John Campbell's return to old-school, solid TV storytelling

by Diana Wichtel / 16 October, 2018
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Freshly reclaimed from radio, John Campbell is back to classic Campbell with an energetic, empathetic report on the reality of the housing crisis. 

John Campbell is back on mainstream television. It’s his natural element. In fact, it’s hard to picture him away from the camera’s gaze, wandering in his immaculate suit, with hair that hasn’t moved for decades, making lonely presenter hand gestures to himself. So, we will no longer be #cookingwithJohn while he broadcasts Checkpoint as no-frills radio, with pictures, from RNZ National.

In television, what goes around keeps going around. Campbell’s mate Hilary Barry wept on 3 News when he left Three after the cruel spectacle that was the annihilation of Campbell Live. Now, she’s hosting Seven Sharp and he’s got some sort of roving brief at TVNZ that may include, who knows, filling in with Hilary on Seven Sharp.

For his first item, he roved to Q+A, where he got an awkward welcome from host Corin Dann. Campbell cracked jokes and put his hand up, possibly hoping for a high five. Dann, instead, lurched back, leaving him hanging. They covered the confusion by making presenter hand gestures at each other. It was like some arcane Masonic ritual.

Never mind. The Q+A item was classic Campbell, an energetic, empathetic report on the distressing reality of the housing crisis. “This place, which really is a dump, is being rented out for $780 a week,” he reported from Mangere. Residents are being driven from Auckland by housing unaffordability, said Mangere Budgeting Service’s Darryl Evans. “At this rate, our families will all be in Invercargill.”

The piece was bookended by that footage from 1937 of the first state house – “Everyone is happy!” – and the promises of a new government to reclaim that Kiwi ideal. “A pot of home at the end of the rainbow!” cried Campbell plangently. What? Still, Campbell did a sterling job of illustrating how distant a dream, for many, that home, pot or not, has become.

His next piece, for Sunday, looked at the predicament of West Coasters trying to save their homes from coastal erosion. Campbell is a man unafraid to be bewildered on our behalf: “What the hell is a bund?” (a wall or breakwater, apparently). In Granity, resident Gavin Sykes was taking a DIY approach to the problem, leading to an exchange of classic Kiwi dialogue. Campbell: “Is that your wall there?” Sykes: “It is my wall, John.” Buller District Mayor Garry Howard spoke of the reluctance people feel when it comes to talking about the threat to their homes. “They are concerned that if we have too open a conversation about coastal erosion, climate change, what will happen to insurability of places … and saleability of places?”

Then it was off to Punakaiki, where the Government is paying for a sea wall. “A wall,” declared Campbell, “to defy the Tasman!” But the news was generally depressing. A Niwa scientist confirmed that, in the end, in some places, retreat may be the only option. “A tough and unlovely equation,” noted Campbell. Climate change wasn’t much mentioned. The story pretty much took it as read, not as a matter for debate. “This,” said Campbell, “is a story about coastal New Zealand, full stop.”

Here was a chance to recall that it doesn’t take much to bring out the poet in him. The romance of such evocatively named places as Granity and Hector had him toggling frantically between the lyrical – “The breakwater, the sea rolling in and ever in …” – and the Old Testament. “Here the sea giveth,” he intoned, “and the sea taketh away.”

Campbell walks a fine line when it comes to a style of storytelling in which his style is always very much part of the story.

But, in comparison with a lot of what passes for current affairs these days, his work seems good, solid, old-school reporting and intelligent analysis. In these clickbait-happy times, we can’t get enough of that. Taketh it away, John.

Video: TVNZ

This article was first published in the October 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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