As a kind of prequel to Tim Murphy’s excellent court transcript story on the Spinoff yesterday, Steve Braunias exhumes a previously unpublished 2011 column on his own c***-related tribulations. It was originally written for Metro magazine, but editor Simon Wilson refused to publish it.
Last Christmas  I landed myself in another fine mess when I pressed SEND. Claire Stewart, the police prosecutor in Gisborne, emailed me from her work computer. It was in response to my weekly column in the Sunday Star-Times. She didn’t think much of it. “It belongs in the rubbish”. Yeah, yeah. Also, though, she claimed that I looked like “an ugly fucker”. What? I should have turned the other ugly cheek. There’s a first time for everything. Instead, I sat down and composed a lengthy reply. It read, in full, “Oh, I get it: you’re a cunt.”
The sing-song monosyllables, the pleasing placement of the colon – nice work, I thought, and forgot about it. It became all I thought about for the next two or three months. I had gone too far. It was a sackable offence. I duly got sacked as a columnist. Stewart complained (“highly offensive…unnecessarily vile”) to the newspaper, and the axe fell five days before Christmas.
I loved writing a column. As someone who wrote a column every week for 11 years for national publications (Listener, 1999-2005; Sunday Star-Times, 2005-2010), it occupied much of my thinking, and contained much of my best work. Three books had been published of selected columns. To lose it, especially in such lousy circumstances, was really upsetting. I felt sick as a parrot and gutted as a fish. The reality is that I was a goose – the whole thing was my fault, what was I thinking, when would I learn to stop calling people names?
Bad language was all over the news that summer. A district court judge jailed a man for 28 days after the man yelled at him, “Is that all, cunt?” The court was in Gisborne, which obviously has a zero-tolerance attitude.
Also in January, an Onehunga steel pipe salesman made front-page news when he got sacked for slagging off his employer – the comments were overheard when he accidentally speed-dialled his work number while talking with a client. An office snitch dobbed him in. Stewart was the snitch in my downfall, the co-author of my misfortunes, the police prosecutor working a private case – there was a moment when I reflected that she may have been really hurt by what I had called her. I felt terrible about it, truly ashamed. But the moment passed, and I was only trying to save my skin when I sent her a bunch of flowers and a note expressing my phoney regrets.
“Imagine if I went to print with what he wrote,” Stewart remarked in her letter of complaint to the newspaper. “I imagine the public would be as appalled as my friends, family and work colleagues.”
“I should tell you,” emailed the newspaper’s recently appointed editor, David Kemeys, “that I have already been contacted by other media around this issue but have declined to discuss it, preferring to treat the matter as private.”
Who were these other media, and why didn’t they contact me? Stewart’s nasty threat to go public with my email had led to my sacking. But what was there to hide? Would the public really be appalled? I was keen to test it out. I ran into Mark Sainsbury, then the presenter of Close Up. “Got a story for you on Close Up,” I raved. “Kathy Bates. Gisborne police. ‘Ugly fucker.’ Onehunga – that steel pipe guy. ‘Cunt.’ SEND. Sacked. Sick as a goose. Plus, it’s the silly season, and nothing else is happening. What d’you reckon?”
He demurred. “Come and look at my brand-new open-top convertible,” he said.
Finally, on January 13, the media came to my door. It wasn’t Close Up. It was quite far away. Matt Nippert, then with the National Business Review, emailed to ask, “Do you mind if I mention your departure from the SST in a small online story (behind a paywall)? The editor insists on story quotas and I’m short for the day.” By all means, I said. He interviewed Kemeys, who said he didn’t wish to elaborate on the reasons for my departure from the newspaper. “That’s private between us and Steve,” he said. My response: “No, it’s not.” I said a lot more besides and all of it was colourful and vaguely outrageous. Thus began my farewell tour.
It was a brief, lively, unbecoming farewell tour which played across a range of media and served no apparent purpose – that’s how I roll. I didn’t have much to say about the loathsome Stewart, but had a lot to say about Kemeys, who I thought should have kept me on and not bowed to her threat. It was a storm in a teacup to Kemeys, who told National Business Review: “Columnists come and columnists go.” My response: “Editors come and editors go… I expect the paper will soon enough despatch the mediocre hack back to whence he came from, which I understand is nowhere.”
The small online story (behind a paywall) got picked up by blogs Quote Unquote and Cactus Kate. The fact that it got picked up by blogs officially transformed it into news, and I soon had TV3 at my door. In the meantime, I appeared on National Radio for my regular book-review slot, and found time to give Kemeys a bad review (“incompetent wretch”); in turn, I got a bad review from Star-Times reporter Tony Wall, a good mate and probably the best journalist in the country, who emailed, “Mate I’ve always been a fan of yours and disagree with the decision to terminate your magazine column, but the way you are carrying on in public does you no favours.”
Oh, probably, but I was enjoying myself. I also took pleasure in the emails that poured in from readers. They were unhappy with my dismissal and cancelled their subscriptions. Pithiest example; “Dear Editor, Steve Braunias. Let go. Retired, Given the pink slip. Sacked. Services no longer required. ARE YOU #%$^&*ING MAD???? Kind regards, John Reilly.”
Cheers, John! The most moving email came from a guy who said a recent column I’d written about my daughter had “brought back deep feelings” for his daughter. She had committed suicide. He wrote to the paper, “The only bright spot for me [in the SST] which I could rely on was Steve’s page. Now I won’t have to buy the paper and dredge through the garbage hoping to find something worthwhile.”
Perhaps the paper would reconsider? It would not. A barely literate letter from Fairfax general manager Lynley Belton (“there is a breakdown of trust as to how you will deal with readers under their brand going forward as a result of this matter”) confirmed the terms of my exit. They got rid of me earlier once I started blabbing to the media. Fair call.
The last story appeared on January 23, in the Herald on Sunday. I was a bit over it by then. There was something dutiful and tired in the way I gave Kemeys another character reference (“village idiot”); the newspaper played up the angle about police prosecutor Stewart entering into our fitful correspondence on her work computer. Police launched a code of conduct investigation. No action was taken.
The shabby little episode was all over bar a few more sympathetic emails from readers. Some wrote to Kemeys, and copied me in on his response. It was strange reading his words. We’d never met, or spoke on the phone. He sounded like a self-pitying sonofabitch. “Trying to run a newspaper is a thankless task,” he whined to Rendell; to Donatella, he moaned, “It could have all been so different if we had one word of remorse from Steve, rather than the abuse he has poured upon us.”
Poor old Kemeys had a point. I wasted my apology on Stewart; I never recognised the need to apologise to the newspaper. Poor show. They were a good employer. I made a few calls to deputy editor Michael Donaldson, but only to ask his advice on how to save my skin – it wasn’t my idea to send flowers. I was worse than a goose. The truth is that I was remorseless. I only felt sorry for myself.
The last thing I cared about were the wider issues. A few commentators made noises about Stewart’s “ugly fucker” line revealing a double standard – if a male had written that to a female, it would have been a clear case of sexual harassment. Later, I featured in a long newspaper feature about the taboo of calling someone a cunt. It quoted a “swearing expert” from Monash University. Yeah, yeah. I was out of work.
I found work. As for Kemeys, the paper got rid of him sometime later. He was made redundant; I’m not entirely sure where he’s fished up, but I think it’s nowhere.
Every shabby saga has moral dimensions but they’re not especially far-reaching in the shabby saga of my dismissal. I was a hot-head, to blame, not sorry. All my fault. Also, I messed with the wrong coast and the wrong officer of the court. Recently [in 2011], a man yelled obscenities at Judge Allan Roberts in the district court at New Plymouth. Judge Roberts threatened to double his jail sentence from two months to four unless he apologised, and said, “I don’t mind being called a cunt, but I do take exception to being called a faggot.” The man said, “I’m sorry.” Judge Roberts accepted the apology.