WTF: On The Listener, past and present

Scoop Image – Lyndon Hood
“It’s clear that [Pamela] Stirling’s approach to the eco-column – like her approach to the Listener – has been a lot more right of centre than the line of the old days.Stirling took over in 2004 and she says that for a long time the Listener had been the house journal of the Alliance Party. Stirling says the magazine is more centrist and allows everyone to express a view.”– John Drinnan, NZ Herald, April 18

In the same spirit of allowing everyone to express a view, let me just say that IMHO – as someone who worked on the Listener before and during Pamela Stirling’s time as editor – the above version of history is inaccurate. 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. One wonders what steps she took, during those alleged dark days of Alliance house journalism, to disassociate herself from such a publication, and the career platform it consistently afforded her.

If she has been accurately reported, Stirling’s assessment of the Listener that she inherited is a slur on previous editors such as Finlay Macdonald, Paul Little, Jenny Wheeler, Terry Snow, Geoff Baylis and David Beatson among others – not to mention on the editor who initiated many of the Listener’s best conventions, Monte Holcroft. At a guess, I’d bet the personal politics of most of those editors would have been anything but radical left. Yet previous editors (and prior owners such as Michael Horton) seemed proud to be associated with the liberal tradition and journalistic standards the Listener used to exemplify. I wonder if many of them would feel the same way about its current incarnation.

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.

During the years 1999 – 2004 inclusive – which presumably spans at least part of the alleged Alliance house journal phase – the Listener defended Army chief Maurice Dodson, slammed the Clark government over its half baked TVNZ social charter proposals, profiled the US conservative thinker Francis Fukuyama and championed the free speech rights of the Holocaust denier David Irving. If anyone can find a hard left ideological continuity in those positions – or during the 20 years prior to the advent of Stirling as editor – I’d like to see the evidence.

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.

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?”

Politically, the magazine also seems more ideologically narrow now than it was under Finlay Macdonald. Some weeks it looks, dare one say it, like the house journal of the National Party.

Which is, of course, a choice that Pamela Stirling would be totally free to make. She is the editor after all, and calls the shots. Formerly though, the country did think that it used to own the Listener. The magazine felt like a national institution that we all had a stake in. Which is why so many people have felt saddened by its current condition. It has been like watching the decline into premature senility of a beloved relative. Cover story this week – Sassy At 60. Yeah right.

Perhaps weekly general interest magazines are a doomed species anyway. Across the Tasman, the Bulletin gave up the ghost earlier this year.

Circulation figures could eventually decide whether the Listener goes the same way. Finlay Macdonald recalls that circulation fell from the high or mid 80s to around 74,000 over the five years of his tenure. Stirling once characterized this performance to me as the magazine being in‘ free fall’ when she took it over.

Well, break out the parachutes. The last audited survey has the Listener net circulation at 65,559. In all likelihood, some 40-42,000 of that weekly figure comes from prepaid subscriptions. This would suggest the Listener is managing to sell only about 23-25,000 copies over the counter nationwide, in most weeks. Pretty slim pickings if the master plan was for a new mass readership to materialize from the ruins, as compensation for the trashing of the old Listener template.

Full disclosure: the writer was made redundant by the Listener in 2006. He confesses to once planning to write a book about Jim Anderton, and has worked for the Greens. He also thinks Winston Peters did a terrific job on the Winebox, and respects Tariana Turia and Katherine Rich. ENDS