David Cohen remembers a man admired and loved by his colleagues in the media, in politics, and beyond.
Journalists and other public figures spent Wednesday expressing their sadness amid the news that Rob Hosking, a senior political reporter and wry commentator for the NBR and other news outlets, had died of cancer.
Rob, a former colleague, was arguably one of the country’s two or three leading columnists, an old-school bespectacled reporter with a first-class brain who came of professional age in the early 1980s and who would have jibbed mightily, for instance, at the word I just willfully misused.
“’Arguably’,” he would have said at one of our Wellington barhops over the decades, or to the many young journalists he mentored at various times in the Press Gallery, “means you don’t really know or you really don’t want to know. Not good enough.”
Rob’s unmistakable knowledge was his hallmark. He is best remembered for his association with the NBR, which he began writing for 23 years ago after a few years spent on the technology beat for the magazine Computerworld.
He was probably the last remaining stalwart among a slew of reporters and commentators brought into the NBR fold in the late 1990s on the watch of its former owner, Barry Colman, all tapped by editor Nevil Gibson either for their strength as reporters or a perceived sparkle as commentators. But Rob was probably the only one of us who aced it on both fronts.
In a brief tribute, the NBR praised the distinctive voice he brought to the capital’s political and economic discourse, “his coverage of events often laced with a mix of deep background knowledge and a playful turn of phrase.”
That voice was most refined in a weekly column, ‘Order Paper’, which ran continuously from 2005 until the close of 2017, when he was first diagnosed with cancer. A final contribution appeared last month.
At his best, he could move gracefully from the tiny brutalities and bad manners that so often constitute a week in New Zealand politics to learned digressions on classical thinkers and muscular economic analyses of the latest Treasury forecasts.
He was also the king of the OIAs — and no living reporter would dare dispute that verdict lest they receive one from beyond the grave. Over the years, he dispatched hundreds of such information requests: nailing down a point of arcane economic information, confirming a hunch of profligate government spending, or else exposing some over-caffeinated Opposition calculation of future revenues.
Away from the bump and grind of the trade, Rob and I enjoyed each other as opposites. He was polite, considered and punctilious, supremely uncomplaining, too, the product of what appeared to be a happy rural background. We also liked a lot of the same half-finished music of the 1980s and even more of the same anti-modern authors, Orwell, Popper, Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge in particular.
There were other mutual considerations. We both had autistic kids. His beloved Ailsa and my Eliot even ended up attending the same school in Johnsonville.
Outside the school gates, or inside the cheerful bedlam of its special-needs unit, we often huddled during the morning drop-off to swap the latest neurological news and industry gossip.
Here, as elsewhere, his essential worldview seemed to me to carry a distinctly Christian undertow, which, while seldom expressed explicitly, also to my mind gave him the quiet dignity he showed in dealing with his daughter’s condition, his wife Claudia’s own health struggles and, finally, the indignities of his own devastating diagnosis.
Semi-consciously, what may have finally tipped me off to how shabby things really were for him was noticing this past December how the grammatical stickler’s increasingly infrequent posts on social media had small punctuation errors.
He would have to be on death’s door to do that, I thought. But of course I didn’t believe it, either. Hadn’t the message he finally sent inviting me to visit the hospital stated he was only recovering from a routine procedure?
At Te Hopai Hospice, he was sleeping when I entered his room. I pulled up a chair and spent a few minutes browsing social media and its usual avalanche of time-rich bores haggling over pronouns and other supposed intimations of the end of the civilised life. Outside the door, a cleaner was moving up and down the passageway pushing a dry mop.
Presently, Rob came to and I asked him — cliché of clichés — how he was doing.
“Okay-ish,” he said.
“Well,” he gasped, “not good.”
The once-burly reporter reached out and offered a suddenly paper-thin arm and hand.
“Love to you and love to your family.”
Rob died this past weekend and along with him my old superstitious belief that no-one can pass away while he still has an unwritten book inside him; in his case, this was to be a long-planned study of the country’s great and not-so-great finance ministers.
I do hope somebody takes a punt on reprinting some of the glitteringly good columns turned in by the “super-smart, wry, kind man in the Press Gallery,” as the radio presenter Guyon Espiner fondly remembered him on Wednesday. A devoted family guy and super-fun drinking companion, too. And Rob Hosking was my friend. Inarguably.
David Cohen, a Wellington-based author and journalist, is a former NBR media columnist.