Paul Holmes: Risk taker, agitator

Last updated 09:37 01/02/2013

New Zealand TV icon Sir Paul Holmes has died aged 62.

Paul Holmes
Paul Holmes began his broadcasting career in the 1970s.

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Sir Paul Holmes, a pioneering television and radio broadcaster, whose impassioned reporting guided viewers through decades of New Zealand's highs and lows, has died, aged 62.

A media giant, Holmes not only held prominent positions on TV screens and airwaves, but the fascination of New Zealanders.

He was the frontman for TVNZ's evening flagship show Holmes, and hosted the early morning slot on NewstalkZB.

Regardless of the news agency, he was a risk taker and an agitator – often inciting controversy.

He called the United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan a "cheeky darkie" on the radio, said Waitangi Day was "loony Maori fringe self-denial day"; and prompted a guest to walk out on an interview in his debut self-titled show Holmes.

Knighted at the beginning of this year, his contributions went beyond his media presence.

Though he laughed and said he was knighted because he had become "safe" after a career marked by contentious incidents, the honour was also for his work in the community.

He was a patron of Paralympics New Zealand, and on the board of Auckland's Westpac rescue helicopter charity.

His ailing health prompted his knighthood ceremony to be brought forward.

"I don't think Houdini will do it this time. There's a time limitation now – the old cancer found me out and is starting to do some funny things," he said at the investiture.

He was originally diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999 and also suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic heart condition which thickens the muscles and restricts blood flow, and underwent surgery early last year.

He was back in hospital in October after contracting an infection, which led him to retire from broadcasting.

The son of a Hawkes Bay mechanic, Holmes was arguably the country's most famous broadcaster.

He had a yearning for radio at an early age, using the family tape-recorder to practise announcing as a school pupil. He also auditioned at the local radio station and acted in theatre productions.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts at Victoria University in Wellington, Holmes joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation as an announcer in Christchurch.

It was a path that would see him serve 16 years on prime time television and nearly 22 years as NewstalkZB breakfast host.

His tendency to inject himself into stories shifted the landscape of broadcasting in New Zealand, and catapulted him to as much a celebrity as those he interviewed.

He became known for his opinionated, chatty style, something aligned with his idea that the camera sees a person's heart.

"What matters is your heart. You cannot lie to a television camera," he told the Sunday Star Times in 2008.

With this, he gained a large and loyal following, as well as inevitable detractors.

"I know this created incredible turbulence and frustration amongst the old hacks and journalism academia, but to me it was a no-brainer – nobody is objective," he said.

"And it wasn't the end of the world as we knew it. It wasn't something to be frightened of. The proof was in the fact that the people took it, and took to it. They liked the honesty, the transparent honesty."

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Typifying his ability to divide opinion was his first Holmes show in 1989, which he opened with a salvo of questions aimed at America's Cup great Dennis Conner, provoking the infamous walk off.

He accused Conner of cheating and requested an apology to the nation.

His tenure saw him cover major New Zealand stories including the Aramoana massacre, and international stories such as terrorist attacks against the US and the death of Princess Diana.

His position in the media also had a polarising effect on media analysts, but in 1998, Massey University lecturer Brian McDonnell said he was an "orchestrator and facilitator of our national emotions" and that his show captured the essence of middle New Zealand values.

He had more than one run-in with the Broadcasting Standards Authority, a body he often derided on air.

He made headlines in 2003 for calling Annan a "cheeky darkie", asked NZ First Leader Winston Peters if he had a drinking problem, and Prime Minister David Lange if he had lost his marbles.

The Annan comments, which provoked widespread outrage and led to Mitsubishi axing its sponsorship of TVNZ's evening Holmes show, were reported around the world.

Holmes publicly apologised several times.

As his popularity gained momentum, the spotlight followed him off-air to share his personal peaks and valleys.

His life became public property, garnering headlines across the country, as he battled cancer, had a near-death experience in a helicopter accident, and saw his high-profile first marriage to former television personality Hinemoa Elder disintegrate.

Reflecting on life during his fight with cancer, he said he "may have gone a little mad."

"It was kind of a breakdown. I had this huge hole in my soul, an emptiness that made me think my life was over," he said in 2006.

But he took it on with vigour. "I've fought bigger, badder bastards than this one. I'm not going to be beaten by this," he said at the time.

Holmes admitted alcoholism and affairs and, most recently, drug charges against his troubled adopted daughter Millie.

He told the Sunday Star Times in 2008 "none of us live perfect lives".

"I would like to think I come down at the bottom of the page weighted on the good side of the ledger."

He released a CD, went on Dancing with the Stars, and he kissed young Aids sufferer Eve Van Grafhorst on air, showing real compassion for her plight.

In 1991, he became a father as his then partner Elder gave birth to her second child, Reuben.

The couple married on the roof of a hotel in 1992, a glittering event attended by political heavyweights Jim Bolger, Mike Moore, Helen Clark and Judith Tizard.

Five years later it was all over as Holmes left his wife for 25-year-old television reporter Fleur Revell.

The relationship was brief and ended badly under an intense media spotlight, something he said was "excruciating" and "incredibly invasive".

Holmes did not shy away from attention and could be accused of seeking it, publishing an autobiography in 1999, and he even said if he were able to work with no restrictions, he would be the "Pomposity King".

Holmes most recently lived with his second wife Deborah Hamilton-Holmes on his rural property at Poukawa near Hastings.

It was there he was knighted by Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae on January 16, before 100 guests.

He was proud of the new titles. "It's nice to be Sir and Lady. I want everyone to call me Sir, I'm unashamed - as you would expect."

- Stuff

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