Reality check: Life has a deadline

Journalists are no strangers to death. They write about it with professional detachment…unless they are writing about one of their own.

I was sitting at my desk when I read an online story – reported with that professional detachment ­–about a body found in the surf.

The Northern Advocate reported on its website: “Tragedy has unfolded at a popular Whangārei Heads surf beach with the discovery of a man’s body in the water earlier this afternoon. Northland Police Senior Sergeant Shane Turner said a man of European descent and around 65-years-old was found dead in the surf at the southern end of Ocean Beach, around 35km from central Whangārei, shortly before 1.13pm.”

I read it with the same detachment I would have employed if I had written the story. It’s an approach that is central to unbiased reporting. It’s also a defence mechanism for journalists to avoid the cumulative effects of witnessing grief.

Within a few hours that detachment had gone, replaced by deep sorrow at the loss of a friend and colleague. The body was that of Tony Verdon – a long-serving New Zealand Herald journalist and executive, and editor then general manager of the newspaper that first reported his death anonymously. Later this week I will compose some words that, with a heavy heart, I will say at his funeral.

Last week I attended the funeral of another former colleague, a gifted wordsmith called Jack Leigh with whom I had worked first on the Auckland Star and then at the New Zealand Herald

The deaths of both men prompted another former colleague to post on Facebook the names of fellow New Zealand news media workers who had died since January last year. She started her mortality register with 26 names and the list rapidly expanded to 33 as others added friends and co-workers who had gone. One (former TVNZ camera operator and cinematographer Paul Richards) died the day Adelia Hallett posted her original list.

The list prompted writer and broadcaster Phil Gifford (a fellow septuagenarian) to recall a conversation with fellow broadcaster Barry Soper at the funeral of Sir Paul Holmes in 2013. Soper (who is now on the doorstep of his 70s) recalled a Wellington mate’s fatalistic comment that, once you hit 65, “you’re in [expletive deleted] sniper’s alley’.

It’s true: Tony Verdon was 67 when he took the metaphorical bullet. Jack Leigh, on the other hand, was almost 90.

The mortality register contained the names of men and women who had achieved their full span and some who had not. However, reading all their names carried an overwhelming sense of loss that, to be honest, I would not have experienced had I been reading a list of celebrities who had died in the corresponding period.

I had worked with many, had crossed paths with others, and knew the names of most. For journalists (and I use the word expansively to embrace all of the skills that collectively constitute the craft), these were our people.

So the sense of loss was partly personal. However, it was more than that. What we have lost with those 33 deaths is a treasure house of knowledge and experience.

Journalism is a largely ephemeral craft. Only a small number of the names on the list have left a more permanent record of the accumulated knowledge of their careers. 

The first on the list was Gordon McLauchlan who was the author of more than 20 books, the last of which (Stop the Clock, a memoir on ageing with dignity, grace and humour) was published after his death. Others like former SOPAC managing editor Neale McMillan wrote about those on whom they had reported (his Top of the Greasy Pole analysed New Zealand prime ministers from Muldoon to Bolger). Quentin Fogarty wrote about his close encounter with a UFO over Kaikoura in Let’s hope they’re Friendly. And Jack Leigh had had some of his Auckland Star columns collected in book form as well as writing several history books. Tony Verdon had been working on a yet-to-be published biography of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Some like Dean Parker have plays and screenplays that live after them.

For the majority, however, their life’s work either resides in print, sound or vision archives or is reflected in the work of others that is deposited there. Sub-editors, for example, go unsung by all but those whose work was immeasurably improved by their efforts. Editors like the Otago Daily Times’ Robin Charteris and New Zealand Press Association’s Graeme Jenkins (later general manager) are remembered by reputation.

What we do not have are full records of the unpublished elements of the journalistic lives of these 33 people, their encounters with the famous and infamous, and with the ordinary people who collectively helped shape the way they saw the world. We don’t know what challenges they faced in pursuing their trade and how they were affected by the stories in which they played a part. 

Many journalists, of course, are self-effacing and are only too ready to say “The story’s not about me”.  However, the story of journalism is a vital part of the weft and warp that constitute the weave of our history. It has real potential to add new dimensions to the New Zealand story.

It behoves those of us in [expletive deleted] sniper’s alley to set down our experiences and insights. Some have done so. My wife, Jenny Lynch (former editor of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly) wrote a memoir Under the Covers and former Auckland Star editor Jim Tucker is 130,000 words into his recollections.

There are many ways in which we can prevent our collective body of knowledge from being lost. Today, like never before, we have the means to preserve it. I’m sitting at a computer that has a keyboard, a video camera and a microphone. Every journalist’s computer or iPad has the same and her or his iPhone can probably record broadcast-quality video. What more do they need to look back on their careers? 

They need to do it before they are caught in the cross-hairs and join the mortality list.

And the illustration at the head of today’s column? George McCullagh Reed was a 19th century journalist on the New Zealand Herald. He is honoured by a memorial in Albert Park but, apart from an entry by Brian Rudman in the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography, his contributions to journalism are lost on passers-by.

A tribute

Simon Collins – farewell. Rod Emmerson 19/03/21

Simon Collins has retired after a 45-year career in journalism. The New Zealand Herald’s education reporter was the paper’s social conscience, forever striving for greater public good.

Simon brought a prodigious intellect and work ethic to the Herald. An example of that work ethic: Before the 2005 and 2008 general elections he interviewed 600 people from Cape Reinga to Bluff for a week-long Herald series about the mood of the nation. 

His combination of integrity and sense of fair play was the foundation stone on which numerous investigations of social and political issues were built. 

Last weekend he had an ‘exit interview’ with Colin Peacock of RNZ’s Mediawatch. It was a fitting tribute to a fine journalist who began his career on the Evening Post in 1976:

2 thoughts on “Reality check: Life has a deadline

  1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
    Gavin Ellis says:

    A sad way to catch up, John. I’m sure you would have worked with some of those on the list: Gordon McLachlan , Stan Pinnegar. Robin Charteris, Michael Willison, Phil Wallington, Graeme Jenkins, Phil Campbell , Kent Blechynden, Michael O’Donaghue, Glenn Watson, Quentin Fogerty, Don Polly, David Walter , James Morgan, Gill Shadbolt, Brian Prebble, Arnold Pickmere, Neale McMillan, Sandy Macdonald, Tony Verdon , Emma Jolliff , Genevieve Westcott , Dean Parker , Jack Leigh , Ian Mason , John Fox, John Spavin, Mike Smith, Kevin Tutty, Jeff Scott, Sue Pratt, Clive Morris.

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