Brian Edwards Media

Shit Happens! An Open Letter to John Campbell

 

Shit happens, John. I’ve been “let go”, sacked from more broadcasting jobs in New Zealand than I care to remember. And, more than once, with absolutely no warning.  To add insult to injury, the sackings generally occurred at a time when the show was enjoying both public acclaim and ratings success.

Top of the Morning (1994-1999)

In December 1999 my producer, Catherine Saunders, and I were summoned to Wellington for a meeting with Radio New Zealand CEO Sharon Crosbie, an old friend of both of us.  “Summoned”  is perhaps the wrong word. Catherine and I had made a habit of going down to Wellington just before Christmas to persuade Sharon that the success of TOTM merited yet another increase in our pay. Sharon would sigh wearily but to date had come to the party.

We were pretty sure of a warm reception. The latest radio survey had just come out. TOTM, whose previous incarnation had a cumulative audience of around 80,000 when I took over the slot in 1995, now had an audience of 340,000. It was the highest rating Saturday morning radio programme in the country, not to mention outrating almost every other programme on National Radio. We had every reason to expect a warm reception from the boss.

We were called in separately to be told the news. I’d been sacked.

To this day I have absolutely no idea why I was sacked as host of TOTM. Poor ratings? Get real! Poor listener response? Ditto! My role as media advisor to Helen Clark, the newly elected Prime Minister? Hardly, TOTM was a politics-free zone with the exception of one personality-style interview – with Jenny Shipley! Which leaves two defamation writs in 5 years, neither of which, in my reasonably informed opinion, should every have been settled.

Certainly not the second, in which Paul Holmes claimed $5,000 for allegedly having been defamed by yours truly on the show

This is what happened. A close friend of Paul had told me Paul had been highly disappointed by the low-key nature of a TV election debate he’d chaired between Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark. Paul had, according to the close friend, “been hoping for a cat fight”. I mentioned this in passing on the show. Paul issued a writ against RNZ for defamation and RNZ caved. I’m not sure which is more unbelievable – for a broadcaster of Pauls’ reputation to be so thin-skinned, or Radio New Zealand so chicken-livered as to settle this preposterous suit.

You know the rest, John. When the news got out, you interviewed me on TV3 News about the sacking. You were very supportive.

Then there was a public outcry. Thousands of people wrote to Radio New Zealand to protest. A couple of “offers they know you can’t accept” were made to me by  RNZ during all of this.

Sound familiar?

Shit happens, John.

But wait, there’s more!

Gallery (1969-70)

After two not unremarkable years as an interviewer on the ground-breaking television current affairs programme, Gallery, the NZBC offered me a measly $15 a week increase to renew my contract for a third year.

For the previous two years I’d been a reporter on the Christchurch edition of Town and Around, a job I absolutely loved. I was tempted to come to Wellington to join the Gallery team by a $7,000 a year contract which not only included two Gallery programmes a week but  producing and appearing on Checkpoint ‘on my days off’.

Within six months I was more famous than Paul Holmes ever would be, admittedly because there was only one TV channel in New Zealand at the time. So naturally I regarded the $15 as an insult and threw my toys out of the cot. Which, I suspect, was exactly what the Corporation had hoped would happen.

I then found myself unemployed and seemingly unemployable.

Shit happens, John.

Radio Windy (1973-75)

Having been rejected as their MP by the good people of Miramar (Shit really happened there, John!) I got a job as a talkback host on the fledgling Radio Windy in Wellington. Adult talkback 5 mornings a week and a children’s talkback session on Sunday. Whew! But great ratings and feedback. And the kids’ session was fun. (Sam Hunt once swapped poems with the listening children for three hours while knocking back a full flagon of white wine.)

Radio Windy didn’t renew my contract for a third year. My relentless attacks on Rob Muldoon had offended the station’s right-wing management and, I suspect, their advertisers. I was “let go”.

Shit happens, John.

Edwards on Saturday, Fair Go (1975-85)

A decade with no shit worth mentioning, John. A halcyon time never going to end. You know the feeling.

It did end of course.

Radio Pacific (1989-90)

I was wooed to Auckland as a morning talkback host with a huge dollop of cash, a house and a car. Hated every moment of it. I loathe talkback and wanted to interview interesting people. And it was soul-destroying to be in the middle of an interview with Alex Haley about his slave ancestors and have to break for ads or go to the third race at Trentham.

Half way through my one-year contract, I interviewed a guy from the Aids Foundation. I was on my way to the studio the following morning when I  was stopped by someone I took to be a member of the Board who asked me who I was having on the show that morning.

“Armistead Maupin.”

“Who’s that?”

“Gay writer from San Francisco. Wrote Tales of the City. Very famous.”

“Can’t have faggots on the programme two days in a row, Brian.”

I recounted this conversation to the charming Maupin on air and we spent most of the remaining three hours discussing this type of homophobia.

Some days or weeks later, I was called into the boss’s office. “This isn’t working, Brian,” he said. “We’re going to have to let you go.”

I assumed he meant in a month or a fortnight, but he meant right away. If I’d had a desk, I’d have had to clear it then and there.

Judy came home to find me half pissed and dancing in the living room.

“I’ve been sacked,” I slurred, “This is the happiest day of my life’.

“Thank god, it was me who wrote the contract,” she replied.

Shit happens, John.

*

I started writing this because it occurred to me that there were some similarities between your recent experience with TV3 and one or two of my more memorable media exits, including the tyranny of ratings and “the offer they know you can’t accept”.

So here’s my suggestion: After your last programme, go home, get pissed, put on some music and dance around the living room. It’s wonderfully therapeutic.

Cheers

Brian

PS: That’s me with Eric Morecambe on Morecambe beach. We’re singing (and dancing to) Bring Me Sunshine.

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61 Comments:

  1. Unfortunately it’s true -shit happens. It’s sad that so many station managers actually have no idea. To mevm money was given from the govt( national/our taxes) towards 3D aw long as they got rid of JohnbCampbell who is the only person willing to hold politicians to truth and what’s right and keep them honest. Nationals hate him.

  2. Fabulous. Thank you. God knows if it’ll make John feel better but it sure as hell cheered me up and put my own sackings in a much better light. TVNZ in the late 70’s and Shortland street in the late nineties. Both of which nearly killed me for a while. Cheers!

  3. That is such a great statue. I bet everyone (of a certain age group) who comes across it spontaneously breaks into Bring Me Sunshine!

    • Indeed. But, speaking of shit happening, the statue was vandalised and damaged by yobs some time ago. I’m not sure if Eric is back yet in his rightful place. I once met and interviewed Ernie Wise. A lovely man and the real comic genius behind the act. Eric was the more somber of the two.

      • 3.1.1

        Huge in the seventies. Christmas specials etc. All things pass

      • In comedy or drama there are always two things you need to make it great – a great script writer and a great performer. The talents of a great script writer nearly always go unrecognised by the general public.

  4. 4

    Hi Brian. Glad to hear you’re still in fine form!
    I remember Gallery and the Sat night show, ground-breaking stuff. In your line of work, it’s obvious you need a rhinoceros hide, and nerves of steel to go the distance. (that’s how Hosking rolls, would rather he didn’t.) Bullying – universal, all-pervasive, never sleeps. Keep well.

  5. Thanks Brian for an excellent article, yet again. I still miss TOTM and am really sorry that podcasts were not being recorded at the time. Saturday mornings have never been the same since you left and it would be so nice to replay TOTM regularly.

    Broadcasting seems to have a real fear of quality. Thank goodness we still have the memories of all those years ago, together with National Radio (Morning Report and Checkpoint) and Concert FM to keep us sane.

  6. I reckon John Campbell should relish the time left for the programmne. Campbell Live has been important as a “public service broadcaster”, a role it clearly sometimes fills.

    Analogy. Lots of towns have fire brigades. For the vast majority of the time the buildings and machinery sit there unused and are a cost. Every now and then they are needed as whatever else is futile in some terrible situation. Clearly though we can do without them. Some buildings and lives would be lost but in the big picture, big deal, the world would not end. But we fund them.

    The owners of Campbell Live don’t want to be a public service broadcaster doing good deeds. They do not see that as their role. They cannot afford to have resources sitting there just in case some public good might be achieved at some time.

    Some causes and even some lives may not be saved but in the big picture, big deal, the world will not end and a profit has to be turned.

    On such clarity and decisiveness knighthoods and damehoods are born. Julie Christie already has already has a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to television.

    John Campbell will never be in line for ONZM (or the Damehood which will soon undoubtedly land on Christie.) With that in mind again I say relish the time left for the programmne.

    The best “Up you!” is to do what was on tonight. Follow lying scumbag Ministers, chase them down and ask questions we deserve answers to. When Gerry Brownlee gets pissed off and says he won’t come on your programme because you’re dishonest just after you show him lying, keep at him. What can they do, sack you?

    Anyway, a sack is something you use for a race!

  7. 7

    Owww wow thank you Brian. Awfully cleansing and amusing for anyone who has worked in the media. You’ve had some incredible highlights, as has John , and both deserve the respect and recognition of experience. But broadcasting can be shyte to people sometimes. As you say – it happens.

  8. Difference being, Brian, that very few of your programmes were socially responsible, or calling out government corruption/inertia/indifference/insert adjective here, on behalf of the voiceless. You were employed in different times, when television was publicly owned and had a conscience, unlike today. So while you might sneer “shit happens”, take a moment to consider what the loss of Cambell Live will mean in our television environment now totally devoid of questioning and investigation.

    • “Very few of your programmes were socially responsible.” WHAT!? Gallery? Fair go? Radio and TV campaigns on every social issue under the sun. I am twice winner of the New Zealand Media Peace Prize. I was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for my work in broadcasting and journalism. I almost never refer to these matters. But you really do need a reminder to think before you open your mouth.

    • 8.2

      Oh dear, Astro, you reveal your ignorance. If you were alive in NZ in those times you were certainly asleep at the wheel.

      • I was, Alan. I have worked in television since the early 80s, in the same building as Edwards.

        Winning awards, prizes and gongs is not an indication of one’s worth. It simply means that those who bestow such baubles value what you do. They don’t speak for the population.

        I never classed Fair Go as ‘socially responsible’. It’s simply Consumer magazine for television. Likewise those tired old Gallery programmes, now buried away at the television archive, unremembered and unseen. Taking on politicians for sport and ratings is not ‘socially responsible’ either. That was more about making a name for yourself.

        • 8.2.1.1

          “Winning awards, prizes and gongs is not an indication of one’s worth. It simply means that those who bestow such baubles value what you do. They don’t speak for the population.”

          Quite true Astro, especially when you take into consideration the cringeworthy articles penned by the award winning so called journalist the late Paul Holmes.

        • 8.2.1.2

          I find your comments bizarre. Individuals have a social conscience, institutions don’t. That your social conscience differs from Brian’s and undoubtedly from mine doesn’t mean any of ours don’t exist. That TV programmes have to satisfy multiple demands like every other business doesn’t mean they also do social good. That you have a need to sneer at history speaks mostly of your own demons.

  9. Hi Brian. I have no information about the TOTM departures but are you sure about those rating figures? Colin

    • I was handed a copy of the latest radio survey a couple of weeks before my meeting with Sharon. The 340,000 figure, as is normal in these matters, was cumulative, representing every listener who tuned in during the programme. Cheers Colin.

      • Thanks Brian. It was the other figure that surprised me. It seems a lot lower than any morning figure I recall. I’m not of course disputing that your show rated well. It certainly did.

  10. 10

    Yes, My God this must make so many people see that shit happens in NZ often brought about by haters, the fall can leave you never the same again. After 13 loyal years with the airline I challenged them on a Human Rights issue. I changed IATA Reso 788 making it fair under Human Rights and gave them Pink Flight, of course shit was about to happen, but I believed in our country’s legislation as some sort of invisible protection. Standing up for what is right John Campbell can almost destroy you in New Zealand. They gave me a glowing appraisal, a bonus an increase… then audited me and audited me, retrained me, Witch hunt after witch hunt …after 13 years of quiet and loyal service they tortured me.Shit happens in NZ …rather too often.

  11. 11

    It does not make their wrong a right. They just make it acceptable.

  12. A fascinating account of our media. I suspect there’s a lot more behind the John Campbell saga than we are being told. I’m not a media commentator, but if my guess is correct, John will be fielding all sorts of offers, and the one I’d put my money on is finding a way of moving Hosking on and putting Campbell in… pronto… Yes?

    • John will certainly receive a few offers. But I can’t see them coming from Newstalk ZB or any commercial radio network other perhaps than Radio Live. John’s style of advocacy journalism is largely incompatible with the solely commercial imperatives of privately operated television and ratings driven radio networks. That’s been the problem.

      • I’ve heard the term “advocacy journalism” used in relation to Campbell Live in many a forum.

        But is most of what the program (for let us not forget there are many fine journalists working there as well as John) *really* “advocacy”?

        To say to the Minister in charge of the Christchurch rebuild “you promised this thing and you haven’t delivered it” may be indirectly advocating on behalf of those still living in caravans or friends’ spare rooms, but really it’s no more than pursuing the fundamental function of journalism: holding the powerful to account.

        Likewise, showing us the Otara woman who works from 5.30 am to midnight 5 days a week just to make ends meet may well be advocating for her and others in her position but first and foremost it’s giving viewers an insight into the life of a sector of NZ society with which we’re possibly not familiar. Another fundamental of journalism fulfilled: adding to the sum total of our knowledge.

        John and his team have empathy in buckets, yes. But there’s precious little preaching of the Hitchens / Pilger “here’s the facts and here’s what you ought to think about them” variety. *That* is how I define advocacy journalism.

        Campbell Live is no more advocacy journalism than was Gallery. If you want to see blatant, ratings-driven advocacy journalism, watch a few episodes of Channel Seven’s “Today Tonight” or, in particular, Channel Nine’s mis-named “A Current Affair”: camera crews running after allegedly bad tenants or dodgy plumbers, forcing their way into offices, asking loaded questions of the person they’ve made up their mind is in the wrong before ever hearing their side of the story. And they both rate, and rate well.

        Why is this nomenclature important? Because we’re implying it’s “advocacy journalism” that got John and the team sacked, and by implication that if only they hadn’t advocated so much, they might have survived.

        And the risk is that other journalists hear that and curtail their efforts. Because if they do, it’s not advocacy they’ll be setting aside, but journalism itself.

      • ….and thank God (if there is one) for that problem. Campbell’s rootin’ tootin’ leftist sentiments, and his Cocker Spaniel delivery style are simply unsaleable in the current climate.

  13. A delightfully written piece. It does make you wonder about the quality of people that rise to management in the media. Wait, I know, I lived with one once and associated with many and they were a bit of a tangle of neuroses. A bit like the rest of us but magnified through their own looking glass.

  14. 14

    Made me smile. Wonderful piece. Thanks.

  15. I am trying to remember the precise chronology of Saturday Morning hosting on Nat Radio. Didn’t John Campbell replace BE ? Possibly I am confused.

  16. Brian, thanks to New Zealanders accessing social media and its supporting technologies advocacy of important issues will remain a powerful tool of self expression and promotion for everybody. My hunch is that New Zealanders across the countries electorates are starting to smell the mushroom in the boardroom amidst the odours of freshly printed real estate brochures and accordingly and intuitively feel there is something shitty about what happened to John Campbell the king of professional advocacy journalism in NZ>

  17. 17

    Michael Cosgrove

    In 1924 Mr McGarry said in the Irish Parliament that “the Glasnevin Cemetery is full of indispensable men.”
    The same can also be said about jobs.
    If it all turns to custard at least Bill English has just increased the dole!

  18. 18

    In my view TV3 have made a serious error in moving to a light current affairs “show” at 7pm. They would have been better to have moved Campbell Live to 6.30 and begin their evening entertainment shows at 7pm. An hour news is not there for news reasons, but because it rates and a half hour of news and sports news would be better in terms of worthwhile content. The loss of Campbell, whilst not necessarily hitting them in viewer numbers, is a serious blow to what was a credible news brand.

    • I agree John.

      Was a change to 6.30 ever put to Campbell? I suspect not, which suggests that TV3 wanted to see the back of him and never seriously expected or wanted to keep him.

  19. 19

    I’m old enough to remember and admire your work on Gallery (and later on TOTM), BE, and would happily see either of them back again. But about your sacking from the latter, you say: “When the news got out, you [JC] interviewed me on TV3 News about the sacking. You were very supportive.”

    That sums up for me why I don’t watch and won’t miss John Campbell. It’s not for him, in my opinion, to be supportive or hostile to an interviewee in a news programme. He should simply elicit the facts, or his interviewee’s version of them, and test them without letting his own views obtrude. I don’t know if Campbell Live ever purported to be a current affairs programme, but if so, it seems to have morphed at some point into a soapbox for the views of the presenter. Before I stopped watching, I saw a couple of programmes on topics about which I happen to know more than John Campbell, and was struck by his readiness to adopt and promote a view based on incomplete and incorrect information, by the absence of any serious attempt to ascertain the full story, and by his attempts to create or manipulate public opinion in what I thought was a completely cynical manner. If you wanted to know the truth about these topics, you wouldn’t have found it on Campbell Live.

    Perhaps Campbell Live was not intended to be current affairs but what I believe is called “advocacy journalism”. OK, but it can then come as no surprise if those who are looking for responsible current affairs cease to watch it, and as a result, the programme’s commercial funders decide that giving one individual the luxury of a soapbox for his view of the world is something they can no longer afford.

    • I should perhaps say that John’s support was personal rather than professional. My only other point is that “advocacy journalism” (my term not John’s) can be as honest and factually correct as any other form of journalism, provided the presenter’s position is clear.

    • 19.2

      I think I’ve said before that the reason I stopped watching CL is I got tired of seeing only one point of view in almost every story. That is not where truth usually lies. I suspect management was reacting to this audience fatigue rather than their own politics – but as Brian illustrates most likely we will never know.

    • I tend to agree. I had a lot of time for JC until I happened to drive past the Christchurch Court shortly after David Bain had been acquitted, and I could see JC well enmeshed in the ensuing news melee on the steps of the Court. That night on the show he shocked me by abandoning any show of journalistic impartiality, appearing to throw his support in the Bain/Karam camp. Left a bad taste I haven’t been able to shake. Liked him a lot but he lost me right there.

  20. I was an avid listener to your TOTM from inception to demise. I also enjoyed participating in the many literary contests you devised. But I remember during one November Saturday of your last year I awoke to the sound of you announcing the regular normal contents of the morning and suddenly realized that your programme hadn’t devised anything new for ages and it was the feeling that here was the same old same as comfort zone of your success. I thought to myself that something new must happen soon. It was all too complacent.

    So I wasn’t surprised by the Sharon Crosbie decision when it happened, but disappointed that you couldn’t continue with renewed vigour.

    Still it was good while it lasted.

  21. Good article Brian. The stench of political influence at Mediaworks is positively gagging (pun intended). How ironic that we need a John Campbell said expose of his own sacking.

  22. Bill Forster.

    Gary McCormick will be turning in his grave..

  23. NZ needs a Norman Gunston like never before.

  24. Maybe John Campbell doesn’t actually care…maybe (gulp), he’s even secretly happy!

  25. I’ve been “let go” three times, in three different countries. So it can’t have been the economy. It must have been me. Nice to know I keep good company. BM

  26. 26

    Dear Brian

    I still remember the particular Top of the Morning programme (which I otherwise enjoyed very much) when you were so patronising during your interview with John Kirwan when discussing his book on depression (the recent publication of which being the reason he was on your show). I recall clearly the snide tone of your voice as you referred to it as “your little book”. It certainly put me off listening to your programme after that.

    All the best

    Simon Kneebone

    • I can think of no reason why I would have adopted “a snide tone” with John Kirwan, a man I greatly admire. How would you describe the tone of your “all the best”?

  27. Gidday Brian,
    As a teenager living in NZ during the 70s I recalled a very robust & vigorous interview with Prime Minister Muldoon that wrong footed the usually unflappable persona & bully boy tactics he often engaged in during media interviews. Always stuck in my mind & inspired my foray into journalism in Australia and abroad.
    Keep fighting on – as very few have are prepared to pay the price of free speech.
    Cheers Paul

  28. While both you and John Campbell have been poorly managed in your careers on NZ media your experience is duplicated in many NZ businesses. You can get these stories from almost all of the large companies, “Best performers let go to make room for the mediocre or those who do not challenge management regardless of their performance level”.

    The real losers are the customers and audiences. Excellence is only achieved as a by-product of the struggle to achieve perfection. If we want to see NZ reach its potential in all sectors of society we need to demand higher performance from leaders.

    Working as a business consultant in NZ more often than not I have found the way to improve a business is to start at the top improving the abilities of the managers. Many times in staff reviews the greatest trouble makers turn out to be the best performers. Training managers leadership skills works wonders.

    PS, I still miss your Saturday morning show.

  29. Shit surely does happen.Its how that shit is managed needs room for improvement.The sackings lacked any ability (by the employer) to manage the change.Being summoned into an office and being sacked just doesnt cut it in my book.Sharon Crosby should be ashamed!The end result may be the same but finding a better way to get there is required.

  30. Absolutely right pjr.
    The way that shit is managed is appalling in my experience.
    I discovered I was being made redundant from TVNZ while filming a story for “Assignment” in Canada.
    Got a phone call from my wife in Auckland to say that Radio NZ were reporting that the programme had been canned and I and several others were being shown the door.
    This occurred just months after I received plaudits and a hefty bonus for a major investigation.
    It was an ignominious end to 35 years with the state broadcaster.
    Suffered the same fate at TV3 as well.
    After 8 years reporting for 60 Minutes I was told a few days before Christmas that “we wont be needing you next year.”
    This bombshell was lobbed only a few months after receiving an accolade from senior management about my reporting of the Christchurch earthquakes.
    It later transpired myself and one other reporter were being sacrificed to pay for the hiring of Guyon Espiner who, as it turned out, only lasted about a year at TV3 before jumping ship for RNZ.
    The way in which both redundancies were handled left me angry and bruised but you just have to get over it and move on.
    Shit happens and that will never change.

  31. From the letters to the editor section of the Otago Daily Times, Friday 29th May.

    Campbell Live

    “THE “dumbing down” of New Zealand continues apace. TV1 removes the BBC World News; to keep up with the Joneses. TV3 replaces a relatively restrained early morning news with a gesticulating, grimacing, gibbering gremlin named Paul Henry and finally, as a coup de grace, TV3 axes Campbell Live- probably to be replaced by something more suitable for those of a short attention spans.

    I.R. Stewart
    Oamaru.