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Kirsty Johnston and the goodness of investigative journalism

We conclude our week-long look at A Moral Truth, an important new book about investigative journalism in New Zealand, with the return of the dear old revolutionary live email interview – conducted with Kirsty Johnston, a Herald legend whose work features in the book.

Kirsty Johnston is a superstar of New Zealand journalism, one of the best in the business, at least the equal of the big men on campus – David Fisher, Jared Savage, Matt Nippert, Phil Taylor – who she works with at the New Zealand Herald. She gets the get. She does it scrupulously, honestly, even caringly; highlights of her work in 2017 include her brilliant year-long documentary profile of Papakura High School and her undercover infiltration of the alt-right white supremacist “movement”, which she wrote almost as a kind of satire.

One of her most important investigations is included in A Moral Truth, the new anthology of investigative journalism edited by James Hollings. There are only three contemporary women journalists featured in the book  and Johnston is the youngest, at 31. She grew up in the Waikato. She has a BA in English and Japanese from Victoria University. She studied journalism at Massey University in Wellington, in 2008, and got her first job at the Taranaki Daily News. She has also worked for the Sunday Star-Times and joined the Herald in 2015. I swan into the Herald offices now and then, and always make a beeline for her; she’s funny and alert, and I totally dig her attitude to journalism – she loves it, she wants it to perform a real service, she goes about it with fantastic levels of dedication and skill.

The format of the live email interview is that questions are thought of and sent one at a time, in dialogue with the interviewee; everything is written down, at speed, so it allows for a kind of literary or composed conversation. Of  course the interview with Johnston was also just two hacks gassing. It was conducted on Wednesday after dinner from 8pm to about 10.30pm, which is her bedtime.

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Hey Kirst! Ya there bro?

Hello yes and I’ve just poured a cup of tea, good to go.

Grand! Right then. Hey so welcome Kirsty to the latest instalment of the Spinoff Review of Books live email interview, the practise which many commentators say has revolutionised journalism, and others say has just led to a lot of tl;dnr. Okay Kirsty you are being interviewed because you are one of the journalists to feature in the new book about investigative journalism in New Zealand, A Moral Truth, which is being launched this weekend at an investigative journalism conference, where you’re one of the guest speakers, talking about your own investigative journalism; but before we get to the subject of investigative journalism, do you think that journalism is doomed? That print’s days are numbered, that meaningless content will continue to take over, that what we are doing has a shelf life and it’s fast approaching its use-by date, like milk or biscuits?

Thanks for having me. I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of talking about investigative journalism lately and not much doing investigative journalism. Which might be a symptom of the whole print industry, we spend a lot of time talking about our demise, which doesn’t seem particularly helpful. I mean when’s the last time you heard the radio industry foretelling their own death? And anyway, no, we aren’t doomed. Journalism is better than ever, you just have to know where to find it.

Where do you find it?

On nzherald.co.nz obviously! And on my Facebook page, like and subscribe. No, seriously, it’s everywhere. I think people forget that you can’t sustain daily publications on 3000-word investigative pieces only, and if they did, no one would read them. You need a mix, which is what most sites in NZ have. But if you’re really struggling, most reporters post their stories on social media – look them up. Lots of journalists also cross-promote other work they think is good, which is a helpful place to start.

Kirsty with German person and Kate Newton from RNZ and Frances Cook from NZME

But so many people, not just trolls and morons, bag us – journalists per se, and the Herald – all the time, for not living up to their standards or whatever. What did you think of Hilary Barry posting that photo on her Twitter account the other day of putting the Weekend Herald on the fire, and burning it, to show her scorn for some story about her in the paper that day? I thought: what a fucken egg. And: never inviting her to a Wintec Press Club free lunch, which is a very serious threat indeed.

I mean it’s nice to know people have high standards. Ragging on the media is nothing new as far as I can tell, and still just as boring. But people are entitled to their opinions and at least they’re reading. I thought Hilary’s tweet was pretty over-the-top but it was well done. Points for creativity. And don’t be petty, she’d be fun at a lunch.

No, lifetime red card, she can fuck right off. Now this whole subject of trust in the media has always been a diverting subject, but right now it seems crucial, and of course I’m partly referring here to the role of the media vis a vis Trump, and this phenomena of “fake news” and such. In some ways I think it’s reinvigorated journalism, in the US, with  the New York Times, and the New Yorker, and the LA Times, and the Washington Post, doing variously fantastic reporting on the Trump administration. Does that affect your thinking, are you like watching all that take place over there with any particular interest or horror?

Yes, I’m totally fascinated. I sometimes wonder if because we live all the way down here in Boring Beautiful New Zealand where things are generally pretty good (unless you’re poor and brown, or a waterway, obviously) we tend to get complacent about our existence, and democracy and the role of the media as the Fourth Estate in general. And in the US, with Trump, we’re really seeing the power of the media in terms of holding government to account and it’s THRILLING. And obviously Trump’s also a maniac so the yarns are really really good and bizarre and there’s Russians and spying and it’s just great.

You recently reported on a slice of Trumpism in NZ – your undercover assignment on the alt-right losers. I thought that was a terrific story, right from the scornful intro: “When outrage over racist posters at Auckland University hit headlines in late March, their white supremacist creators were elated. They’d tricked the media! Their message was being heard! Their Facebook page was up to almost 100 likes!”

During your research you met one of the strangest of these creatures at Starbucks: “Nick Chen, a vocal Trump supporter.” You wrote:

“Before the meeting, he posts on Facebook about the interview, asking for tips on what to say. ‘Tell [the reporter] to kill herself,’ comes one reply. ‘Be careful,’ says another. ‘She smells of liberal bullshit.’ And finally: ‘Fuck her right in the pussy.’”

How were you with all that? Was it disgusting, upsetting? Is there a new breed of cretin let loose here, do you think?

​Oh god, those guys. That story actually came about because I’d had this massive run of work last year and into this year, and I’d suddenly finished it all and had absolutely nothing to do one Monday morning. And then I saw a news story about the posters at Auckland University, and thought “that’d be interesting” and so I joined the group under a false identity. And then had to go and confess to my boss what I’d done, and he was basically like, “Christ I’m never leaving you alone again, but go on, get a story out of it.” And I’d been thinking about wanting to do some interesting portraits of people who are kind of flagrantly racist anyway, so this fit in.

I have to say I really, really tried to understand these guys. I watched them for ages. And I tried very hard not to be disgusted by them or to write them off, but it was very, very hard. Not so much for the awful things they’d say about me or whatever, but just by their lack of a grip on reality. Or an understanding of what they were saying. I remember I asked one guy to explain Cultural Marxism to me and he was like “it’s the theory of a man named Karl Marx.” Like, not only is that incorrect but … is that all you’ve got? And saying things like “Fascism really worked in Nazi Germany.”  Just… ridiculous. So anyway, by the time I met Chen I was pretty resigned to them. Although, the photographer wouldn’t leave me inside by myself, he waited for me the whole time.

See the thing about that answer is that it just reeks of someone who absolutely loves their job and loves journalism – the way it allows access to things and people, and demands that you engage, take it seriously, do the work. And this is it with you, whenever I see you in the office: you just radiate a kind of joy at what you’re doing. I mean you’re not some sort of mindless Pollyanna, and indeed whenever I see you in the office you’re usually moaning on about something, bitching and complaining, but you do it with good humour, and then you start talking about whatever story it is you’re working on. What’s it all mean to you, journalism? Personally, I mean; is it exactly what you want to be doing, can you imagine doing anything else?

I do enjoy a good moan, particularly if it’s about a communications advisor or official who is stopping me getting the information I want, because not only do I get to whine but I get to feel sanctimonious about it at the same time.

It’s a bloody great job. I mean seriously, what else would you want to be doing? My brief is literally “find out things and write about them”. And that can take you so many places – some days it’s just reading pages and pages of boring stuff, other days it’s ringing up some chap who’s never heard of you and talking to him for two hours about something your sort-of researching, and then it’s meeting amazing people the rest of the time. And doing good! I like to think I do good and change things, and that’s part of the attraction, but a big part is also just the rush of the story – crafting and creating something and then unleashing it on the world. It’s pretty satisfying.

I think about the only other thing I could do is be a detective. I really, really enjoy finding things out, problems-solving, getting to the bottom of things. Sometimes I do a live news shift and one of the best parts of that is, say, tracking someone down, a criminal usually. You just get this feeling when you’re on the right path – all journalists know it – and when you finally get that proof it’s like, yes. Still got it.

It does us good to practise it but the point is for it to do good in the world, I guess. There’s this thing by James Hollings in his chapter in A Moral Truth devoted to the work of our great colleague Matt Nippert, where he writes: “Not all investigative journalism has a big public impact. But sometimes it has a significant impact on government, when it highlights a problem that needs to be fixed and helps to mobilise support within bureaucratic and political circles. That is why investigative journalism has been called the ‘first draft of legislation’”. Your work – I think it’s basically changed laws, am I right? The residential care investigation, the Ashley Peacock story?

Yes the point is for it to do good, but sometimes it’s also enjoyable. Most of the time though it feels like you’re bashing your head against a brick wall or screaming underwater. That’s not so enjoyable.

I think Hollings is right about the fact that not all good journalism has a big public impact. Often, though, a story does need to make a splash to create change – otherwise those in power think they can carry on under-the-radar. But lots of really good journalism is also the dripping tap effect. Think Watergate – there was never really one huge splash there.

The only one of my stories that’s changed a law (that I can think of ) is the one about seclusion rooms in schools last year. That’s where I found out that children – including disabled children – were being locked in cell-like rooms as “time out” which is a particularly Victorian punishment. Education Minister Hekia Parata acted on that really quickly, with new legislation.

With the other disability stuff – which essentially all amounts to the same thing, that we treat the intellectually disabled like second-class citizens – that’s more policy changes. Highlighting the fact the Ministry of Health quietly shut down homes where people were abused, without anyone charged with crimes. And Ashley’s case is still ongoing. But I’m hopeful.

Hollings summarises the Ashley Peacock investigation in A Moral Truth, in his chapter on you, thus: “He was an autistic man kept largely confined to a single, tiny room in a psychiatric facility for five years.” In your own words, what’s this whole story about, and where has it gone, since you began work on it?  I think your very first story on him began thus: “…Ashley is commonly denied requests due to a lack of staff, such as watching a DVD, having a cup of tea or going for a walk. Instead he takes frequent baths, or cleans his room, spending hours wiping the walls.”

Well, Ashley is a very complicated individual who doesn’t fit neatly into either a “disability” or a “mental health” box. And so, basically, our health system has struggled to cope with that, and as a result he’s spent very, very long periods of time living in small, secluded rooms or areas, with minimal outside interaction and extremely limited quality of life. And then he gets frustrated – which is exacerbated by his auditory processing issues and his mental health issues – and he lashes out, so he gets locked up again and it goes on and on and on, in a cruel downward spiral. And meanwhile everyone’s arguing about money and “safety” and god knows what. It’s horrific and pathetic. And many people who know a lot more about this area than me have said it’s a breach of human rights and we should be ashamed of ourselves and sort it out. It makes me really sad and really angry.

PS this was the intro on the first story: Ashley Peacock loves animals and the outdoors. But for the last five years he has been locked in an isolated mental health unit, allowed out for just 90 minutes a day. Experts warn it’s a breach of human rights and his family are desperate to see him free.”

Oh and: since I reported on him there’s been a widespread understanding of his situation among the public, which is good. And the health board have reportedly said they’re going to move him out of the seclusion area and into a community setting, but I haven’t personally had confirmation of that yet so I’m still suspicous.​

Well that was incredibly depressing. What about the residential care story, which Hollings has selected for A Moral Truth – did anything change there, did anything happen as a consequence of your reporting?

Not really, which is possibly even more depressing. I mean we got a lot of information out there about abuse that otherwise would have gone unreported, and hopefully the Government felt ashamed of itself for trying to hush things up. But no one was really held to account. The people in charge of the first facility I reported on, Parklands, disappeared and never faced charges. I think one resident got a tiny payout. But the intellectually disabled aren’t considered reliable witnesses, so their cases very rarely go to court. It’s awful. To put a sad cherry on the whole thing, the main advocate for these people, my good friend Colin Burgering died this year, and the trust he ran – the Justice Action Group – is shutting down. So they have basically no one to turn to now, and there’s a lot of abuse still going on. I mean, there’s at least five more long-term patients in seclusion that I know of.

This is officially the most depressing interview of all time.

In the chapter about you in A Moral Truth, Hollings backgrounds how you got into the story, and that’s kind of depressing, too, but it has a happy ending.

This chap Colin Burgering had been trying to tell his story about the reality of residential care to a journo for 10 years. You told Hollings, “No one had listened to him. What he was saying sounded so crazy, and when I met with him I said I needed some documents to back up what you are saying. When we OIA’d it, it backed up what he had been saying….These were the exact kind of people that we should be going into bat for. They don’t have a voice. Even after we started listening to him, it took Colin a year to convince us to do something. It makes me feel embarrassed that we didn’t pay attention to him straight away.”

But we get nutters and time-wasters calling and haranguing us all the time. And PR trouts, but that’s a different kind of evil, an actual evil. I remember, with shame, that I was one of many journalists who a chap called Geoff Levick got hold of and asked to look into the Mark Lundy case, and I got shot of him, because the notion of Lundy’s innocence seemed so preposterous. Mike White listened, and his investigations in North & South directly led to the Privy Council overturning Lundy’s conviction. How was it that you listened to this guy Burgering? Is it something you are conscious of, when you get approached by people who appear to be nutters but are in fact genuine?

I think I listened to Colin because the very first time I challenged him on something, he provided a document that proved he was right. And when I asked some questions, it backed up every single one of his accusations. And god he was a good man. His clients were people others simply wouldn’t take on. It made me think of course he had to be right, you know?

I think that experience has made me hyper-aware about how important it is to listen to people. Often, people with a good story to tell will come across a little intense, or angry, and often that’s because their circumstances are awful and no one is listening. Feeling like you’re shouting into a void is very frustrating and it makes people behave erratically. And fair, some people are just time-wasters, but if you have to sit through 20 of those to get one good story, it’s probably worth it.

Easiest way to weed out the PR people is just not to talk to them. Kidding! Not really kidding. I don’t take calls from corporate PR anymore, no point.

Yes, corporate PR trouts can fuck right off, too. Let’s see if we can get a little less depressing for a moment. You had a personal story in the paper the other day – the Saturday one, that Hilary Barry burned – remembering how Louise Nicholas spoke to your journalism class about the trust she put in journalist Phil Kitchin. You wrote, He had kind eyes, she said. And he was honest. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Are kindness and honesty two qualities you rate just about the highest as a journalist?

Kindness and honesty… they’re definitely up there. Being kind is hard, and something I aspire to be, so I think about that a lot. And honesty… you get a lot of dishonest people in this business. Both on the other side with crooks and PR hacks and politicians but also on our side, I reckon. And I don’t want to be like that. I would never lie to anyone about why I wanted to do their story, for example. I can’t. And I’ve heard other journos do it and say things like “I totally agree with you” to people they want to interview but I never say that (I mean unless I totally believe it, but even then I try to remain neutral). I think if you have to do that it’s not worth it. I like to just lay out my case, say “I think this is important” and be done with it.

It’s like a continual moral test, journalism, isn’t it? I approached the partner of a woman accused of murder for an interview today. “It’d a good thing I think to have a more human side of her for people to read about,” I said, or something like that. Which wasn’t too bad. Imagine if I’d said: “I believe in your wife’s innocence!” Jesus.

Anyway. You were at the Star-Times for a while; was Donna Chisholm still there, at that time? Because I want to ask you about Donna. She’s incomparable of course and has been so for a long time. She’s in A Moral Truth, too, as you would fully expect, with one of her stories that helped to free the wrongfully convicted David Dougherty. Is Donna someone you have admired? And is she, because she’s, you know, a little bit older than you, someone who you can look at, and say to yourself, “By Joves, there’s someone who has worked in the trade for a long while, and is still brilliant, that makes me want to try and do the same.” Can you imagine yourself doing this at 50, 60?

No, Donna wasn’t there but I wish she had been. I think about her a lot (and I know that sounds weird but I do). When I was writing about Ashley, every time I felt like I was veering to close to advocacy I’d think “well Donna let Dougherty stay at her HOUSE” and decide that sometimes, you just have to do what’s right.

Actually, Donna doesn’t know this but in 2015 I was talking to her at a bar and pondering what I should do next (I was still on the education round at that point and had been doing a data-heavy stuff) and she said: “I think you should do something more human. Tell a human story”. And for her it was probably a throwaway line – she gets asked for advice by reporters all the time – but I was like “ok fine, I can do human, I’ll show you Donna Chisholm”… and then I went and spent a year following four humans at Papakura High School and made a documentary about it and just about killed myself in the process.

So yeah I really admire her.

What about me, though? Because you know that whole question just then – “will you still be around when you’re old?” – that was of course essentially about my own anxieties as a working journalist at 57 years of age, and wondering  if or when I’m for the chop. “You’re too old, sir; step outside, please.” Which would be a shame but I daresay it will happen one day, although I think it’s also just symptomatic of working in journalism – it’s an anxious profession, don’t you think? It’s full of neurotics and bitches and sociopaths, in mild form. Is that the way you see it, too? Are you an anxious person? Is that one of the motors that keeps you so alert as a journalist?

I do wonder if it’s sustainable sometimes. You see lots of great journalists become editors – my bosses Chris Reed and Shayne Currie and Miriyana Alexander and Murray Kirkness for example – but at this point I can’t imagine it’s for me. I’ll probably need to change it up at some point but I don’t know what that is. That doesn’t bother me that much though, fortunately I’m not anxious. I’m more… stressed. I feel stressed a lot but I think it’s good stress. I work best when I’m on deadline and there’s pressure and there’s an editor wandering past my desk saying “two hours… one hour” or whatever and I’m typing as fast as I can and frantically googling synonyms or trying to get a minister on the phone. I think I’m doomed to be a journalist to be honest. It’s just my lot.


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 speaker Martin van Beynen and other, lesser journalists.

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