Paul Holmes was New Zealand’s best-known and most influential late twentieth-century broadcaster, straddling the line between serious current affairs presenter and entertainer. He succeeded in the three mass media formats of his time, hosting the Newstalk ZB breakfast show on radio and the Holmes show on television, and writing several award-winning newspaper columns. He rose to prominence during the 1980s as the figurehead of a new, commercially-oriented broadcasting culture set in motion by deregulation. His opinionated and confrontational style earned him both admiration and condemnation, and sometimes tested the limits of acceptable public discourse.
Paul Scott Holmes was born in Hastings on 29 April 1950, the son of Christina Maude Robertson and her husband Henry Reuben Holmes. Holmes was the eldest of three boys, the youngest of whom died in infancy. He grew up on his parents’ six-acre property at Haumoana, near Hastings, where his father grew tomatoes commercially, until the family moved into Hastings in 1966. He attended Haumoana School and Karamū High School.
Holmes was a gregarious, theatrical child who loved the radio. He enjoyed acting out the radio quiz show It’s in the bag, casting his parents as contestants while he worked an imaginary crowd as compère Selwyn Toogood; Toogood, he later noted, was ‘the beacon who led me into broadcasting.’1 At 15 he discovered acting, performing in school and local theatre productions.
Holmes credited his father with shaping and stimulating his social conscience, encouraging him to draw his own conclusions about public issues and to empathise with the underdog. He consequently developed a strong interest in current events, following radio broadcasts from Parliament and identifying the speakers on a chart on his bedroom wall. He organised a high school debating team with his close friends Peter Beaven and future Labour Party president Mike Williams.
Holmes attended Victoria University of Wellington from 1968 until 1971, switching from a law degree to a BA. He hoped to become a professional actor, serving as president of the university drama society and playing a minor part in a production of Macbeth which starred Sam Neill. He also performed in several Downstage Theatre productions, notably the late-night revue Knackers in 1968, alongside John Clarke, Roger Hall and Ginette McDonald. His modest breakthrough into radio came when he was cast in several minor roles in a radio production of Antony and Cleopatra.
In early 1972 Holmes enrolled in a training course with the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC), which entailed both announcer and technical tuition and up to a year at a regional radio station. He was posted to 3ZM in Christchurch, a commercial music station, where he worked for 18 months as an announcer and disc jockey. He loved the immediacy of broadcasting and its capacity to reach a wide audience.
Holmes made freelance television appearances throughout his early years in broadcasting. The first were as an actor, playing unreliable boyfriend Mike in the teen pregnancy docudrama Gone up north for a while and a corpse possessed by an alien in An awful silence (both 1972). He also appeared as Reg Willis in the first season of Buck House (1974), New Zealand’s first sitcom.
A car accident in May 1973 cost Holmes the vision in his right eye. In July he was appointed 3ZM’s breakfast host, a prestigious but enormously demanding role for which he lacked the physical robustness in the wake of his accident; he struggled with the pressure and drank heavily. He concluded his first stint in radio with an all-night music show broadcast on the commercial stations during the 1973–74 summer break, before setting off on a working holiday in the United States and Europe.
Holmes returned to Wellington in early 1975. He hosted the television pop music shows Norman (1975) and Grunt machine (1976), acted in the short films Men and super men and ARD (both 1975), and worked as night-time announcer on radio station 2ZM. Radio New Zealand banned him from its network after an on-air prank call to the Archbishop of Canterbury in January 1976, and he set off soon afterwards to pursue a career in Australia.
Holmes spent most of the following decade overseas, a period of personal and professional instability in which he moved constantly, drank too much and struggled to sustain a series of relationships. Fired after six weeks on Brisbane’s station 4BK, he operated a roadside fruit stall in Melbourne for a few months before flying to Europe in 1977. Seven months at Swansea Sound in Wales was followed by a move to Amsterdam’s Radio Nederland Wereldomroep (Radio Netherlands Worldwide) in 1978. After a short stint in Vienna he returned to New Zealand, where, in 1981, he briefly co-hosted the breakfast show on Wellington’s Radio Windy and freelanced in television. He returned to England in late 1981 to host the Chiltern Radio breakfast show in Luton, and divided his time between England and Vienna in 1983 and 1984.
In early 1985, Wellington’s 2ZB radio station recruited Holmes to host its nine-to-noon programme, prompting him to return to New Zealand permanently to forge a career in news and current affairs. Forty-six per cent of the local radio audience were soon tuning in, and the Mobil radio awards named him host of the year in both 1986 and 1987. He managed to curb his drinking by joining Alcoholics Anonymous in mid-1986, though he continued to struggle with alcohol at stressful moments in the years ahead.
In February 1987, Holmes agreed to replace the legendary Merv Smith as host of Auckland’s 1ZB breakfast show. 1ZB, Auckland’s highest-rating station, was the most lucrative arm of Radio New Zealand’s commercial network. Its breakfast show was key to its success, and its host held, in Holmes’s words, ‘the greatest on-air radio job in the country’.2 Holmes took charge just as the station moved to redefine itself in the face of changing commercial realities. The once-dominant state station, with its family-oriented, light entertainment focus, was now competing with nine private stations, and its management decided to abandon the variety format and carve out a specific niche in the crowded market. It rebranded itself ‘Newstalk ZB’, focusing on news, interviews, opinion and talkback, a format successful in Australia and the United States. Management saw Holmes as the ideal host: sharp, well-informed, opinionated, entertaining and capable of holding his own in interviews.
The audience initially rejected both the new host and the new format, with the breakfast show plummeting from first to sixth place in the three weeks following Holmes’s March 1987 debut. The decline continued through the show’s early months, as an anxious and frustrated Holmes struggled to find a successful formula. The appointment of Phil Armstrong as executive producer in July provided him with much-needed guidance, support and stability, and the ratings slowly began to rise. By the end of 1988 the show rated second in Auckland’s breakfast radio market.
The opinionated and provocative Holmes was radically different from the easy-going Smith. He took controversial stances on current events, not necessarily siding with the most popular viewpoint, and emphasised the public’s right to understand what was happening. His interviews with powerful people, including a weekly Monday morning interview with prime minister David Lange, could be blunt and confrontational. Listeners either loved or loathed him, but kept listening either way. It would be a recurring theme of Holmes’s career.
In early 1989 Holmes agreed to host a new daily current affairs television show for Television New Zealand (TVNZ), while continuing his radio breakfast show. TVNZ was then transitioning from state broadcaster, with a monopoly over television frequencies, to a state-owned enterprise whose two channels would soon be competing for advertising revenue against a new private broadcaster, TV3. TVNZ decided to use Television One to target older viewers. It developed a primetime schedule which relied on a strong hour of news at dinner time – a 6 pm news bulletin and a 6.30 pm popular current affairs show – to hook viewers and retain them through the evening. Based on successful Australian shows presented by Derryn Hinch and Mike Willesee, the current affairs programme would be hosted by an opinionated, sometimes controversial presenter. Holmes, by now both famous and notorious, was the ideal candidate. He established his credentials as presenter of Midweek with Paul Holmes over the summer of 1988–89, and TVNZ contracted him to host a new show, Holmes, from the One Network News set every weeknight.
The show launched in April 1989 with a soon-to-be infamous interview with American yachtsman Dennis Conner. Holmes deliberately provoked a confrontation through a line of aggressive questioning, spurring Conner to walk out while Holmes shouted questions at his retreating back. The interview ignited a storm of controversy which set the tone of public debate for Holmes’s early years. Critics denounced Holmes’s rudeness and dismissed the show as trashy, sensational, and symptomatic of the decline of television in the new age of ratings-driven commercialism. Admirers, by contrast, welcomed his bluntness, directness and willingness to ask probing questions of powerful people. Holmes regarded the Conner interview as ‘the event that changed my life, made my name, established credibility with my colleagues and set up Holmes for a long and controversial life.’3
Television audiences, like radio audiences before them, either loved or hated Holmes, but watched him in numbers unprecedented for any New Zealand current affairs programme. Up to 900,000 were tuning in nightly by the mid-1990s, although the show took a slight ratings dip after it moved to 7 pm in February 1995 to accommodate an hour-long news bulletin, placing it in competition with TV2’s medical soap Shortland Street. For Holmes, the high ratings vindicated his approach, proving he was reaching his target audience: the general public. He dismissed his critics as a hostile, elitist intelligentsia, clinging to outmoded high-culture ideals with little relevance to the average person’s life.
Holmes specialised in confrontational interviews with politicians and other influential people, demanding explanations of policies or actions, and pitting people with opposing positions against one another. He also interviewed sports stars and visiting international celebrities, and recorded longer, in-depth interviews with figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Kiri Te Kanawa and Gloria Taylor, mother of Eve van Grafhorst.
The story segments mixed hard journalism with human-interest stories, providing more in-depth takes on the headlines. The reporters, including Cameron Bennett, Jim Mora, Maramena Roderick, Mark Sainsbury, Tsehai Tiffin and Mike Valentine, interviewed newsworthy people, particularly those affected by personal tragedy or wishing to air grievances against the government or other public bodies. The show earned a reputation for addressing injustices and raising money to help the victims of misfortune, such as $2 million for Manawatū flood victims and funding the construction of a house for an impoverished Ōtāhuhu family.
Holmes, too, regularly left the studio to report on breaking stories. During one such outing, in July 1989, a helicopter carrying him and his crew crashed into the ocean near Gisborne. Holmes was fortunate to survive the accident, which killed cameraman Joe Von Dinklage. He also travelled internationally to cover significant breaking stories, such as Princess Diana’s death (1997), the Kosovo War (1998), and the September 11 attacks in the United States (2001). In August 1996 he was criticised for crossing the line from reporter to participant, when he and a film crew attempted to meet up with fugitive Grant Fagan after Fagan phoned in to his breakfast show.
Holmes was soon a dominant figure in both television and radio, with his breakfast show quickly moving to number one in the Auckland market and networked to most other major centres during the 1990s. This placed him in an influential position, with prime ministers Jim Bolger and Helen Clark, like Lange before them, making weekly appearances on his radio show. Interviews on Holmes provided necessary exposure for aspirants to political success, but also carried reputational risks for those bested by the host. Holmes also moderated televised leaders’ debates in the run-up to national elections throughout the 1990s, and some, notably Bolger, resented his power to set the agenda and shape the way leaders were presented. Holmes considered standing for national office himself in 1993, and for the Auckland mayoralty in 1998 and 2009, but ultimately chose to remain in broadcasting.
Paul Holmes embraced the role of ‘New Zealand’s first true media megastar’, one of the era’s most visible and recognisable people.4 His ascendancy came at a time of growing public interest in celebrities’ lives, with three major women’s magazines and several current affairs television shows – including Holmes – competing for celebrity stories with open chequebooks. Broadcasters figured prominently among local celebrities, and celebrity-driven publications usually treated Holmes as the country’s biggest star. His face appeared regularly on magazine covers, and television shows such as Issues/More issues and Facelift parodied his distinctive look, mannerisms and vocal style.
The news media speculated constantly about Holmes’s salaries. Holding top jobs in both television and radio afforded him a unique position of leverage in pay negotiations, and his combined annual earnings reportedly exceeded $1 million by the late 1990s. Holmes defended his pay on the grounds that it was reasonable that he share in the advertising revenue his celebrity generated, and that he needed to insulate himself and his family against the possibility of an abrupt end to his broadcasting career. In the meantime he drove a Jaguar, lived in luxurious homes, and flew a vintage Boeing Stearman biplane (until he crashed it in 2004). In 1994 he purchased a substantial share in Communicado, New Zealand’s largest privately-owned television studio, and two years later he led a consortium which attempted to purchase the newly-privatised Radio New Zealand commercial network.
Holmes treated media interest in him personally as an inevitable part of public life. He fronted up for interviews at moments of both triumph and disgrace, believing his viewers had a right to know him and that the scrutiny made him a more empathetic interviewer. His relationships were central to his public persona, beginning with his marriage at 41 to 26-year-old television presenter Hinemoa Elder (Ngāti Kurī, Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) in Auckland on 1 February 1992. The wedding, attended by the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and other celebrities, was photographed exclusively by Woman’s Day, which outbid its competitors for the rights. Holmes was father to Elder’s pre-school daughter Millie, and the couple had a son, Reuben, together. Elder and the children, together with Holmes’s mother Chrissie, appeared alongside him on magazine covers and made cameos on Holmes.
The dark side of this high media profile was exposed in 1997, when Holmes separated from Elder in the wake of a short-lived relationship with Fleur Revell, a television personality almost half his age. It was a stressful and fraught episode, negotiated in the midst of intrusive and unwelcome media attention. He penned a memoir, Holmes (1999), to take stock of his life, explain his guiding philosophies, and recount his side of the Revell scandal. By the time of its publication he was dating Deborah Lisa Hamilton, another much younger woman; it would be the most enduring relationship of his life.
To compound his problems, Holmes was diagnosed with prostate cancer in October 1999 and forced to take several months of medical leave; commentators praised him for speaking openly about his treatment and raising public awareness of the illness. He rounded out this period of personal turmoil by releasing a music CD, Holmes (2000), on which he crooned easy listening classics from his youth. He was indifferent to those who dismissed it as a self-indulgent vanity project, taking a perverse pleasure in confounding and irritating his detractors. Earlier that year he had purchased Mana Lodge, at Poukawa, near Hastings, an 18-hectare rural estate where he and Hamilton could escape Auckland’s pressures and scrutiny. They married there on 25 January 2003.
Holmes’s most serious public misstep came in September 2003, when he attacked United Nations’ secretary-general Kofi Annan on his radio show, repeatedly referring to him as a ‘cheeky darkie’ and insisting that ‘we’re not going to be told how to live our lives by a Ghanaian’.5 Later in the same programme he claimed female reporters made journalism ‘ignorant and bitchy’.6 Holmes later explained that he had intended his comments to be satirical and amusing, but had made a serious misjudgement during a moment of exhaustion. The public backlash was huge and immediate. Influential people, including prime minister Helen Clark, denounced Holmes for racism and misogyny, and his comments about Annan were reported around the world. A contrite Holmes apologised first on Newstalk ZB and then on Holmes, but this did little to mollify his critics. Fifty-five prominent people petitioned his employers to fire him, and Mitsubishi cancelled its $1 million sponsorship deal with the Holmes show. Artist Ralph Hōtere, a signatory to the protest letter, produced his ‘White drip’ series of paintings in response; Holmes discreetly purchased one of them for his own collection a few years later.
Holmes survived the Annan controversy with his broadcasting jobs intact, but announced in November 2004 that he was leaving TVNZ to helm a new 7 pm current affairs show on Prime television. He had grown estranged from TVNZ’s management who, he felt, were preparing to axe his show, and Prime’s financially-lucrative offer came at the right time. Launched in 1998, Australian-owned Prime television was a newcomer to the New Zealand market, and acquiring a broadcaster of Holmes’s stature was a bold bid to expand its audience base beyond a modest 5 per cent.
The new Paul Holmes show debuted on Prime in February 2005. Like its TVNZ forerunner it was a mixture of live interviews and reported stories, but added phone calls from viewers and text messages scrolling along the bottom of the screen. The show faced stiff competition for the 7 pm current affairs audience from better-resourced competitors, Close Up at Seven on TV One and the new Campbell Live on TV3. Its ratings, never strong, dropped immediately and precipitously. By May it was attracting only 2 per cent of the audience, and a move to the 6 pm timeslot, where it competed with the other channels’ news bulletins, failed to arrest the slide. Its ratings soon dipped below half a per cent, and Prime cancelled it in August.
Holmes hosted an hour-long weekly interview show on Prime in 2005 and 2006, but his days as a daily newsmaker and ratings juggernaut were behind him. Returning to TVNZ in 2007, he was relegated to lifestyle shows for several years; he hosted Whatever happened to…?, about former celebrities, competed in the reality show Dancing with the stars, and travelled to Yemen to film an episode of Intrepid journeys. In 2009 he returned to current affairs with the Saturday morning show Q+A, which he co-hosted with Guyon Espiner and Thérèse Arseneau until 2012. In December 2008 he retired as host of the Newstalk ZB breakfast show after 22 top-rating years; he then hosted the station’s Saturday morning show until 2012.
Writing occupied more of Holmes’s time as he pared back his broadcasting commitments. He had written weekly columns for the New Zealand Herald in 1998 and 1999, and he resumed these from 2007 until 2012. He won the Qantas Award for best columnist for both stints at the keyboard, and produced a compilation of his favourite columns, Holmes at large, in 2010. The following year he published Daughters of Erebus, a book about the 1979 Erebus air disaster and its impact on the wife and daughters of pilot Jim Collins, and argued forcefully that Collins had not been responsible for the fatal crash. He sparked his final controversy with a February 2012 Herald tirade about Waitangi Day, in which he castigated a ‘hateful … loony Maori fringe’, who, in his opinion, wallowed in victimhood, blamed Pākehā for everything, and took no responsibility for their own problems.7 Prominent Māori condemned his comments and refuted his accusations, and the New Zealand Press Council upheld complaints that the column was both inaccurate and gratuitously offensive to Māori.
Holmes was an enthusiastic advocate for disabled sportspeople, and during his TVNZ heyday presented two documentaries on the subject, Twelve days of glory – the forgotten athletes (1993) and Triumph of the human spirit (1996). He discreetly raised money for the cause over many years, and served as patron of Paralympics New Zealand. He brought equal passion to his campaign against the illegal drug P (methamphetamine), after his teenage daughter faced problems with addiction. Like his cancer treatment, Holmes used his public profile to raise awareness of the drug’s destructive impact and to urge government action. His 2009 documentary Chasing the ghost drew on his own experiences to describe the effect of addiction on both the addicted and their families. He helped fundraise for the Stellar Trust, an anti-P charity.
In May 2012 Holmes was rushed to hospital for emergency heart surgery, and his health rapidly declined over the following months; he announced his retirement from broadcasting in December. He had been made a CNZM in 2003, and with his death clearly imminent the government hurriedly added him to the New Years’ honours list. Governor-general Jerry Mateparae knighted Holmes at Mana Lodge on 17 January 2013, with prime minister John Key, opposition leader David Shearer, former prime minister Jenny Shipley and other friends and dignitaries in attendance. Holmes died at Mana Lodge on 1 February 2013, aged 62, survived by Lady Deborah and his two children.
Controversial, polarising and passionate, Paul Holmes dominated broadcasting in an era when radio and television still occupied a central place in New Zealand life, and its presenters were a daily presence in most homes. His provocative, populist approach, his embrace of celebrity, and his highly-publicised – and sometimes chaotic and extravagant – personal life made him almost impossible to ignore. He pioneered an expressive, personalised mode of broadcasting which, though revolutionary at the time he introduced it in 1989, had become common-place by the time of his death.