Sideshow Mark and the Close Up circus

The world's fattest mum, the nutso who tasered a pregnant lady, and senior citizens making their own coffins. This is what constitutes quality current affairs? Come on, we deserve better

Last night I watched Tim Wilson slap a 600-pound woman on the stomach.

Her name is Donna Simpson and she is an American pin-up, admired by so-called chubby chasers as the world's fattest mom. She is an internet celebrity, who is paid something like $US4000 a month to be photographed in various poses--bending over from the waist so that her stomach reaches her knees, handcuffed to the refrigerator--and also posts videos of herself eating enormous quantities of food which men pay to watch.

And last night she was featured on Close Up, described on the website as "TVNZ's nightly current affairs show, bringing viewers the most comprehensive coverage of the day's big issues". Right. So Donna, an American who lives in New Jersey, and is attempting to reach 1000 pounds so she can hold the title of "world's fattest woman", was one of the day's big issues? Of relevance to New Zealanders? If I may make a call on it, um, nooooo, not unless we have an unusually high subscription to websites such as

The show's description continues, "With Close Up, it is the story that counts. The emphasis is on providing high-quality, reporter-driven, current affairs stories about New Zealanders and what matters to them." Donna's story was preceded by a piece on Christine DeVaux, an American woman who lived in New Zealand for a few years and hit the headlines this week for tasering a pregnant woman in Maryland, and followed by a group of charming Rotorua residents who are building their own coffins, an acceptable quirky last story for a current affairs programme. But, seriously, this lineup comprised the day's big issues, our defining moments as a nation? This parade of human bizarro is the best we can do?

Tim Wilson, whose insouciant, subversive style I have admired as American correspondent for ONE news, joined Donna for lunch at her favourite deli, where she covered a small table in sandwiches and fries, insisting that it didn't matter how much she ate, so long as there were vegetables on her plate.

Back home in her kitchen, Tim slapped Donna at her invitation--she wanted him to appreciate how "fluffy" her stomach was. She also danced around in a black bikini and was filmed painfully rising from her chair, emitting a pale and empty "yah" as she made it to standing position. This was a freak show, pure and simple, and I was embarrassed for Tim, embarrassed for Close Up host Mark Sainsbury, embarrassed for all of us viewers at home who sat through it with our jaws hanging open in horror.

I am not suggesting that it is easy to fill a nightly half-hour current affairs programme. Nor do I think Campbell Live is any better than Close Up. (The evidence: Lucy Lawless debates Gerry Brownlee on mining, an expose on the lemon detox diet.) But I expect more from the state broadcaster than I expect from TV3, fair or not. The resources are better, the government mandate is there, and they've been doing it much longer, as they keep reminding us with those promos about television's glorious 50 years in New Zealand. And frankly, those of us who sit through the news every night, watching as cub reporters repeatedly remind us they are "across developments" while they stand on an empty over bridge, or in front of a locked building, or in the warmth of the news room, deserve more.

We tune into Close Up and its ilk because we want some kind of insight into the major stories of the day, because we don't expect the cub reporters to give it to us, and we still want our news providers to take an honest stab at it. I find it hard to believe that last night's Close Up was anything more than an attempt to titillate us, and there are dozens of reality television programmes that do a much better job at that.