Paul Smith on Media: Telly As It Was!

Published: Thu 12 Jul 2007 11:17 AM
Media: Telly As It Was
NZ Media Comment By Paul Smith
It was impossible to watch this programme without feeling queasy, as if we'd taken the wrong path.
Ever wondered what happened to the long form interview on telly? Or how you could watch two people have an intelligent conversation on prime time uninterrupted by either the ego of interviewers or the intrusions of commercials?
The good news is that it's alive and well, though not connected with anything remotely like ratings and recognition. It's there on the aptly named In Conversation at 9pm Mondays on Triangle Television, Auckland's regional station.
At first it was the set which caught my eye - there wasn't one to speak of. A hint of city lights in artwork, and on either side, a burgundy curtain. That was it. Interviewer Noel Cheer sat on one side of a table questioning retired school principal Janice Campbell on the other.
What was really remarkably in this half hour interview was the quality of questioning and the answers it elicited. Never once did Cheer chivvy or harass his subject. Even when you sensed he disagreed, he still managed to get Campbell to elaborate on the issue and so we understood more. He'd done his research, had no agenda, asked open questions and in turn, Campbell responded.
In the space of 30 minutes I learned more about the state of our schools, the drear impacts of business models in education and present day pressures on parents and pupils alike.
Campbell is no ordinary principal. She'd been one for 25 years, believed to be the longest serving principal on record in New Zealand. Which means she was appointed in the days when the position was sought after - as opposed to avoided. Cheer opened the interview by citing a survey which showed that 83% of teachers don't want the top job. That led to an exploration of how and why this had happened.
Reforms since 1989 were partly to blame, transforming the role of Principal to schoolground CEO. Campbell seemed bemused by all this, saying she was trained to teach her passions - English and History. We heard issues discussed at length and with that televisual rarity - pauses - the kind you get in everyday conversation.
Viewers also saw through the eyes of a veteran how schools, communities and families had changed; how tough it was for pupils and parents, how the peer roles of church and family had slipped away; how kids desperately needed fathers; how the burden fell heavily on solo mothers and, as never before, on grandparents.
Both Campbell and Cheer were Of An Age, boomers whose education and values were shaped nearly 50 years ago. So challenge was something they grew up with and at one stage Campbell turned the tables and questioned some of Cheer's own assumptions.
Like the set, this was an interview stripped bare of Show. It was simple, direct, intelligent and most important relevant to issues which affect our schools. But schools are just one element of community and this interview showed us vividly that as a community we have become scattered; that whether we like it or not there is in the education system a creeping two tier system of academic credentialism. It was impossible to watch this programme without feeling queasy, as if we'd taken the wrong path.
There's an echo here in historian Barbara Tuchman's classic The March of Folly. She breaks misgovernment down into four types, calling one 'folly or perversity… the pursuit of policy contrary to the self interest of the constituency or state involved… folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive'. Hmm…
You left this programme wondering - and not just about education. Did the 1989 de-regulation of broadcasting fall into the category of Tuchman's folly? And why couldn't this kind of programme screen on prime time? The answer, as always, is ratings and money in the form of advertising. Ironic then that that Cheer should end his interview with this one liner: 'If money could talk, it would say goodbye'. And it has.
Paul Smith is a journalist, author and founder of the website, .

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