Thursday, August 10, 2017

Gordon McLauchlan reviews a new book on investigative journalism in NZ

A Moral Truth: 150 years of investigative journalism in New Zealand edited by James Hollings (Massey University Press; $45.00).

Investigative journalism has not been prolific in New Zealand for reasons well  summed up by the editor in his introduction. Making a serious fuss has never been popular here in our small, closely knit communities where everything quickly becomes personal; and journalists have historically suffered from a ‘culture of censorship’. Still do. The withholding of the report on management at the Ministry of Transport is a recent example.

As the late American-Kiwi journalist, Warren Berryman, used to say, you don’t need traditional corruption in New Zealand as long as The Old Mates Act is in place. Will we ever know how much taxpayer money was paid to placate a National Party staff member in Southland? Probably not. To underline that Kiwis often find speaking truth to power embarrassing, Nicky Hager’s damning book about some practices of John Key’s government had little if any impact on its popularity.

          When I was a young journalist, Truth under James Dunn was the only newspaper that regularly embarked on risky investigative journalism, partly because Dunn was the most knowledgeable and experienced defamation lawyer of his time and often enough defended his paper in court. It’s not well remembered that many stories that did have impact in Truth came from provincial journalists who mailed stories to the weekly. Their identity was kept secret and their cheques arrived in plain brown envelopes. In at least one case a government commission of inquiry was held into a scam by local politicians who included friends of the local newspaper’s proprietor. He was not about to unleash his staff on the story; so one of them wrote it anonymously for Truth.

 Truth sullied (it was thought then) its pages with reports of salacious (for that time) divorce court hearings when proving in court that one partner had committed adultery was about the only way to get a divorce. The joke was that because of those stories few New Zealanders would admit to buying the paper at a time when it was selling more than 200,000 copies a week. Certainly it was not left lying around the house for children to read.

One of the most remarkable and little known stories in this book is about the pursuit of justice for Maori on Bastion Point by journalist, novelist and poet Robin Hyde forty years before the final battle saw Maori triumphant. It emphasises what a brave and brilliant person she was at a time when taking on the Establishment was a lonely business.

          A Moral Truth is a definitive account of work by a number of journalists and their publications who, over the years were tenacious enough to stay on stories and dig out the truth from under lies and corruption. It demonstrates time and time how much true democracy depends on vigorous journalism.

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