A Listener flashback: The sacking of an editor

NZ Listener June 1972
How the New Zealand Listener looked in June 1972 ... now closed after 81 years of publication due to the coronavirus pandemic. Image: PMC screenshot

REVIEW: By Jeremy Rees

After 81 years of publication, The NZ Listener, one of the Bauer Media stable of publications, closed last month when the Germany-based publisher shut down its New Zealand operation. In this article, Jeremy Rees reflects on the report of a Commission of Inquiry that investigated a decision by the Board of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation on 25 July 1972 to terminate the editorship of Alexander MacLeod with three months’ pay, effective immediately. The Listener had only had three editors since its launch as a broadcasting guide in 1939. Its founder Oliver Duff and successor Monty Holcroft, the revered editor of 18 years, built it up as a magazine of culture, arts and current events on top of its monopoly of listings of radio and television programmes. Both men managed to establish a sturdy independence for the magazine which was still the official journal of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, later to become the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation.

Five years ago, when I left The New Zealand Herald after 15 years employment, I decided I would leave carrying my belongings packed in a brown cardboard box.

It is not quite as odd as it sounds now. One of the most common images after the Global Financial Crisis was employees leaving the office with their belongings packed in a distinctive box. You can search it now.

Enron? There are the employees leaving with cardboard boxes. Lehman Brothers? The same cardboard box. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae? Same thing. Every time I looked at press agency photos of people leaving work, I looked for the cardboard box.

So, when I left the Herald for another job in 2015, I bought myself the cardboard box and packed up my few things. I said goodbye to colleagues, had a drink or two and then picked up the box, took it home and stored it in the attic.

Some years later, I found it. It didn’t look how I remembered. On the outside was written in felt pen, “Library, bin”. I had picked up the wrong one. Inside were dozens of unwanted and browning reports from the 1960 and 1970s. My box was long gone to the landfill. I had the reports even the Herald Library didn’t want.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, I climbed into the attic to toss it out. But, curious and with a bit of time to kill, I decided to pick one report to see if it was interesting. I picked out the 1972 Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Dismissal of the Editor of the New Zealand Listener.

On 25 July 1972, the Board of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation decided to terminate the editorship of Alexander MacLeod, with three months’ pay, effective immediately. The Listener had only had three editors since its launch as a broadcasting guide in 1939. Its founder Oliver Duff and successor Monty Holcroft, the revered editor of 18 years, built it up as a magazine of culture, arts and current events on top of its monopoly of listings of radio and television programmes. Both men managed to establish a sturdy independence for the magazine which was still the official journal of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, later to become the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation.

So, the dismissal of the editor was a sizable event.

Straight away, news reports raised the possibility of political interference.

Turbulent year
The year 1972 was a turbulent one. It was the year of Nixon in China, anti-Vietnam War protests. In New Zealand, the Holyoake years were ending, the electorate tired of National after 12 years; there were protests about the impending 1973 Springbok tour. On all these issues, MacLeod was a liberal. His editorials would later be characterised as “idealistic liberalism”.

Some of his editorials worried the board. They thought they lacked “balance”.

By all accounts, MacLeod was a good journalist, but Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand  describes him as “erratic”. He had been recruited from England to replace Holcroft and immediately increased The Listener’s foreign coverage. Witnesses praised his literary ability. He took his weekly editorial very seriously as a public figure.

At the same time, the board had been warned of some troubling dealings with staff. The Public Service Association forwarded staff complaints about him. There was a falling out with a “sub-editor in Auckland”. In another incident, MacLeod objected to the choice of the “Listener Appointments Committee” (one of three Listener committees cited in the report) of a new “Listener Secretary/Typiste”. He threatened to give her no work if she was hired. She didn’t stay long.

Into this volatile mix was thrown a magazine redesign. The “Listener Sales Committee” (another committee) wanted change to arrest circulation declines, maybe even a change of direction. It had discussed the possibility of running a little less culture and current events and a bit more entertainment and listings, like the BBC’s Radio Times. It proposed a “popular magazine of good quality and not subject to criticism over controversial editorials”. Did it really need an editorial? The board said it would consider it.

In early July, the NZBC Board formally asked its editor for his thoughts on the editorials. It invited him to the meeting of July 25 to discuss the matter.

The result was unexpected and fateful.

Oddly rambling missive
A week before the meeting, MacLeod sent the board a letter. Ostensibly setting out his views on editorials, it is an oddly rambling missive, setting out a series of complaints, among them that the Director-General of Broadcasting had not acted properly according to the Listener Staff Manual in a staff dispute.

MacLeod goes on to say that he does not wish to speak to the board about editorials; he only wants to be heard if the board decides to drop them. The later commission report pointed out it was not quite clear if he was coming to the July 25 meeting or not.

Certainly, the board thought he was. It was one of the first items of business. The board duly convened at 11 am, on the floor above The Listener editor’s office.

At 11.20 am, the board’s secretary rang MacLeod’s secretary and asked that he come up. The editor rang back to say he was busy. He said he had indicated he couldn’t come. At 11.35 am, the chairman asked the secretary to ring again. He got through and asked him to come up. MacLeod again said no. He had had no notice of the meeting, he had no wish to speak, he couldn’t leave his desk as The Listener was going to press in two hours. At 11.45 am, the editor wrote a note to the chairman. “I am short of staff and my presence here is absolutely required. No disrespect is intended, it is merely for professional reasons I cannot leave.” He went on to say that he had had his say in his letter and only needed to talk to the board if it “did certain things”.

At 12.55 pm the board wrote a note to the editor directing him to come at 2.30 pm. MacLeod did not see it at first; he had gone to a lunch meeting of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs to hear the speaker. When he found it, he wrote another letter to the board upstairs. “I regret that for reasons I have already explained—namely that this is a press day and my chief sub-editor and chief reporter are both absent—it will not be possible to attend.”

(The chief Subeditor gave evidence to the commission that the editor had given him the rest of the day off and said he could handle the magazine himself.)

At 2.50 pm, the board secretary rang the editor and, in effect, told him to get up to the board now. The secretary said he told the editor to “drop everything” and “come right up”. In the language of the commission he was told that the direction to attend was “absolute and unqualified”. MacLeod replied, he couldn’t right now but he could come at 4 pm.

Telephoned their lawyers
At some point in all these to-ings and fro-ings, Mrs MacLeod came to the office for two hours and she and her husband telephoned their lawyers.

By mid-afternoon, the board had had enough.

At that point the board passed a motion: “the employment of Mr A J MacLeod, editor, New Zealand Listener, be terminated on three months’ notice.”

And it resolved he be relieved of his duties forthwith.

Into this fraught moment, dropped one last letter from MacLeod downstairs. He said his editorial duties should have passed by 4 pm: “This is to confirm my availability.”

Such a dramatic action was always going to make headlines and raise questions. A few weeks later, the National Government of “Gentleman Jack” Marshall ordered a Commission of Inquiry under Ernest Albert Lee, OBE, a retired Christchurch judge, perhaps best known for his work in getting the Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) established. He was to determine if the board had acted properly and if was there any political interference.

One by one, the board members gave evidence to the inquiry that they had lost confidence in MacLeod. In different ways, they felt he was challenging their authority and had to go. One felt that there would only be ‘chaos’ if officers could ignore the board.

Letters, notes respectful
MacLeod’s lawyers claimed the editor’s letters and notes to the board were at all times respectful. And anyway, they asked, why couldn’t the Director-General of Broadcasting, who was at the meeting, just walk downstairs and talk to MacLeod, rather than summoning him repeatedly?

Commissioner Lee found that the editor’s behaviour was “completely inexcusable”.

“He obviously had made up his mind…. he would go in his own time.”

Lee found that MacLeod had enough time to go to a lunch meeting, have his wife in the office for two hours, write notes to the board, ring his solicitor and give his chief sub half a day off, but couldn’t walk up the stairs to talk about editorials.

“It seems to me that it was not the editor’s privilege to decide if he would go or not.” And as for the board going down to see the editor, there was no reason at all for them to “go cap-in-hand” to an employee.

But was the board influenced by politics?

Commissioner Lee was attracted to the somewhat tortured argument that the board could not have been political because if it was it wouldn’t have done something as stupid as sacking a liberal editor just months before the 1972 General Election.

Political affiliations snapshot
Interestingly, he does provide a snapshot of the political affiliations of the NZBC Board.
First up its chair, Major-General Walter McKinnon, who had just retired as the NZ Military’s Chief of General Staff. He was also the father of the McKinnon siblings who have been prominent in politics, diplomacy and public life. Don McKinnon was the Deputy Prime Minister under Jim Bolger and a former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

Commissioner Lee finds that the chairman bent over backwards on July 25 to ask the editor to attend but as to politics, he had little interest. “He made a small annual payment to an electorate branch of the National Party but had never participated in any political activity.”

Another member, Mrs McNab, had been active for National for 20 years and was a Dominion Councillor. Melville Tronson had been a National Party member for “8 or 9” years and had once been asked to be a candidate but declined. B E Brill was a National Dominion Councillor and became the National MP for Kapiti as Barry Brill.

Set against that was James Collins who was non-political; his interest lay in sales marketing. The inquiry report drily points out that Collins had made just one reference to The Listener in his time on the board, when he had suggested it explore every avenue to get more radio ads. “That was the sole reference he ever made to The Listener.

Lastly, Reverend K Ihaka had once been asked to stand for Labour in Northern Māori but said no and pointed out that he dealt with all sorts of people from different parties.

So, was the decision to sack the editor political? Definitely not, concludes Commissioner Lee. His investigation finds the board felt it was dealing with a turbulent editor, who was challenging their authority by refusing to appear. He finds no direct evidence of interference.

But it’s hard not to escape MacLeod’s counter-argument in the commission report. The board may have acted with no political intent, but the editor believed his job was becoming politicised. MacLeod’s view seems to have been that great issues of war, racism and politics were being debated in the country and The New Zealand Listener had to be in the centre of them. The board said it never interfered in Listener editorials but it had also become concerned about “balance”.

Government ownership a problem
At least part of the problem seems to have stemmed from the government ownership of a magazine which dealt with current affairs. Throughout the commission, board members question how The Listener sat within the 1961 Broadcasting Act which demanded equitable, balanced reporting on radio and television. They were often exercised how their magazine could have opinionated editorials when radio and TV didn’t.

A year earlier, the “Listener Committee” (the third committee of The Listener mentioned to the inquiry) wrote a report to MacLeod saying The Listener had to maintain balance “along the same lines as the corporation is required by statute to follow in the its broadcast programmes”.

And just a month before the July board meeting, the Listener Committee had met (along with MacLeod) to discuss ways to make the paper more popular and to criticise “the controversial character of editorials”—it not being a broadcasting function to “express any particular point of view”. MacLeod said he remembered being told by a board member his editorials were “politically embarrassing” to the NZBC.

Board members told the inquiry they could recall conversations about some of MacLeod’s editorials. General McKinnnon remembered phoning MacLeod to offer information about the Vietnam War for which the editor he said was “grateful”. MacLeod, on the other hand, claimed McKinnon rang him after every anti-Vietnam War editorial, I “have no hesitation in saying…pressures were exerted”.

MacLeod remembered every discussion of an editorial; General McKinnon felt they were hardly discussed by the board all.

Things weren’t helped by a cover story on the impending Springbok tour showing some All Blacks with the headline, “No tour”. MacLeod said the Director-General of Broadcasting objected to it as “politically slanted journalism”.

Furthermore, MacLeod had angered the NZBC by suggesting in an editorial it had caved in to political pressure to “balance” a news report on losses in Vietnam. His editorial was thought disloyal to colleagues in the NZBC.

A sensitive time
All of this came at a sensitive time when the government was discussing whether to allow a second TV channel.

Perhaps, a different man may have handled all this differently. In his writings presented to the Commission of Inquiry, MacLeod comes across as a prickly and difficult cove. And the pressure seems to have crystallised in his mind around his editorial freedom. Commissioner Lee rather harshly calls it his “blind jealousy of his editorial role”.

So how independent could an editor be, especially the editor of a publicly funded magazine? The commission sort several views. One of its oddities is that MacLeod seemed to find his greatest support from experts outside the media, particularly a Victoria University business professor with the wonderful name of Stewart Wilfred Nivison Ransom. His argument appears to be that editors are likely to be single-minded, ambitious and aggressive, so harmonious relations with boards are unlikely. If there was conflict with the Broadcasting Act then maybe the act should be changed—or ignored.

At this point, Commissioner Lee grants Ransom his own exclamation mark of disapproval, the only one in the report!

Much more to his liking was the evidence of former New Zealand Herald editor, Orton Sutherland Hintz. He quotes him approvingly at length (although with a Christchurch judge’s knowledge of the media north of the Waimakariri he refers to Hintz’s paper as the “Auckland Herald”). Hintz argued that editorial independence was not absolute, that it is set by the direction of the proprietor or the board. And that editorials are not the view of the editor alone; they represent the view of the journal. In other words, the editor and an editorial are subject to the board’s policies.

If an editor received a directive from the board, they had three options; put it into effect, resign, or refuse and be dismissed. Hintz was firm; the board had the absolute right to keep an eye on the content of The Listener.

He did not believe the number of times the board sought to speak to MacLeod about his editorials was excessive.

The commissioner’s verdict
In the end, the Commission of Inquiry found completely in favour of the board.
Sitting on a box in my attic marked “Library. Bin”, I read the conclusions. They have the rhythm of a tumbril drumbeat.

Did the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation act properly in dismissing Alexander Joseph MacLeod as editor? The answer, said Commissioner Lee, was Yes.

Was any political interference or influence brought to bear on the corporation in making its decision? The answer was No.

Was the corporation influenced by any political consideration? The answer again No.

The report was delivered to His Excellency Sir Edward Denis Blundell, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint Gorge, Knight Commander of the most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief in and over New Zealand on the 13th day of October 1972. And that was largely that.

The country was in the midst of an election; six weeks later National’s long reign was ended by Norman Kirk’s Labour. Within a few months Kirk withdrew New Zealand troops from Vietnam, recognised China and ended the proposed 1973 Springbok tour.

Some 48 years later, reading a brown cardboard box of old reports, I haven’t been able to get one image out of my head. It’s like a film shot of a building with the outer wall removed to show the floors. On one floor, the Board of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. One floor below, an editor, joined occasionally by his wife, putting The Listener to bed and steadfastly refusing to walk upstairs to defend editorials.

Jeremy Rees is a journalist of some 30 years experience. Currently an executive editor at Radio New Zealand, he has been a former editor of the Weekend Herald and editor of nzherald.co.nz This article has been published by the Pacific Media Centre’s Asia Pacific Report by arrangement with Pacific Journalism Review.

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