It suddenly struck me quite forcefully yesterday that the issue of The Listener containing the programme listings for the week just ended was probably the last one I will ever see. (I say “probably” because there remains a theoretical possibility that someone will revive the magazine, though I’m not holding my breath.)
There may have been one more edition, but if there was, I didn’t see it because the lockdown kicked in and the shop where I normally buy El Listenero was closed.
All the familiar clichés apply here: “end of an era”, “New Zealand institution” and so forth. The Listener has been a significant part of my life. When I was a kid, it was part of a bundle of publications – along with the NZ Weekly News and the British comics Film Fun, Radio Fun and Tiger – that we picked up every Friday afternoon from Hallagan’s bookshop in Ruataniwha St, Waipukurau. (New Zealand being the sort of place it is, Jack and Margaret Hallagan were close family friends and their kids attended the same convent school.)
I didn’t take much notice of the Listener in those days, although I do remember a spat in the correspondence columns between Kathrin du Fresne of Waipukurau (my mother) and C C du Fresne of Mapua, Nelson (my uncle). I don’t recall what the argument was about; probably some moral issue like sex education, censorship or the contraceptive pill. Mum was a devout Catholic and a social conservative while Chris, my father’s younger brother, was a radical leftie. Both were naturally combative, but strangely enough (or maybe not) they got along quite well personally and I like to think they respected each other.
Many years later – in 1978, to be precise – the Listener became a central part of my life when the then editor Tony Reid, who sadly died recently, offered me a job as a staff writer (as the Listener’s hacks were known then). I ended up working there for four years alongside the likes of Tom Scott, Helen Paske, Gordon Campbell, Jane Ussher, Vernon Wright, Karen Jackman, Denis Welch, David Young, Phil Gifford, Sue McTagget, Vincent O’Sullivan (then the books editor) and a young Pamela Stirling, who would become editor for the magazine’s last 16 years.
They were a terrifically talented team, and fun to work with. I produced a few pieces of work that I was proud of but otherwise I can’t say that I distinguished myself. Years later, Stephen Stratford – then a Listener sub-editor, now a respected freelance books editor – wrote of that era: “Months would pass – nay, entire seasons – between articles by Karl du Fresne and Vernon Wright*.” That was an elegant way of saying I wasn’t very productive, or to put it more bluntly, that I was lazy. In my defence, I would argue now that I also suffered from a lack of confidence. I would immerse myself in research but dreaded the moment when I had to sit down and write that elusive first paragraph. I would do anything to postpone it.
The thing about the Listener was that there was no pressure – not on me, anyway, though it was a different story for Tom Scott with his weekly cartoon and political column. I don’t recall ever hearing mention of the word deadline, though that may be a case of self-serving selective memory.
That my low productivity seemed to be tolerated says something about the sort of magazine the Listener was back then. Its high circulation (nearly 400,000 at its peak, a phenomenal figure by today’s standards) was virtually guaranteed by the fact that it had sole rights to publish the entire week’s TV and radio programmes in advance, other publications being restricted to running them one day at a time. “No pressure” could have been the magazine’s motto. It was always chock-full of advertising, but I don’t recall the advertising manager – a lovely, amiable man named George Barrett, who in a past life had been a Blenheim picture theatre manager and who became my go-to guy whenever I needed a loan, which was quite often – ever raising a sweat. He just sat behind his enormous desk and the ads rolled in.
I quit the Listener when it eventually dawned on me that I was temperamentally unsuited to the rhythm of a weekly magazine, which allowed far too much latitude for procrastination. I needed the brutal discipline of a daily deadline, which is why I came to be appointed news editor of the Nelson Evening Mail in 1982 – a move I never regretted. But the Listener re-entered my life decades later, by which time Pamela was editor and I was working as a freelance journalist. Pamela generously put a lot of work my way and for quite some time used my services as an anonymous editorial writer. It was probably no bad thing that the editorials were unsigned, since I imagine that left-leaning Listener readers (that’s almost tautological) would have choked on their carbon-free vegan quiche had they realised that a journalist widely loathed for his supposedly right-wing views had become a cuckoo in their beloved nest.
To my knowledge Pamela has said nothing publicly since the announcement of the Listener’s closure, but I imagine she will have been devastated. She was ferociously committed to the magazine and led it through some turbulent times. She survived what by all accounts was some pretty vicious staff infighting – the Listener could be a fractious workplace, partly due to the tendency of some of its journalists to treat the magazine as a political platform – and in recent years had to deal with a steadily sinking lid as the owners cut back on staff and resources. I often marvelled that the magazine came out at all, such were the pressures on its editorial staff.
Which brings me to Bauer Media, the company that lowered the boom on the Listener after 80 years as part of New Zealand’s cultural fabric. Bauer’s exit is further evidence that foreign control of New Zealand media is generally ruinous. Australian ownership did grave – some would say irreparable – damage to both our major print media companies and it seems the Germans are no better. Overseas owners have no emotional stake in the country and no long-term commitment to our wellbeing. They don’t understand our culture and ethos and are largely indifferent to New Zealand affairs. They are interested in us only for as long as they can make a profit, and when that ceases, they cut and run. Well, auf Nimmerwiedersehen, Bauer.
*When last heard of, Vernon was still working as a journalist in Zambia.