Paul Norris grew up initially in Timaru and then, following the return of his Anglican priest father from World War II, in Christchurch. After completing an MA in History at Canterbury University, he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, unaware at the time that it marked the first stage of “a very long OE” in the United Kingdom.
Norris had first arrived in England in 1964, in time to witness an election battle between newcomer Harold Wilson and reigning PM Sir Alec Douglas-Home. The campaign was being fought out on television, and Norris was fascinated. Intrigued by the idea of covering politics for television, he set his sights on joining the BBC.
After getting a lucky break working for populist Fleet Street paper The Sunday Express, “and many rejections”, Norris finally got in the door of the Beeb in 1968. He began as a sub-editor in the newsroom, which he jokes “more or less functioned on the slave labour of ex-colonials”.
Working his way up the ladder, Norris became one of the founder members of long-running news and current affairs programme Newsnight, which launched in 1980, and was one of the team who determined the editorial direction of the programme. Newsnight colleague Shaun Brown later described how Norris used his "characteristic blend of diplomacy and decisiveness" to balance the presenters and stroppy correspondents all fighting for their time on screen. "It was a masterful performance — repeated nightly".
Norris was on board during one of Newsnight’s finest periods: its coverage of the Falklands War. Later he was given the reigns of weekly political programme This Week Next Week.
In 1987 Norris returned to New Zealand, lured back by a job offer from TVNZ Director General Julian Mounter: the job was Director of News and Current Affairs. Though the broadcasting environment down under was more commercial than what he'd experienced in the UK, Norris endeavoured to keep public service mandates of quality in mind amidst changing times.
“We knew that there was going to be a commercial third channel in the offing, so my task really was to prepare TVNZ news and current affairs for competition," said Norris. "That needed a bit of work, because they had got into the ways of a monopoly.”
On the personnel front, Norris paired primetime newsreader Judy Bailey with Richard Long — a partnership that would last 15 years — and had a hand in recruiting Paul Holmes for the top-rating Holmes. Norris sees the Holmes show as marking a radical change: it was New Zealand’s first early evening, personality-driven current affairs programme. “It was all held together by Paul, and Paul would script most of his own links. He was very hardworking, very innovative, very dynamic — a wonderful broadcaster.”
Wanting to avoid making shows for an elite minority, Norris felt the Holmes show was important partly because it made current affairs “much more accessible” to the general audience.
Norris fought attempts to make news and current affairs shows more lightweight, and defended his call to engage American consultants, arguing they provided helpful advice on how news could be promoted and packaged.
In 1994 Norris moved into an executive position as one of TVNZ’s group directors, where he proposed the idea of a documentary examining “the massive changes” that had occurred in New Zealand under the David Lange-led Labour Government. The resulting four-part documentary series Revolution, won Best Factual Series at the 1997 Television Awards. The programme was produced and co-written by Marcia Russell, and presented by Ian Fraser.
By then Norris had “reinvented” himself as an academic, after becoming head of the NZ Broadcasting School at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. Norris was proud to have spent 16 years helping deliver “job-ready broadcasting graduates”, among the students he taught were TVNZ talents Jack Tame, Matt McLean, Ruth Wynn-Williams and Rebecca Edwards.
Along the way Norris wrote and spoke often about media ownership, media ethics and changes in public broadcasting — whether it be in academia, in reports for NZ On Air, or in the media itself, where he forcefully argued for the importance of public broadcasting, and public funding for New Zealand programmes.
Norris was unimpressed by the state of local news and current affairs circa 2013. He argued that commercial pressures had won out over substance, and saw Campbell Live as the only show to have taken over “the solid, important stories” formerly handled by Holmes.
Norris retired from the NZ Broadcasting School to battle illness in 2013. Colleagues and former students from the BBC, SBS Australia and TVNZ were among the many to make contact, or offer tributes at his farewell. Norris passed away in February 2014.
'Paul Norris: On the changing face of TV news and current affairs...' NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 25 March 2013. Accessed 25 March 2013
Paul Norris, ‘Why we must try to save TVNZ7’ - NZ Herald, 24 April 2012
CPIT website. Accessed 25 March 2013
John Drinnan, ‘Seven Sharp ‘crap’ says former TVNZ programmer’ - NZ Herald, 18 February 2013
Anna Pearson, 'Broadcasting icon Paul Norris dies'. Stuff website. Loaded 14 February 2014. Accessed 14 February 2014
'Paul Norris' life celebrated' CPIT website. Accessed 14 February 2014