Saturday, April 4, 2020

A personal perspective on the closure of The Listener

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 clich├ęs 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.


Mark Wahlberg said...

Wow, reading that was like going on a magic carpet ride. Thanks.

Homepaddock said...

Magazines like the Listener and North and South are needed more than ever now the government has such draconian powers with the lockdown.

Protests against foreign ownership of land, is vociferous but if a foreign owner doesn't make a success of the investment, the land is still here. Protest against foreign ownership of media or businesses with intellectual property which can be taken away is far more muted. Ele Ludemann

Doug Longmire said...

Thanks Karl - devastating that a foreign financial predator was ever allowed to own our media. I am personally very concerned that a large chunk of our culture and history is probably gone.

Hilary Taylor said...

Well it's morning mourning in this household these days...being Listener subscribers and library borrowers of the other titles Metro, North & South. My childhood household, like yours, subscribed or bought several titles weekly, that told our own stories & remain in the heart as icons of our magazine heritage. Still in denial I suppose. Good column Karl, chuckling over the editorial bit.
Just...bugger. Bigtime.

Scott said...

This does concern me too. I read the Listener for many years and my wife still reads it each week. Until now. A casualty of the massive overreaction to a virus.
We need more debate around issues. The Listener was generally of the left but that's OK. We need publications of all types. A sad day indeed.
And you are spot on about overseas owners. Globalization is not all its cracked up to be.
A loss for NZ culture I'm afraid.

David McLoughlin said...

I had a really good laugh at the revelation that you wrote Listener
editorials, Karl! I honestly thought Pamela wrote them. You must have
been the very model of a leader writer, writing what the editor wanted,
not what you believed yourself, when the two diverged.

I have always bought the Listener, and had bought the very final copy
just two days before its sudden end. I kept buying it even during the
long years when it was proudly known (including to its staff) as the
Alliance House Journal. I always found some good writing in it. Like
many men of a certain era who bought Playboy for the articles not the
photos, I bought the Listener for its articles, not the TV programmes,
which I barely glanced at for all this century, so irrelevant have those
schedules become in my household.

What to me was the biggest shock of all was the simultaneous closure of
North & South. I worked for that magazine for 11 years during the
wonderful editorship of Robyn Langwell, who encouraged and allowed me to
produce the best journalism of my life, including many articles which I
am sure did not accord with her personal view of the world.

When the news of the closures broke mid-week, Judith was exercising one
of the few civil rights that seem to be left with us -- visiting the
supermarket, not because we needed anything, but because it is still not
forbidden so we take it in turns to go every day. It feels like an act
of rebellion. She grabbed the latest and last North & South from the
supermarket shelf for me, knowing how much the magazine meant to me.
Next day I bought the latest and last NZ Woman's Weekly; not because
either of us had ever bought it (I don't think either of us ever had)
but because it marked the end of another major part of New Zealand

Almost all our media has passed into overseas ownership during my
career, some of it changing foreign hands many a time. Most of that
media has been trashed by its foreign owners. I cry today to see the NZ
Herald and DomPost, newspapers I once proudly worked for which are now
pathetic impotent irrelevancies IMO. North & South and Metro fell into
the hands of Kerry Packer's ACP long ago but Packer was a bulldogged
supporter of journalism and they thrived under him. His sons only cared
about casinos and ACP was hocked off to Bauer of Germany. I was only
vaguely aware that the Listener had fallen into Bauer's clutches, and
didn't learn the NZWW had until its closure was announced with all the
rest of them.

(As an aside, prompted by mention of Packer, most of my media colleagues
hate Murdoch almost as much as they despise Trump, Boris and Morrison,
yet Murdoch is a proud newspaper man and while he is alive, his many
excellent titles will also live. The day after he dies, most of them
will die too. I fear many journalists will cheer loudly, such is the
state of journalism today.)

The only remaining national NZ-owned media outlets are the pathetic
TVNZ; and Radio NZ, which I enthusiastically support and follow 24-7
(along with the BBC and ABC), because it gives me the widest-ranging
selection of news and current affairs produced in NZ. I have grave
concerns for its future, given the proposal to merge it with TVNZ. If
TVNZ's management and attitudes dominate in the new merged structure, I
don't see much future for an informed public in an era we need that more
than ever.

Karl du Fresne said...

Actually David, I don’t recall ever writing a Listener editorial that caused me to hold my nose, figuratively speaking. Perhaps the tone would sometimes have been a bit different had I been writing under my own name, but the editorials generally took what I would like to think was a classically liberal line, probably not too far removed from the Listener tradition of an earlier era. I was always very conscious of the fact that Pamela had ownership of the editorials and would be answerable if they took a strident line that alienated the readers.
BTW, I totally agree about Murdoch. Whatever else is said about him by his legions of detractors, he was always committed to newspapers. What’s more, he had the good sense, when he had a controlling interest in what was then INL (publishers of The Dominion, the Press, the Sunday Star Times and a stable of provincial titles), to step back and leave the running of the company to competent New Zealanders.

Max Ritchie said...

I wondered why the Listener occasionally seemed to contain sense! Its left-lean was really off-putting. While foreign ownership has been a disaster, the sad fact is that these titles could not be produced by NZ owners. They are for sale - make Bauer a (low) offer and then buy a barrel of red ink. The financial sort, not political.

Doug Longmire said...

I'm left wondering (yet again) - how did this country ever let foreigners own our media? What was in the brains of the politicians to allow foreigners to own anything that is ours? Our land, our farms, our businesses ?
Once sold it is gone and not ours. Foreigners own it. Simple as that.
Did we not learn this lesson from the Maoris?

Doug Longmire said...

I have just looked at Stuff and seen that they are seeking "contributions".
I tried to contribute what I thought was in keeping with the value of the Stuff "news" site.
But they refused to accept my 10 cents donation for a year !!!!