One of the difficulties in being a journalist in a small and intimate society such as New Zealand is that you’re likely to know many of the people you write about.
This can create all manner of complications. Put the boot into someone in a newspaper column and you could well bump into them in the street the next day, or worse still, find yourself sitting opposite them at a dinner party.
I once wrote a column that attacked the then prime minister, Jim Bolger – I called him the India rubber man of politics – and the very night it was published, I found myself almost literally rubbing shoulders with the Great Helmsman and his wife, Joan, at the prizegiving night at the college where our sons were pupils.
I’m sure this sort of thing can happen in London or New York too, but the odds are much greater here.
More discomforting for me, though, is when you write something critical about someone you not only know, but like.
Take my recent blog post about the teachers’ unions (see below). I’ve known Kate Gainsford, the PPTA president, since I worked in Nelson in the 1980s. Her husband Brent Edwards, Radio New Zealand’s political editor, was a friend and colleague of mine on the Nelson Evening Mail and later on the Evening Post in Wellington.
I haven’t seen Kate for years but always found her very likeable, with an attractive personality and a great sense of fun. From the PPTA’s standpoint she seems an extremely effective president: personable, articulate and well-spoken. A sharper contrast with Martin Cooney, the obnoxious bovver-boy who led the PPTA in a previous era, is hard to imagine.
If I bumped into Kate in the street tomorrow or found myself sitting opposite her at a dinner party, I’d like to think we could still enjoy each other’s company. I refuse to dislike people just because I disagree with their politics or the policies of the organisation they represent. As I once wrote in a column inspired by an election-day dust-up between a couple of old friends, the people I mix with occupy every conceivable point on the political spectrum. If I had to choose my friends on the basis of political compatibility, I’d have a very narrow circle of acquaintances.
In any case, from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, life in a tiny country like ours would just be too damned difficult if we insisted on carrying our political convictions into every aspect of our personal lives. Life could get quite unpleasant if political adversaries couldn’t behave civilly in places where they can’t avoid help bumping into each other (such as the Koru Club).
Fortunately it’s a feature of life in Enzed that most people seem to rise above whatever political differences they might have, or at least quarantine them in the interests of harmonious personal relationships. (It was interesting, for example, that Matt McCarten said some of the warmest messages of support when he recently announced he had an aggressive form of cancer came from his opponents on the Right.)
Paradoxically, the bitterest antagonisms seem to exist between people who are nominally on the same side. Witness the recent turmoil within ACT, or the endless ideological squabbles that destroyed the Far Left in New Zealand. I’m sure there’s an explanation for this, but I haven’t yet figured it out.