Steve Braunias: An ode to the 1pm Covid press conferences -A long, strange trip

OPINION

This is the way the 1pm Covid news conferences end: not with any kind of farewell or haere rā or acknowledgement we have seen the last of the longest-running TV show of the Covid age, just the sight of Chris Hipkins leaving the stage and placing a pen in the inside pocket of his jacket. He clicked the end of it first to withdraw the nib so the ink wouldn’t run. Safety first; safety last.

It was a long, strange trip, these 1pm shows. They were appointment viewing. It was a shame they didn’t allow for advertising spots because the potential commercial benefits were enormous. “What we’re fighting for is eyeballs,” media mogul Kendall Roy says in Succession. “Eyeballs which we convert to our customer base, eyeballs which we crate up and sell to advertisers.” The 1pm show had the eyeballs of a nation all over it.

There was something very ancient about it. They were a hear-ye, hear-ye, a proclamation in the village square to announce the progress of the plague. But there was another kind of old-fashionedness about the 1pm show: we watched it on TV. This wasn’t Netflix, or Neon, or whatever streaming service you could watch at your leisure. You had to be there. It was live, you couldn’t miss it.

It was beautifully crafted and yet extremely cheap. The props department went as far as a couple of lecterns and a New Zealand flag. It would have been frivolous to add a vase of flowers or something decorative; the plague, with its themes of life and death, demanded austere production values. It narrowed it down to basic Trumpian principles. Man. Woman. Camera. TV.

It was shocking propaganda for the Labour Party. If you narrowed your eyes, you could see the calm, reassuring face of Labour icon Michael Joseph Savage floating in the background, also the flowing blonde locks of Norman Kirk and the laser-eyed Helen Clark. It was three years of a party political broadcast that advertised Labour – and Jacinda Ardern – as the cure of the plague.

But if the 1pm show gave the idea we operated under a one-party state, at least it saved us from having to tune into any kind of political debate. No one wanted to hear from Simon Bridges at 1pm. No one wanted to hear from Judith Collins at 1pm and no one has wanted to hear from Christopher Luxon at 1pm. There was a purity about it. So much of it was about politics and yet it resisted politics. It was about the most important thing: health.

It made a star of Dr Ashley Bloomfield. The cult of the director-general of health was created at 1pm and there was nothing manipulated about it – he was just very obviously a totally decent guy, who worked insane hours as required by a crisis.

It also made a star of New Zealand sign language interpreter Alan Wendt. He was just as decent and kind as Ashley Bloomfield, and when he put his hands down and talked, he made brilliant sense. “You don’t want to mimic the person or ape them in any way,” he said of his contributions to the 1pm conferences, “but you do want to as much as possible transmit how they’re talking and sort of some of the implications behind what they’re saying.”

It introduced the nation to the questions asked by the press gallery. It didn’t make a star of any of the journalists.

It was fresh and compelling in its first season, in 2020. It was solid but not very spectacular viewing in season two, in 2021. It got stale and old in its third season. It needed to end. The eyeballs had wandered. Hipkins left the building, and consigned the 1pm conference to the exact same thing we hope and pray will happen to the plague: history.

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