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 the Listener 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.