Fair Go out of control?
On May 30, I wrote:
Recently we [Brian Edwards Media] have had to say to several people who sought our advice on how to deal with a Fair Go complaint that there was really no approach that could guarantee them a successful outcome. The vigilante mentality of reporters who saw themselves as society’s avenging angels meant that they had already been presumed guilty and nothing they could say or do was going to change that presumption.
This is a programme out of control. Maybe it was always out of control. Maybe it’s time to recognise that and call a halt. Yes, some ratbags will get away with murder, but some fundamentally decent people will not be vilified and their reputations destroyed. Maybe that’s a fair trade.
I hadn’t intended to return to this topic, but a response by Kevin Milne to my critique of Fair Go’s modus operandi leaves me little choice. Kevin was speaking to Herald media commentator John Drinnan. Drinnan reports him as having said:
I don’t know if there is a word for people who attack their own babies. Brian’s comments are outrageous and criticism about the show from day one is just nuts. He started an amazing programme that has been hugely popular for 30 years and I think he knows that. My impression [of the people who commented on the Edwards blog] was that they are not the sort of people who watch Fair Go very often. It’s a major conversion on the Road to Damascus. You also need to put into focus that he makes his living – an extremely good living one would assume – advising big business how to deal with Fair Go.
A deranged Waiheke neighbour of ours, whose ginger tom was terrorising every other cat in the district, and to whom I complained, put it about the island, when the cat mysteriously disappeared one Christmas, that I had killed it by throwing it over the cliff. I hadn’t. But for some time people would approach me and say, ‘Ah Brian, the Waiheke cat killer!’
This is, however, the first time I have been accused of attacking my own babies, whatever the word for that is – ‘child abuse’ I suppose, Kevin – but I’m going to treat the accusation as an elderly moment and move on.
Kevin was not there on ‘day one’ or for some years after the programme started. So there are things about the early programme that he may not know or may have forgotten. Some are positive, some negative.
In the corner of our office on the sixth floor of Avalon we had a telephone recording booth. We used this facility primarily to record our conversations with ‘the baddies’. These conversations were usually the first indication they had that a complaint had been made against them or that they were about to be asked to appear on the programme to defend themselves.
We did not tell the person at the other end of the phone that we were recording the conversation. If they asked, which was rare, we would make some vague comment along the lines, ‘Of course, I’m taking down what you have to say.’
Our principal goal was to get the complainee to appear in the studio to answer the allegations. Fair Go was broadcast live throughout the time that I was host and it was not unusual for the complainant as well as the complainee to be interviewed live, sometimes sitting with me in the audience.
If someone refused to be interviewed live in the studio, parts of their answers during that first and subsequent phone conversations would be treated as their defence. The selected parts of the conversation were then ‘acted out’ as a to-camera dialogue between one of the reporters and another playing the role of the accused. These ‘playlets’ were often the source of great mirth among the audience in the studio and, I assume, at home.
By Programme Three, Fair Go had rocketed to the top of the ratings.
Not everyone was happy. At one point the Consumer’s Institute, which at the start had fully co-operated with the programme, withdrew its support. I had no qualms about what we were doing. We were knights on white chargers, weren’t we?
What was positive about these early days was that the show was live. The complainant’s side of the story was usually but not always filmed. Complainees were encouraged to appear live and often did.
‘Live’ or ‘recorded as live’ means ‘not edited’, which in turn means that the viewer is aware of everything the interviewer asked and everything the interviewee replied. Though appearing live on television is incredibly frightening for most people, the transparency which it offers is a major protection for the interviewee. As I said in my original post, ‘what you see is what you get’.
That transparency no longer exists on Fair Go. A complainee may be interviewed for half an hour or more, but the viewer will see only a fraction of the interview on air. ‘What you see’ is what the reporter or producer ‘allows you to see’.
So the early Fair Go was both better and worse than today’s version. Talking it over with Judy [Callingham], who was a reporter on the show for a period after I left, we concluded that in its first decade, Fair Go ‘felt nicer’ than it does today. It was fun to work on and to watch. It had less of the grim intensity, the Inquisition quality that it has today. Our aim was to put things right, not to destroy.
As for the rest of what Kevin had to say, I would never deny that Fair Go has done a great deal of good in its long history. It has much to be proud of.
But, like some other commentators on the post, Kevin wants to attribute my criticism of the programme to base motives:
“You also need to put into focus that he makes his living – an extremely good living one would assume – advising big business how to deal with Fair Go.”
In the 28 years that Callingham and Edwards has been around, the company has acted for less than a handful of ‘big business’ companies in a matter involving Fair Go. Most of those seeking help in defending themselves against the programme have been small businesses or individuals.
And, to put it ‘into focus’, Kevin, the total amount we have earned in those 28 years from Fair Go accused, would be a fraction of what you earned in just one year as the programme’s host.
Finally, in the original post I described in detail how Fair Go currently deals with complaints. None of the following have to date identified a single inaccuracy in that description:
- Television New Zealand
- The current producer of the programme
- The current production or on-air team
- Former producers of the programme
- Former production or on-air teams
- Its former host.
I’m not holding my breath.
Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards blogs at Brian Edwards Media. Comments below from Edwards and Milne are cross-posted - Editor.