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John Terris

Producer, Director

John Terris counts himself lucky to have worked in the early days of television. His media experience proved useful when he reinvented himself as a politician.

Whanganui born, and brought up in the Taranaki, Terris fell in love with radio as a child. Christmas came early at high school when he was offered a copywriting job at the local radio station. Then he was told someone else had it. A replacement offer at Wellington’s 2ZB quickly followed. 

By the time he began working at a radio station in Gisborne, it was clear to Terris that he had more talent for announcing than adverts. Increasingly keen on acting, he applied for a scholarship to RADA in London, but was beaten by Grant Tilly. Undeterred, Terris quit his job, and after a short stint sorting peas at a Watties factory, returned to Wellington, to combine radio announcing shifts with acting on radio and stage.

Terris fell in love with television after his first smell of overheated cameras and arc lights. He was not alone. In his likably opinionated 2004 memoir Being Who You Are, Terris recalls Kiwis staring hypnotised at televisions in shop windows, even when the screen was only displaying the test chart.

He counts the early days of local television amongst the proudest and most enjoyable of his career. Beginning as a continuity announcer on Wellington station WNTV1, Terris soon began combining multiple on-air roles. A typical 11am to 8pm shift might involve helping erect a set, changing into a lounge suit to interview a visiting celebrity, then packing up the set before reading the evening news.

Terris went on to produce and direct on some of New Zealand television's earliest current affairs programmes. Broadcast nationwide, Right of Reply saw a panel of newspaper journalists and academics grilling those in the news. Face the Nation-style series Topic and political interview show The Men on the Hill were both hosted by the outspoken Austin Mitchell (also later to become an MP).

Terris directed the first, month-long pilot season of magazine show Town and Around, and was brought in to rescue season one of Country Calendar, after the original Italian producer proved overly volatile. He also produced Junior Magazine, a children's show featuring Kate and Peter Harcourt, and was part of the crew on All Earth to Love, the first drama written specifically for Kiwi television.

Terris remembers it as a time of learning by doing, with perfection intended but not always reached. Aeroplane sounds sometimes interfered with Victoria dramas, and an elephant only just squeezed up the stairs for an appearance on a zoo programme.

As a future politician, Terris brings fresh perspectives to his time in television. In his memoir he writes of how the medium was at the mercy of politicians, who were reluctant to go on air and often dictated interview terms. He recalls Norman Kirk successfully insisting that his Labour caucus enemy Martyn Finlay not be included in a panel discussion on the Vietnam War. Yet broadcasters did not always bend over. “We were in virgin territory and learning, but were constantly testing the limits of politicians' tolerance in a new medium.”

Terris credits mentor Allan Martin for encouraging current affairs interviewers to be more probing. Martin, he says gave the director, producer or reporter “complete autonomy, with the proviso that if you stuffed up, you were on your own”.

In terms of general direction and policy, Terris thinks politicians will deservedly continue to have the last word on how local broadcasting is run. “Broadcasting is so powerful and pervasive a medium that people who are at least politically accountable must determine its shape”.

By 1967 Terris needed a break. He left for a year at Auckland's St John’s Theosophical College. Proud to be part of the first group of Anglican 'worker priests', who pursued ministries in their chosen workplace, he returned to television, turning down an offer to run new current affairs show Gallery in favour of religious programmes. One such show was Dialogue, a question-based show involving a panel of clergy. It was canned after three years, “because it wasn't religious enough but it pulled an audience, which of course was the whole point of the exercise.”

After stints as an executive producer in Christchurch and Dunedin, Terris lost his job during a 1973 restructure of broadcasting. Later he joined union the Public Service Association, representing broadcasting staff during further restructurings. Proud to have helped secure better salaries for the NZ Symphony Orchestra, he now regrets his part in a media blackout, aimed at protesting state broadcasting restrictions promoted by newly installed PM Robert Muldoon. When television went off air for 24 hours on 21 October 1976, “hardly anyone noticed or cared”.

The following year Terris moved into politics, initially as a local councillor in the Hutt Valley. In 1978 he began four terms as Labour MP for Western Hutt, including time as the deputy speaker of the house. As Labour spokesman on broadcasting, he advocated private involvement in New Zealand television, believing it the only way to break the state monopoly, “with all its attendant flaws”. Terris feels the stand hurt his political career, initially through being sacked from the shadow portfolio. He became the first MP to sponsor a private member's bill supporting proportional representation, and in 1989 was presented with a Queen's Service Order for his time in parliament. The following decade he began nine years as mayor of Hutt City.

Terris believes research shows repeated portrayals of violence in the media has a desensitising effect, especially on the young. In the early 90s he helped form VOTE (Viewers for Television Excellence), campaigning against violence on television. The organisation is now known as Media Matters, with Terris as president.


Sources include
John Terris
'John Terris: On the early days of New Zealand television' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 11 April 2016. Accessed 11 April 2016
John Terris, Being Who You Are (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2004)
Media Matters website. Accessed 8 May 2014