Requiescat in pace, Sir Paul Holmes

REFLECTING: Sir Paul Holmes at his family home, Mana Estate, in Poukawa, Hawkes Bay.
REFLECTING: Sir Paul Holmes at his family home, Mana Estate, in Poukawa, Hawkes Bay.

The death of Sir Paul Holmes has been received with genuine dismay and grief by conservative New Zealanders.

Like the many progressive Kiwis who mourned the death of Left-wing writer Bruce Jesson in 1999, the forces of conservatism understand that they have lost a formidable champion.

At Holmes' funeral, as they did at Bruce's, mourners will hear the tributes of many illustrious New Zealanders and murmur: "We will not see his like again".

To read that Holmes was a champion of the Right may startle many of his admirers. The man himself would have bridled with characteristic theatricality at such a description. Throughout his long career, Holmes had worked tirelessly to perfect his public persona as the Kiwi Everyman.

Inspired by that other gargantuan egotist, Charles De Gaulle, Holmes would likely have insisted that "Holmes is not of the Left; Holmes is not of the Right; Holmes is above!"

But it was precisely in his "man of the people" costume that Holmes' usefulness to the forces of conservatism inhered. Over four decades of broadcasting to suburban New Zealand, he never tired of presenting his inherited provincial prejudices as the very essence of common sense.

In London and Vienna, the precociously clever boy from Hastings may have rubbed shoulders with all kinds of sophisticated cosmopolitans, but he was careful to avoid the contagion of their critical intellectualism. His hatred of intellectual "elites" was lifelong and visceral. Holmes' voracious appetite for information was almost entirely dedicated to defending his listeners' and viewers' right to be wrong.

The contrast with Bruce Jesson, one of New Zealand's rare public intellectuals, could hardly be starker. Jesson devoted his life to dissecting and exposing the hollowness of New Zealand society. He investigated the cosy networks smothering its business community, he attacked the Labour Party's and the trade unions' narrowness of vision, and he castigated the universities for their failure to act as New Zealand's critic and conscience.

Jesson was the implacable foe of New Zealand's provincial mediocrity, most particularly of its ingrained anti-intellectualism and its spineless deference to the contrived hierarchies of monarchy. Had a Labour government even been brave enough to offer him a knighthood, Jesson would never have accepted it. He died a convinced and proud republican.

Holmes has been hailed as a broadcasting wunderkind and identified as the leader of a revolution in radio and television current affairs. Had he been the inventor of talk radio and personality-centred current affairs television, such titles might have been justified. More accurately, he should be remembered as the broadcaster temperamentally best suited to providing the "infotainment" product that the new, commercially driven radio and television networks were demanding. In this endeavour, his ability to stroke the prejudices and inflame the grievances of suburban and provincial New Zealanders is justly celebrated.

As his audiences grew and his unique broadcasting talents propelled him into the extremely influential 7pm time slot, he and Television New Zealand's Holmes show found themselves in an extraordinarily powerful political position. Inevitably, the forces of conservatism lost little time in exploiting that power.

In October 2000, for example, Holmes lent the weight of its influence to a campaign supposedly organised by young and talented Kiwis driven overseas by the policies of the Labour-Alliance government.

In reality, the Generation Lost campaign was the work of the Business Roundtable and its public-relations firm. As I wrote in The Independent Business Weekly of October 11, 2000: "Mr Holmes has declared that he did not know of the Business Roundtable's involvement when his show went to air last Wednesday evening.

"If this is correct, then Mr Holmes should immediately resign his position as the nation's premier broadcaster. No-one with the years of journalistic experience that Mr Holmes boasts should have accepted [the campaign's] advertisement at its face value. The blatantly anti- Government message at the heart of [the] campaign would normally have sent alarm bells ringing throughout Television New Zealand.

"To put [it] on air without checking the bona fides of [its] claims to political neutrality was an unforgivable lapse of professionalism."

I continue to wonder how many of the other, politically charged causes championed by Holmes over the past two decades were of similar, unacknowledged, and highly dubious provenance.

It would be remiss of me, however, to close without recalling his extraordinary response to the 2004 hikoi opposing Labour's Foreshore and Seabed Bill. A lesser man, and a more convinced Right-winger, might have used the day's tumultuous events to further inflame New Zealand's already tender race relations.

Instead, Holmes ended the programme's coverage with these words: "No New Zealander, frankly, could have watched proceedings today without a sense of pride, without being gripped by the heart, could have watched it - without love."

Requiescat in pace, Sir Paul Holmes.

The Press