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Paul Holmes – a legend in his lifetime

(This tribute was written as Sir Paul received his knighthood. Scroll down for audio update - Editor)

By the time I joined the Holmes Show in 1990 it had been running for a year and created enough waves to sink the Titanic.

The celebrated walkout from the very first programme of America's Cup supremo Dennis Conner set the pattern for what was to come and it ushered in a radically new and exciting era in television current affairs.

To old hands like myself, Holmes himself was a strange beast, the like of which we had never encountered before, and there weren't enough words to describe him.

Quirky, cantankerous, idiosyncratic, self-opinionated, smart, kind, volatile, unpredictable, charming, funny, intense, brittle, egotistical, sensitive and sometimes manic.

But never boring.

ABOVE: Rod Vaughan talks about his time working alongside Sir Paul (from 9 min 52 sec).

His personal meltdowns in those early days were a sight to behold and held us spellbound as he ranted and raved about perceived problems with the programme.

It was high drama and we grew to love those occasions when he would spiral out of control and launch a torrent of invective at anyone who dared cross his path.

Personally, I had never encountered such public displays of anger in my life before and I wondered what possessed him to behave in such an obnoxious way.

But I soon came to the conclusion that he was a driven man, determined to put his mark on television in the same way that he'd done on radio and to hell with anyone who tried to stop him.

In that he succeeded spectacularly, perhaps exceeding his own expectations, and the Holmes Show went on to become an extraordinarily successful daily current affairs programme.

And for one very memorable year I was part of the reporting team.

Pushing the boundaries was the name of the game and I found myself in unchartered waters, the constraints of public service television subsumed by the race for ratings.

It was heady stuff and I relished the challenges and pressures of working in such a competitive environment.

I grew to respect and, yes, even admire Holmes himself.

By any standards his workload was phenomenal; his day began around 6am on Newstalk ZB and finished at 7.30pm on TV One.

Sometimes he would disappear for a nap in the middle of the day but more often than not he would be out and about filming a story before presenting the show in the evening.

Punishing schedule

It was a punishing schedule that he maintained for most of the 16 years that the programme lasted and there is no doubt in my mind that it would have killed a lesser man.

Of course, he was well rewarded for his efforts, his income at TVNZ peaking at around $700,000 a year, probably twice as much as top television presenters are paid in this country today.

By accident or design he was at the forefront of the star culture that emerged at the state broadcaster where presenters received obscene salary packages and were treated like show ponies.

Regrettably, it developed into a class system which saw presenters flying business class or better while their producers and camera crews were sent to the back of the aircraft.

It aroused resentment and, of course, envy, but given his talent and his work ethic I don't think any of us begrudged Holmes getting a bit of pampering.

He was also intensely loyal and generous to those around him.

The staff Christmas parties which he hosted at his house were lavish occasions where vast quantities of the finest French champagne were consumed, along with the most delectable items of haute cuisine that money could buy.

Typically, the festivities would degenerate into drunken revelry and I well remember one such time when a number of senior news executives and various glitterati ended up in his swimming pool very much worse for the wear.

Like him or loath him, and some did, there's no doubt in my mind that Holmes was the pre-eminent broadcaster of his generation as was Brian Edwards before him.

They were two hugely talented individuals with sharp, inquiring minds who made the rest of us sit up and think about what was happening in the world around us, challenging our preconceptions and confronting our prejudices.

Yes, they could be highly opinionated and yes we knew what their political stripes were, Holmes in the blue corner, Edwards in the red, but we accepted that because at heart they were two decent individuals who cared deeply about their country and its people.

For me, the Holmes show was a great time to be working in television; we played hard, we worked hard and we broke new ground in the way we tackled stories.

The show was the first on New Zealand television to fully embrace campaigning journalism, something that until then had largely been the preserve of newspapers and magazines.

It was a policy that proved extremely popular as the programme relentlessly pursued individuals or organisations which had something to hide.

That mantle has since been taken up very successfully by Campbell Live which doggedly pursues rogues, cheats and scoundrels.

However, given that television news and current affairs is now firmly under the control of sales and marketing, it is unlikely that this genre will survive much longer.

Television New Zealand, to its eternal shame, has all but killed it off and TV3 may well decide to go down a similar track in the future.

So there is much to thank the Holmes show for.

Arise Sir Paul, you have done us proud.

More by Rod Vaughan

Comments and questions

Thank you, Rod. I never got the Holmes thing, although I listened to his Saturday morning show. Perhaps not getting him was due to not living in NZ when he started, nor at the peak of his tenure. In fact, I have always though of him as being in love with himself. I now have a better understanding of what his knighthood is all about.

Sounds amazing. They have really dumbed down at TV One now. Why are they replacing interesting current affairs programes with cooking shows? I never watch the channel any more as I prefer Campbell Live and 3 News as One News is so annoying.

I never got him as me he never addressed the big issues. If Rod is correct I now understand why. Holmes was interested in "individuals or organisations which had something to hide". I was more interested in government policy and where the country was heading. Why do we have such low productivity? I only watched about three Holmes episodes in the early days but obviously did miss much.

I was a devoted follower of Holmes. His style of investigation and journalism I enjoyed and found intellectually stimulating. He has pushed boundaries and changed his corner of the world - we should all be so lucky to achieve so much.

While John Campbell is doing something similar, it is not really even close to what Holmes achieved. I want in-depth stories, and I want to be challenged.
I don't want eight two-minute bites of information served to me like some gossip magazine. I refuse to watch trash, and as such my TV will remain off.

Campbell has been good on some issues and has some very good reporters, but Holmes was a much better and more subtle interviewer.

It has annoyed me on the Novopay debacle that we have seen only user frustration. The issue cried out for input from IT professionals, most of whom are appalled at the ongoing disaster and would love to put the tough questions to the culprits.

Isn't it time we grew up and in the tradition of the fine emperor walking the streets in his undies all acknowledge how fatuous Queen's honours are? They are a political currency, at best.

Everyone knows how they are dished out, right?

Paul demeans himself by taking one. I would have thought this sincere and meaningful tribute, printed above, by a colleague and competitor, has more value and significance than anything a cynical and expedient state could ever dispense.

Thanks for the insights, Rod. Well done!

Holmes represents the worst excesses of tabloid journalism in this country. Hardly fitting material for a knighthood.

I'm not a fan of Paul Holmes, but your first sentence scales the height of "ridiculousness".

Quite so. Thank God for Paul Holmes and his focus on the human issues of the day. Aren't we fortunate that his 'torch' will be carried by such acolytes as Paul Henry, Michael Laws and Mike Hosking.

Since even Helen Clark, Brian Edwards and Brian Rudman, as well as Rod Vaughan, enthusiastically support Paul's knighthood we can safely conclude you don't know what you are talking about.

Unfortunately, as an anonymous commenter we will not be forewarned next time you offer judgment.

To whoever is using my name for his posts: please either stop, or improve your grammar.

Evidently, Anon has now taken up impersonation in the absence of a life and name of his own. Tedious idiocy.

I would like to take credit for this witty riposte, but it's not my work. In any event, playing the man and not the ball is frowned upon in most fora.

Holmes changed the world as we knew it by challenging the status quo and the power brokers. Until then we were inclined to believe whatever was dished up. He helped teach the nation how to think rather than what to think. And love him or hate him, he was passionate about what he did. He's done a lot more for the people of New Zealand than many others who've been knighted and I don't begudge him this last hurrah one little bit.

While never a devotee of the Holmes Show, agree that he did indeed challenge the establishment elite (sometimes). His truely awesome book, Daughters of Erebus, should be required reading for all sixth formers (is that year 12?) so that the dreadful and continuing self-serving excesses of the Good Ol' Boy network are not forgotten.

DF - couldn't agree more. Holmes did NZ a great service by exposing the truth behind this scandal.

Changed the world as we know it! He's a big mouth who happened to work in TV. Hardly ground-breaking. Hardly a well-travelled daring journo who challenged interviewees and employers to his detriment or because he believed in anything.

Since moving to NZ I couldn't work out what the fuss was, to be honest. There are many journos worldwide far more unbiased and who have a much better reporting style.

John Campbell is marginally better, but the way the guy talks and emphasises everything is like a cheesegrater on the eardrum.

Guys like Kevin Milne and his team, in my humble opinion, at least put it out there and get the odd punch in the face for their efforts. But at least they are real and challenging people.

What a life he has had. Wonder if he has any regrets?

So many of these replies are about how Holmes "pushed the boundaries". The infamous "cheeky darky" comment prompts me to put him in the Paul Henry, rude for rude's sake, category.

So many of Holmes' critics fall into the "never made a mistake - never did or risked anything" category.

I wonder if they have any regrets?

I couldn't agree more. Irregardless of occasional lapses (cheeky darky, his coverage of Princess Diana's funeral), Holmes has been a standout among otherwise mediocre journalists in NZ. Frankly, I am appalled at the uninformed and hypocritical attacks on him.

Welcome to a democracy.

True, many didn't or don't know him, but once you are in the public eye you open the door to public feedback.

@Hardly a Fan, yes, but there is a world of difference between those who snipe from behind a pseudonym and those who front the world in public during their working life.

I have contempt for the former and respect for the latter.

I disagree with many, if not all, of the comments on this page

I never thought Paul Holmes was great journalist. He is a self-opinionated egotistical person who fails to get the real opinion and feeling of the interviewee, other than his own, on a subject of public interest.

I wonder if the same writer remembers working alongside Bob Jones as well???!!! Jeepers, that was so funny.

I stopped watching the Holmes Show the minute after Denis Connor walked off.
I felt we did not need that type of show here, where one could not answer the questions put without interruption and if it differed with what Holmes was wanting to hear, well, that was forbidden. Kim Hill is tarred with the same brush but Paul Holmes never quite descended to the depths that Paul Henry went to.
Anyway, Holmes's work on TV One on Sunday morning's Q+A was very good and I did think he did a good job there.

How sad to see Paul looking so frail these days.
Paul asked the questions that us ordinary blokes wanted to know the answers to. He had his finger on the pulse of the public and wasn't afraid to get straight to the point and ask the hard questions.
I'm pleased he has been honoured by his fellow countrymen - good on yer mate.

I moved to NZ from Oz in Feb 1995 and after years of listening to the likes of John Laws and Allan Jones on Aussie radio, was immediately drawn to Newstalk ZB and the king of NZ radio, “The Paul Holmes Breakfast”.

Being a current affairs nut – I also loved watching his award-winning Holmes TV programme and having become a dedicated Holmes supporter, I also bought his CD and autobiography.

I was outraged when gutless corporates like Mitsubishi abandoned him in political correctness gone crazy over the “cheeky darkie” comment and followed him to Prime after his falling out with TVNZ.

Holmes is an entertainer, an intellect, a rare talent and an inspiration to generations. We’ve laughed with him, cried with him, empathised and hurt with him. Through separations, illness, family issues, Millie’s drug addiction and many other life/family challenges we have been there with him.

His successes, failures, happiness and hurt have all been shared with NZ as the cost of fame forced him to live in the glare of the public spotlight. That said, he has invariably done so with dignity and humility which has in turn helped us average Kiwis face our own demons with inspired confidence and gusto.

I pray this is not Holmes' final chapter. I really do hope there is still some fight in this old dog or that he has another survivor miracle up his sleeve. I think back to that horror night in 1989 when his helicopter plunged into the freezing and pitch black waters of Anaura Bay, north of Gisborne, killing fellow passenger, Jo Von Dinklage. He has overcome fear and death many times before and I want to hope like crazy that he can do so again although the truth is that things really do appear frightfully serious and glum.

If you were able to read this Paul - I say to you: "You are not just an incredible talent, a loving dad, a great husband, a blessing to the needy, an intellect, entertainer and inspiration to millions across multiple generations of Kiwis; you, my friend, have also been a survivor! Live, love, fight Paul ... we love you, admire you and pray you can somehow navigate your way around death one last time.

If not, we pray you go peacefully, surrounded by love ones and knowing you have lived a very full life and leave behind a legacy of memories and good deeds which will live on for generations and have entertained and inspired millions!
Great work, Sir Paul - a job well done and a life well lived!

I would like to echo the thoughts of MJ. Your sense of humour was wonderful in a world of whiners and petty critics. Travel peacefully on your last journey. My thoughts are with you and your family.

Thanks Rod. Nice summary of the early days on Holmes. He is one of the funniest men I have met. He has amazing timing honed by years of street acting in Europe as a young man. He had huge pulling power on the streets of small town NZ..and yes the ability to throw his toys further from the cot than anyone I've met in a newsroom...thankfully he had a producer who could slap him into shape.

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