John Campbell’s move from RNZ to TVNZ is set to shake up the television news and current affairs scene in this country. Campbell is a powerful broadcaster but will his new employer and its audience handle his style and resolve?  Mark Jennings reports. 

John Campbell is not everyone’s cup of tea. He is too gushy for some. Right wingers think he is too much of a leftie. Others find his empathy with the downtrodden and disadvantaged contains a bit much hand wringing for their liking. But few would deny that Campbell is smart, always well researched and is one of the defining broadcasters of his generation. He is the sort of broadcaster who shapes the organisation he works for, not the other way round. 

He has such a strong sense of himself – that structures and conventions most journalists find comfort in are either invisible to him or manoeuvred around. 

In many ways Campbell is a lone wolf. He will listen to many, but his own opinion will always emerge – sometimes subtly, sometimes with an unequivocal force. The opinion, the analysis, the narrative will be Campbell’s and not a reflection of the organisation for whom he works. 

His time at TV3 showed he was prepared to take risks. “Corngate”, the medal thief story and his hammering of Jenny Shipley with the question  “give me one name” in an interview which played a major part in her losing the leadership of the National Party, proved he can go to the line and possibly over it.  

Once he sets out on a course Campbell is virtually unswayable. Witness his determined pursuit of EQC that started at TV3, continued at RNZ, and seven years later it hasn’t moved from the cross-hairs.   

The same determination showed itself when he and the Campbell Live team fought to save their programme from TV3’s axe. The harnessing of public support drove the programme to ratings highs (far in excess of what the Project rates today) as Campbell worked himself to the bone and beyond. 

In the end there was too much bad blood involved for a compromise to be reached and Campbell decided to exit. It was one of the few times, perhaps the only time, where Campbell’s resolve has not won through. 

The battle left him shattered and deeply disappointed. The programme bore his name, he poured his life into it and those who worked on the show became his disciples as well as reporters. 

The life stream of that show will always remain in Campbell’s blood. It was a show that forced change in this country. It was a show that pricked and sometimes stabbed our social conscience. It raised large amounts of money for kids’ school lunches and Campbell rode at the head of the crusade. 

The work was the vindication of Campbell as journalist and, one suspects, as a person. 

At some point Campbell will have his own show at TVNZ. 

Television is in Campbell’s blood. He is a storyteller who melds pictures with words in ways few others can. His craftsmanship produces a potent product that nearly always evokes emotion in the audience. 

He tried hard on radio but television is his medium. 

Last election night would also have played on Campbell’s mind. As Paddy Gower, Duncan Garner and Lisa Owen powered up Newshub’s coverage on Three, Campbell would not have been able to resist the thought “Hey, that’s my job.” 

Over on One, Mike Hosking and Hilary Barry were not gelling as a combination and the coverage was suffering. 

Hosking has gone. One will not want another election night embarrassment. Campbell will walk into the role and transform the coverage. Watch out Three. 

Expect to see Campbell covering other big set piece events too. Presenting from outside the studio is another of Campbell’s top level skills. Hosking never seemed comfortable and rarely did it.  Simon Dallow, Wendy Petrie and, of course, Hilary Barry can all do it – but Campbell thrives on it and he’ll raise his hand at the first opportunity. 

Campbell has an ability to capture the sense of occasion. His reporting on Campbell Live of Obama’s inauguration was some of the best television reporting New Zealand has seen. 

Inevitably, Campbell is going to run up against Newshub’s Paddy Gower and it is going to be a take-no-prisoners contest. 

Newshub is using Gower as a roving reporter and, increasingly, as it’s big set piece reporter. Gower’s ability to break stories and find the new angles will give him an edge sometimes but Campbell’s meticulous research and powerful presentation will give TVNZ the impact it is often missing. 

You can bet that Gower will be at work very early on Campbell’s first day. 

But how will Campbell and TVNZ get along? Will TVNZ try to rein-in his flamboyant language and mannerisms? A big part of its news audience will find those hard to cope with after the colourless fare they’ve been served in recent times.  

How will Campbell manage in an outfit that despite the recent hiring of Jeremy Wells has been inherently conservative and risk adverse? His non-conformist tendencies will cause friction at various points. 

Campbell’s appointment should be good for TVNZ but it will test the resolve of both parties. 

At least it is going to be interesting, and TV News and Current Affairs in this country needs an injection of interest. 

Mark Jennings was John Campbell’s boss at TV3  in the good times and at the time of Campbell Live’s demise.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

Leave a comment