Sunday, August 26, 2018

Warwick Roger, journalist

(This obituary was published in The Dominion Post and on, August 25.)

Warwick Roger, journalist. Born 21 August 1945, died 16 August 2018

Warwick Roger was the most influential New Zealand journalist of his generation.

He is remembered primarily as the audacious founder of Metro, the glossy Auckland monthly that reshaped New Zealand magazine publishing and steered indigenous journalism in a new direction. Partly modelled on the American magazines Esquire and New Yorker, Roger’s magazine dared to publish articles of a length never before seen here in a mainstream publication: 10,000 words and more.

It was technically known as long-form journalism and Roger had faith that the market was mature and sophisticated enough in 1981 to welcome it. He also had unshakeable confidence in his own judgment, even when many of his peers were predicting – in fact openly hoping – he would fail.

Where others would have lost their nerve, the stubborn, combative Roger refused to be swayed by detractors. Neither was he deterred by the reluctance of advertisers to come on board. And ultimately he proved the doubters wrong, even if it meant, according to one former colleague, wildly overstating Metro’s circulation figures in the early days as he struggled to attract advertising support.

By the mid-1980s, Metro’s golden era, the magazine had a circulation of 45,000, sometimes ran to 350 pages and was eagerly read far beyond its intended catchment of metropolitan Auckland. Piggybacking on its success, sister title North & South was launched in 1986 and applied the same journalistic formula to the national market, taking on the long-established Listener.  

Between them, Metro and North & South changed the face of New Zealand magazine journalism. But they had a lot more going for them than simply the length of their articles.

Roger was an astute spotter and nurturer of journalistic talent. He generally avoided hiring newspaper reporters and graduates of journalism schools, dismissing them as hacks and hackettes trained to write formulaic news stories. Roger preferred to recruit unproven writers with a flair for a freer, less stylised and more creative form of journalism, one that borrowed some of the techniques of fiction writing. He was a master of the style himself, though often parodied by his critics.

Roger’s protégés, who could have wallpapered  their houses with the journalism awards they won,  included Carroll du Chateau, Nicola Legat, the late Jan Corbett, Deborah Coddington and Robyn Langwell, who was to become his second wife (and founding editor of North & South). Roger also hired art director William Chen, who gave Metro its bold, stylish appearance.

Roger pushed the boundaries. He wrote savage restaurant reviews.  He created the scurrilous gossip column Felicity Ferret (partly inspired by the satirical English magazine Private Eye), which delighted in mocking the silvertails and high-flyers of Remuera and Parnell while simultaneously promoting an image of an Auckland that was glamorous, sophisticated, racy and cosmopolitan.

But most important of all, Roger courageously published big, complex and high-risk stories – none more so than The Unfortunate Experiment in 1987, which chronicled the deliberate non-treatment, with fatal consequences, of cervical cancer patients at National Women’s Hospital. The article, by health activists Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, led to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry, led by Judge Silvia Cartwright, and a subsequent overhaul of patients’ rights.

It was a high-water mark for investigative journalism in New Zealand. Yet it was typical of Roger’s ornery streak that in 1990, Metro published an equally explosive exposé by Jan Corbett entitled Second Thoughts on the Unfortunate Experiment, in which the Cartwright inquiry was branded a radical feminist witch hunt. The second article came about after Roger was presented with evidence that led him to suspect his magazine had been used to advance an ideological agenda.

Roger would tell his journalists that their job was to investigate the bad smell at the back of the cave that everyone else pretended to ignore. Anyone in power was considered fair game, which may explain why Roger was passed over several times for inclusion in the honours list. He was finally made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008.

ROGER grew up in the Auckland suburb of Greenlane, the youngest son of a butcher. His father, whom he described as the meanest man he’d ever known, died when Roger was only 11. His mother was left virtually penniless and had to take in boarders.

He went to Auckland Grammar School, studied to become a primary school teacher and spent two years teaching before deciding that what he really wanted was to be a journalist like the Auckland Star columnist Noel Holmes, whom he greatly admired. He joined the Waikato Times in 1968, only a few weeks after the late Michael King, who was to become a long-standing friend. That was also the year when he married his first wife Anne Batt, with whom he had two children.

By the early 1970s Roger was working in Wellington at the Sunday Times under the editorship of the late Frank Haden, who implanted in him the radical idea that a reporter should do more than simply regurgitate quotes and recite sterile facts.

It was at the Sunday Times, and later its sister paper The Dominion, that Roger began to refine a style inspired by the so-called New Journalism of the time as practised by the American writers Truman Capote, Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe – writing that combined reportage with literary techniques borrowed from fiction.

The late Jack Kelleher, then editor of The Dominion, was a sympathetic boss who gave him the time and space he needed to research and write long, in-depth stories that sometimes ran over two or three days. Perhaps the most memorable was Roger’s detailed reconstruction of a shocking 1975 crime in which an irascible but harmless 70-year-old drunk was beaten to death by two street kids in Wellington’s Hopper St.

It was ground-breaking journalism, but it aroused a mix of envy and hostility from many of his colleagues who regarded Roger as pampered, elitist and self-indulgent. Not that hostility ever bothered him; in fact he seemed to thrive on it. He and kindred spirit Spiro Zavos, who was to become a lifelong friend, formed a tight, defiant team of two in the Dominion’s newsroom.

Roger was to encounter the same antipathy from colleagues at the Auckland Star when he moved back to his home town. Even the Star’s editor, Keith Aitken, a newspaperman of the old school, objected to the space that was lavished on Roger’s Saturday feature stories. For his part, Roger seethed with resentment at the changes made to his copy by sub-editors.

Rather than go on chafing with frustration at the constraints imposed on him by people unsympathetic to his ideals, Roger put his money where his mouth was. He launched Metro in partnership with investor Bruce Palmer and from day one, imposed his own uncompromising personality on the publication.

Never a man to make things easy for himself, Roger made an art form of getting offside with people. Even those closest to him admitted he had a cranky, vindictive streak. He pursued vendettas with a vengeance and was acutely sensitive to criticism. Intimidating letters from lawyers were treated with contempt.

The low point of his editorship came when Metro was sued by Sunday Star-Times gossip columnist Toni McRae in 1994 over a snide reference to her in the Felicity Ferret column. Broadcaster Brian Edwards, one of several to give evidence against Metro, later reportedly said of the trial that never had so many scores been settled in such a short time.

The court awarded McRae damages of $373,000, almost an unprecedented sum. The amount was later reduced to $100,000 plus costs, but Roger took the defeat badly. He stood down as editor later that year, having evidently lost much of his enthusiasm for the job.

Roger reverted to simply writing for Metro under the title of editor-at-large. Two years later he assumed the same role at North & South, where Langwell was editor. The two had married in 1986, two years after Roger hired Langwell to write for Metro. They had two children.

His move to North & South came in the same year that Roger was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the neurological disorder that progressively robbed him of his power of movement. He resisted the illness with the same stubbornness he had exhibited as a journalist, continuing to write, run, swim and play cricket even as he gradually lost control of his limbs. He eventually gave up full-time writing in 2004.

His determination to continue swimming almost led to his death in 2012, when his daughter found him face-down in the water at Cheltenham Beach, close to his Devonport home. He was resuscitated at the scene and eventually recovered, but lost all memory of the time leading up to the incident. He died aged 72.

FOOTNOTE: I wrote this obituary at the Dominion Post's request in 2012, when it seemed possible Warwick would not survive his near-drowning. It probably says something about him that it took six years to be published. 

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