One should welcome the arrival of a second real current affairs show, and I do. It is probably kinder not to review the first episode of any new programme, but TV3’s The Nation made a proficient start on Saturday. Host Stephen Parker was understandably nervous and can be expected to relax into his role in coming weeks. I have grown to respect Duncan Garner’s down-to-earth, no-nonsense analysis of politics, but his interview with Steven Joyce suggested he was more interested in prospecting for headlines than in cross-examining his guest in any detail. He had too many topics and too few supplementary questions, so that the effect was of someone saying, “Try this on for size then!” in the hope of scoring a newsworthy answer. There were none, and when Garner did persist, he ended up flogging several dead horses. It was clear, for example, that Joyce was not going to say whether Jim Bolger was going to be sacked from his job as Chairman of KiwiRail, and there was very little point in returning to the question again and again. Joyce is not merely unflappable, he appears to have graduated from the Winston Peters School of Advanced Non-Answering. The panel did rather better with him than Garner. Stephen Parker and the Dom Post’s Vernon Small asked most of the questions, but I’m a particular fan of the effervescent Deborah Hill Cone’s in-your-face, take-no-prisoners style of interviewing. For example: “You didn’t really give us any answers did you? Very cagey there, but I guess I’m wondering, you know is there actually gonna be any private sector investment in the ultra fast Broadband, because to me I don’t get any sense from the private sector that they’re going ‘we’re gagging to put some money into this’, and if they thought there was a business case they’d have done it in the first place.”
She was right. Joyce really hadn’t answered any questions and was”very cagey”.
This first episode of The Nation offered more variety than its counterpart on TV1 with segments on business and the arts and a revealing examination of our surprisingly limited right of access to the nation’s beaches and waterways. In production terms, we were mercifully spared Q&A’s distracting, multi-coloured kinetic panels, but the appalling direction and camerawork on The Nation more than made up for it. It’s more than 30 years since I completed my television director’s course at Avalon, but I do know that a shot with acres of nothingness on the talent’s (interviewee’s) left and the interviewer’s head and hands just peeking into the right side of the frame, is not a good shot. Having mastered the wide shot, The Nation’s director might now consider moving on to the medium shot and medium close up. We know you’ve got a big studio to play in, but the MCU really is the basic building block of the studio interview. Do I think The Nation is as good as Q&A? Not yet. There really is no substitute for the masterly Paul Holmes as programme host. The wry and pithy question/answer section with which he begins the programme really is a delight and the least equivocal commentary on the week in politics anywhere. Whether as host or interviewer, Paul brings colour and personality to the job. Even without the nerves, I doubt we will see that from Stephen Parker.
Q&A also has Guyon Espiner and Therese Arseneau. When he controls his instinct to badger and interrupt his guest, Espiner is a superb political interrogator. In sheer intelligence and command of subject he outshines anyone else in the field. His interviews are truly ‘in-depth’ and have produced more stories for One News than you could throw a stick at. From time to time he meets his match. He could make no headway with Helen Clark and watching Geoffrey Palmer take the legal scalpel to his questions on New Zealand’s current position on whaling was pure viewing fun. But such occasions are rare. I disliked Therese Arseneau when I first saw her on television. Her voice and look both irritated me. And maybe there was just a hint of xenophobia. What was a North American doing explaining New Zealand politics to Kiwis? But my respect for her has grown. She has an encyclopaedic knowledge of her subject, presents in a highly accessible way and seems to go right to the heart of the matter. I find myself saying, “Gosh, that’s right. That’s it in a nutshell.”
So Holmes, Espiner and Arseneau are all hard acts for The Nation to follow.
Still, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. For those of us who believe that discursive, in-depth television coverage of politics is essential to the proper functioning of democracy, the arrival of The Nation is really good news. All we need now it to have it and Q&A moved to timeslots where more than 3 percent of the electorate can see them.