Clan Campbell

In September 2013, Campbell Live’s Kate King did a six-minute report on a new disease affecting dairy cattle – Theileria. It was a measured, well-researched piece that was given the time and space to tell its story well without over-simplifying or being condescending. They got the science right and let the experts and those affected have their say. I was especially interested because I produce a veterinary magazine and it was good to see an animal health/economic issue getting serious treatment.

It was great current affairs, bringing an important story to an audience that had probably never heard of the disease. It’s also the kind of treatment you’ll never see on a Seven Sharp or a Paul Henry show. It was actually really good public service television, and therein lies the problem for Campbell’s show.

I, like tens of thousands of New Zealanders, am appalled at the prospect of Campbell Live being axed – and judging by the way it’s being handled by Mediaworks, that’s pretty much a certainty. The tragic irony is that the channel that should be delivering good public service television – Television One – has long abandoned the role. And why should they do it? It doesn’t rate all that well and since the current government trashed the TVNZ public broadcasting charter in 2010, seven years after it was introduced by a Labour-led government, there has been no obligation on the state-owned channel to serve the public good. The unceremonious dumping of TVNZ6 and TVNZ7, and miserly funding for Radio New Zealand underlined the National-led government’s contempt for public service broadcasting.

Television broadcasting in this country is based almost entirely on a commercial model. We don’t have a BBC, ABC or PBS to help ensure important stories are still told, and that a pool of journalistic talent is retained. The market – our market – has failed to deliver and it’s probably a miracle that Mediaworks has kept Campbell Live going for this long. The apex predators of our commercial television world – the Weldons, Christies, Hoskings and Henrys – are simply not wired or mandated to produce the reasoned, balanced and intelligent coverage seen under the stewardship of John Campbell.

Campbell Live is a wonderful show. I long-since gave up on One News and now prefer 3 News, although in all fairness there’s not a lot between them. A lot of the good reporting that may once have been seen in the main hour-long news bulletin – like the Theileria piece – had migrated to Campbell. Unfortunately the news hour on both channels is padded with too much irrelevant overseas content and way too much sport. Coverage of the Black Caps’ good run at the recent ICC World Cup resembled long and rambling discussion threads on social media.

Much of the quality in Campbell Live is attributed to the man himself, but we shouldn’t forget the team working with him. He has seasoned reporters who have empathy and a light touch when needed, long attention spans and the resilience to ask the hard questions. John Campbell has built a great work culture around him over a very successful decade.

Cynics have pointed out that many of those protesting the likely loss of Campbell Live don’t watch the programme much if at all. They remind me of the cynics 40 years ago who dismissed “Save Manapouri” campaigners with the same argument: “most of you will never visit the place”. Well we saved the lake and it’s safe to say most New Zealanders were pretty happy about that, even if they’ll never visit. Today, people would also be up in arms if cultural institutions such as the NZSO, Te Papa or Radio New Zealand Concert, Opera New Zealand or Royal NZ Ballet were put under threat through loss of public funding. We may not go to their events every week but we do want to be part of a culture that values and encourages institutions like these. The market fails miserably when public funding is withdrawn.

So where does this leave Campbell Live? There’s no doubt there is strong support for this brand of broadcasting. The cash-strapped, ratings-driven Mediaworks/TV3 are probably not the right hosts for it. They, and the state channels, have been colonised by the narcissistic, preening, sneering show ponies who bear out that old H.L. Mencken quote: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

I’d like to think that John Campbell and his style of broadcasting will find a new home and get the big audience it deserves, be it within a reformatted 3 News, online or with a public service broadcaster.

That would be marvellous. Marvelous.