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BooksAugust 8, 2017

John Campbell on how investigative journalism helped create New Zealand


All week this week the Spinoff Review of Books examines A Moral Truth, an important new book about investigative journalism in New Zealand. Today: the book is reviewed by John Campbell.

In August, 1903, the New Zealand Herald published a series of articles by Hilda Rollett on “the slums of Auckland”. Greedy landlords, overcrowding, “diseases of a febrile character”. “In some of the particular houses two families are living together”, rooms “were close and stuffy”, requests from tenants for improvements or repairs provoked seemingly punitive rent increases, people paid what they could afford (and more) but high rents “compelled” the poor “to live in squalid surroundings”, and “the owners of these slum properties are concerned with no business other than the collection of as much rent as they can wring from their tenants”. Hilda Rollett hoped her descriptions would make people aware of such slums, because “a realisation of the condition of affairs is the primary step towards progressive action.”

One hundred and fourteen years on, high rents and low incomes still compel the poor to cling to conditions few of us would claim reflect New Zealand’s sense of self, and journalists are still describing such conditions as if the “realisation” will prompt “progressive action” against them. We are prosecuted by our own history. Ignorance is no excuse, but even more so when there is no excuse for ignorance.

A Moral Truth is an outstanding collection: moving, enraging, illuminating, dispiriting, provocative. At times, it lays us out as if for an autopsy. In parts, it shames our past, and, by repetition, our present. This is not just a book for people who care about journalism, it is a book for people who care about us.

We used this photo yesterday of Herald legend Matt Nippert and liked it so much we’re running it again today.

Arranged in chronological order, from 1863 to 2016, A Moral Truth contains 33 examples of what its editor, James Hollings, terms “investigative journalism”.

“Investigative” is a broad brush and, in his considered introduction, Hollings cites John Pilger’s belief (and I am paraphrasing both Hollings and Pilger here) that such journalism is not just about detective work, but also bears witness and holds power to account.

The importance of bearing witness echoes Hilda Rollett’s broad sense of description as advocacy: if we know, we will act. And if we know and we don’t act, our inaction is a form of complicity.

A Moral Truth contains two pieces of reportage, one from 1911 and one from 1955, in which NZ Truth describes hangings. The 1911 execution is of Tahi Kaka, a 17-year-old “Māori lad”, whose execution so appalled the newspaper that its descriptions are verdant with repugnance and contempt. No detail is spared, no outrage muted, no denouncement stayed: “Tahi Kaha was launched into eternity, where, at least, he cannot receive less mercy than he did from the enlightened Executive Council.”

The 1955 hanging is ostensibly described in more dispassionate terms. But, in doing so, Jack Young’s journalism imbues the execution and its grim efficiency with the remorselessness of psychopathy. New Zealand’s last execution took place just two years later, seven years before the UK’s final hanging and 10 years before Australia’s. Was public opinion (and therefore political consensus) shaped by journalism like this? Almost certainly.

Here too we find a wider feature of the book: the sense to which much of the work A Moral Truth collects is informed by the journalist’s personal response to injustice, or abuse of power, or inequality.

Arthur Allan Thomas. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Was Pat Booth’s “crusade” on the Crewe Murders and the wrongful conviction of Arthur Allan Thomas (and police conduct in obtaining that conviction), or The Auckland Star’s work on dawn raids, or Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle in their “unfortunate experiment” investigation (for Warwick Roger’s Metro), or Lesley Max on child abuse, or Philip Kitchin’s investigation of “the police officers who abused teenager Louise Nicholas”, or Rebecca Macfie’s work on Pike River, or Kirsty Johnston’s investigation into residential care facilities, driven (to varying degrees) by some personal disquiet? And if so, how do the people who reject advocacy journalism as an abrogation of some notional standards of objectivity, answer to a commonality A Moral Truth contains: every one of its 33 pieces is defined by the fact its author wants to blow the whistle, or hold to account, or address some wrong? This is work that gives a damn about impact and outcome.

A Moral Truth contains 33 pieces: 15 of them are from the 21st century and 24 of them are from the past 50 years. Many of the more recent works will be familiar to anyone who has lived in New Zealand for any length of time.

Some have recently reasserted themselves through human sequels. Donna Chisholm’s work on David Dougherty, which is now 21 years old, returned to public consciousness in April, with the death of David Dougherty himself.

Bruce Ansley’s writing (for the Listener) on the “high-country sell-off” is effectively reprised in the coverage of every bolthole billionaire, or less well known foreign purchaser, who clears the low hurdle of the Overseas Investment Office, and buys another part of the land we see as emblematic of who we are.

More recently, Phil Taylor’s truth-telling “campaign” against the wrongful conviction of Teina Pora, was picked up by Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham.

And James Hollings, who co-exists as both editor of and contributor to this book, rigorously examines “New Zealand’s restrictions on suicide reporting”. That was in 2013. Our silence has not been golden. As I write this, precisely the issues Hollings explores are being tested and re-examined by Olivia Carville in the Herald.

Good journalism defines its time. The best journalism also asserts a truth that transcends contemporaneity and remains vital.

A young Donna Chisholm interviews Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, circa 1981.

Here, the work of Jim Tucker is striking in its ongoing relevance. Forty-five years after it first appeared in the Taranaki Herald, Tucker’s matter-of-fact account of the damage dairy waste was doing to waterways in Taranaki (and the larger issues of standards, governance and responsibility) is so transferable to the here and now that it shames our present more than our past. If we have been told, and we are still being told, when does inaction (or expedient concessions to the appearances of action) become strategic and wilful?

If A Moral Truth has one shortcoming it’s that its author demography substantially reflects the ethno-hegemony whose biases have disproportionately shaped us. In short, like the author of this review, it’s pretty white.

This is a qualified complaint. Piece by piece, the very high quality of the journalism James Hollings has collected is not diminished by it. And it reflects our profession’s dimmed pluralism, the mono-cultural nature of our newsrooms over much of the 150 years the book surveys.

But this shortcoming does present a vital challenge for us all. Who are we? Do our newsrooms reflect that? And, perhaps most importantly, as newsrooms do become more representative, is the journalism they produce treated equally, or do we still regard the work of Māori journalists, for example, as some specialist niche, separate, fit for publication in vehicles aside from those that most commonly shape our mainstream discourse?

Having said that, Robin Hyde at Orakei (in which some of her writing is studious, troubled and almost clinically incisive, and some of it dances so effortlessly it evokes the lyricism of Where the Godwits Fly, published the following year), NZ Truth confronting “casual racism in Waikato” (“They don’t cut Maoris’ hair here, mate…”) and Brian Rudman on the “dawn raids”, are disquieting and publicly effective takes on race and injustice. This is fine work – bearing witness. But, in journalism, equity means story tellers as well as stories. The democracy of perspectives. The view from the outside in, and also from the inside out.

One of the many virtues of this collection is that it stands as a kind of trophy board to work that matters, as in an old school hall, wooden panels with the names of alumni to admire painted on in gold. Nicky Hager is here, twice, and there could have been more from him. Martin Van Beynen’s bristling detective work on the CTV building in Christchurch. Too many names to meaningfully mention here, but all of them worth collecting, all of it work to admire.

I did not know about Te Hokioi, New Zealand’s “first truly independent Maori newspaper”, that “published only nine issues, mostly in late 1862 and early 1863.” But the work that book opens with is entirely apt.

The newspaper’s editor was Wiremu Parata Te Tuhi, and in early 1863 he had a scoop. “A large new ‘school’ being built on the border of Kingite lands looked suspiciously like a military barracks… The building’s location was provocative; it was well south of the nearest government redoubt, at Te Ia, and clearly inside King territory.” This whilst the colonial government, under Governor George Grey, was building up troops in Auckland, and amidst rumours that an invasion of the King movement’s Waikato stronghold was imminent.

Te Tuhi attended a hui with Grey’s representative, John Gorst, and his report in Te Hokioi on March 19, 1863, ends with the sentence: “Kei turi, kei pake, kei whakatete.” (“He is deaf, inflexible and lacks respect.”)

I am struck, now, by how prescient Te Tuhi was. So much of the journalism that follows his unexpected Chapter One, speaks truth to deafness, wrestles inflexibility and asserts the simple decency of respect.

Governor Grey; the land thefts; the Executive Council and its hangmen; Hilda Rollett’s slumlords; Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton and Exhibit 350 in the Crew murders; the persecution of Iki Toloa over a “10-cent plastic comb”; Erebus and the cowardice and cynical convenience of blaming dead men; Dr Herbert Green and the lives he gambled away; the very many children who have been victims of adult abuse and neglect; Jason Ede, the schoolyard bully in the Beehive (a friend in high places); Pike River and its zero prosecutions; the corporations who could afford to pay so much more tax, and ensured they didn’t; deafness, inflexibility, a lack of respect.

A Moral Truth is a history of journalism, and also of the weight of power unfairly applied. At the intersection of those two forces lies the ability of journalists to correct imbalances, to bear witness, to hold to account, and, surprisingly often, to affect change. As I concluded this admirable and excellent collection, I felt gratitude and also a kind of trepidation: without this work, untrammelled by scrutiny, fact and contempt, then what might our meanness have achieved?

Read an extract from A Moral Truth here.

A Moral Truth: 150 years of investigative journalism in New Zealand edited by James Hollings (Massey University Press, $45) is available at Unity Books. The book is launched at the 2017 Investigative Journalism Conference held this weekend at AUT, with guest speakers Simon Wilson, Annabelle Lee, Steve Braunias and others.

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