Now here’s a novel idea. Let’s have a television current affairs programme on which people of diametrically opposed viewpoints can debate the issues that divide them, forcefully but without undue rancour. Such a programme would require a chairperson who could control the debate, ensuring that each side was given a fair opportunity to state their case and that the principal areas of disagreement were afforded an airing. This would of course not be possible with a programme duration of less than 30 commercial-free minutes. You won’t find a programme like that on TV1 or TV3. If you feel like watching political chat on Saturday or Sunday morning, there are Q & A and The Nation, but these are essentially interview programmes, and the interviews rarely run to more than 10 or 12 minutes.
With the possible exception of Paul Holmes, the interviewers also seem to prefer the sound of their own voices to the sound of their subjects’ replies. And anyway, it’s the weekend and you’d rather be lying in bed reading the paper or heading out for brunch with the family. TVNZ7 has Media7, but its focus is by definition restricted to media matters and it rarely, if ever, devotes an entire programme to the sort of debate I’ve described above. And, as far as I know, there’s nothing like that on Prime either. Now my argument would be stronger if I could find a perfect example of the sort of programme I’m talking about, a programme so good that any network with even a nodding interest in public service television would give its eye teeth to have it in its prime-time schedules.
A programme exactly like this:
The debate between Pita Sharples and Don Brash, chaired by Julian Wilcox and screened at 8.30 last night on Maori Television’s Native Affairs, exactly fits the criteria of compelling, informative and civilised dialogue that I described in the opening paragraph of this post. It would be hard to imagine two men with more radically divided views, to conceive of an issue more likely to produce rancour or abuse, to think of a topic more difficulty to present in a calm, considered and even-handed way. Yet, in one of the finest pieces of television current affairs I have seen in this country, host Julian Wilcox achieved all of that and more. The role of the television chair is essentially to play devil’s advocate to both sides in a debate. Despite one or two brief moments of excitability, Wilcox, who displays a natural authority and a gravitas that command respect, did this perfectly. He has mana.
But his handling of the confrontation between Sharples and Brash, in itself a coup for Maori Television, may also reflect a phenomenon which I have occasionally observed during debate of contentious issues on the marae. A speaker may be forceful or cutting to a degree that Pakeha observers might regard as offensive, but he will be heard without interruption. The same courtesy will then be extended to his opponent. It is, it seems to me, a highly civilised and productive way of handling disagreement. And, in television debate, it generates light rather than heat. To anyone who has worked with the presenters, interviewers and management at MTS, as Judy and I have, none of this will come as a surprise. It is not just that this is the friendliest and warmest place to be in New Zealand broadcasting; the ethos is different – a mix of enthusiasm, commitment, respect and a love of the culture and the language that is the glue that holds the place and the people together. Spend a day teaching at MTS and you come away feeling buoyant, optimistic – and over-fed!
There is a view that MTS, which is heavily funded from the public purse, already comes closest in its programming to the concept of true public service broadcasting and that it could adequately fulfil that role when TVNZ7 eventually bites the dust. But that is not and should not be MTS’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of governments. New Zealand remains the only developed Western nation not to have a non-commercial, fully government funded, public service television channel. Until that changes we will never have programmes of the quality of last night’s Native Affairs on general peak-time television. My god, at a fraction of the price paid by Q & A and The Nation, even their set looks better. Broadcasting, Don Brash, Julian Wilcox, Maori Television, Native Affairs, Pita Sharples, Public Service Broadcasting, Q & A, The Nation, The Television Interview