All that is ultimately sought is conflict or humiliation, either of which wil drive ratings.

    Why would a politician of any stripe wish to encourage them by being party to this nonsense?

    BE; “I don’t accept that we are entitled to conclude that a politician has something to hide or is on shaky ground if they refuse to front for an interview of the John Campbell type.” I made it pretty clear in the post that I was talking of politicians ‘repeatedly’ turning down invitations for interviews. If they do that, I think we’re entitled to reach the conclusions I suggested.

    I don’t see these interviews as ‘a dishonest charade’. They are frequently highly unsatisfactory and television rarely allows enough time for issues to be properly debated. And if there is dishonesty, you, the viewer is going to spot it.

  6. ‘BE: “Seems that they consider other media just as amenable as Radio National.” Meaning? Surely not the old canard that RNZ is a Left Wing front?’

    It may well have been along these lines. Apparently the audience was a lost cause.
    What is an effective method to highlight a politician’s reticence, such that they feel impelled to front?

  7. Tony. In your world to whom would the politicians respond?
    Is there no place for an interview?
    If Key is willing to front up for soft interviews and chummy chats and photo ops around the country, why not front up to being questioned on his decision making? (John Campbell seems to be upping his investigations this year. Even running over the usual 10 minute slot if the important topic is running well.)
    You seem to be suggesting that key politicions are above democracy and beyond reach like petty dictators act. Do tell.

  8. Yes Ianmac I take your point. That is why I referred to the “John Campbell type” of interview. They are a subset of the whole. I would have no time for a politician who always ducked for cover. But I wouldn’t condemn them for avoiding the most extreme examples of the interviewing art.

  9. Most politicians, through their press secretaries if nothing else, will be aware of how a particular tv show or radio programme rates, ie how many are likely to be listening. Even though Radio NZ does not release it’s audience figures, I think we all know there are two tv shows and one radio programme that, if you appear on all three of them, you are likely to reach most.

    Campbell Live, Close Up and Morning Report are those three.

    Our politicians will be aware of when those shows go to air, and they should accommodate them if at all possible.

    In contrast, talkback radio and other shows are now too thinly spread, as I see it, to have a real impact. They would be a good place for a politician with unpopular policies to hide. But they’ll probably try to avoid those, too.

    BE: The ZB network has a huge audience and generally outrates National Radio.

  10. Upon reading this article and the comments which follow, I can’t help but recall the Holmes/Helen Kelley ‘interview’ and my respect for her just keeps going up.

  11. But I wouldn’t condemn them for avoiding the most extreme examples of the interviewing art

    I would, ministers like Tolley should man up and grow a pair! However the she and the Govt know that 10 minutes of gormless rebuttal of searching questions on prime time would finally and justifiably sink her, hence the avoidance. The Govt would like a liability such as Tolley to be practically invisible for the next 6 months so a regular appearance on the Stone Wall is to be welcomed just so we can reminded who she is. There is a slowly developing meme of cowardice growing around this government that probably wont bear real fruit until after the next election.

  12. I can fully understand why Anyone would — persistently — decline to be interviewed by Paul Holmes. I truly, can.

    BE: OK. Why?

  13. I think the comment about Ministers deciding Morning Report was a lost cause was that they think the audience is left-wing and consists mainly of Wellington-based public servants.

    i.e. people whose vote they are not courting; people who will never vote National. You can see the logic – even if you disapprove.

  14. I can think of many reasons why a politican would not choose to be interviewed by Cambell/Sainsbury/Holmes, etc if he or she has anything serious to say.

    1 The interviewer is inevitably badly prepared and / or ignorant on the topic.

    2 The tone of the interview is invariably emotional.

    3 Minimal time is allocated to the topic.

    4 The interviewer constantly interrupts.

    If you want an example of these factors at work listen to the Monday interview of the PM by Hosking. There is no intellectual rigour and the slot is an extension to the ‘patsy question’ routine from question time. The only thing Hosking does not do is interrupt and that is only because Newtalk ZB is the mouthpiece for the National Party.

    My final point is that anyone who relies upon Close Up or Campbell Live for informed comment on any subject is deluded and rather sad.

    Morning Report does its best but the reality is that no part of the NZ Media is capable of holding politicians to account and a sad part of the reason is that the NZ media is so dumbed down there are no longer journalists with the capability.

  15. PS The one current broadcaster I would exempt from my criticism would be Mary Wilson on Checkpoint.

  16. Totally agree Ben. So often it all becomes an unfair contest weighted with power to the interviewer, whose honest perspective is most usually self and programme promotion – the issue is therefore, at best, secondary.

  17. BE: OK. Why?

    You really wanna know? OK:

    Paul Holmes is not a particularly strong interviewer. Here, at home in NZ, it’s not quite so evident. But hark back to that interview he did with Margaret Thatcher, about 15 years ago, and his interviewing skills were found to be seriously wanting.

    The Iron Lady made Holmes look like the Balsa Wood Boy. And she had the measure of him even before the intro. She was, cooly, diffident; barely tolerant, bordering on being dismissive with her answers to his questions. It was like she wanted shot of him. Asap. His knowledge and research seemed to be lacking, and Thatcher seized upon that. It was well known — that Thatcher doesn’t suffer fools, gladly. And Holmes was coming across as an overawed agrestic yokel; who’d left the farm the for the first time in his life, and was being dazzled by the bright city lights.

    His writings are pretty much the same: LITE. Sort of like the culinary equivalent of comfort food. Not quite mince on toast, but not much more exciting than a chuck steak stew with just carrots and spuds and a thick cornflower-based gravy.

    As I’ve mentioned, his reasoning in his columns come across as being reductive, simplistic, prescriptive, prosaic and predictable. On lightweight topics, Holmes manages; but give him something a little more challenging and cerebral, he flounders.

    Please, don’t tell me, you rushed out and bought his book — the one with his assorted Herald columns.

  18. John: RNZ doesn’t release their audience figures? What’s this, then, from their website?

  19. “And if there is dishonesty, you, the viewer is going to spot it.”

    Wouldn’t bet on that, Brian :)

  20. In 2005, the British and Irish Lions for some unfathomable reason chose the utterly discredited Blair spin doctor and war criminal Alistair Campbell as manager. Early in the tour, the team held an open training session at the North Harbour Stadium in Albany. Paul Holmes was then based in Albany, where he ran a pisspoor talkshow on Prime TV.

    Holmes was granted an interview in the grandstand, standing up, with Campbell clearly calling the shots. The resulting interview was as skin-crawlingly sycophantic as anything Holmes had ever done, which means it was almost necessary to invent a stronger word than lickspittle. After a few toadying compliments and anodyne question about New Zealand weather, he felt emboldened to mention the elephant in the room…

    HOLMES: So, I need to ask you, as you KNOW I have to ask you. [ingratiating smile] Well, did you or did you not deliberately set expose Dr. David Kelly’s name?


    HOLMES: Oh! Well, that’s it then. They should get me to do all your interviews! Ha ha ha ha ha!

    Campbell did not laugh with him, and remained silent, and totally in command. It was another wasted opportunity, and confirmation beyond any doubt that Holmes lacks the seriousness, as well as the intelligence, to do the job he does so badly.

    BE: One small deletion for reasons of potential defamation.

  21. Just reading these two articles published in the Herald give one a fair measure of this so-called award winning Journalist. The comments make more interesting reading and indicate why someone would prefer not to be interviewed by this media celebrity.

  22. On his radio show a few years ago….

    BE: I’m not willing to publish this without authentication of your claim.

  23. Holmes was right in one instance: Kofi Annan.

  24. 24

    PS The one current broadcaster I would exempt from my criticism would be Mary Wilson on Checkpoint.

    Meh… Wilson has the same flaw that used to make me want to throttle Sean Plunket with monotonous regularity. Yes, being persistent is a virture. But you know what, if a subject isn’t going to give you the answer you’re fishing for the first six times you bark the question, the odds of number seven doing the trick are remote. She might also like to learn that a rising inflexion at the end of a statement doesn’t make it a question. Is it about the story or the interviewer’s ego?

  25. @ Wakeup: “Holmes was right in one instance: Kofi Annan.”

    Absolutely agree. Except, that Holmes recanted and offered up a grovelling apology.

    Coffee Annan looked the other way, when the genocidal slaughter was happening in Rwanda. He did, nothing.

  26. @ Merv. As part of that grovelling apology, Holmes promised to speak to the Ghanaian community in Auckland. Did he ever do that?

  27. @ WAKE UP. Kofi Annan certainly deserved criticism, but he deserved intelligent and informed criticism. Holmes merely indulged in an extended, profanity-laced, racist rant.

    He said nothing of substance, nothing of intelligence.

    Holmes was right about nothing.

  28. 28

    Craig, you are so right.

    I am relieved to know there is at least one other person who wants to throttle Sean Plunket (and Mary Wilson).

    In some mitigation I think their producers need to take some responsibility. Radio and television are clock watchers, interviews get stretched and curtailed according to management needs, not journalistic ones.


  29. Very true! Makes a change to see soemnoe spell it out like that. :)