Random Play by Graham Reid

Alt.Nation: The “write” stuff

In an unexpected outburst on Sunday morning the head of Canterbury University’s Journalism and Augury School, Professor John Tulley bemoaned declining standards in cliche writing by New Zealand journalists, and noted an increasing tendency for writers to go beyond stating the obvious.

Tulley’s comments were prompted by newspaper reports on the recent visit to New Zealand by the actor and singer Russell Crowe, and concerts by the Rolling Stones.

In the case of Crowe, he told a crowded bar near Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, he had seen one columnist in a Sunday paper not mention that the actor had once thrown a telephone at a hapless desk clerk.

“Now this was senior writer whose work I have often respected, but here was a flagrant example of someone avoiding the cardinal rule of journalism: to tell the readers something they know already.

“An incident like Crowe throwing a telephone, no matter how long ago, is always worth bringing up in serious writing, even if it is ‘apropos of nothing’, as we say in journalism -- which is Greek for meaning it hasn’t got a lot to do with anything.

“I was equally disappointed that another Sunday paper, and more surprisingly a respected weekly current affairs magazine, didn’t take the opportunity to re-litigate the fight between Russell Crowe and Eric Watson, the gentleman who used to own that blonde woman called Sally, of whom incidentally we don‘t seem to be hearing enough of either these days.

“These are more than just oversights, they are wilful acts on the part of editors and journalists who seem determined not to condescend to their readers.”

Tulley said he also noted that when the Rolling Stones came to New Zealand last weekend two journalists writing for Sunday papers not only failed to mention the collective age of the long-serving members of the group but also did not refer to them as “the Rolling Bones, or as old and wrinkly people”.

“Again we see a deliberate avoidance of easy and shallow characterisation which has been the hallmark of some of the best columnists for many generations. It is all too easy in the case of a group like the Rolling Stones to discuss their music or even applaud their longevity, but when a cheap shot is available I can see no reason why these writers would not choose to take it. It injects lowbrow and obvious humour to their work, and shows the writer to be somehow superior to the subject. Those are both hallowed cornerstones of journalism, particularly as it is practiced by columnists.

“I can only think there is some failure of direction from editors, or that a pernicious kind of intelligence has some how crept in.”

Tulley’s comments have been applauded by many in the world of serious journalism, especially by those who write horoscopes, cover golf tournaments and write about fashion.

Editor of Fashion Weekly, the very lovely DeeDee Schnitz-Muller said she too had noticed some individuality creeping in, especially amongst aspiring freelance writers, and she had been at pains to stamp it out.

“I have noticed that some young writers fail to mention Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester and Trelise Cooper in their copy, and if that’s the case I simply send it back to them. You often get someone who will write something critical of our iconic New Zealand labels, and I have no time for that at all.

“We are here to be supportive of our wonderful fashion industry and so of course need to talk about how hard these darlings are working. They don’t need to be critiqued, least of all by those who want to chop down tall poppies and don’t have a firm grasp on the principle of cliches.”

Today Tulley -- a veteran journalist who fought in the Fairfax Wars -- says he will be discussing the matter with senior newspaper editors in the hope that some measure of clichéd writing will be returned to journalism in the near future. He also says that he will be looking closely at the journalism courses the university is offering.

“We will be putting in place a raft of measures which will come to fruition in due course. But at the end of the day it’s down to the editors at the coal face.”

Not all in Tulley’s audience were impressed by his outburst however. Sixth year journalism student Andrew Marks was in the bar when his professor began the discussion and said today that while he agreed on some points he really didn’t want to hear them at 1am on a Sunday morning.

“But there was bugger all you could do. With the new laws here you can’t just leave the pub and bugger off to another, so we had to sit it out.

“Fortunately after a while he put himself to sleep with what he was blabbing on about, so we could just sink a few quiet ones. In a way it was probably useful for us to hear I suppose because journalism means you have to think for yourself.

“Journalism is all about your mental fitness, doing the hard yards and going the distance.”