Brian Edwards Media

“one of the finest pieces of television current affairs I have seen in this country” – Brian Edwards

Now here’s a novel idea. Let’s have a television current affairs programme on which people of diametrically opposed viewpoints can debate the issues that divide them, forcefully but without undue rancour. Such a programme would require a chairperson who could control the debate, ensuring that each side  was given a fair opportunity to state their case and that the principal areas of disagreement were afforded an airing. This would of course not be possible with a programme duration of less than 30 commercial-free minutes.  

You won’t find a programme like that on TV1 or TV3.  If you feel like watching political chat on Saturday or Sunday morning, there are Q & A and The Nation, but these are essentially interview programmes, and the interviews rarely run to more than 10 or 12 minutes. With the possible exception of Paul Holmes, the interviewers also seem to prefer the sound of their own voices to the sound of their subjects’ replies.  And anyway, it’s the weekend and you’d rather be lying in bed reading the paper or heading out for brunch with the family.

TVNZ7 has Media7, but its focus is by definition restricted to media matters and it rarely, if ever, devotes an entire programme to the sort of debate I’ve described above.

And, as far as I know, there’s nothing like that on Prime either.  

Now my argument would be stronger if I could find a perfect example of the sort of programme I’m talking about, a programme so good that any network with even a nodding interest in public service television would give its eye teeth to have it in  its prime-time schedules. A programme exactly like this:

http://www.maoritelevision.com/default.aspx?tabid=636&pid=212

The debate between Pita Sharples and Don Brash, chaired by Julian Wilcox and screened at 8.30 last night on Maori Television’s Native Affairs, exactly fits the criteria of compelling, informative and civilised dialogue that I described in the opening paragraph of this post. It would be hard to imagine two men with more radically divided views, to conceive of an issue more likely to produce rancour or abuse, to think of a topic more difficulty to present in a calm, considered and even-handed way. Yet, in one of the finest pieces of television current affairs I have seen in this country,  host Julian Wilcox achieved all of that and more.

The role of the television chair is essentially to play devil’s advocate to both sides in a debate. Despite one or two brief moments of excitability, Wilcox, who displays a natural authority and a gravitas that command respect, did this perfectly. He has mana.

But his handling of the confrontation between Sharples and Brash, in itself a coup for Maori Television, may also reflect a phenomenon which I have occasionally observed during debate of contentious issues on the marae. A speaker may be forceful or cutting to a degree that Pakeha observers might regard as offensive, but he will be heard  without interruption. The same courtesy will then be extended to his opponent.  It is, it seems to me, a highly civilised and productive way of handling disagreement. And, in television debate, it generates light rather than heat.

To anyone who has worked with the presenters, interviewers and management at MTS, as Judy and I have, none of this will come as a surprise. It is not just that this is the friendliest and warmest place to be in New Zealand broadcasting; the ethos is different – a mix of enthusiasm, commitment, respect and a love of the culture and the language that is the glue that holds the place and the people together. Spend a day teaching at MTS and you come away feeling buoyant, optimistic – and over-fed!

There is a view that MTS, which is heavily funded from the public purse,  already comes closest in its programming to the concept of true public service broadcasting and that it could adequately fulfil that role when TVNZ7 eventually bites the dust. But that is not and should not be MTS’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of governments. New Zealand remains the only developed Western nation not to have a non-commercial, fully government funded, public service television channel. Until that changes we will never have programmes of the quality of last night’s Native Affairs on general peak-time television. My god, at a fraction of the price paid by Q & A and The Nation, even their set looks better.

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28 Comments:

  1. Agreed. Julian Wilcox is brilliant.

  2. Have you seen Australia’s Q&A? As far as I’m concerned it puts anything we’ve got to shame

  3. To be fair, Don and Pita seem fairly calm individuals. I’m not sure if the interview would’ve been so successful had Michael Laws and Hone Harawira been interviewed together.

  4. Julian is marvellous, Native Affairs and MTS likewise… Ross is right though, the respect for the institution and the mana and intellectual rigour of the participants largely determines the quality of the debate.

  5. actually don and hone harawira did have a debate on close up and hone was very calm.

  6. Ka mau te wehi! Totally agree, it was fantastic, wish more people had seen it. Great work by Julian and also plenty of time for the discussion to progress, unlike on other channels. Kia kaha MTV!

  7. @Ross:

    But why would you get Michael Laws and Hone Harawira together to debate anything if your your intent was anything other than to provide inflammatory sensationalistic content (which is what is wrong with NZ broadcasting).

  8. Hear Hear. This opportunity to see Pita debate with Don, chaired by Julian, was a bright light in the darkness of political current affairs programming in prime time viewing. Maori TV stepped up to the plate while the other FTA channels continued their dumbing down agenda.

  9. Andy, I’ve not yet seen Native Affairs but I used to be a regular watcher of Q&A but less so now. It’s tipped with too many of the same old commentators spouting talking points.

  10. Brian
    I am so pleased to have read this item and your views.
    We don’t normally have the time to issue bouquets and bruises (and the latter does seem to take precedence) but here is what I just happened to send to Maori TV earlier today…

    Congratulations!
    I watch very little Maori TV. However, I saw that Brash and Pita Sharples were to debate the ACT advert so I made a point of tuning in.
    It was absolutely superb television.
    I really wanted to make a point of giving you some feedback. Hopefully you have had plenty of others do the same. It has been a long time since I have seen such quality in a current affairs programme here in NZ. I would stretch back to Brian Edwards and Lindsay Perigo to find it, I think. Julian Wilcox was wonderful in the way he extracted what he wanted without being sensationalist. He was also fair and well informed.
    Seeing Harawira and Pem Bird afterwards was a bonus!
    Cripes! If you chaps are going to do current affairs like this – not just on issues Maori – I’ll be watching!
    Please would you pass this on to Julian Wilcox.
    Best wishes,
    John Stokes
    Wellington

  11. Sorry to go against the prevailing tide here, but I could only watch about two-thirds of the segment before switching off. There were just too many comments, particularly from Brash, that needed an incisive follow-up/challenge. I thought Wilcox was weak and a little overwhelmed. There were countless opportunities to challenge Brash for specifics, for concrete examples, to back up his broad rhetoric. It just didn’t come. In an ideal programme, the duration here would have been combined with another interviewer – Guyon Espiner, Sean Plunket, Jodie Ihaka, or John Campbell.

  12. Hi Brian. I take it from the sentence “…to anyone who has worked with the presenters, interviewers and management at MTS, as Judy and I have…” that you and Judy are, or have been, paid by Maori Television? Have you worked with Native Affairs, or with Julian Wilcox himself?

    BE: What a sad, suspicious, mean-spirited person you are, ARH, suggesting from the safety of anonymity, that I would write a positive review of a programme because Judy and I had worked for and been paid by the channel that broadcasts that programme. And if that were true, how stupid you must think me to reveal in a post that we had “worked with the presenters, interviewers and management” of that channel. So just for the record, we have also worked as trainers with the presenters, interviewers and management of both TVNZ and TV3 and been paid by both those channels. Now perhaps you would like to tell readers of this site your name and who you work for, so that they and Judy and I can judge your bona fides. I look forward to hearing from you.

  13. Absolutely, Jullian and MTS are doing a great job.
    I too though could not watch much of it because Brash irritates me way too much. He is cynically playing a well worn tune to the wilfully ignorant – and what is worse is that I think he actually believes his own radical right wing rhetoric, scary stuff!
    I think it is time that we started to make the survival of TVNZ 7 an election issue. It is the best channel we currently have – in my opinion.

  14. johnno- you are with the group who want to nail the interviewees. you actually get more insight into their view if you respectfully probe.
    the viewers then have plenty of time to go away and mull overwhat was said- which encourages a thinking audience. interviewers with a pre-set agenda or aggressive manner do not always illicit truth and are telling an audience what to think- thereby dumbing the audience down. and that also encourages misguided thinking.

  15. I watched and enjoyed Brash and Sharples polite tete a tete.To be fair both men arn’t of the scream and shout variety and both arguments gave food for thought.Im always dissapointed when factual matters are referred to without any definitive result.Julian reminds me of Simon Walker.I would like to see him play devils advocate with Brash and Sharples separately.

  16. I’d like to see a New Zealand equivalent of the old-style Australian SBS. This would be in addition to, not instead of Maori TV.

    Hell, I’d be happy if SBS was rebroadcast in NZ with a few hours of local programming each week.

  17. Now that is the sort of programme NZ television is crying out for. I have watched Native Affairs before, but missed this particular edition the first time around.
    Great job by Julian Wilcox. We need more like him.

  18. “It would be hard to imagine two men with more radically divided views…”

    Not sure I entirely agree with this. Brash represents a small, wealthy, Neo-Liberal Pakeha elite, the Maori Party (despite its rhetoric to the contrary) represents a small, wealthy, Neo-Liberal Maori elite.

  19. Why don’t you require ‘contributors’ to use their actual names on this site. Sure some probably wouldn’t pass the ‘address verified’ test but it would be a start. As a recent subscriber I noticed that I could operate’ per nom de plume’. I chose not to and as a result have been approached by a person I commented on, even though my comment was erased, if you understand my french. He just wanted to let me know he could find me and fair enough. I accept that if you want to put your head above the parapet you should be accountable. You and celebrity commentators such as Russell Brown attract the fawning acolytes and the opposite when you make comments. Why shouldn’t you require that we know who they are?

  20. @Rick – I am curious, how do you think such a requirement could be imposed? Anyone can create an online persona that has nothing to do with their real identity. Email addresses can be easily created with whatever names one desires.

  21. Quick aside to Bill Bennett ……
    SBS1, SBS2 & SBSHD, as well as their radio offerings, are easily received throughout NZ off your SKY dish. All you need is an appropriate $150 box, rising to around $250 for the HD.

    And to the Northern Irishman, firstly wtf is going on back there at the moment? And secondly, many thanks for the headsup re the MTS Native Affairs programme, which I’d missed, but found on their site.
    Memo to self – Pay much more attention to MTS schedule.

  22. Re Rick McCay’s comment: “Why don’t you require ‘contributors’ to use their actual names on this site.”
    I entirely agree. The boring old mainstream media have for a long time taken the view that, if you are not prepared to put your name to your opinion, you may be entitled to have one, but not to express it. ARH, who accused BE of expressing an opinion for commercial gain, has not, I notice, responded to Brian’s challenge to identify himself. He presumably regards himself as possessing some sort of critical intelligence because of his flash of scepticism but – absent a response to the challenge – I am inclined to conclude he is a cretin. As a matter of interest, I occasionally get abusive and foul-mouthed emails sent through the “email Peter” link at the bottom of pieces on the Herald website. I used to take time to compose a thoughtful reply but it would bounce back when I sent it and it took me some time to realise that these people were filling invented email addresses in the relevant field so they could, to quiote A.N. Wilson, “dip their pen in anonymous ink”. They are, I suppose, the rhetorical equivalent of the smelly little boys of my childhood who threw stones on the neighbourhood widow’s roof and ran sniggering into the nearby bush.

  23. @ Peter Calder: “I am inclined to conclude he [AJR] is a cretin”.

    I disagree with both your and BE’s response to this poster. He/She simply asked what many readers would feel was a perfectly legitimate question. That, you both choose to read more into it, does not reflect well on either of you. Labelling the poster as a “cretin” was totally uncalled for.

    BE: I can’t speak for Peter, but very little effort would have been needed to “read more into” the question that AJR asked. The innuendo could scarcely have been clearer, that I had praised Julian Wilcox and Native Affairs because I was in the pay of MTS. From my point of view, that’s about as offensive a suggestion of dishonesty and corruption as you can make.

  24. I agree, Madison. Asking people to use their real names certainly won’t improve the quality of the debate, I suspect. And none of us will know if the name used is real or invented.

    As for ARH’s comment above, I guess that such a comment could pre-empted by bloggers declaring any potential conflicts of interest. I think Steven Price over at medialawjournal does that on a regular basis. Price works for various people and makes it clear if he’s been paid for work he’s done or if he’s provided advice – paid or not – on a particular issue. I think that is sound advice for bloggers and commenters.

  25. The way I read it was that the poster was asking if what you wrote has been influenced by your and Judy’s past association with MTS on a professional basis, and was just wanting to know if you were already favourably predisposed towards them because of your previous insight and experience. I saw ARH’s (my mistake with AJR) question as a way of validating your impressions rather than casting aspersions upon your integrity. It didn’t appear to me that the poster was engaged in nasty innuendo, by hinting you were getting a backhander to say nice things about MTS.

  26. Surely ARH who asked questions???????, has read Brian’s reply and would answer if he was misunderstood and not casting offensive innuendo.

  27. Pretty soon we won’t even have TVNZ7.

    We’ll be stuck with endless reality shows; cop shows; puerile US sitcoms; cooking programmes… and not much more.

    The dumbing down of television has reached such a low level that even the dumbest of us are losing interest.

    No doubt the neoliberals amongst us are clapping their hands. The “free market” has delivered what the public thinks it wants.

    The joke is on us, of course, in so many ways.

    For one thing, despite a plethora of cooking shows – collectively people are cooking less and going for more pre-pared meals.

    The dumbing-down of society. *wipes dribble from chin*

  28. Further to my point above…

    It would be the height of irony if, once TVNZ7 is canned by National (if it is re-elected in November), that Maori TV is the only public television showing quality, informative, in-depth programming – whilst all other channels become dedicated to crap.

    Maori TV – saving the general populace from the dumbing-down of neoliberalist television, as the last bastion of culture.

    Oh, the irony indeed…