A Life Story - Allen Walley, journalist, political spin doctor

Newsman Allen Walley.
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Newsman Allen Walley.

Allen Walley: journalist, political spin doctor: b Lower Hutt, June 6, 1957; m (1) Lesley 1979 (diss), (2) Iona Pannett 2016, 1d, 1s; d Wellington, February 5, 2017, aged 59.

Friends who were asked to speak at the funeral of journalist and former radio man Allen Walley were given four minutes to deliver their eulogies.

Allen would have been appalled, declared former Radio New Zealand colleague Kevin McCarthy.

"In our radio days we could cover the world news in three minutes. What a waste of 60 seconds."

No news story should bust the three-minute mark. Walley, at least in his radio days, was all about the timing.

Remembered as a true professional, he covered many a breaking world-news story during his career, including the start of the first Gulf War and the first Fijian coup.

He was fearless in going live with a rolling news story that couldn't wait till the top of the hour to be told.

His career took him from writing propaganda in Russia to senior positions in newspapers and radio and later into government, where he worked as a spin doctor for the Green Party and Labour's George Hawkins. 

He was a journalist of the old-school variety – a talented writer, a definite cynic, rigorous about facts and spelling, and adept at holding the powerful to account.

He did not flatter anyone's vanity, no matter how senior the politicians he advised.  

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Early life

Allen Walley was born in Lower Hutt in 1957. He was the youngest of five boys born to Lewis, a former World War II soldier, and Nora, who emigrated from Cheshire, England, in 1952.

Lewis was a fitter and turner and worked as an engineer in Lower Hutt while Nora worked in a variety of jobs while raising their brood of boys.

The young Allen was a keen reader from the outset and at age five was a familiar face at his local library. 

While a student at Hutt Valley High School he had his first foray into journalism, phoning in scores from local cricket and soccer games to the Evening Post's sports desk. He got a kick out of seeing his work in print. The ink was already in his veins.

He became a keen athlete and it was his ambition to run a sub-two-minute 800m, which he achieved at age 18.

After graduating from Victoria University with a degree in History and English Literature, he spent a year at Wellington Polytechnic studying journalism.

To Russia

At the age of 23 and newly married, he indulged his wanderlust and curiosity of the world by going to Russia, where he ended up writing propaganda for the Soviets.

He was not particularly good at it, his second wife, Iona Pannett says, "though with a bit of practice he would have excelled".

He spent eight months working there before returning to New Zealand to write a monthly newsletter for the Soviet embassy.

He had no ideological commitment to Russia's political position, seeing his work only as a job, but it's understood that his time in Russia and at the embassy earned him a place on the SIS watch list.

Walley later moved into print, working as a sub-editor at the Wairarapa Times Age.

McCarthy, a former RNZ chief reporter, met Walley as a reporter on the newspaper in the late 1980s.

They hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared love of American Civil War history. The pair would later spend a month travelling throughout the US to civil war battle sites, taking in a few dodgy gin joints along the way, which, they believed, was the only way to get to know a place.

It was one of several lengthy history tours Walley made. The places he went weren't the usual tourist checklist destinations – they were archaeological sites in remote parts of Turkey, ancient cities in Jordan, US Civil War battle sites and ancient British footpaths across fen and dale.

Walley moved on to the commercial news arm of Radio New Zealand National, where he was a news bulletin writer and producer.

He was an utter professional but one with a great sense of humour, says McCarthy who followed him into radio.

"He gave you the freedom to try out new things. If they turned out to be naff, he'd never let you live it down. If you pulled it off he would always acknowledge that. He never felt like a boss. He treated you like a mate."

Breaking news

Don Rood, head of commercial news arm there at the time, said Walley was able to cut to the chase with any story.

He recalled working alongside him as the first Gulf War erupted.

"It was just after lunch on a weekday and we made the decision that we would go live with it. We started pumping out interviews and news stories and producing rolling news coverage." 

It was a similar story with the first Fijian coup in 1987, he recalled.

"It was such a gob-smacking surprise [but] we went live to air and kept rolling news coverage on it. We were trying to make news up-to-the-minute rather than wait till the top of the hour or the usual bulletin times. Allen was always cool, calm and collected."

Walley moved to Morning Report in the mid-1990s, first as an editor and later as executive editor.

Former colleague Colin Feslier said Walley brought the energy associated with commercial radio news, where he had come from, to the station's flagship morning news programme. He was always particularly keen on developing the big stories

He was a stickler for quality writing and logic and had an  aversion to imprecision and waffle, he says.

"He wanted words to mean something and for that meaning to be clear to listeners.

"He liked to work closely with the international correspondents, many of whom he would drop in on while on his lengthy travels. He was an internationalist who didn't divide up news into zones."

Royal appointment

Feslier later worked with Walley at Internal Affairs where he was in charge of media during several royal tours, including the visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2014.

It was less a case of media management and more an exercise in media herding, Feslier says. "The British and Chinese contingents were particularly demanding. Allen had a firm but diplomatic style with them all."

Walley made the move from journalism to communications in late 2001 when he became media co-ordinator for the Greens. It was here he would meet his second wife, Green city councillor Iona Pannett.

"He was a cynical old hack and I was deeply committed to the cause," says Pannett, who was working with Sue Kedgley at the time.

But wooed by his wit and intellect, she fell for him and within two weeks of dating they were living together. They had two children – Oliver, seven, and Amelie, five. He had come to parenting late and it had not been his ambition to have children but fatherhood agreed with him and it broke his heart, when he became ill two years ago, that he would not be around to see them grow up. 

Return to radio

After a stint as spin doctor to Labour's George Hawkins in 2005, Walley went back to RNZ to executive produce the Nine to Noon show.

Presenter Kathryn Ryan said Walley's legacy at RNZ was huge.

"Allen's legacy at RNZ has well and truly stood the test of time in a way which is quite rare these days in broadcasting."

Whatever job Walley was doing, whether it was as a radio newsman, government spin doctor, or media adviser for Pannett's election campaigns, he was a journalist at the core. 

He loved nothing more than a few drinks at the pub with fellow journalists and broadcasters to debate the goings-on in the media. 

For many years these sessions would take place at the Royal bar in Wellington on a Friday night. He later named this weekly imbibing group The Royals after his work on the 2014 royal tour.

"We were all journalists who had gone into communications but we always talked journalism," McCarthy says. 

"We were all still journalists in the end."

By Bess Manson

 

 

 - Stuff

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