Hard News by Russell Brown


Saying Goodbye to The Independent

This week's Media7 focuses on the closure of The Independent Business Weekly by its present owner, Fairfax – bringing to an end a remarkable story in New Zealand journalism.

The paper was founded in 1992 by Warren Berryman and Jenni McManus. The paper's last editor Fiona Rotherham, was on staff then, and recalled what happened next in her valedictory editorial last week:

Four weeks after it launched, The Independent really hit its straps by breaking the multibillion-dollar tax dodge scandal that lead to the winebox commission of inquiry and, later, to the High Court's decision to overturn the winebox commissioner's limp-wristed report.

For its pains, the paper was injuncted after the first couple of winebox stories were published the first of many high-profile legal battles The Independent fought on behalf of its readers and their right to know.

Berryman had arrived in New Zealand in the early 1970s, and got himself a job at the emergent National Business Review in 1975 – despite being 36 and having never written a word of journalism before. (He had been, among other things, a gun-runner in Afghanistan and a professional diver.)

By the time he died in 2004 (the news was rushed into the paper on deadline, under the terse headline 'Berryman dead') his name was all over New Zealand defamation case law. But, as Hugh Rennie QC noted in an interview I did with him on Mediawatch at the time:

He didn't want it to be, it would have suited him if he never had been. But that's another thing I'd have to say that was an NBR philosophy not just a Berryman philosophy. In the 70s, our attitude was that we wouldn't be stood on. I don't recall Warren ever doing a piece, writing an article and then losing the case, but having said that it was important to understand that he followed a couple of philosophies which again went back to the early NBR days. The first was, if you got something wrong you correct it, another was that if it was appropriate to apologise you'd apologise and a third, which was really his hallmark was a standard NBR practice in the 70s, was that you never just took one particular course and imagined it was right, you had to go out and check three different directions to put something together.

And so quite often people would take Warren on thinking that he actually ... that he might be right but he wouldn't be able to prove it and would be quite startled by what he came up with. I remember one occasion where he was taken on by a defamation plaintiff who thought he wouldn't be able to prove the financial position that was alleged, and I said to Warren "how are you going to prove that?" And he said "oh well, here's a set of the chap's audited accounts, do you think that will be sufficient?" And needless to say, when they were sent off to that plaintiff he wasn't heard from again.

In his old blog on this site, Rob O'Neill recalled:

Warren's career as a journo was full of highlights, but one of his best known solo coups was to get his hands on a draft copy of a credit rating assessment of New Zealand in Muldoon's time and confront him with it. Usually the government had a chance to edit these before release.

Taking on Muldoon was not something for the faint-hearted, and Warren showed real courage time and again, especially in supporting Jenni's dogged pursuit of the Winebox scandal. His support of his journos when they were up against it was also a legend.

Where other papers let stories drop or fade away, the Indy followed them and followed them right to the very end. You couldn't run and you couldn't hide.

Fairfax acquired the paper – which had been bankrolled by businessman Tony Timpson for much of its existence – from McManus and Timpson in 2006, and while it continued to win awards thereafter, the new owner didn't seem to have a vision for the paper. It was a simple commercial reality that saw it closed last week and its journalists absorbed into Fairfax's Auckland newsroom, whose Businessday desk provides copy for Stuff, The Dominion Post, The Press and the Waikato Times.

There's a fairly vigorous debate about the merits of the move and the legacy of the paper under the Stop Press news report.

Most of the young reporters who went through the Warren-and-Jenni academy didn't stay very long – it could be a challenging place to work, and the pair of them were suspicious of those fancy new computer things – but they all came our different and better journalists as a result of the experience.

The list of alumni is remarkable: Rotherham, O'Neill, Vincent Heeringa, Jon Stephenson, Nikki Mandow, Pattrick Smellie, Marie Slade, Roger Armstrong, Mike Booker, Frances Martin and Rebecca Macfie are among them. Chris Trotter, whose politics were rather different to those of the editors, was a longtime columnist.

In our programme, we'll talk to Rotherham and McManus about what happens next, and the state of business journalism; and then introduce a panel of Timpson, O'Neill and Trotter to dish up the war stories – of which, you may have gathered, there are many.

If you'd like to join us tomorrow for the recording at TVNZ, from about 5pm, hit Reply and let me know. It should be fun.

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