Debunking the Holmes mythology



After the nostalgic tributes for Paul Holmes; his life, loves, achievements and travails, a major biographical question remains. Here was a self styled rebel against `repressed grey suited public servant New Zealand`, someone who regarded his nightly TV show as a creation of `outlaws frowned upon by the establishment`. And yet he ended life desperate for establishment legitimacy.

Donna Chisholm`s recent Metro piece tells the tale. After a convivial interview with Kim Dotcom Paul suddenly realizes that the PM might disapprove. `Oh fuck,there goes my knighthood`. Why the shift? Why was a formal accolade from the establishment so important to him? Well, the answer lies in history as well as biography.

Not only had Paul changed, the establishment had changed too. There are political analogies. Alan Gibbs, Rob Campbell and Neville Gibson were committed lefties in the 1970s and members of the new right establishment after July 1984. They resolved to dispense with the economic past in favour of a brave new `free market` world.

Recall those familiar voices. The economy is distorted and inefficient, Muldoonism/interventionism has failed and deregulation is necessary. You can`t turn back the clock. What’s passed is passed. We were living beyond our means. It is time for New Zealand to join the real world. Television, radio and glossy magazines celebrated the elegance, charisma and entrepreneurial skills of financial moguls such as Bruce Judge and Colin Reynolds. Images of the Barclays Index, the foreign exchange room and the Auckland downtown building boom gave the impression of dynamism, prosperity and progress.

The social markers of this panoramic vista were career success, material acquisition and self promotion. An emergent celebrity culture drew in the truly accomplished and the tragically desperate from all walks of life. Senior politicians from both major parties embraced the new outlook as did a new strata of public servants committed to the credo of neo-liberalism.

Meanwhile, the deregulation of broadcasting commercialised news, current affairs and other content. Advertising, sponsorship and product placement pervaded media space. Ratings became the absolute measure of programme success and audiences were traded as commodities by broadcasting organisations and advertisers. To legitimise this arrangement it was necessary to evaluate programme quality in terms of ratings and publicity. Thus, at TVNZ a team of American news consultants transformed issues based current affairs into infotainment packages designed for the commercial half hour. The new format played upon the emotional extremes of human triumph and disaster. Stories about heroes, villians and victims were interspersed with celebrity/entertainment items and occasional political interviews.

As media analyst Joe Atkinson observed, the overriding purpose was to build and maintain ratings flow between advertising segments. It was also necessary to conflate ratings, publicity and programme quality in the public mind. There was one man uniquely dedicated to this task, on breakfast radio as well as prime time TV- Paul Holmes.

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His craziness, narcissism and volatility, his populist convictions were a perfect fit for the times. On Newstalk ZB and his nightly TV show Holmes exemplified the new celebrity culture. His private and public life merged in real time; media fame, marriage, adultery, marriage break-up, alchoholism, family P addiction, brushes with death, debilitating illness…… could we not identify with the man, his imperfections and tribulations?

Yet, despite the heroic `warts and all` persona` Holmes was not a man of the people. Rather, he sided decisively with the new right establishment. In the Holmes Show opening credits the Auckland skyline appeared as a stand in for the country at large, a reminder to some that regional television news had been erased from the schedule.

From the South Island Holmes seemed to be the archetypical JAFA, his provincial origins notwithstanding. During the early 90s when `Ruthenasia`, beneficiary bashing, health cuts, public sector lay offs and the Employment Contracts Act divided the country Holmes forged close relationships with Ross Armstrong and Jim Bolger. As Helen Clark gained political ascendancy Holmes adapted. He was not so amenable to the Alliance, the Greens or to anybody who challenged neo-liberal economics and its rewrite of New Zealand history. Later in life, amidst personal difficulties and declining health Holmes` deference to the new right establishment was supplemented by deference to remnants of the old order; royalty,the governor general and the honours system.

These were not the actions of a pioneering, independent broadcaster, despite the fawning eulogies. To find THAT kind of broadcaster we need to ditch the nostalgia and look further back in time, when commercial values were less rapacious. Ah yes….I can see him now, aging as he comes closer. Cerebral and avuncular, his name is Brian Edwards and there are others with him, David Excel, Sharon Crosbie, Gordon Dryden, Ian Johnstone, Ian Fraser.

May their lives and times resonate as the Holmes mythology fades away.


  1. It’s no accident that boomers like Holmes moved right. The hyper-individualism of the 60s countercultural left is more compatible with Hayek’s notion of spontaneous order than it is with social democracy. Some people still don’t get this. Hippies and yuppies are peas in a pod.

  2. Newly arrived in New Zealand from the UK in 1990 “Holmes” was almost my first experience of New Zealand culture, and I found him self-obsessed, parochial, economocally illiterate, politically naive and an exemplar of much that I found dislikeable about the New Zealand psyche. To judge from the number of times it was referenced the ‘high-point’ of his career was undoubtably the walk-out by Dennis Connor, and he seemed to work hard after that to repeat the ‘success’ by using gratuitous rudeness and sledgehammer agression on any guest who didn’t agree with him.

    I quickly found better things to do with my time than sit through his invariably unproductive harangues and looked forward after his eventual departure from TVNZ to an improvement in the quality and effectiveness of investigation and comment, although unfortunately I was disappointed.

  3. The thing that impressed upon me most about the media response to Holmes passing was:

    What a tight little bunch the media in NZ are are, and, how this bunch of buddies showed zero ability to remove their friendly relations with “one of their own”, Mr Holmes, from an objective appraisal of Mr Holmes’ “place” and at times detrimental input in our country.

    This shocked me, that journalists, some of whom I had some respect for, were so incapable of the type of critique required of their profession.

    Thinking further I don’t know why this should shock me anymore.

    Dear Alison Mau, He might be “one of us” in your world; your world must be full of bigotry.

    I appreciated Mr Holmes earlier contributions and considered a grave degeneration occurred in later years. I wish he had apologized for his racist diatribe after last year’s Waitangi.

    Dear HRH The Queen, What were you thinking?

    • +1 Blue Leopard.

      I was also shocked to see Mike Williams was a pallbearer as I had no idea they were great friends.

      • @ Fenderviper

        “I had no idea they were great friends”

        …yes, the whole affair was rather enlightening, wasn’t it!

  4. I’m relieved to have read that. Now I’m not alone in my confusion over the way he has been lauded in public, despite his obviously anti liberal outlook.

  5. I would rather have seen the funeral for Ralph Hotere televised personally. I was quite stunned that the funeral for Holmes was on tv.

  6. Kia ora Wayne.
    Spot on. The fawning over-the-top in content and extensive ‘news’ coverage made me nauseous, so I stopped viewing and reading the drivel that week.
    In contrast the passing of Ralph Hotere marked the close of an era of critical thinking and political protest in our nation. It may be apt to remember his artistic political response to Holmes’ globally embarassing racist quip about Kofi Annan being “A cheekie darkie” – Hotere produced a poignant work, entitled ‘One White Drip’ . Perhaps Te Papa should buy it?
    Heoi ano, na Iri

  7. Had you written this excellent piece three weeks ago we would now be attending your funeral.

    But I don’t know about including some of the names you raise in the penultimate sentence, lol.

  8. this poem by Dr Karlo Mila speaks to the Holmes’ apology and whiteness.

    It is elegant, powerful and pointed.

    – Eating dark chocolate and watching Paul Holmes’ apology –

    I am sucking on a Sante bar / sneaked / bought at Pak’n’Save in a cigarette gold wrapper / in an addicted moment / I remember when you bought them in dairies / they were stripped and served undressed / edges worn from the friction / getting down with the brown / chocolate dust was in the air

    I am watching Paul Holmes apologise for calling Kofi Annan a darkie / darkie takes me back to

    6 years old / school grounds / see-saws / we won the war / we won the war in 1944 / mean boys alternating between catch and kissing and sticks and stones / darkie / Tania got called blackie / golliwog / I remember being thankful I was pretty and fair / and had long hair / no one called me Manu off Playschool or darkie / I was a milk chocolate glass and a half / half caste / caramello enough to be safe from bitter dark accusations

    tonight Paul Holmes apologised for calling Kofi Annan a darkie / takes me back to

    10 years old / sitting on my dad’s stomach / him flat on the sofa / we’re watching a week night movie / southern drawls and white sheets / me crying hot wet tears over black men with hurt in their eyes / what does lynching mean Maka? / my daddy / dark / my feet dangling off his tummy / me milky brown chocolatey sweet / wanting to grow up and be the prime minister / or a lawyer like Matlock / make everything all right for darkies everywhere

    tonight Paul Holmes apologised for calling Kofi Annan a darkie / takes me back

    15 years old / Barry / surf lifesaver / washboard abs / the Mattel man / automatic winking machine / ambivalent crush / half hate / half fetish / blonde frosting in his fringe / darkies / that’s what he called us / hope you don’t mind darkies / he said / setting up his mate / flirting on the phone

    tonight Paul Holmes apologised for calling Kofi Annan a darkie / takes me back

    17 years old / do you think they would ever let a boonga be prime minister / Corey P / dreadlocked Bob Marley wannabe / says to me / mocking laughter / he’s drunk at three / in Highbury / but we never dreamed they’d let an Indian woman be mayor of Dunedin / so let’s Suki it to them Corey P / we were darkies anonymous then / making fun of ourselves before anyone else could / revolution in the bottom of a bong /cutting off our veins to spite our lives /

    tonight Paul Holmes apologised to the nation

    I am 28 / Aucklander / jokes about Jafas don’t involve Maoris and Minis / just another F-ing Aucklander / the P.I.s here outnumber prejudice in wide open spaces / skin heads low key / less closely shorn / too much rugby league brawn / on the arms of coconuts / I’ve been told I’m the cream rising to the top / the cream of the crop / Nesian queen / rank and file member of the chocolate soldier movement / getting down with the brown /

    Tonight Paul Holmes apologised

    sorry / he said / I’ve hurt my family / I may have hurt yours /

    yes / we scrapped in the car over it / there was yelling / by the time we got to the end of the Mangere motorway / I was crying / who is this redneck with the big brown shoulders sitting next to me / anti PC /darker than me / defending freedom of speech / but I don’t want it to be all right /

    / I don’t want my kids to have stanzas of darkie memories /

    sorry / Paul Holmes said / I could see that he meant it / I felt sad for him / and happy / I signed the petition to say he should get sacked / I am a manager in a govt. department / not Matlock / not the PM / just a member of the chocolate soldier movement / melting in the middle

    – Karlo Mila

  9. Wholeheartedly agree with some of what said – especially critiquing the hagiography and cosiness of fellow media celebrities. But you are treating Holmes asa cypher for part of Society you don’t like. In end he was human with all contradictions that go with that. Like many in media he made name as alleged spokesman for kiwi battlers. He was Establishment and (like many) got more so as he got older – but he had a constituency, and they were not all idiots. And no, I wasn’t one of Holmes’ clinging fans. H

  10. The fawning over Holmes during his illness, the crap in the endless women’s magazines (well going by the covers at the dairys – now how much do they pay for these silly stories), and all the rest of it was truly ridiculous and unwarranted. I couldn’t believe that Brian Edwards even seemed to think he was some great interviewer and great intellect, give us a break he was indeed a self obsessed man who knew how to play the game in the media. I rarely agree with Rosemary McLeod but both her and Chris Trotter wrote proper critques of the man and his work. I agree with some of the names you mention, Fraser, Johnstone and Edwards, all were far superior at their jobs and weren’t chasing the endless media moments. We have two stunning interviewers these days the wonderful Kim Hill who is compulsive Saturday morning listening and was in fact an excellent TV interviewer when they did use her one election year and John Campbell altho much of his talent is wasted on his show, too much of it is still trivial and the time allocated for each topic is way too short mostly. They both have the intellect to do the job well without being overbearing and having it all about me me me the interviewer. I am appalled that Susan Wood has comeback to chair Q&A there must be new real talent out there somewhere!

  11. Wayne, the best summary of Paul Holmes I have read so far. Yes, I went throught those times observing things just as you have described them here. The media that is left is mostly not worth consuming anymore. What a shame and disgrace.

    It is time for a decisive new course, for society, the media and the way we run affairs (incl. the economy).

    “Prostitution has never liberated the prostitute”, that may be best phrase to judge the state of affairs in NZ.

  12. FFS

    Holmes was just a broadcaster. If he did not playthe ratings game he would not have been on prime time TV on channel one in the nineties.

    He was very intelligent, very capable and would have been a brilliant journalist no matter what type he decided to be. He decided to follow the money. That was his choice and now just let him be.


  13. Not all baby boomers became what they rebelled against. And even a left wing dude can reach some kind of rapprochement with the prevailing order so that he can make a living. It’s trade off. One’s soul does not have to be part of the bargain; nor does one have to settle for a mess of pottage.

    I never rated Holmes as a broadcaster of any description. The man was barely coherent at the best of times, dribbled and gibbered, and had, along with his sometime stand-in Sue Wood. an irritating tendency to try and tell me what to think. I stopped watching Holmes back in 1990, with all the tub thumping about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Before that, I has been rather reluctantly impressed with his handling of the Aramoana shootings, and cut him some slack on account of it. Sue Wood I never could stomach.

    So I can’t comment upon the Connors debacle, or his consummate arrogance concerning Kofi Annan, though I heard about them. What got me was the astronomic salary TVNZ was paying this talentless berk. I simply could not believe it. The TVNZ brass were too stupid to realise that TV1’s direct descent from the NZBC and the 7p.m. time slot was the big drawcard. The folly of paying such a bloated salary was finnaly brought home when Paul left for another outfit… and sank, without a trace.

    Of the other personalities, I used to rate Sharon Crosby very highly. Recall her fronting a ‘1984’ program discussing where our society was in relation to George Orwell’s prophetic novel. There was a proposition put the audience – something along the lines of ‘Freedom of speech is sacrosanct – unless it goes against the majority view.’ (I know this wasn’t quite it, but it was along those lines). The response came heavily down on ‘Yes.’

    Sharon Crosby’s momentarily startled look of horror for mine forgives much of the negative impressions I was later to form during here tenure of the CEO’s office.

    These days, I have a lot of respect for Mike Campbell, whose brain as well as his heart appear to be in the right places. That Mr Campbell’s professionalism occasionally slips – as with his interview with Ken Ring a couple of years back – shows that he draws a distinction between distancing and divorcing himself from his subject. Anyway, for mine he did preserve some professional decorum. He didn’t kick that mountebank as he deserved, out of the studio.

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