An inquisitive fence-sitter, by profession, to the end

Philip Somerville applies his "neutral'' approach as he chairs a candidates' meeting (in 2017) at Opoho Church. He has been organising the large Dunedin North electorate and Dunedin City Council candidate meetings at the church for more than 20 years. It
Philip Somerville applies his "neutral'' approach as he chairs a candidates' meeting (in 2017) at Opoho Church. He has been organising the large Dunedin North electorate and Dunedin City Council candidate meetings at the church for more than 20 years. It is the turn, again, of council candidates at the church next Sunday and Monday night. Photo: gregor Richardson
Retiring Otago Daily Times editorial executive Philip Somerville reflects on free speech and ‘‘old-fashioned’’ journalism values.

Some people are fortunate in their choice of career, and I'm one of them.

After nearly 40 years in journalism, I'd change very little.

The job suits the likes of me, those with a shortish attention span. The news is constantly changing. Yesterday's newspaper report is tomorrow's rubbish bin liner. Online stories on the major news sites scroll rapidly.

I hope, though, there are other reasons why my life as a newspaper man was a match well made.

I believe you need to be curious - about people, society and politics, about local, national and the international happenings.

That was me, a nerdy youngster with maps of Africa on my wall and listening intently, at almost 13, to news of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on my little red transistor radio.

I was privileged to grow up in a household subscribing to the ODT and the Evening Star (I once was a Star paperboy), the Listener and the crinkly white airmail Manchester Guardian.

Books, magazines, ideas and interesting people abounded. My father was a leader in various organisations and, as befits descendants of the first Scottish settlers to Dunedin, education was intrinsic.

History at the University of Otago won in a toss-up with political studies, and I could easily have become a teacher. (I was teaching for two years at a junior high school for Volunteer Service Abroad on the outer Cook Island of Atiu.)

But journalism beckoned and, after the postgraduate Canterbury University course and three years in Hawke's Bay, I made my way back to Dunedin as a reporter. News editing, administration, writing editorials, night editing and acting in the editor's stead, editing the opinion page and undertaking all manner of tasks followed.

What a privilege it is to be a journalist, for your life to intersect with prime ministers and everyday folk. How fascinating people, society and culture are in all their complexities.

It satisfied me to be a ''marginal'' person, someone whose task is to report on, process and spread news and views. What matters is not what interests me personally, but what is important and what readers care about. That's our vital role in our democracy. It is more than enough in itself.

A good journalist, in my view, has a certain detachment. It is the story that matters, not your opinion.

I decided about 25 years ago never to sign petitions, and have not done so. I know pure objectivity is a mirage and that I've been conditioned by ''the system''. I know everyone brings their baggage and their slant. But I was going to try anyway.

I have also avoided ''liking'' anything remotely political on social media.

That sort of approach is old-fashioned these days. Many journalists, even good ones, let their views intrude. They, overtly or subconsciously, have social justice or other agendas, rather than being only a neutral dispenser of the news and opinions of others.

They fail to stand back sufficiently to put themselves in the socks of readers with different social views and lifestyles. Often, without realising what they are doing - and in their ''liberal'' outlook they would be horrified to be accused of this - a few even find significant elements of society deplorable.

It is little wonder the ''deplorables'' around the world react to this intolerance, this subtle or not-so-subtle dismissal of who they are, how they live and what they think.

I find, too, I'm sometimes at odds with a coming generation of journalists (and the dominant public sphere) on the limits of free speech. Even - or should that be especially - in a world of perpetual outrage, the repugnant or offensive have the right to be aired.

The greater and long-term good, even at the risk of short-term harm, comes from a robust and open society.

After all, it wasn't so long ago that gay relationships were not just ''offensive'' but illegal. Some of today's acceptable views were yesterday's heresy. Tomorrow will say the same about today.

When I read the following recently it resonated: ''Censorship reinforces power far more than it protects the powerless.''

I despair, as well, at the way legitimate issues are rendered taboo by blanket and scornful accusations of racism, or misogyny, or hate speech. Similarly, it is just not good enough simply to dismiss attitudes as ''politically correct'', ''woke'' or ''virtual signalling''.

Of course, attempts at balance and fairness are distorted by the lenses of the vehement and the vocal. The ODT is accused regularly of being both a left-wing and a right-wing propagandist, even in the same week. During the rancorous stadium debates, the editor was accused of blatant and obvious bias - from both sides. Some of the vitriol aimed at the newspaper on social media these days is diabolical.

One of my favourite tasks, because I'm intrigued by ideas, was editing the opinion pages.

As a principle, I would say that I wanted to disagree with lots of what we printed. I wanted articles which challenged conventional angles and made readers think afresh.

I remember, for example, going out of my way to try to find a reasonable piece from a Donald Trump supporter. Although, personally, I find the present United States president appalling, 40% of Americans back him. Surely, it is helpful for us to understand why.

My outlook on the world, in its shades of grey, means these principles, too, have their boundaries. Even free speech rights have their limits.

Although the likes of the science-denying anti-vax movement has its right to free speech, the likes of this newspaper does not have to be its vehicle. And while elements of climate change can occasionally be questioned, the implications of a world ''on fire'' are so serious it is important, mostly, to go with the 99% expert backing.

There are times to run with the herd and times to go against group think, to question with healthy and ''positive'' scepticism.

Thus, I also believe scientists - like everyone else - are biased and blinkered. And, while an admirer of the process, even the scientific method in real life is tainted by human subjectivity.

I'm proud of the ODT, for all its faults, because it and most of its editorial staff try to follow the basic principles of traditional journalism. But journalism is changing and it's time for me to make way.

I'm now, as I retire, free in my own mind to sign petitions and outwardly express more of my views, to shift from being a communication conduit.

It is said we journalists tend to know a little about a hell of a lot and a lot about very little.

Maybe, after all, and in my ignorance, it would be best if this old-fashioned journalist continued to sit on the fence.

Comments

There'd be no conduit without the skill, experience and mind of the maestro.

Good luck
'Copy boy' (radio).

Maybe not from yourself, but it's pretty obvious which way your newspaper leans..

You really understand time and place, don't you?

Allied Press has no lien on it. It's independent.

 

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