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Dunne Speaks - the demise of John Campbell

27 May 2015

I am as big a fan of John Campbell, as he is of me!

For all that, I do not mind admitting that I will be sorry to see him go at the end of this week. Not because I particularly liked his show – I seldom watched it, and was even more rarely invited to appear on it – but because I think New Zealand television journalism will be the poorer for his departure.

Nor am I especially surprised at the way he has been treated by TV3’s bosses. I well recall having to take the same Director of News and Current Affairs to the High Court in 2005 to gain access to a televised leader’s debate before that year’s general election, having been excluded on the apparently lofty grounds that the studio was not big enough to accommodate all the parties in Parliament. This case – which TV3 screamed blue murder about at the time as the ultimate interference in media freedom and therefore an affront to democracy, but which has never been appealed – showed the regard TV3 has for current affairs. It is really all about ratings and entertainment, ahead of quality and information. It is so pervasive that now even someone like John Campbell has been cast aside unceremoniously in its unrelenting pursuit.

The most disturbing feature of this debacle is the wider message it sends. While we have a number of individually talented broadcasters in New Zealand television, it is now clear that those talents run second to the pre-determined light and fluffy news and current affairs formulae both TVNZ and TV3 now to seem operate by. Campbell may have been excessively unctuous at times – the Obadiah Slope of New Zealand television – but there was no doubting his passion and determination. Without him, television news and current affairs will be reduced to just another succession of barely witty asides between presenters, with precious little analysis or actual understanding of what is going on in the world.

What Campbell’s demise demonstrates is the turmoil in all forms of traditional media as they seek to compete with both the explosion and variety of outlets and the tsunami of social media. I fear for the future of newspapers, still (just) the last bastion of considered commentary and insight, but for how much longer? Radio long ago reduced itself to being the voice of the lowest common denominator, with Radio New Zealand’s admirable attempts to staunch the wounds still succeeding, but only just.

In olden days, before newspapers and mass literacy, news was conveyed by the sonorous tones of the Town Crier, standing in the main square and booming out the latest pithy insights. How ironic it is that with the forced departure of John Campbell and some other seasoned professionals in recent years we, the most literate of peoples ever, are heading back to the modern equivalent of the Town Crier to tell us what we are presumed to need to know, when we need to know it, and to leave our critical powers and intelligence otherwise undisturbed. Hardly a prospect to savour.

Farewell John Campbell. You certainly annoyed and frustrated me, but you also made me think, something your boss Mr Jennings, and likely successors will never have the depth to do.