He called his show ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ with Paul Henry but after three weeks on-air, Henry doubts that the country has the will to create a better future. He spoke to Mark Jennings.

Paul Henry was one of those swept up and seduced by the notion that the destruction wrought by Covid-19 could have an upside. That the period of self-reflection forced on us by the lockdown, would result in new ideas and a push for a better, more sustainable economy.

The possibility that he could stimulate the debate and generate some positive momentum lured him out of early retirement. MediaWorks, desperate for a shot in its own withering television arm, welcomed him back.

The hurriedly put together programme, which is now in its fourth and final week, has pulled in a solid audience. But there is disillusionment in Henry’s voice.

“I think there is a good chance we [New Zealand] will miss the opportunity. I was hoping that there could be a bounce forward not a bounce back. It’s the human way – a life of least resistance. I’m not depressed, I’m disappointed.”

Why has he come to this conclusion so quickly?

“It is basically the vibe around the interviews I’ve done.” Henry gives the example of Rob Fyfe, the former CEO of Air New Zealand who is now working with the Government in a voluntary role liaising with the private sector. A week ago Fyfe told Henry:

“I haven’t seen a long-term plan yet. I think the last six weeks I’ve seen us fighting a fire and trying to get back on our feet. We need a long-term plan. The world’s changed, and it’s changed for many years to come.”

According to Henry, “you could see the frustration on his face.” Fyfe’s impatience seems to have rubbed off on the broadcaster.

“There is not one person in the Government that has a plan or can articulate a plan.

“A plan has a start, a process and a goal….not one Minister can articulate what that plan is.

“Instead, it’s panic and continue to employ as many people as possible. That is not a plan’s arsehole.

“Take that bloody twat Kelvin Davis [Labour’s deputy leader and Minister of Tourism]. I gave him 24 hours’ notice [of questions] and he had nothing to contribute at all….There are 100,000 tourism jobs about to be lost and he just told me that this is an unprecedented event.”

Henry, like the rest of the media, knows it’s not a big deal to take a poke at Davis. He, with Minister of Health David Clark, are soft and repeatedly hit targets.

Critiquing the Prime Minister requires more careful thought and different language, even if you’ve enjoyed a reckless past.

“She has done an incredible job and it is a bit like criticising Mother Teresa, but I am starting to worry about her leadership. She can’t be a one-man band in this, she is trying to handle everything herself. She should go away and meet with the right people and devise a plan – we need a plan.”

Henry’s own plans involve heading back to America and his home in Palm Springs to finish off his third book – ‘What I love about America’. “I’m a retiree” is a phrase he uses more than once in the interview. But there is a hint of reluctance. He has enjoyed being back.

“As I literally slid the chair behind the desk it felt like home.”

The bosses of our local TV networks, if they still have the energy and inclination, might look at the performance of Henry’s show and mull the idea of asking him to stick around.

Apart from Q&A on One, Rebuilding Paradise has been the only serious interview show anywhere near a prime-time slot in recent years.

Henry has, by and large resisted the smart-ass approach he sometimes employed during his days of breakfast TV. Setting aside the first show’s rambling interview with jeweller Michael Hill, Henry’s skills have produced interesting conversations with John Key, Helen Clark, Fyfe, Jane Goodall and others.

During lockdown, the show has been technically challenged with most of the interviewees standing outside their houses with an earpiece and looking into a camera looming out of the darkness. Despite the bumpy viewing experience the ratings have been respectable in both the 5+ and 25 to 54 demographics. It’s likely they would have been higher if Henry had been able to play to his strength and interact with his guests in the studio.

Has a changed world sparked a change in viewers’ appreciation of serious current affairs? Could an “old school” 7pm current show replace the lightweight fluff currently served up by the major channels? The lack of hesitation in Henry’s response suggests he’s been mulling the unlikely prospect.

“I think there is a market for the more serious stuff, for a local programme that talks to people in a timely way. No one on TV is really challenging people…viewers still want to see the whites of people’s [interviewees’] eyes. Q&A is polished but it doesn’t quite have that vibe.”

Henry’s view on the state of news and current affairs and of television generally won’t cheer the industry – even if it knows he is right.

“Free-to-air is in its dying phase and I’m not just an old man saying that. The fact that the 6pm bulletins are still with us is extraordinary. For more than a decade they haven’t told me anything I didn’t already know. People used to watch the news to find out what was going on but now it’s mostly habit.”

When Henry left MediaWorks, and his successful multi-platformed breakfast show, at the end of 2016, he was exhausted and told his audience “I’m stopping this because I like to think I’ve got my life in perspective. You are a long time dead and work is by no means everything.”

Privately, he ruled out hosting the 7pm slot that he long coveted and should have got.

“That time has passed,” he told close colleagues.

Has the break changed his perspective and would he take 7pm now if MediaWorks decided to replace its high cost and moderately performing Australian format show, The Project?

“I would consider it. That is not out of the question. The ability to affect the way people think – the power that comes with that is alluring.” Indeed.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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