Sir Paul's very public death

Last updated 12:27 01/02/2013

We all saw it coming. Death had been etched on the face of Sir Paul Holmes for weeks.

It was there during his investiture just last month. You could hear it in his voice, and see it in his eyes. "Just call me Sir Paul,'' he joked. It didn't sound like him.

The obituaries had been pre-written, the video clips assembled, the picture galleries put together.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition had said their pieces to camera, good friends had said public farewells. Former Labour Party president Mike Williams got two pages in the New Zealand Herald in which to reminisce on the good old days. 

Old foes got dragged out of the woodwork. Tariana Turia forgave Sir Paul for calling Waitangi Day  "loony Maori fringe self-denial day". 

Denis Conner, who walked out of Sir Paul's inaugural Holmes interview after being invited to apologise to the nation for being nasty to us, was less gracious, saying through a spokesman that he "didn't give a rat's arse'' about the dying broadcaster. 

TVNZ scheduled hour-long Holmes specials featuring best-of clips of the broadcaster's best interviews. 

Everyone else had their say on Facebook and Twitter. 

All that remained was for Sir Paul Holmes to actually die. 

He did, finally, peacefully, at home, with his family beside him, 14 years after his initial diagnosis of prostate cancer. It was, as he said himself, the way he'd wanted to go.

And yet somehow it failed to lessen the blow. As news of Sir Paul's passing rippled around the newsroom (just seconds after Twitter lit up with the announcement, of course) I still had to ask a colleague twice if it was actually true. 

Sir Paul, dead? The diminutive colossus of New Zealand broadcasting, our first real commercial television journalist celebrity, gone? It's going to take a while to sink in. 

I've been wondering about media coverage of Sir Paul's impending demise for some time. Too much? Too public? I've half-expected John Key to rush forward plans for a funeral (state, obviously) with full military honours. And while Sir Paul was still alive, just so he could hear what everyone said about him.

We've all been talking about Sir Paul in the past tense for months. And it hasn't all been kind. Besides Dirty Den, plenty of comments have been posted on Stuff and other websites that have been less than complimentary about him. 

Sir Paul he may be, but Saint Paul he clearly was not. 

Were we rude? Ghoulish? Inappropriate? Disrespectful? Some might say so.

But Sir Paul lived his life in the spotlight, and never shirked it. It's not every young journalist who manages to earn a lifetime ban from Radio New Zealand at the age of 25 for asking the Archbishop of Canterbury to "put down his sherry glass for a chat''. 

Or refers to the former head of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, as "a cheeky darkie''. 

Sir Paul did plenty in his life he regretted as well as the many things he was proud of. And it was pretty much all aired in public. In the midst of life we are in death, etc. 

Looking back over some of Sir Paul's career highlights, what strikes me - beside the appalling 80s perm - was how tame many of his interviews were by today's standards, and yet they scandalised us at the time. Sir Paul always knew how to get a reaction.

But he always had a sense of fair play, and sought out the ''bullies'', as he called them, who weren't giving Kiwis a fair go. Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Sir Paul said recently: "As a good bloke, really.''

That's not how I will remember him, though. What I admired about Sir Paul was his abilities as a journalist. He could connect with people from all walks of life, and get them talking. He was the consummate professional under pressure. And he always asked the tough question.  

I don't remember much from journalism school (it was quite a long time ago) but one thing sticks: "News is what someone, somewhere, doesn't want you to know.'' Sir Paul exemplified that maxim. 

Personally, I think one of the reasons we either loved or hated him was because Paul Holmes held up a mirror to ourselves.

Which is, in the end, what any good journalist should do.


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