Bill Saunders was born and bred in Christchurch and after studying law, he joined the NZ Broadcasting Corporation as a radio announcer in 1962. A year later he moved to Wellington, and became one of the first members of the NZBC documentary unit. In 1968 he began reporting for the local edition of magazine show Town and Around, where he covered everything from road crossing techniques to boorish rugby fans, and became a local TV personality; he was even a judge on a Miss NZ University pageant.
Saunders then moved on to pioneering current affairs shows Compass and Gallery. He won the first documentary Feltex Award for an examination of housing issues facing elderly people. As his colleague Keith Hunter would later write, his documentaries "were invariably designed to make you think about the difficulties others faced. Adoption, alcoholism, kids in trouble, halfway houses, unemployment, wealth and poverty ..." After Compass, Saunders worked on documentaries for the Survey slot, before departing for an OE in 1971. For two years he freelanced in London, including on TV science series Today Tomorrow.
After returning home, he worked again in radio, including producing a 1973 NZBC Spectrum documentary where he talked to people about their belief or disbelief in the devil.
In late 1975 George Andrews invited him to Auckland, to join the documentary team at new channel TV2 (South Pacific Television). The following year he began fronting News at Six, and found himself reporting on the occasional news or sports story. But as he said to The Listener: "my preference is for the longer in-depth items with human interest."
He filed many of those sorts of stories on current affairs shows Perspective, Lookout and Contact, covering everything from probation to Fijian elections and Bastion Point protests (which he covered in this 1977 Perspective episode). According to fellow documentarian Keith Hunter, remembering Saunders in the Sunday Star-Times in 1995, he developed a reputation as a journalist with pipesmoked wisdom: "Integrity and compassion the hallmarks of both the work and the man ... he was identifiably of the old school, a journalist who had an instinct for both sides of the story."
In 1981 Moriori, written and produced by Saunders, won the Feltex Award for Best Documentary. It followed two descendants of Tommy Solomon — the last full-blooded Moriori — on a pilgrimage to Rēkohu in the Chatham Islands, to rediscover their heritage. It arrived years before high profile explorations of the subject by historian Michael King (Moriori: A People Rediscovered) and director Barry Barclay (The Feathers of Peace), the documentary helped launch a revival of Moriori culture, and revised popular misconceptions. Future Moriori leader Maui Solomon later praised Saunders for being "instrumental in rekindling the flame of our almost forgotten heritage". Saunders was a man of vision, "gentle humility and understanding".
Evening Post critic Juliet Hensley called the documentary "not only enlightening entertainment", but a "valuable historical document" which achieved "the rare feat of being both imaginative and objective".
Saunders' great-grandfather had been chief judge of the Chathams, and one of his grandfathers was born there. Saunders revisited the islands in 1988 for follow-up doco He Raranga Kōrero - Revival of the Moriori, which filmed another descendent of Tommy Solomon’s, Maui Solomon, on his return to Rēkohu to unveil a statue of his ancestor.
In 1986 Saunders directed The Rainbow Warrior Affair, a major hour-long investigation into the bombing of the Greenpeace flagship in Auckland harbour by French government agents. Producer Doc Williams told media the team had received less co-operation from NZ police and Government agencies than a recent Australian documentary on the affair, but was unsure if the obstacles were of judical or political origin.
Subjects covered by Saunders as a writer and/or producer included a history of NZ television, a 1983 Hamish Keith-presented series on state housing, a series on NZ landscape filmed from above (Bird's Eye View), a high profile discussion of the Treaty of Waitangi, and docos on radio DJs jousting for ratings and the Odyssey drug treatment programme.
By the mid-80s he was increasingly attracted to a more observational "fly on the wall" filming style. "The Saunders documentary method allowed subjects to tell their story; the interviewer, often Saunders himself, was heard but rarely seen," wrote Peter Kitchin in The Evening Post.
The approach was clear in 1988 series Real Lives, which explored subjects from Ponsonby street culture, to a gang of young offenders trekking with adventurer Graeme Dingle raising funds for Telethon. Saunders described the first episode of the show, about a woman contacting the person she gave up for adoption, as "probably the most risky programme I have made". The woman involved was given the right to veto footage that she felt uncomfortable with.
As TVNZ moved towards becoming more commercial, Saunders stood out as an ardent opponent of deregulation; he argued for documentary making which was "independent of audience-advertising strictures", and advocated for a local content quota.
"There is a danger that our audience’s tastes will be underestimated," he told The Press in 1988. "We have had very good ratings for local documentaries. New Zealanders want to see themselves and their society reflected on television in the thoughtful, in-depth style of documentaries … those which focus on people undergoing some sort of struggle. They should allow the viewer to feel they have shared an experience rather than having been told about it."
By 1990 Saunders was stranded as TVNZ’s sole remaining in-house documentary maker, following a decision to outsource filmmaking to independent producers. In May of that year he was made redundant along with 154 staff. He told reporter Lloyd Jones: "I feel sad that the network of people involved in making New Zealand programmes has been dissipated to the point of not existing anymore."
Saunders became a spokesman for the Auckland City Mission and Auckland Foodbank Action Group, and continued to make programmes dealing with social issues. The documentary Everybody Hurts, which explored a scheme to help ‘at risk’ Invercargill youth for TV3's Inside New Zealand slot, was nominated for Best Documentary at the 1995 NZ Film and TV Awards.
Saunders died on 2 May 1995, on his 51st birthday. He was survived by his wife, broadcaster Catherine Saunders, and two children. Saunders spoke about her husband to reporter Neil Reid: "Bill was the cutting edge of challenging for justice for a long time ... Bill had an enormous social conscience. He made sure nothing he touched became tainted by commercialism. He was an idealist."
Profile published on 27 June 2016; updated 11 November 2022
Infofind - Radio New Zealand Library
Mavis Airey, ‘Focusing on people, not issues’ (Interview) - The Press, 15 September 1988
Juliet Hensley, ‘Moriori rates as year’s best’ - The Evening Post, 15 November 1980
Keith Hunter, ‘Great documentary maker who stood for principles’ (Obituary) - The Sunday Star Times, 7 May 1995
Lloyd Jones, ‘Lay-offs mean lost identity’ - The Evening Post, 1990, unknown month
Peter Kitchin, ‘Leader of showbiz resistance’ - The Evening Post, 2 May 1995
Errol Parker, 'Scoops of Grenpeace' - The New Zealand Times, 22 December 1985
Neil Reid, ‘TV layoff caused caring star's suicide’ - Sunday News, 7 May 1995
Maui Solomon, 'Eulogy to Bil Saunders' Written May 1985. Published on NZ On Screen 12 November 2022
Unknown writer, ‘Documentaries under threat - producer’ (interview) - The Press, 25 October 1988
Unknown writer, ‘Bill Saunders: Wellington at Six’ - The Listener, 7 August 1976