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Campbell Champions NZ's Creatives

One of mainstream media's leading arts advocates, John Campbell explains how he's taking his passion for Aotearoa's writers to a new audience this week.


John Campbell doesn’t put his name to just anything.

One of New Zealand’s highest regarded broadcasters, interviewers and storytellers, the effusive Campbell shies away from MCing gigs these days, not interested in the corporate hosting circuit where he would be in great demand.

There is one exception to his rule.

“I’m really interested in events celebrating writing or writers, I’m really into it.”

And it shows. Campbell’s enthusiasm and passion for those who craft the written word is clear for anyone who’s seen him drive engaging conversations on stage at the likes of Word Christchurch, the Auckland Writers Festival and Booktown Featherston.

But he’s hoping to reach a whole new audience when he hosts the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement online panel discussion on Tuesday 24 November.  

Opening doors to new audiences

The concept of attending one of the big literary festivals can be intimidating to some; rightly or wrongly, it’s viewed in some circles as the domain of academics and tertiary-educated intellectuals.

But this week’s event is the chance to break down any misconceptions.  It’s online so can be viewed by anyone, anywhere from the comfort of their own home and it’s free. The event is an inclusive celebration that's relatable to anyone with an interest in creativity and what makes us tick.

When asked what he’d say to those who take this opportunity to watch and interact with a literary panel for the first time, Campbell states “I’d just tell them they’re really welcome. The more people like them who are there, the more impact it will have because if we are able to take words and writing to people who consider them a foreign country, it’s a double victory. I genuinely believe their lives will be enriched by what they discover and those of us who love words, our world will be enriched by reaching more people. 

“We can’t just leave words to universities, we can’t just leave stories - our stories - to people with a university education or a certain type of person. In order for our literature, New Zealand literature to be truly reflective of who we are, it has to come from the broadest pool of writing and it has to connect with the broadest pool of readers. That’s our collective challenge.” 

Leave no one behind

John Campbell hosting at Word Christchurch. Photo: Johannes van Kan.

The Breakfast host crackles with his trademark vigour when he speaks to both his profession and his passion. “The issue facing broadcasting as well as the way we celebrate words and writers is we have to extend into non-traditional audiences. 

“In broadcasting, you see what happens when you leave people and ignore them - you get Fox news lying to them. So if we don’t engage broadly, then we leave the margins to the predations of cynics. 

“I think it’s the same with writing. If we don’t engage broadly and if we don’t champion and celebrate all writing and reading widely, then we’re not taking words to everyone who might profit from them. That’s why events like this are so lovely.” 

Talented trio

It’s that immense reach and relatability that makes this panel stand out. 

The 2020 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement recipients; Tessa Duder, Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and Jenny Bornholdt. Photo: Creative NZ.

While most awards are focussed on the happenings of the previous 12 months, the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement is a recognition of a lifetime of work.  This year’s recipients bring an incredible collection of skills, stories and abilities to the table, from critically acclaimed children and young adult writer Tessa Duder to award-winning poet and Laureate Jenny Bornholdt and leading academic and driver in the revitalisation of te reo Māori Sir Tīmoti Kāretu.

The variety and impact of their work over generations has drawn Campbell to be involved. “I think one of the extraordinary things about this trio is they’ve all contributed in quite different ways and they’ve enriched and broadened our sense of ourselves. That’s really important.

“Writers don’t have any obligations, in my opinion. The one obligation they have is to tell their truth, whatever way they want to. I don’t think we should demand some kind of social contract from our writers so they have to make us better - but, actually, the best writers somehow do. The best writers lead us to places we need to go to and shine light in dark corners. All three of these writers have done that in very different ways.”

Change the way you see the world

John Campbell hosts Breakfast on One. Photo: TVNZ.

Throughout his acclaimed career across TVNZ, TV3 and RNZ, Campbell has always championed the stories and the people of Aotearoa. There’s a heart and warmth to his body of work that is both undeniable and impossible to fake. 

That’s why he’s so enamoured with the written word’s ability to open doors of understanding to audiences, no matter their standing or life perspective.

John Campbell in full flight at Word Christchurch. Photo: Johannes van Kan.

“What’s happened in New Zealand is our literature has become more representative, more reflective of the totality of who we are. 

“Everyone’s experience is somewhere on a page, everyone is going to be able to find a piece of writing and think ‘yes - that’s me, I don’t feel as alone any more’. And also similarly wonderfully, they’re going to find something on a page that makes them see the world in new ways and think ‘wow, I hadn’t understood life could be like that.’ 

“In the company of the best writers - I’m not talking about their technique, just about people who connect with your head and heart - I feel an immense gratitude. Writers have the capacity to change the way we see the world or make us feel safer in the world.”


The Big Idea is proud to partner with Creative New Zealand and Auckland Live for the Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement online panel.  The event can be viewed on our Facebook page and Youtube channel. 


Written by

The Big Idea Editor

23 Nov 2020

The Big Idea Editor