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October 1, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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I Moustache You Some Questions

If Judy Bailey is the proverbial Mother of the Nation, then Mark Sainsbury is our nation’s jolly uncle. After a career spanning the Holmes show, documentary-making, political editorship, a spell in London as a foreign correspondent, and Publications Officer at VUWSA, he’s now the face of Close Up—New Zealand’s most watched current affairs show— though recent rumours suggest the writing might well be on the wall for the long-running programme. Salient’s Chris McIntyre speaks to the man behind the moustache about the public, staying top dawg, and student union quorums. 



Chris: Is it hard to defend your throne from the likes of Mike Hosking and Paul Henry? Are those relationships contentious at times?

Mark: It’s one of the top jobs, so people want that job, but they can’t have it.

Chris: Is it an old man’s game?

Mark: No, no, no! Paul Henry made no secret he wanted that job, he’s now working on breakfast in Australia. I mean, draw what you like out of that.

Chris: Close Up has become increasingly interactive, with features like text polls and opinions from Facebook; why do you include public perceptions and criticisms in your show?

Mark: Things have changed. It used to be that television was king and everyone would watch that…The fact is that people get their news and information from all sorts of different sources, and the social media thing is something that’s just become bigger and bigger and bigger. So you can’t ignore it, because that’s the way people are communicating.The idea is to find out what people are thinking and also so people have a degree of sort of ownership in the program. Some of the views you see coming in are not the sort of things you would ever entertain yourself, but there is a diversity of opinion out there.

Chris: With more public opinion coming in now, do you think that’s enabled the public to have more power over the shows they watch?

Mark: Well, yeah, it is actually quite a tricky thing.Whoever makes the loudest noise, are you suddenly going to tailor it to that? If the majority of people in New Zealand had racist attitudes to Maori are we supposed to reflect that? There are certainly issues where journalistically you have to report things according to the standards that you set yourself, as opposed to what you think the prevailing mood is. But by the same token, if you know that an issue of something is what’s affecting people, then you need to be able to at least get into that and explore that.

Chris: Is it hard to balance the need to report on things like public policy that the public might not be so interested in, versus the things which people do show an interest in, like human interest items?

Mark: It’s like, what do you want to watch, or what’s good for you to watch. Is that for us to decide? You have things that are there which are public policy issues which you know need to be discussed; you can’t sort of shoehorn that into people’s consciousness, but you’ve got to try and at least give them a chance. So there’s issues going around and you go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s bloody boring’.This is both within the public and sometimes within news management. Certainly in the past, it’s like ‘Oh, politics are boring,’ or, ‘Oh, we don’t want to see MPs’. Decisions that are made [at Parliament] affect every single one of us, but it’s our job to try and make that accessible.

The [idea behind the] sort of sexed up kind of treatment…was that it pulled in people, it got people to watch. [There’s been a historic] dilemma; do you make a program where you include 60% of the facts but you reach 70% of the people, or do you put in 90% of the facts and only reach 30% of the people? That’s sort of [the dilemma around] how you make something interesting to watch.And that’s part of our job, we have to make things interesting to watch, or people aren’t going to see it.You can’t just sit back and say,‘Oh look, aren’t we wonderful”, patting ourselves on the back for such a fantastic job, when you actually don’t reach anyone. It’s pointless.

Chris: Why do you think 200,000 more people watch Close Up than Campbell Live? What do you put that down to?

Mark: I’d like to think we do a better job…but they’ve sort of had their day as well.Whether people like what they do, or like what we do, or they feel they get something out of what we do, relevance is always they key thing when you’re doing stories.You’ve got to think, is this story relevant to the people that are watching, is it relevant to what’s happening?

It’s a very difficult beast, and for Campbell Live they’ve got the same problems and issues—to get material and keep it fresh and relevant. But also, it’s the incredible range, because you can be interviewing John Key or someone on asset sales and then at the end you can have people who are living with chickens in the middle of the city! It’s a fairly wide brief, and it’s just a matter of balance.When I say balance, I’m talking of balance within the program, of the different style of stuff; that’s what is tricky. People don’t necessarily want a diet all night of absolute doom and gloom and horrendous tales of neglected abuse. So when we look at how we’re putting the program together, we’re looking at those considerations as well.

Chris: Do you analyse or pick over criticism, or is it just water under the bridge?

Mark: No. I mean, it depends what it is.You can’t get caught up in that. It’s like mail—if you read the stuff that comes through it’d do your head in, but you’ve got to look at criticism because it may well be that you’ve done something wrong.You can sort of question your own approach, but you can’t get bogged down in all that sort of nonsense.

Chris: Do you have a favourite person that you’ve interviewed, or a person you’ve been most swept by?

Mark: Probably the closest person I’ve been to would’ve been Ed Hillary, because I spent so much time with him. I did a number of documentaries with him, I became personal friends with him and June, and he had a huge influence.

It depends. Someone like Winston [Peters] is almost like sport. Irrespective of whatever the issue is, its a matter of just trying to get the upper hand.Whereas with other people, you know they’ve got something in them and it’s a matter of trying to get it out… It just varies.

Chris: Anchorman 2 and the famous moustache of Ron Burgundy are returning to the screen; thoughts?

Mark: I’ve been waiting, I would’ve thought at least a consultant role would’ve been quite good fun. How’s Salient going these days? I used to be sort of involved in student politics at Vic back in the day, jeepers, must’ve been‘75 or ‘76 I think. It was a long time ago.

Chris: People only read Salient for the letters, and the student union’s still having problems getting quorum for their general meetings.

Mark: Oh yeah, nothing’s changed!

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