Five questions for James Hollings
10 August 2017
Guy Somerset asked James Hollings about the process of compiling an anthology of 150 years of investigative journalism in Aotearoa.
A Moral Truth: 150 years of investigative journalism in New Zealand is published by Massey University Press. James is Head of Journalism at Massey University in Wellington.
Compiling A Moral Truth would have required its own kind of investigation, tracking down the articles you include. How did you choose them? There would have been ones you were aware of already and knew you wanted. But what about the others?
It wasn’t easy! There is actually so much great New Zealand investigative journalism to choose from. As you say, some of the famous ones I was aware of already – Pat Booth, for example. I did a lot of asking around, especially of older, and retired journalists, who have so much knowledge of earlier eras.
There’s some good secondary sources on journalism in New Zealand, which would often mention a story in passing, and I’d think that sounds interesting, I’ll have a look at that. The Te Hokioi pieces, for example, were mentioned in Lachy Paterson’s fascinating book on early Maori newspapers, but not as examples of investigative journalism. It was only when I read them that I realised how significant they were. Likewise, some of the early Truth pieces; it was seeking them out and reading them in full, in the original, that helped me choose. Redmer Yska’s great book on Truth was also a big help, as was Te Ara, the wonderful online encyclopedia of New Zealand history. I also searched all the records of journalism prize winners I could find, such as the Dulux Awards, later the Qantas, and now Canon Awards.
For the more recent stuff, I pretty much knew most of what was out there. Once I had a long list, it was matter of whittling it down. I initially went for pieces that had had some definite impact, that idea of investigative journalism as the ‘first draft of legislation’, as it’s sometimes described; that caused some kind of reform. Then I realised that there were some pieces that might not have had that impact at the time, but have been justified in hindsight; take Robin Hyde’s piece on Bastion Point, for example. Pieces which had some kind of moral truth in them. That’s where the title came from – which was my publisher, Nicola Legat’s suggestion, and an inspired one. I think that’s really what sums up what makes these pieces last; they have a real moral integrity to them. They are about things that really matter; the end of capital punishment; freeing the wrongly convicted; violence against children; corruption in government; things that we can all agree really have to be put right.
"They are about things that really matter; the end of capital punishment; freeing the wrongly convicted; violence against children; corruption in government; things that we can all agree really have to be put right."
You mention the film Spotlight in your introduction. One thing that film 'dramatises' is that investigative journalism often isn't 'dramatic' at all, apart from the outcome. The day-to-day business of it is legwork - even paperwork.
Indeed. It really is. So many of the pieces in this book are the result of months, often years of painstaking sifting through documents and other sources, often without knowing exactly what you’re looking for. Some investigations start because the journalist senses a wrongdoing, or is trying to prove or disprove one. But often they’re just the result of curiosity, just because the journalist is curious about a topic.
What you don’t see in here are all the investigations that ended up in the waste bin, or the too hard basket. For every one that’s ‘successful’, I’d bet there’s probably 10 or 50 that aren’t. That said, some of the stories in this book aren’t the result of massive digging; Jack Young’s account of an execution, for example.
That’s one thing I learnt from this book; what makes great investigative journalism is not how much digging the reporter did, or how many data tools they used, or how many government ministers had to resign; or even whether there was any ‘result’; it’s whether the question asked really matters. That was a surprise to me; I’d been so conditioned by the literature around investigative journalism, that often tends to rate the worth of a story by the time it took or the ‘result’.
You also talk about the importance of a strong, supportive editor and lawyer. You don't talk about money, though. Investigative journalism can be expensive. It often requires a journalist or journalists to spend time away from quicker-turnaround stories. What is the appetite for that in journalism's current financially straitened circumstances?
Well, there’s never been much appetite for that, in my experience. Most chief reporters (or news directors, as they’re often called nowadays) and editors that I’ve known might say lots of worthy things about the need to dig, but when they’ve got a paper or bulletin or quota to fulfil each day, naturally they need to go for the certain ‘gets’, rather than the long shots. I learnt early in my career that it was up to me to carry the ‘risk’ of the long shots, in my own time. I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing. I enjoyed having a mix of daily fast turn-around stories and the occasional big dig, or long shot. I know other journalists would see it differently – they would love to be given a good stretch off. In journalism in New Zealand, you tend to have to earn the right to get given time, by proving you can get results first yourself, in your own time. That said, I’m really pleased to see that some of the big news organisations are now starting to invest again in investigative teams. That’s a really positive thing. If you look worldwide, back over the long history of investigative journalism, it has always been the work of loners, and outsiders, periodically augmented by eras in which the mainstream, commercial media got excited; e.g. the 1960s in UK television, the 1970s in print, and again more recently, thanks to Trump and others.
" I learnt early in my career that it was up to me to carry the ‘risk’ of the long shots, in my own time. I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing."
What is the one great contemporary New Zealand story crying out for more, or indeed any, investigation?
Just one? Leaky homes – it’s not over yet, and the story hasn’t been fully told, though I know there’s a good book on it coming out soon. More widely, the whole housing crisis; low quality, overpriced, and a series of governments (both Labour and National) that seem unable to provide leadership on this fundamental human need. The prison crisis; our jails are bursting. One that I think would be a catalyst for reform is information law; New Zealanders don’t have access to much information that they need. Governments, national and local, companies, the courts, and other organisations can keep far too much secret, in my opinion. Imagine a society where everyone’s tax returns were public – wouldn’t that keep us all more honest? Where companies had to answer reasonable requests for information? Where elected officitherers? I sense in my students, and people young and old that I meet, a great appetite for a new era of honesty and transparency, and real accountability.
You interview the living investigative journalists behind the book's articles - which of the now-dead ones would you most like to have had a chance to quiz?
That’s a great question! I would like to have met Jack Young, who wrote the piece on the execution of Albert Black. What a brilliant journalist. Also Brian Connolly, the editor of Truth in 1942, who ran that amazing story on catching a spy. Robin Hyde, such a gifted writer, and journalist. Hilda Rollett, not just because we share a birthday, but because she had so much knowledge of the profession in the early years of the 20th century and because she was so gutsy and energetic.. Likewise Ed Gillon, the editor of The Evening Post in 1894, not just because I worked there too, but because he was such a pioneer for professional journalism in this country; he showed other journalists and politicians that journalistic ethics were worth fighting for, and risking going to jail for.John Norton, the founder of Truth, if I could catch him sober, would be entertaining and even inspiring. But above all, I’d like to meet Patutara Te Tuhi; the editor of Te Hokioi, who got the first great scoop covered in this book, and who had such an exciting career; witnessing the Waikato wars first hand, as a journalist and soldier, and living to tell about it.
Read the To Catch a Spy chapter from the book, for free, here.