Lifetime's learning, insights peculiar privilege of journalism

Colin James
Colin James
Colin James, as he retires as a regular newspaper columnist, reflects on the role of, and the privilege of being, a journalist.

Around the time I returned from London in 1978 a businessman punched a young journalist called Colin James. People in politics sympathised with me, some barely suppressing Schadenfreude.

That other, punched, Colin James went offshore soon after. No-one punched this Colin James (me), at least not physically. The incident reinforced for me the merit for a journalist of humility.

Journalists live two lives: the inner and the craft.

When David Lange died and the Greens stood in his memory opening their 2005 election campaign, I the journalist stayed sitting while I the inner person behind the journalist secretly stood. There was the same wrench when the Council of Trade Unions conference in 2015 stood in memory of the fine Peter Conway.

Journalists are close in to events but never part of them. They meet the powerful and the celebrated. Some are seduced into thinking themselves their equals. They are then lost to journalism.

Journalists make no momentous decisions. Celebrity ill-becomes them. They are a channel through which the powerful and celebrated talk to the people and the people talk back.

To others, the journalist seems greatly privileged to be alongside power and stardust. And the journalist is privileged. But not in the way most non-journalists think. The privilege is to spend a lifetime learning.

A journalist can ask questions of almost everyone and almost all will answer: the powerful and celebrated, the knowing and skilled, the repositories of arcane science or ways of thinking and the ``ordinary'' guardians of understanding of a community or of a simple truth or of a good way to live an ``ordinary'' life.

They are all at the journalist's call. They all teach a journalist who listens.

Yet the journalist need not be expert or knowing or complete. The journalist needs understand only so much of a topic as readers-viewers-listeners want or need to know. The journalist has only to light on and illuminate an idea or project or nation or technology.

No other occupation offers that intense opportunity - to learn but not to have to know, to learn a little and move to the next learning. For a half-century I have had that deeply enriching privilege.

The utu is to listen with respect.

A journalist is sceptical, alert to lies, deceit, backside-covering and charlatanism. But not cynical. A cynic has stopped listening and learning. A journalist is open. If not, the communication channel that is the journalist will choke.

The utu is also to write down or talk about the learning so that others can know what the journalist has learnt. For some, expression is journalism's pleasure. They are would-be writers and journalism is as close as they can get.

For me, writing it down was the grind. Words shuffled off the keyboard or sat stuttering. They often said to readers different things from what I thought I had said. Words, I found, are wilful and wayward.

Nevertheless, for five decades generous editors and readers encouraged me in my attempts at this exacting craft. They privileged me to go on learning. So I have had a working life beyond any of my youthful imaginings. It usually scarcely felt like work. I often pinched myself: surely I can't be here doing this.

My beat was politics and policy, a high privilege. Since politics is power, I met those in power and their advisers and came to understand and respect them, even those I could not admire. Many I the inner person came quietly to like.

Almost all in politics mean well. I learned they are different: they see, or affect to see, only one side of each many-sided story the journalist sees. And since politics seeps into almost every corner of a nation's life, I met thousands of interesting people from nearly every walk of life.

I met many more when I could put my email address under what I wrote and readers could write to me easily.

Almost all were thoughtful and courteous. The tiny few who were angry or abusive almost all recovered the courtesy and decency that is in everyone when I replied with courtesy and respect. Most offered a fact I didn't know or an insight or way of thinking I hadn't come across or pointed to a source I hadn't tapped. Again, I learned.

I met in this way many wise ``ordinary'' folk, who are, of course, not ordinary at all. Meeting them - you - through those emails was a big bonus, a validation of humility and respect.

There were others who never wrote. They - you - kept me in business by persisting with my tangled prose and thereby awarded me a lifetime's inestimable privilege of charting my - our - nation-in-the-making.

The Otago Daily Times set me on this path when young and in my twilight took me in again. It is 50 years since I first left the ODT, shortly afterwards to perch, perchance, in the parliamentary press gallery.

Now, as politics takes a fresh turn, into the post-baby-boom era, it has come time for this baby-boom fellow-traveller to take leave of his relentless weekly scribblings.

Thank you for having me.

-Colin James is a leading social and political commentator. ColinJames@synapsis.co.nz

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