The cult of celebrity, Linda Burgess

Mike McRoberts: Beyond the Front Line 
Mike McRoberts
HarperCollins, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869509392

 

Scrim: The Man with a Mike 
William Renwick
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864736956

 

“I like to think I have my father’s courage and humour, and my mother’s work ethic and humility,” writes Mike McRoberts. Courageously.

So who is Mike McRoberts? He’s big on the back of buses. If you watch TV3’s news, then you know him as that nice calm man who has just the right amount of gravitas to fool you into believing that TV news readers are not, say, the media equivalent of air hostesses. To add to this impression, because TV3 is clearly thrifty, we often see McRoberts, bedecked in Attenborough beige, on the spot. Sometimes he’s sheltering from bullets somewhere foreign, other times he’s right there in our own disaster areas. The Christchurch Earthquake. Pike River.

“He’s a vulture trampling on Christchurch’s dignity!” huffed Peter Dunne in February last year. This irked the apparently unflappable McRoberts. And anything that irks McRoberts makes it into the first 100 or so pages of this autobiography.

Interspersed with lists of people he’s worked with (“They were all wonderful to work with and very supportive and encouraging”) are little snipes at those who were the opposite of supportive and encouraging. There are well-deserved slaps at those in TVNZ who were less than generous in their response when he decided to make the move to TV3. Then there’s an attack on an Auckland gossip columnist (the sort who makes you glad to live in Wellington, where we just don’t get celebs) who’s been less than kind.

Yes, the first 100 pages needed a more ruthless editor. Not just one who checked the spelling of people’s names, but one who took McRoberts aside and told him when to leave well alone. Less gush about your wife, Mike. As for revenge – it’s often not a dish best served cold, but chucked in the bin before serving at all. An editor should have also had a go at the language. Not the sort “that would have made a sailor blush” but the sort that sounds so quaintly clichéd. That blushing sailor, Mike, would be outdone these days by 13-year-olds in any school bus. And perhaps an editor could have told McRoberts that “A brown Jesus” used as a chapter heading, especially given that it refers to the author, is not a good look. Even if used ironically.

Ah, autobiography. What a minefield. All those venturing into it should be obliged to dress in khaki. It’s so very hard not to sound self-important. McRoberts muses on the death of Bin Laden. “It did leave me with some small sense of closure. The so-called ‘war on terror’ had changed my career considerably and now the man held responsible for 9/11 was dead.” In our little corner of the world we shall never know if Bin Laden’s last thoughts were “So – what’s this going to do to Mike’s career then?”

Once he gets onto the real stuff, McRobert’s lack of what we used to call “side” becomes appealingly evident. In Kuwait, where he doesn’t have the advantage of being an “embedded journalist”, he and the other New Zealand journos hung out at the Kuwait Ministry for Information because they had fresh coffee and often free sandwiches. You’re just starting to excuse the first part of the book when he’s back to talking about the war on terror and comparing it – prepare yourself – with “New Zealand’s own war of sorts: The America’s Cup.”

Then he’s in the Philippines, covering the story of the horrific landslide, and you can forgive him everything because it’s quite stunning. He finally gets the right balance of personal and professional. Though every time he hops into a rescue vehicle to get to any disaster site, you can’t help but think of what would have happened if journalists had elbowed their way onto the Titanic’s lifeboats.

McRoberts – especially paired with the wonderful Hilary Barry – is still my favourite newsreader, if I actually have such a thing. This book contains occasional terrific insights, but somebody at some stage should have told this kind, likeable man when to shut up.

Scrim: The Man with a Mike is another story altogether. For one thing, in the telling of it, there’s the benefit of hindsight. Also, the subject is not telling his own story: instead, it’s told by an impressively well-informed William Renwick. I had to get over my initial reaction to the dreaded footnote – those little numbers irritate me beyond reason. “Both of his grandfathers had migrated to New Zealand from Perth²,” writes Renwick. Hundreds of readers turn eagerly to the end of the chapter to find the source of this contentious comment. Once I stopped seeing them – and the real issue here is that they signal an intended academic readership, which is a shame – I found this an engrossing read.

Uncle Scrim – so-called because in the 1950s many families called family friends “uncle” or “aunt” – was quite a bloke. We may well think it’s only in recent years that we’ve had celebrity culture but thanks to the power of radio Colin Scrimgeour was a household name from the 1930s on.

Scrim is an intelligent look at what can happen when people in the public eye start to believe their own publicity. It’s also an unsettling look at the workings of charisma, particularly when charisma is linked to an inclination towards the evangelical.

Scrimgeour was very much a product of his times, and of his parents – a handsome feckless father and a desperate, hard-working mother whom Scrim adored. Many baby boomers have parents who left school, as Scrim did, at what is now an unbelievable age – round about the end of intermediate school.

Renwick shows Scrim’s early decision to enter the Methodist Church was based more on his desire to preach than anything else. He loved telling a story, and he loved being listened to. He was a good fit with the Methodist church. He loved the idea of Jesus more than “mystical nonsense”.

He was at ease with people from all parts of society. His own background gave him a rough edge that working men liked – the down-and-out, the prisoners – and his innate intelligence and left-wing philosophy drew him to the burgeoning chattering classes. He was clearly manipulative – knowing exactly what to do to get people on side. His relationship with Savage, who employed him to manage commercial broadcasting (the NCBC) was a case in point. In spite of his Left leanings, Scrim was – usefully, in a world where allegiances can be a burden – “above politics”.

Radio suited Scrim every bit as much as preaching. If not more – he had a nation-wide audience who could not immediately answer back. His children’s radio sessions – creepily named “The Friendly Road”saw him adapting his speaking style to a continuous whisper. He became so nationally known that New Zealand’s first “talkie” feature film – On the Friendly Road – was about him. He adored being adored, and he also adored taking on the print media, his natural adversary.

Renwick shows us that what Scrim innately realised was “the strange power of the truth”. In other words, Scrim was a very 20th-century man, a fore-runner of the columnists, the late-night radio hosts, who know that a rant with even a hint of truth is very seductive. And like many who have followed the same path since, the seducer became seduced.

Quickly adapting to travelling first class, to being wooed with visits to the US, Scrim started to believe in his own created persona.  He extended this to the NCBC, presenting it as a large happy family, while in reality it was a fraught workplace where people were discreet enough to remain silent.  He dropped the “Rev”, he dropped the “Uncle” and became quite simply Scrim: a force to be reckoned with.

Scrim was intuitively a user, and there was no getting back at him. He deflected personal criticism by finding a reason for it. The Nats hated him because of his religion. The print media were jealous of his power.

Just as he’d moved from the church to radio, Scrim was quick to realise the growing power of television and the lure of film, and moved from New Zealand to Australia, living there from the mid-40s to the late 60s. Renwick’s own fascination with television and radio is a real asset here, and both the battle between commercial radio and what we now know as national radio, and the growth of the power of television is not only absorbing but still scarily relevant. Back in New Zealand in 1968, Scrim was set to become a powerful force in our growing television industry. But a series of heart attacks put a stop to that.

It is a biographer’s job to take a dispassionate yet revealing stance. Whether we end up liking the person in question is up to us; but whether we get to understand his complexities, and see him placed in his time, is up to the author. Renwick shows us a flawed, manipulative, very modern man. This thoroughly researched book (very well then – I admit I got over my irritation with the footnote) truly deserves a wide readership. The issues – from the ownership of public broadcasting to the cult of celebrity – have never been more relevant than they are today.

And the man himself? I’m left feeling both impressed by his energy and more than a little afraid of the power a charismatic, Machiavellian person can wield if they are sufficiently determined to do so. This excellent biography deserves a place on the book awards shortlist.

 

Linda Burgess is a television reviewer for the Dominion-Post newspaper.  

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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