Holmes: Celebrity status no gauge of greatness

NEW KNIGHT: Sir Paul Holmes
NEW KNIGHT: Sir Paul Holmes

Sir Paul Holmes' funeral will be held tomorrow in the same Auckland church where Sir Edmund Hillary's funeral was held. We have been told this rather often, so we should know.

We have also been told by various publications that he was our greatest broadcaster and that he will be "in our hearts forever".

Holmes may not have climbed Everest exactly but he got terrific ratings, which apparently measures up about the same. And he did feed publications like these a steady diet of his home life while he lived.

Well-known New Zealanders will deliver eulogies in celebration of his life, which is fitting, since we don't do grief any more when people die. Why be sad? Celebration is more upbeat, and also fits better with Holmes' personality when he was alive. I haven't been asked to chip in with a few apposite words. I can't think why.

I recently described Holmes, while he was still with us, as the outstanding broadcaster of his generation, which was, I think, more accurate, acknowledging both the high and low points in his output over his lavishly paid career in radio and television.

In the course of that, he entered into the culture of celebrity with the kind of vigour that must often end in regret; those close to such people often suffer for the sake of the public's entertainment. Let's hope all enjoyed the ride.

Holmes was an event, a character, a performer, but not a journalist, though he could write entertainingly and well. He was quick-witted, quirky, probably a workaholic, often amusing and not always either right or fair, which is to say he was like the rest of us.

But surely the word "great" should be reserved for those who truly are great.

There are few of those.

With some possible exceptions, they are not entertainers. They have mana that isn't measured in ratings and are seldom rewarded by wealth for their contribution to the world, and they tend to be humble, aware that to be blessed by fate is a gift that can just as easily be taken away.

The great are probably not endearing. I doubt that I'd have liked Sir Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister, but he was great when greatness of his kind was needed. Sir Charles Upham was a great soldier but there was nothing cuddly about him either.

These men did a grim job in a grim time and they were serious about it, serious in a way that wasn't flippant, or cute, or temporary.

It's unlikely any journalist will attract media adulation the way Holmes did, in their final days, just as none are likely to earn as much as he did, and I call that a good thing. Celebrity is a trap, a delusion, and you pay a high price for it.

Real journalists don't have half the country's politicians, including the prime minister, at our weddings, the way Holmes did, nor do many of us buddy-up with the rich and powerful. You can't do honest reporting if you were dining last night with a person you should call to account today.

But of course Holmes was a broadcaster, a different thing entirely, and maybe part of the exhaustive coverage of his final days and death is because that is a threatened trade as well and his passing is in a time of a niggling loss of confidence in the future of media.

Technology now humbles once-great newspapers, and television no longer holds the country captive for the evening on a mere three free- to-air channels. The internet delivers news as it's happening around the world, so who needs to wait breathlessly for the six o'clock bulletin?

Holmes would have had tough competition for attention if he'd started out tomorrow.

But what a great innings he had in an era that's passing along with him, and what fun he had while he was at it.

I'd have admired him more if he'd been a little less chuffed with himself.

The Press