I recently wrote that Radio New Zealand, for all its virtues, had a systemic and pervasive lean to the left, and that some of its presenters and producers seemed to assume all listeners shared their soft-left view of the world.
I didn’t mention her by name, but the presenter uppermost in my mind when I wrote that was Kim Hill, which will probably surprise no one. More than any other RNZ host, Hill seems to favour guests with whom she has a political and cultural affinity.
She will probably dispute this vigorously. At a dinner party many years ago at which Hill was present, I undiplomatically suggested it was ironic that she had come unstuck in an interview with the irascible John Pilger, a man whose politics I imagined she shared. She rounded on me indignantly, defying anyone to know what her politics were.
My response then, as it is now, was that people were bound to form their own conclusions about her politics just by listening to her. Nothing has changed. With very rare exceptions (the errant economist Greg Clydesdale being one), Hill interviews people she regards as acceptable, and whose opinions she considers can safely be shared with her listeners. Generally speaking, they come from that disproportionately influential demographic sometimes disparagingly referred to as the chardonnay socialists, of whom there is no shortage in Wellington.
Hill’s guest on the Playing Favourites segment of her programme last Saturday was the writer and historian Tony Simpson, almost the archetypal Hill guest. He’s from Wellington, he’s an intellectual and he’s a leftist with a trade union background (he was once president of the Public Service Association).
Hill and Simpson circulate in the same arty/literary/media/academic/political milieu. They probably bump into each other at film festivals, book launches and exhibition openings. Wellington is, after all, an intimate little village, and the same people tend to pop up repeatedly on the book launch/film festival/exhibition circuit.
I would guess that Hill and Simpson are pretty comfortable with each other’s views. So the atmosphere in the studio on Saturday sounded cosy, as it invariably is when Hill interviews people she approves of.
Preliminary questions about Simpson’s childhood prompted the disclosure that he came from a working-class background, which made me wonder whether Hill’s guests now consider this mandatory as a means of asserting their political credentials. Another of her recent guests, a writer whose name I forget, managed to squeeze in three or four references to his supposed working-class origins. (I was tempted to email Hill’s programme asking whether he was raised in t’ shoebox in t’ middle o’ road but thought better of it, knowing how waspishly Hill responds on air to emails that are even mildly critical.)
To be fair, Hill didn’t entirely give Simpson the kid-gloves treatment. She questioned him about the morality of having homosexual affairs while married, which Simpson admitted, but she didn’t exactly press the point and ended up offering him an easy out before obligingly changing the subject. The overall tone of the interview was chummy – again, as it invariably is when Hill interviews people she approves of, as she does most of the time.
Now I have absolutely no objection to hearing Tony Simpson interviewed on National Radio on Saturday morning. He’s an interesting man: articulate, well-read and an entertaining raconteur. My objection is that we hear people like Simpson week after week on Hill’s programme, to the extent that I’m now wondering whether the title Playing Favourites refers not so much to the guests’ choice of music as to the host’s preference for a certain type of interviewee. I’d like to hear a greater range of voices, one that truly reflects the diversity of the society that pays to keep RNZ on air.
I wish Hill would surprise us occasionally by interviewing someone less predictable – someone whose views she probably regards with distaste, like Garth McVicar from the Sensible Sentencing Trust, or Bob McCoskrie of Family First, or that rarest of creatures, a right-wing academic (assuming she can find one). And not just to do a demolition job on them, either, which would probably be her natural instinct. She should force herself to be relaxed and chatty, just as she is with guests she likes. It would do her good.
Hill is a capable interviewer. She’s formidably intelligent and she’s quick. Her irritating vocal mannerisms seem to grow more exaggerated by the year, but I could live with them if only she and her producer (who was himself given a Playing Favourites slot a year or so ago, for reasons which would have eluded Hill's listeners) broadened the programme’s orbit.
There has been a noticeable shift elsewhere in Radio New Zealand over the past year or two as producers and presenters have made a genuine effort to reflect a wider range of people and political opinions. Hill, almost alone, seems to be determinedly holding out, as if her programme were some sort of personal fiefdom exempted from the obligations that arise from being a taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.
Footnote: I see Hill's guests this coming Saturday include Alastair Thompson of the online news service Scoop. More of the same. An interesting and talented guy - but like Simpson, a member of the left-leaning Wellington cognoscenti. Is Saturday Morning with Kim Hill a cosy private club, or can we all belong?