When the government decided to sell Telecom, I was asked to present a series of television advertisements because surveys showed I was a figure whose integrity was respected, and I was an experienced television hand. My first reaction was that I was not prepared to back the privatisation of Telecom, so I was flown to Wellington where I was reassured that the decision to sell it had been taken and the purpose of the advertisements was to persuade New Zealanders to buy shares. So I agreed.

We shot footage in a number of countries to have the commercials ready for when the sale to the two American companies was announced. I was paid a ridiculously lavish sum. Then the sale was delayed and the following year we set forth again to re-shoot the whole series. I was paid again. When the ads appeared I was appalled. They were each two minutes long and were placed simultaneously on both channels, so no escape was possible for viewers. Except for me. Once I had seen the whole boring series, I stopped watching television until they were over.

I was abused. Everyone decided I had sold out by supporting the privatisation of Telecom. Journalists and others insisted I was paid one million dollars for the job and when I denied it, no one believed me. I said “No” every time the do-you-beat-your-wife question was asked: “Were you paid a million dollars?” “No,” I replied, usually with a laugh. It was the time of pig-trough payments and it was the only time in my professional life I felt guilty about what I received for what I had done. I thought I had done well enough with two expenses-paid trips around the world and a bit more than one-quarter of the speculated fee.

It was fascinating to observe the extravagant behaviour of the advertising agency people who accompanied me. We checked into a New York hotel that was a traditional film-industry base. The lobby was tawdry and the rooms tired, sadly in need of renovation. We met in the bar to discuss whether we would stay or go. I was asked first as the presenter and said I wasn’t much fussed. It was clean enough. The producer pushed himself out of his chair and said: “We’re leaving, The fucking television doesn’t have a remote.” So we moved.

What astonished me when the commercials were shown was the vitriolic response of journalists. The worst comment came in an Evening Post editorial which attacked my integrity in the most extraordinary way. I understood for the first time how it felt to be attacked with anonymous self-righteousness  by someone (and I knew who it was, the business being gossipy as it is) who had been a mediocre wage-slave all his life while I had been living on my wits as a freelance.

The attacks were built around my hypocrisy: I had been an opponent of the New Right’s sales and yet here I was pushing for the privatisation of Telecom. I tried to explain that I had been prepared to make the commercials only after the sale was a fait accompli in the interest of persuading New Zealanders to take up their allotted share. To no avail. After a while I didn’t  care much. I felt some guilt about the amount of money I had been given, even though by the standards of the time it was not that much, but I began to realise that no matter what I said most people had been persuaded I was advocating the sale of the company; so fighting their argument was not worth the effort.

Except that one day I was walking along Albert Street when a man from a parked Telecom van yelled out, “Ya fuckin’ traitor.” That mattered. What journalists thought had become academic and of not much interest to me but that a technician thought I had contributed to job losses because I had advocated the sale of the company was different. I hustled over the road to where he was sitting in the driver’s seat, the window open, his elbow on the sill. I explained into he teeth of his belligerence that the decision on the sale had been made and all I was doing was pushing for Kiwis to buy shares to keep as much of the ownership as possible in this country. He heard me out, turned on the ignition, put the van into gear, leaned into where I was standing and said, “Well, whatever, I still think you’re a cunt.” And he drove off.

I was suddenly overwhelmed by the hilarity of it. Nothing I could say could affect his or anyone else’s conviction that I was the problem and trying by slick sophistry to worm my way out of it. No journalist or prissy moralist made me feel guilty, but he did, despite the rational certainty that what I said was true. I chuckled all the way down the road and, from that day until now, I have never tried to explain those details. I still believe my argument was valid – or would I have done it anyway given the money dangled in front of me? I think not.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Dawn McLauchlan from A Life’s Sentences by Gordon McLauchlan (Penguin, 2004).

Gordon McLauchlan (January 9, 1931-January 26, 2020) was author of a classic, satirical study of New Zealanders, The Passionless People (1976) and many other books, including a superb memoir A LIfe's Sentences...

Leave a comment