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Duncan Garner. Photo/Supplied

Diana Wichtel: Desperate times call for desperate television

 It’s been an open question whether the talent are the people on breakfast TV recently.

Desperate times call for desperate television. Where better to visit than the sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, punishingly perky precincts of breakfast broadcasting?

Given the grimness of the news we’re waking up to, it was almost comforting to find John Campbell dawdling belatedly to his place at the desk – “Nau mai haere mai! We’re ready to go on the telly, are we?” – as his Breakfast co-hosts beamed tolerantly. Campbell is a restless soul on morning television. He could be seen bolting off again, making a break for freedom before they had quite cut to the first break.

You couldn’t blame him. Covid-19 headed the news: “Industries struggling with virus fallout.” Also the weather wall wasn’t working, forcing Matty McLean to do the weather sitting down. Never mind, cheer up, Matty had his Friday bow tie on and, as revenge for his tardiness, Campbell had to endure “power-ballad Friday”. He considered making a complaint. “Is our HR department called People and Talent?” he mused. “How bloody ridiculous is that? Are the talent not people?”

The question was left unanswered. Even the news on the virus front had a sort of Friday bow-tie quality to it. Wilson Longhurst was across shopper mayhem from Australia. “There have been scuffles in the aisles. A man has even been tasered by police after getting into an argument with staff over bog roll.” The Northern Territory News had addressed the run on toilet tissue: “Eight blank pages you can use when you do number two.” The edition itself, claimed the paper pre-emptively, was not crap. A high point of the morning tackled a less amusing topic: commentator Bernard Hickey speaking to Campbell – two spikily coiffed talking heads – made fiscal-stimulus options in the face of a possible pandemic riveting viewing.

John Campbell. Photo/Supplied

Over on Three’s The AM Show, Duncan Garner was almost as obsessed with toilet rolls as an Australian going berserk in a personal-hygiene aisle. He had a stockpile under the desk, one of which he tried to gift, at one point, to an unimpressed Judith Collins. Garner was at pains to play down the coronavirus disease news. “This Covid-19 is so serious that once you’ve been tested, you’ll be sent home,” he raved. “So serious you won’t need to go to hospital and it’s so serious the health system struggles to detect the symptoms!”

Garner put it to a GP that the virus was “just the flu without a vaccine”. That’s not quite what the doctor said. He pointed out that this is unknown territory, as is any new virus. Garner seemed rattled by the unknown territory. The message he took: “Let’s spend and shop and drink and party!” At one point, during the political panel with Collins and Willie Jackson, he muttered something about a “hoax”. “I don’t think it’s a hoax,” snapped Collins, giving him the full benefit of her lethally raised eyebrows. Garner: “I wonder if it’s been elevated to a serious crisis when it’s just a minor outbreak.” Doesn’t he read the news?

By Monday he’d entirely forgotten this was no big deal, berating Finance Minister Grant Robertson for his activities as a student – toga parties, apparently – and advising him to do an immediate mini Budget. “Why wait for the scheduled Budget when the crisis is now! I mean, 50 dead in Italy in 24 hours!” He’s been all over the show.

The New Yorker has warned of the danger of words, citing Donald Trump broadcasting his “magical thinking”: “By April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” It’s hard to maintain some sort of evidence-based consistency in times of fear and confusion, but isn’t that the job of news programmes, really? Keep calm and witter on isn’t going to do it.

BREAKFAST, TVNZ 1, weekdays, 6.00am;

THE AM SHOW, Three, weekdays, 6.00am.

This article was first published in the March 21, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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