Salient magazine breeds ruling elite

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former editor of  Salient.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former editor of Salient.

Away the mainstream media, the student press has long has a reputation for cheeky coverage. But Victoria University's Salient proves even student radicals eventually enter the mainstream. Karl du Fresne reports.

It was first published in 1938 and its sales never rose beyond a few thousand. Yet measured by the illustrious names associated with it through the decades, Victoria University student newspaper Salient deserves to rank with much better-known titles.

Some of Victoria's best and brightest students spent their spare time pounding typewriters in the Salient office. Many went on to distinguished careers in law, politics, academia and the media.

Salient co-editors Asher Emanuel and Ollie Neas.
Chris Skelton
Salient co-editors Asher Emanuel and Ollie Neas.

Several dozen of them have gathered at a Wellington reunion this weekend to remember what some regard as the paper's golden era  the 1960s, that heady decade when students marched against the Vietnam War, smoked dope and enthusiastically welcomed the sexual revolution made possible by the contraceptive pill.

Editors from that time include former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Hugh Rennie, a Wellington Queen's Counsel and former Broadcasting Corporation chairman. The late Michael King, author and historian, was a Salient contributor, as were economist Brian Easton, Supreme Court judge John McGrath and Wellington deputy mayor Ian McKinnon.

Cartoonist Bob Brockie, now The Dominion Post's science columnist, supplied illustrations to Salient over several decades. His association goes back to 1953, when the then-editor, Trevor Hill, button-holed him in the "steamy, noisy, claustrophobic" cafeteria in the basement of the Hunter building and badgered him into drawing some sketches.

Brockie went on to become cartoonist for National Business Review and continued contributing occasional drawings to Salient into the 1970s. Hill ended up a professor of English in South Carolina.

Brockie wasn't the only connection between Salient and NBR. The business weekly was founded in 1970 by Henry Newrick, who in his student days had been Salient's advertising manager. Barrie Saunders, co-editor of Salient in 1967, was NBR's first editor.

When, later, NBR was on the brink of failure, it was rescued by a group that included several other ex-Salient people, including Rennie, Ian Grant and Palmer. Saunders describes NBR as "almost an outgrowth of Salient".

Grant, now a Masterton publisher and writer, was closely associated with Salient for several years. Only 19 when he began his first stint as editor in 1960, he recalls the paper operating out of a former army hut where the phone didn't work, the rain poured in and there was a pervasive smell of stale beer and whisky. His chief reporter was Steve O'Regan  better known these days as Sir Tipene O'Regan, Ngai Tahu elder and Treaty negotiator  and the reporting staff included Jill White, later to become Labour MP for Manawatu.

Salient didn't just cover student affairs. Politics, literature, sport, music and film all came within its journalistic orbit. "It wasn't just a lark," Grant says. "There was a serious commitment to journalism and it took up a lot of time." (Grant ruefully admits that it wasn't until the 1980s that he finally completed his BA.)

The 1960s was a decade when almost every imaginable political philosophy was represented on the Victoria campus, from mainstream parties through to Trotskyites and Maoists. Rex Benson, a former Salient film critic who initiated this weekend's reunion, was an anarchist.

Grant recalls that when he became editor, Salient had a reputation for being strongly left-wing. Its editor three years earlier had been socialist stalwart Conrad Bollinger, who went on to write Grog's Own Country, a celebrated expose of links between politicians and the liquor industry.

Under Grant and later Rennie, who edited the paper in 1965 and 1966, the paper took a more neutral line. One of the most highly regarded Salient editors, Rennie came from a National Party background but says: "We tried to be inclusive and not committed to a particular point of view." Rennie set out to cover the same subjects as a mainstream paper. "We would try to break news stories. We saw the general press as stodgy and conservative." He also looked beyond the university for sales, distributing to Wellington dairies as well as on campus.

One of Rennie's proteges was Michael King, who was assigned to cover religious clubs. Another was columnist Steve Whitehouse, son of actress Davina Whitehouse, who later worked in the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Sir Geoffrey Palmer shared the editorship in 1963 with Grant and Robin Bromby, who became chief reporter for The Dominion before pursuing his journalism career in Australia. The former prime minister recalls the university as intensely political but says the paper tried to remain aloof from campus politics.

Sir Geoffrey came from a newspaper background  his father was editor of the Nelson Evening Mail  and once seriously considered a career in journalism. His daughter Rebekah became a journalist and her partner, journalist and writer Bernie Steeds, is also a former Salient editor (1988). Sir Geoffrey is still remembered  unfairly, supporters say  for a 1963 Salient editorial lamenting the ease with which a "university girl" could lose her femininity and her dignity. "If she does this she will never become a lady," he wrote. More than 40 years later, he remarked in an interview with Salient:

"Those were the days long before feminism. It reflects the standards of the year. My opinion has changed."

In 1968 Salient swung sharply to the left under the editorship of Bill Logan, a National Party activist who became a passionate Trotskyite at Victoria.

As Logan recalled in a 2010 interview, 1968 was the year of student uprisings worldwide. It was also the year when psychedelia infiltrated Salient's pages, along with subversive comic strip Fat Freddy's Cat. "It was a wonderful time to be a student. It was a time when things were happening, and to be editor of Salient in that period of intellectual ferment was great fun."

Metro editor Simon Wilson, from a later generation of Salient editors, is unabashed about the paper's "Marxist-Maoist" political stance under his leadership. "There was a lot of polemic, but a lot of reportage, too, and humour and satire." Comedienne Michelle A'Court was one of his contributors; "she showed a satirical bent even then."

It wasn't until 1984 that Salient got its first female editor, Sally Zwartz, but the paper wasn't always an exclusively male zone. Female contributors in the 1960s included Di Billing, later a senior journalist for Radio New Zealand, and Helen Sutch, daughter of the left-wing economist Dr Bill Sutch, and left-wing lawyer Shirley Smith. The Kedgley twins, Sue and Helen, were also involved in Salient, as was Dale Williams, later a respected writer and editor.

Today, Salient is more a magazine-style publication and faces an uncertain future following abolition of the compulsory student association membership, which effectively guaranteed its funding. Co-editor Asher Emanuel says Salient's future is assured for 2012; after that it will depend on the whim of university administrators.

Much else has changed too. Sir Geoffrey says students these days have to work harder, which leaves less time for extra-curricular activities such as putting out a newspaper. Saunders finds it ironic that in his day, Salient campaigned for internal assessment of students to relieve them of the ordeal of end-of-year final exams. No one anticipated the impact the resulting year-round academic pressure would have on student culture.

"Victoria in the sixties was a seriously good, fun place," he reminisces. "I don't think many students would say that now."

SALIENT WHO'S WHO

* Former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer  editor

*Queen's Counsel Hugh Rennie  editor

* Late author and historian Michael King  contributor

* Economist Brian Easton  contributor

* Supreme Court judge John McGrath  contributor

* Wellington deputy mayor Ian McKinnon  contributor

* Property investor Sir Robert Jones  sports editor

* Comedienne Michelle A'Court  contributor

* Former Radio New Zealand chief executive Sharon Crosbie  reviews editor

* Dominion Post science columnist Bob Brockie  illustrator

* Former Treasury secretary Bernie Galvin  sports editor

* Actress and novelist Barbara Ewing  contributor, 1958

*Former Green MP Sue Kedgley and twin sister and Pataka curator Helen Kedgley  contributors

* Masterton publisher and writer Ian Grant  editor

* Writer and editor Dale Williams  contributor

* Late lawyer Shirley Smith  contributor

* Former Reuters and Time magazine Vietnam War correspondent Nick Turner  editor, 1956

* Ngai Tahu elder and Treaty negotiator Sir Tipene O'Regan  chief reporter

* Former Labour MP Jill White  contributor

* Former Reuters bureau chief Colin Bickler  editor, 1959

* Late New York-based playwright Robert Lord  chief reporter

* Owner of London's legendary Cork and Bottle wine bar, Don Hewitson  1960s record reviewer

* Cartoonist, parodist and satirist Burton Silver  reporter

* Wellington coroner Garry Evans  arts reviewer

* Partner at PR firm Saunders Unsworth and TVNZ board member Barrie Saunders  co-editor 1967

* Former chief film censor Arthur Everard  film reviewer.

* National Business Review editor-in-chief Nevil Gibson  features editor

* Gay activist and civil celebrant Bill Logan  editor, 1968

* Service and Food Workers' Union national secretary John Ryall  editor, 1976

* Metro magazine editor Simon Wilson  editor, 1978

* Mark Cubey, producer of Kim Hill's Saturday morning radio show  editor, 1983

* Listener writer Toby Manhire  editor, 1997