12 Nov 2015

Why TV personalities get into politics

12:04 pm on 12 November 2015

Former broadcaster Bill Ralston has announced he will be running in next year's local body elections, but he's not the only media personality who has made the move to politics.

Pam Corkery, Bob Parker and Maggie Barry are among the many New Zealanders who have worked in television, either as presenters or journalists - or both - and have made the transition.

But why swap broadcasting for campaigning, constituents and curly questions?

Bill Ralston

Bill Ralston is to stand for Auckland's Waitemata ward Photo: Twitter

For a start, says Auckland University politics professor Jennifer Curtin, media personalities have a built-in political advantage: they already have public profiles so don't have to campaign as hard as others.

"It would be one of the key explanations of why they might be successful," she says.

"The Bob Parkers and the Bill Ralstons of this world end up on a really long list of people [on voting papers] who no one knows.

"Maggie Barry was always going to be a very good bet. She would stand out - any voters who were going to swing either way might have come across [her]."

Mr Ralston, who has ruled out running for Auckland mayor but will stand for the city's Waitemata ward, certainly has a profile. He had a long career, beginning in the early 1980s, as a TV journalist and presenter, and served as TVNZ's head of news and current affairs between 2003 and 2007.

A different world

Former broadcaster-turned-Alliance MP Pam Corkery says she was asked to run partly because of her profile.

"I know I was asked to stand for parliament because of my politics and I had been a crusading journalist, but also because of that profile, because people go 'oh, I know that name', and tick that.

But it was a "mixed blessing," Ms Corkery says.

Once she found herself in parliament in 1996, it was a different world to the one she imagined. Her relationship with journalists, who had once been her colleagues, were challenged and she found the disparity between what was covered in the media and what was really going on inside politics "enormous".

"There's kind of an expectation that you'll be a performing seal [becasue of your background] when you're having to learn a whole new set of rules about how to behave.

"What is OK, say, on the radio or in an opinion piece will not pass standing orders in parliament. It's like a maverick, a hippy, joining the territorials."

Ms Corkery's "prison lag", as she calls it, only lasted three years because the "venal nature of compromising was too much". She moved back into journalism and television, hosting Intrepid Journeys and Inside New Zealand.

While she acted as press secretary for Internet Party leader Laila Harre during the build-up to last year's general election last year, she's unlikely to return to the forefront of politics.

"I would rather break my own neck than go into politics again," she says. "But I despair how the country is running at the moment and as a thrice married woman, I never say never."

From TV limelight to political spotlight

Former Christchurch mayor Bob Parker says not only did his former TV career - he presented This is Your Life - help him get into office, it helped him once he was there.

He was first elected as a community board member, then Banks Peninsula District Council mayor, before serving two terms as Christchurch mayor.

Former Christchurch mayor Bob Parker  listens to Prime Minister John Key during a press conference four days after the deadly quake on February 22, 2011

Bob Parker says his broadcasting background helped his political career Photo: AFP

His experience in front of the cameras was invaluable during his reign as head of Christchurch Council, particularly during the earthquakes and their aftermath.

"It made me very relaxed in a situation where I had a lot of communication to do, where I had to memorise a lot of information and stay in touch with what was going on.

"It gave me a skills set and a lot of connections with the local media people who I was working with during the quakes, a number of them whom I had worked with professionally many years before.

"The communication skills, the ability to get up and express your opinions - they're really good skills to have. A lot of the work from the media transfers really well into a local government world."

Now working as a business and political consultant, he says his time in office is over - but he wouldn't rule out a return to television.

A natural move

Auckland University media, film and television associate professor Misha Kavka agrees the move from media into politics can be a natural one, as those making the transition are often used to asking questions of politicians and facilitating political debate.

"They have to be comfortable speaking in public, they have to be comfortable with taking responsibility with whatever they say in public," she says.

"Both television presenters and politicians are often called out for something they have said and the public expects them to respond."

No guarantee

Still, public profiles and transferable skills are not golden tickets to political power.

Caucus run 21/07/15

Maggie Barry is now a government minister Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

For every success story like that of one-time TV gardening show presenter Maggie Barry, who is in her second term as a National MP and is Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Conservation and Senior Citizens, there is a tale of dashed hopes.

Brendan Horan.

Brendan Horan Photo: SUPPLIED

Brendan Horan was a weather presenter for TVNZ before he made the move into politics. He made an unsuccessful run for office with NZ First in 2008 but was elected as a list MP for the party in 2011.

However, his time on the bench was short-lived. NZ First leader Winston Peters expelled him just a year later over allegations, which Horan denied, that he had stolen money from his dying mother's bank account. He continued the term as an independent MP before forming the political party NZ Independent Coaltion and failing to win a seat at the 2014 election.

Former Breakfast weather presenter and New Zealand's Got Talent host Tamati Coffey also tried his luck at politics, throwing his hat in the ring with Labour. But his bid to secure the Rotorua vote at last year's election was unsucessful, and he has since opened a bar.

Trumping them all

New Zealand isn't alone in breeding media personalities with designs on politics.

Ronald Reagan acted in 53 Hollywood films before he was elected as US President in 1981, while Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger was a bodybuilding superstar then actor, staring in Conan the Barbarian and Terminator films, before he switched to politics. He served as governer of California from 2003 to 2010 before returning to acting.

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 06:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump fields a question during the first Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena on August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. 
Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP

Businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump wants to be President Photo: AFP

And then, of course, there's Donald Trump. The real estate magnate and reality television personality. is vying to be the Republican's US Presidential candidate.

Despite the many high-profile personalities that have entered politics, Dr Kavka says if Mr Trump succeeds he, more than anyone who has been before him, will pave the way for other celebrities to follow.

"Trump's candidacy is very interesting in the sense he is the first television personality to attempt something on that scale.

"Trump is a question of whether a voting populace can stomach that.

If Trump was successful it could change political debates and campaigns throughout the world, Dr Kavka said.

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