Gordon Campbell on The Listener

May 5th, 2008 at 8:30 am by David Farrar

, a former Listener journalist, writes on Scoop about ’s description of the “old” Listener as “the house journal of the Alliance Party”. I comment on his comments:

It is not the first time the former Listener as ‘house journal of the Alliance Party’ line has been floated by Stirling. Whether this is the intention or not, the effect is to portray her tenure as having more journalistic integrity than her predecessors, and her staff as being more professional than staff in the past.

I don’t see her comments as meaning a lack of integrity or professionalism. I see it as a comment on the lack of diversity of views used to have. Just as the NBR doesn’t exactly have a lot of articles promoting higher taxes either. A magazine can have an ideological bent but still be ethical and professional – look at the UK newspapers. The problem comes when a publication has an ideological bent but tries and denies it.

The reality is that the Listener was never the sort of doctrinaire publication that the “Alliance house journal” jibe would suggest. Its spirit was liberal, compassionate and contrarian. The voice it had in our national debate was alternative in the best sense, of standing apart from the mainstream and analyzing it critically. It was that contrarian spirit that saw the Listener endorse MMP, and run fair and balanced profiles of Roger Kerr, Lindsay Perigo, Winston Peters and other polarising figures in its pages.

Of course the Listener in the past has had fair and balanced ((c) Fox News) features. But overall it was very predictably leftwing. The test I used to apply to it was whether I could accurately predict the substance of a story based on just knowing the topic off the cover. And 95% of the time I could – it was almost without fail the left liberal view of the world.

This was in marked contrast to say North & South where I could see they were covering a topic, but never really know what sort of position or angle they would take on it, until I had actually read it.

Now I have no problem with any publication (so long as not state funded) having an ideological leaning. But to try and argue that no such leaning existed, does people a disservice.

In my experience, we at the Listener tended to have a healthy skepticism towards everyone – including Labour when in power in the 80s ( the Listener invented the term ‘Rogernomics’ and it wasn’t meant as flattery) National in the 90s, and Labour again early this decade. Consistently, the Listener bit the hand of power, and would then explain in 2,500 reasoned words why it felt the need to do so.

It is true that the Listener has railed against every Government from the 1980s onwards – but almost always for not being left wing enough. I don’t recall any articles complaining about the killing off of choice in accident compensation, or complaining about making union membership compulsory for employees who want a collective contract. Just being critical of both National and Labour Governments does not mean you are not free of ideological slant.

What the Listener used to stand for was intellectual depth, critical analysis of the left and the right, good arts pages and Bradford’s Hollywood. It was a great ragbag of a read. Again, I beg to differ with Stirling – the current Listener seems anything but diverse. It exhibits instead an increasingly narrow fixation on the lifestyle choices and social anxieties of a baby boomer elite. Someone recently suggested to me that a typical Listener cover story nowadays would run something along the lines of “Is Your House Making You Fat?”

Here Campbell is on stronger grounds. I do find the Listener pretty trite at times, but this tendency pre-dates Stirling to be fair. Around seven or eight years ago I decided to keep getting the Listener mainly for its columnists, having gone off their features as often superficial. Sadly it is not only the Listener going this way – Metro and North & South are now pale shadows of their former glory.

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14 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on The Listener”

  1. Craig Ranapia (1,912 comments) says:

    I’m sorry to have to tell Gordon this, but I pretty much stopped reading The Listener not because it was ‘left-wing’ (after all, I read plenty of magazines and newspapers whose editorial line I find ideologically uncongenial) but because it was dull, predictable and often pretentious to the point of being utterly unreadable.

    Sure, I don’t think the current incarnation is that wonderful — it’s dull and predictable in its own way. But I think Campbell is rather prey to romantic nostalgia for an age that never really existed; and if you bothering looking into the archives, even the sainted Montie Holcroft wasn’t above running ‘lifestyle’ fluff clearly aimed at a middle-class ‘elite’ readership. As Warwick Roger once said about Metro: He loved magazines, but the simple reality is that they’re discretionary, luxury buys for most people, and certainly not essential media in the way newspapers and the 6 o’clock news are to many. If you’re got to cut fat out of the budget what are you likely to leave on the shelf — a magazine or a bottle of milk?

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  2. NeilM (370 comments) says:

    the problem wasn’t that it was Left wing but that it was a very very narrow and quite far-left part of the Left spectrum.

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  3. BlairM (2,265 comments) says:

    Gawd, listen to the Lefties whine about their beloved magazine! There was never a golden age of the Listener – people bought it for the TV listings when it was the only publication that could carry them, and continued to buy it out of habit. Then they woke up one day, realised Finlay Macdonald was somewhere to the Left of Pol Pot, and figured they could get more insight and rational discourse from the letters to the editor in the TV Guide.

    As for Pamela Stirling, the critics seem to mistake blandness and vacuousness for being “Right Wing”. She has dumbed it down even further, if that were possible, and in an attempt to offer something for everyone has ended up with nothing for anyone.

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  4. Redbaiter (13,197 comments) says:

    The Listener wasn’t ever truly “liberal”, for if the word is used in its true sense it is not compatible at all with the ideas of those who promote big powerful high taxing interfering regulating moralising government- ie leftists. There’s nothing “liberal” about stealing money from one man by regulation and putting it in the pocket of another man, and its even less “liberal” when the idea of that exercise is to induce the second man to vote for you.

    The Listener only has one excuse really for its legendary political partisanship, and that is that everyone was doing it. The mainstream media have for decades been the mouthpiece of the left. Some more than others. The Listener was an extreme example, using the TV schedules as a means to infest NZ households with ideas that wouldn’t sell otherwise.

    For decades, journalists have gradually betrayed their profession, and The Listener was at the forefront of this betrayal. There was so much the press could have been telling us, but rather than bring the truth, they brought us packaged left wing propaganda. It makes me feel nauseous to see Gordon Campbell using the word “contrarian”. Mr Farrar is right. Contrarian in perhaps it attacked other publications for not being quite as enthusiastic as The Listener in pumping out “approved” left wing garbage.

    Whilst the Listener in that format has long gone, (once it lost sole right to the TV schedules it was done) other mainstream media still suffers from the same journalistic weaknesses. Using left wing templates. Megaphoning left wing social ideas. Advocating for left wing causes. All at the expense of truth.

    How many readers here who made the effort to write letters to the editor challenging mainstream leftist political views have had those letters binned by partisan editors time after time after time? The Herald letters page in particular was hopelessly inaccessible to anyone not drinking the socialist Kool-ade.

    NZ has an extremely narrow political spectrum that extends from extreme left to far left, and we have suffered socially for this blinkered community perspective. The print media shares a large part of the blame for this lack of political diversity. When they should have been bringing us truth, they were pumping out partisan propaganda. I’ll never forgive them for their betrayal.

    ..and now who needs them anyway? We’ve got the internet, and those totally discredited partisan propagandists calling themselves journalists are finally reaping what they have sown. Go the blogosphere.

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  5. emmess (1,332 comments) says:

    I knew there was something I didn’t like about the Listener even before I knew what left wing and right wing even were.
    In my pre-teens and early teens back in the mid 80′s, most weeks I would walk down to the petrol station to purchase the Listener for the family, then later on I switched the family to the TV Guide just to get the listings (although I admit I did read a lot of mindless crap in it just because it was there). Maybe I knew instinctively there was something pompous,elitist and/or negative and nasty about the Listener

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  6. first time caller (384 comments) says:

    I only ever read Jane Clifton while at the checkout. She has a great turn of phrase.

    Frankly, the lefties will be be-moaning any publication for the next 6 months…when you’re going down, no-one has anything nice to say…

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  7. Scott (1,614 comments) says:

    I actually think the listener has got a lot better over the last few years. I am thankful that Gordon Campbell and Finlay Macdonald no longer feature on its pages. Finlay Macdonald still features in the Sunday Star Times but at least that publication has other writers who are not always of the far left — Matthew Hooton and Michael laws are two writers I have generally enjoyed reading.

    The listener was of the far left. Now that Gordon Campbell has gone, and he was of the very far left left, I think the magazine is a lot more accessible to the general reader.

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  8. Redbaiter (13,197 comments) says:

    The real problem of course was/ is not that these people held/ hold left wing views. It was the deceit. Wherein left wing propaganda was fed to an unsuspecting public under the guise of “objective” comment. There’s so many NZ ‘journalists’ of that period who were extreme leftists, (and nowadays seen as such) but who at that time presented themselves as non-partisan commentators. What an utter deceit.

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  9. dudeabides (15 comments) says:

    I think that Gordon Campbell’s original point is right: that phrase “Alliance House Journal”, which was intended by Stirling to be derogatory, insults a whole previous generation or two of Listener writers, some of whom were named by John Drinnan in the Herald the other day: Bruce Ansley, Denis Welch and so on. Were these guys all brainwashed by some sinister leftist cabal? Hardly.

    I’ve read the Listener pretty solidly for more than 20 years, and known some of its writers, and it’s clear that a golden age has passed. It’s not about ideology but about depth in the writing. The stories are shorter now, less complicated, less likely to surprise or upset prejudices. They’re more likely to reinforce what you already know or suspect — take this week’s cover story on food myths. Did anyone learn anything from that? In other words, it wasn’t the old Listener that was predictable, but the new one. Also predictable is the response to Gordon’s comments from the right-wing fraternity who comment at this blog.

    It can’t be denied that Gordon has left-wing leanings — that’s clear from his writing, and he would admit to it himself, I’m sure. But in this same period he talks about, 1999 to 2004, the right-wing Jane Clifton was the magazine’s press gallery reporter — ie, its most prominent political writer. If the magazine was indeed the Alliance House Journal, she would have been dumped pronto. Equally, Stirling wrote for the magazine during this period too — from the ’70s on, I think — without ever pushing a left-wing view. So there’s a logical flaw there: how can she call it the Alliance House Journal when two of its most prominent writers (herself and Clifton) didn’t toe the line?

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  10. Redbaiter (13,197 comments) says:

    “Were these guys all brainwashed by some sinister leftist cabal?”

    How they got the way they are is not the point. Leftists cannot write from any other perspective. They may even believe they’re being objective. Because their political perspectives are so crippled they do not possess the ability to discern otherwise.

    A leftist just cannot write from any other viewpoint. Everything they write is written from a leftist political perspective, and they just cannot help it.

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  11. dudeabides (15 comments) says:

    Redbaiter — you clearly don’t know any of Bruce Ansley’s writing if you mistake him for a leftist. That was my point.

    The simple question is this: how can the magazine have been the Alliance House Journal if it ran stories by staff writers like Ansley, Jane Clifton, Pamela Stirling and Diana Wichtel, none of whom were ever mistaken for leftists? Yes, there were some writing from the left at the Listener but there were many who weren’t, making it home to a more diverse range of opinions than in its current centre-right incarnation.

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  12. Redbaiter (13,197 comments) says:

    You may well be correct concerning later versions of the Listener. I stopped reading it years before 1999 and haven’t ever picked one up since. Incidentally, I do not concede that those you name are not leftists. They may well be right wing now, but I don’t remember ever reading anything in the Listener that wasn’t written from the standard anti-family anti-Conservative pseudo liberal political perspective. It was always wall to wall communist shit.

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  13. capills_enema (194 comments) says:

    dudeabides: You appear to be suggesting that someone whose politics aren’t exactly the same as our friend Redbaiter’s isn’t a communist. You must be new around here.

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  14. tom hunter (3,998 comments) says:

    I should be thankful to Gordon Campbell because it was one of his articles that finally drove me to dump my Listener subscription in 1999.

    In one sense I’d grown up with him, from his lowly beginnings as the music reviewer to all the lead article stuff he was doing by the late 1990’s. But I’d also grown apart from his sensibilities, and that of the magazine.

    As passionate haters of Muldoon and all he stood for (I thought) I and my university flatmates eagerly awaited the arrival of each Listener in the early 1980’s. We roared with laughter as Tom Scott, Denis Welch, and others punctured the National regime. Long past those days, even as I found myself more and more at odds with their take on the world, I subscribed.

    But then I went to the US for a decade. When I returned I subscribed once more, only now I read with new eyes – and it made me sick. The degree of bashing of capitalism, America, Western culture in general (apart from progressive causes of course) should not have been a surprise though. When I looked at selected back copies I found exactly the same sentiments from more than a decade earlier.

    Moreover it existed all through the magazine: a music article reviewing Mano Negra or Waiata’s Thread of Gold (“why is it that woman always write better love songs”), a book review of One Hundred Years of Solitude, developments in economic theory or practice, science and technology. You name it, there would always be at least one, sometimes several, snide little rips in the piece. It grew tiresome.

    The personal denoument for me came in July 1999. I had wondered for a couple of months how the Listener would cover the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but sadly I was not surprised. You might have thought that, from an Old Left perspective, a huge government programme that got results would have been hailed. But instead we got the New Left perspective, fresh from the 1960’s.

    Every piece of pablum I’d ever heard watching interviews with activists in 1969 was regurgitated – how the money should have been spent on the poor instead (an extra couple of days spending for the War on Poverty), the infantile patriotism involved, the pathetic, small-town, crew-cut white squares flying the mission (and the guys in Mission Control – sheesh), the cynical Cold-War militarisation of it all.

    All of this I could have written myself. None of it was new or original, even to casual followers of those events. But Campbell wrote it anyway, perhaps thinking that he would shock those few remaining fools who still thought it was something special. The concluding paragraph basically stated (from memory) that Apollo was a great technical achievement but a societal non-event.

    That sniffy conclusion was almost the perfect summary of the white, urban, left-wing male ethos that had so long suffused the magazine – parchments that could have been watermarked with images of Dim, Ben Wilson, and the Nome.

    Jane Clifton and Joanne Black, as much as they made me chuckle, would not be enough.

    The thing is that if the desire was to write such a scathing, cynical piece about the Apollo programme – then one such could have been written from a right-wing perspective. Such an approach could have argued that Apollo was yet another Big Government Programme that typically failed even in it’s success – that it stuffed a whole series of smaller, better space programmes at its beginning and rooted deep space exploration by humans for the next half-century because of it’s ‘one shot’, 2 by ‘five-year’ plan approach. Such a critique would at least have had the value of being relatively fresh and unknown compared to what Campbell served up.

    But that could never have happened because it would simply have never occurred to Campbell or any of the other writers and editors.

    At that point I quit. If they wanted to print this unendingly boring shit they could do it without my money. I had no great hopes that I would be one of thousands to do so, thereby having an affect, and despite all the leftie wailing and gnashing of teeth about the current version I don’t believe it has actually become more right wing. It has merely descended into the shallow pool occupied by most other NZ print media. The internet had already arrived and it gives me a variety of analysis I never got from the Listener.

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