Tova O’Brien almost matched Paul Holmes in her inaugural show on Today FM yesterday.
I say ‘almost’ because, where Holmes had a dramatic on camera walk-off by America’s Cup skipper Dennis Conner on the first Holmes show in 1989, O’Brien had to settle for New Zealand First leader Winston Peters hanging up on her.
Both Connor and Peters were gritted-teeth polite. Connor ended with “Thank you for having me”. Peters visited “You have a lovely day” on the host and it took a few seconds for her to realise he had gone.
What prompted the Peters ‘walk out’? She had asked him whether he would be standing in the byelection in his old stamping ground, Tauranga.
It was hardly the most confrontational interview Peters has faced but O’Brien later said he had told the producer he did not want to discuss the byelection. If his participation had been conditional on an agreement by the programme to that proviso, then raising it was wrong. If, however, he had simply said he didn’t want to discuss it, tough. He doesn’t decide what a journalist will or will not ask him. I strongly suspect it was the latter but the audience was told Peters did call back off-air to berate the producer.
Tova O’Brien was clearly unrepentant and that should hardly be surprising. She has years of experience as a political journalist and no doubt had faced countless episodes where politicians wanted it their way.
Her interview with Peters had been a good pointer to the approach she will take on her new show. The subjects were varied, and the questions were couched in ways that pushed Peters to comprehensive replies – as much as that is possible with a politician whose default position with journalists is that of curmudgeon.
If it continues as it began, Tova will be informative.
The first episode aimed at eliciting information from interviewees and the answers were given greater weight than the questions. That is not always the case on talk radio these days.
The show was not overly opinionated. O’Brien didn’t force her own views on the audience. That is clearly by design and carves out a space in breakfast radio that differs from Today FM’s principal commercial rival NewstalkZB.
Mike Hosking Breakfast is indelibly imprinted with Hosking and that is what his large audience wants. Not everyone, however, wants to start their day with The World According To Mike. Nor do others want the politically correct format of Morning Report. MediaWorks has found the gap and Tova – admittedly on the evidence of only a single session – looks capable of filling it.
First and foremost it is about journalism. One might say there is nothing remarkable about a journalist asking straight-forward questions, but sometimes it is a refreshing change from statements posing as questions that are asked by people who think their own views should be given as much weight as those of the experts they are ‘interviewing’.
Tova did not display such pretentions. O’Brien seemed to have a genuine interest is finding out facts. Even the ‘feature’ sections of the programme pointed in that direction. The panel, which on Day One featured former prime ministers Helen Clark and Sir John Key, canvassed current issues in a non-adversarial way. Fact-checking (by the show’s producer Tom Day) gave perspective to where New Zealand stands on Covid restrictions. Even the Debate Club – in which a question submitted by a listener is put to a moot – told me a few things about carless days which I did not know or had long forgotten. And the vote for The Greatest New Zealander of All Times promises some interesting deliberations.
That’s not to say the programme was without issues. There were a surprising number of mis-cues, one of which brought to an abrupt end an absorbing interview on Ukraine. It may be my radio, but I swear I also heard extraneous tracks playing in the background. These issues were surprising because this was not the first day of a new broadcaster. Today FM is the rebranding of a network by MediaWorks, one of the biggest players in the radio business.
However, I know the programme began with at least one unforeseen challenge. Last Wednesday, Tom Day tested positive for Covid-19 and went into self-isolation. While executive producer Carol Hirschfeld managed things in the studio, Day set up the show from home isolation. He had been unable to be in the studio for the final pre-launch run-throughs.
O’Brien and her off-sider, Mark Dye, took time to work themselves into their roles. I can understand that: The first day of any new job is unsettling and they seemed rushed. They relaxed a little as the morning wore on, but O’Brien needs to pay some attention to her rapid delivery. It contrasts with the measured pace of seasoned newsreader Carly Flynn (not only in bulletins and overly-frequent headlines but also during ad libs) and of Rachel Smalley whose First Light precedes Tova. Smalley’s first day was polished and professional, but she will need to inject a little more of her personality – a feature of Nathan Rarere’s First Up on RNZ National.
O’Brien used a 60-second comment spot to set out the approach that Tova will take. Leaving aside the predictable “fierce and fearless” etc, a couple of things she said resonated with me. The programme will seek out ideas and solutions and, while it will give opinions, will be open to other views. She said: “We are not here to judge or to take sides”.
If Tova succeeds in doing that it will provide a valuable addition to the morning media line-up and, perhaps, provoke a breakfast battle royal.
Disclosure: I was called as an expert witness to discuss the nature of competition in the New Zealand media market during the Employment Relations Authority case over a restraint of trade clause in Tova O’Brien’s contract with her previous employer, Discovery NZ.
Bleeping bleep bleeper
The Broadcasting Standards Authority has released the results of its latest survey on words that television and radio audiences find offensive.
The report is festooned with words and phrases that might not make a trooper blush but some certainly raise the colour in my cheeks.
It presented the BSA with a problem. While it could hardly produce a report without naming names, so to speak, what it included in a widely-distributed media release was another matter.
It chose to preface its release with a warning: This research contains language some readers may find offensive. It then proceeded to set out with alphabetic abbreviations how [let’s call it the A-Word] had become more offensive while [let’s call that the Z-Word] was tolerated by more people now than in the last survey in 2018.
I apologise if my attempt to avoid using the actual letters in the release is confusing but bear with me because the terms to which they applied will soon become clear. And I am determined not to offend.
Personally, I think using euphemisms like ‘Q-Word’ or ‘&…ing’ is as offensive as spelling out the word itself. I don’t go into a tailspin over words that are now in almost common (or as my Mum would say, very common) usage but I feel some have no place in mainstream media. One particular obscene reference to female anatomy is a standout that nonetheless found its euphemistic way into the media release.
I can sympathise with the authority. Obscuring the words could lead to a meaningless release or at least one that left the reader guessing.
However, if I said that the least acceptable word (to 65 per cent of those surveyed) was an ethnic slur against black people, especially African Americans, and the second (at 57 per cent) was that reference to the female anatomy I think you would get my meaning. Would I be pushing powers of comprehension if I said second place was shared by an ethnic slur based on Indian cuisine and this was followed by a reference to Oriental appearance (56 per cent) and then one suggesting homosexuals should be burned at the stake (53 per cent)?
Thereafter it may get more challenging. It may be necessary to group words by association: Sexual body parts and activities, disabilities, and degrading metaphors. That will spare you from a long list of ‘top terms’, the vast majority of which are characterised by a common purpose – degradation. The sole exception is an exclamation based on a religious figure that also resorts to a sexual activity for its full effect. However, it seems blasphemy isn’t what it was: The ability of that phrase to offend has declined by 10 per cent since 2018.
Why does the BSA engage in an exercise to collect and test the worst words and phrases in common use? The reason is simple, and perfectly valid. It can hardly adjudicate complaints relating to offensive language in programmes without knowing what actually offends right-thinking people.
The report will inform the BSA’s decisions until the next survey. For that reason it is an important piece of reading, even if it makes you want to wash your hands when you’ve finished.
For the fainter-hearted here is the media release: https://www.bsa.govt.nz/news/bsa-news/audiences-less-tolerant-of-racial-or-cultural-slurs-more-relaxed-over-f-word-bsa-study-finds/
For those made of sterner stuff, here is the report: https://www.bsa.govt.nz/assets/Research-reports/20220301-BSA-Offensive-Language-report-FINAL.pdf