Farewell from the Independent

22:30, Jun 30 2010

Where do we start?

In the high-risk, high-stress, high-pace world of journalism, 18 years is an eternity. And much has changed since the Independent launched in September 1992.

We did have cellphones  then  one to share among six people. It was the size of a brick. Occasionally we got reception. But no email. Ditto the internet, at least insofar as publishing was concerned. 

Nobody, or at least, nobody we knew, had a website.

Stories were written on archaic Apple Macs, printed out in hard copy and manually pasted up.

On deadline day a courier picked up the finished pages, then battled his way down the southern motorway in rush-hour traffic to get them to the print works on time.


It was another world.

The stories, too, were different.

As we prepared for our first issue, the New Zealand stock exchange was debating whether to scrap open outcry in favour of a computerised trading system; Sir Ron Brierley was poised to unveil plans for his new British investment vehicle, GPG; finance minister Ruth Richardson topped the pops as the business community's best politician after delivering her ''Mother of all Budgets''; Buck McConnell and Sir Bob Jones girded their loins to do battle over a 41-storey office tower in downtown Auckland; prime minister Jim Bolger announced he'd taken charge of the government's privatisation programme to sell more than $15 billion of state assets; the marathon fraud and civil charges against Equiticorp and its directors were grinding  through the courts; and the US ''Baby Bell'' owners of Telecom NZ floated the company on what was then called the NZ Stock Exchange.

Just prior to listing, journalists uncovered the now beleaguered Telecom's first big blunder: tucked away in the fine print of the offer documents was a $50 million loan (through redeemable preference shares) to David Richwhite, whose company Fay Richwhite was lead manager for the New Zealand arm of the float.

The Independent  unsurprisingly  was conceived in a pub. Fuelled by fish and chips and endless gin and tonics, with my three-month-old son rocking in his car seat, Warren Berryman and I sat in Dick Jones' now-defunct cafe on Princes Wharf and sketched out what we hoped would be The Wall St Journal, The Financial Times, The Economist and Vanity Fair  rolled into one.

Tony Timpson, then chairman of Cavalier Carpets, bought into the dream and we were away.

From the start we were very clear about what we did and didn't want.

What was missing from the market, and what gave us our competitive edge, was no-fear, big-balls investigative journalism, as businessman Stephen Lunn, one of our first subscribers, puts it.

As we saw it, the essential ingredient of news was conflict among individuals, companies, countries, interests and ideologies backed with meticulous research and apolitical, courageous writing that told it as it was, no matter how unpalatable the truth.

Editorially, there was scant competition.

Apart from shining examples like Fran O'Sullivan at The Examiner (our precursor to the Independent) and The National Business Review, the Auckland Star team which broke the Mr Asia drugs scandal  and the work Berryman himself had done as a reporter for NBR in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most journalists were little more than stenographers, producing rewritten press releases and company announcements for newspapers of record.

There was little scepticism or appetite for investigation among the mainstream media companies. Nor was there any business analysis or humour.

What had happened to genuine, old-fashioned news-gathering and story-telling? we asked.

We spotted a gap in the market; our time had come.

We branded ourselves as a snappy, gutsy, local read. ''Informed, In-Depth, Indispensible'' screamed our house ads.

''Easy to pick up; hard to put down.'' ''Wanna read Thursday's Business Herald? Read Wednesday's Independent.''

The awards, for individual journalists and the paper, started rolling in.

We prided ourselves on our ability to uncover and unravel complex commercial deals, and explain them in language our readers could understand.

Fortuitously, we broke our best  story  the Kiwi-designed tax rorts that became known as the winebox   because the documents were delivered to our whistleblower in a Montana carton  only a month after the paper was launched.

For the next three weeks we pushed out scandal after scandal, implicating some of New Zealand's biggest corporates, before tax dodge designer European Pacific (a Cook Islands company owned by the BNZ, Brierley Investments and Fay Richwhite) muzzled us with a High Court injunction.

Two years later, our revelations, and those of NZ First MP Winston Peters under the protection of parliamentary privilege, led to the winebox Commission of Inquiry.

Thirty months, 73 witnesses, injunctions, accusations, thousands of pages of transcripts, claims and counterclaims later, the commissioner exonerated the tax dodgers.

Peters went to the High Court and, in August 1999, two judges overturned the commissioner's findings, effectively gutting his report.

Nobody who read the Independent was in any doubt where we stood on the issues of the day.

The headlines said it all: ''Gagged!'' after the winebox injunction. ''Money laundering parasites breed in swamps of bank secrecy.'

''Sock-wearing industrial cripple seeks crutch, will lobby.'' ''Dork of the Decade.'' ''We've got govt out of business. Now what?''

''From Chas to a Charlie'' (a comment on former SFO boss Chas Sturt's performance as a witness at the winebox inquiry).

''Secrecy and slipknots: How the BNZ paid $800,000 to hide a $200m loss.''

To all our loyal readers and subscribers who stuck with Warren, Tony and me and supported us through some pretty hairy times, a massive thank you.

It was a great ride.

The Independent