José Barbosa watched the on-screen festivities of Campbell Live‘s 10th anniversary, and considers the marvellous legacy of Mr John Campbell. //
Last week marked 10 years of TV3’s flagship current affairs show, Campbell Live. The last decade has seen John Campbell drop his “Gidday yous fellas” greeting, literally drive the opening titles with the sponsor’s car, employ a full serif logo and take sartorial inspiration from The Mentalist.
One suspects that on Friday night – after the official 10th anniversary episode of Campbell Live aired – its host and star John Campbell was probably close to some sort of emotional collapse.
He’d been led through 10 end-of-show packages examining each year of CL’s life but before that, the celebrations kicked off with a surprise. Via live cross from the King’s Arms venue in Auckland, John Campbell was treated to a one-off performance by his favourite artist American singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. Unable to make the gig John went bananas like an adorable pug stumbling across a unattended dog roll: “HA HA HA that’s Sharon Van Etten! That’s Sharon Van Etten!” As he swept tears from his eyes, his broadcaster instincts returned. “Aaaah, but music sometimes keeps you afloat, doesn’t it?” he said like a man dropping shots while the bar staff put chairs on tables.
The on-air celebrations culminated with the anniversary show which consisted mostly of testimonials by people who had been on the show. Campbell was thanked by everyone for making a difference. Rove McManus made a gay joke before genuinely congratulating Campbell for being the “best at what you do.” Fighting back the tears, Campbell talked about how his parents text him after nearly every show. It was beautiful. Then Jono and Ben walked on with a birthday cake. “We’ve just come on to seamlessly segue into our new show!” said Jono, seeming vaguely embarrassed. Campbell didn’t seem to mind. He cast his magnificent smile around the studio like a lighthouse flung into space.
God, it’s easy to be cynical about John Campbell. It’s not just that he cares. There are so many people in TV news who are motivated by compassion – what singles Campbell out is that he doesn’t hide it. You rarely get a look past Mihingarangi Forbes’ blast shields. Hosking and Henry have turned into self-aware Ricky Gervais characters – sardonic is now the house style.
In contrast, you get the feeling Campbell would give himself a hernia if he tried to dampen his emotions. They’d probably burst through his chest, apologise for the mess and sob uncontrollably. Occasionally it has got him into trouble. He had little time for fantasy weather predictor Ken Ring and later apologised for the way he’d berated him. He gets visibly frustrated with double speak from politicians, which is understandable, but the audience needs someone who can slide past that (easy, right?).
Like all the current affairs shows, Campbell Live has done its dance with PR. Placed in front of pallets of marmite reporter John Sellwood could do little else but guffaw about “product placement.” Although, occasionally the PR led stories have been real winners: the SPCA story about dogs learning to drive cars was pleasingly kooky.
There’s been a lot more to praise than berate, however. While everyone has followed the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes and found good stories there highlighting the failure of the response – no one on national TV has owned the story like Campbell Live (though I suspect the team would cringe to hear it described in such terms). The show excels at advocacy journalism. For me at least, the ongoing investigation into children going hungry at school has been revelatory.
The team on the show know what they’re doing, but it really hums when Campbell grow legs and strides out into the wilderness in search of stories. In a 2013 interview on Media3 former TVNZ News Head Trish Carter praised Campbell for “working very hard to make the important interesting.” Campbell usually presents if a story is big and complex, like the investigation into the collapse of Solid Energy – which lost the taxpayer $389 million dollars – or the “who knew what about Kim Dotcom” investigation. When he presents in the field, Campbell becomes engaging in a way – interviews aside – that he often doesn’t manage when he’s behind the desk. He pulls you in rather than helping you lean back.
10 years is enough time to make some mistakes and rescue weather men. It’s also enough time to cultivate an admirable body of work that, if nothing else, at least aims to make things a little better. John Campbell has laughed and cried over the last week, but no one has any claim to roll their eyes in response. The man can celebrate. He’s earned it.
Apart from providing many years of hard hitting current affairs and the occasional opportunity to chuck cushions at the TV, Campbell Live also gives us one singular diversion. As a bored, broke student I discovered one night that if you pause the TV at any point when John Campbell is on screen something amazing will happen. Therefore, in tribute to Mr Campbell and his show, I present to you The Many Faces Of John Campbell.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.