Gathering a true media circus
A strange stirring occurs on the banks of the Waikato River three times a year.
Voices rise and fall, there is laughter and weird music, and for two or three hours an unlikely gathering of well-known New Zealanders and a bunch of students cling to the idea that journalism is a vigorous, exciting pursuit. Such is the deluded but very cheerful state of mind generated by the Wintec Press Club.
The press club's governing principle is that there is such a thing as a free lunch. Three times a year, it hosts a free-lunch extravaganza at a beautiful riverside venue in downtown Hamilton. It's staged on behalf of the journalism students at the Waikato Institute of Technology, known as Wintec. They get fed and watered, mingle with an invite-only audience of 100 (television presenters, newspaper editors, athletes, comedians, MPs, knights, dames, ex-strippers, occasional prostitutes, etc), and listen to a guest speaker talk about what they do in the media or what the media do to them.
There's a two-course meal with booze. There's live music. There's the river, wide and green and hypnotic; the water draws guests on to the outdoor balcony, which has led to some strange groupings over the years - what, exactly, did Paul Holmes find to talk about in his threesome with Garth George, a stern and elderly Christian newspaper columnist, and former stripper and occasional prostitute Lisa Lewis?
That unlikely menage a trois on the balcony occurred in August 2010. Holmes was the guest speaker. It was the second free-lunch extravaganza I had staged since my appointment as editor in residence at the Wintec School of Media Arts at the beginning of that year, but the first where I attempted to overhaul the event and turn it into what it is today, which is a kind of circus with a purpose.
The Wintec Press Club is 10 years old this year. It was created by Venetia Sherson. As the former editor of the Waikato Times, and a writer of exceptional merit, Venetia is Waikato media royalty. It's to the vast credit of Wintec that it showed the initiative to appoint her as its first editor in residence - and to give her a free hand, as she set about making life more fulfilling and memorable for Wintec's students of journalism.
"Wintec Press Club wasn't modelled on any other event," she remembers. "I came up with the idea when I was trying to think of ways to expose learning journos to the wisdom of experienced journos."
Press Club brings them together over a drink. "One of the early concerns was that it would end up a boozy lunch and the students would misbehave. I think originally we limited the students to one drink only! That didn't last."
Guest speakers in Venetia's reign included John Campbell, Sean Plunkett, former Sunday Star-Times editor Cate Brett, and foreign correspondent Jon Stephenson. Throughout, it was a sensible lineup of speakers, for the most part respected and long-serving media professionals. I changed all that.
The invitation to act as editor in residence arrived out of the blue in January 2010. The terms were that I'd commute to Hamilton one day a week, and play some kind of role in assisting the students. What kind of role? No-one ever said, or maybe I didn't listen. The general idea I got is that I should make it up as I go along. I've always fancied journeys to the unknown. You never know who you're going to meet there. But there was one specific part of the job: hosting a lunch.
The first guest speaker I booked was Te Radar, the comedian formerly known as Andrew Lumsden. He was writing a very good blog in very trying circumstances for the Stuff site in 2010, and so I invited him to talk about his adventures in new media. He gave a hilarious and marginally depressing speech. The stupider a blog, he said, the more hits it was likely to attract. I know Radar as Andrew, and have always valued his intelligence. His blog was doomed. It didn't last long.
But he was madly entertaining onstage, and it was a fairly enjoyable event. The only problem was that I didn't know anyone in the audience - with one exception. I invited a single guest. It was made on a whim. I idly wondered if there was anyone I knew of in Waikato who might want to bowl along. The only name I came up with was Joe Karam. I'd read that he lived in rural Te Kauwhata, so I got in touch, and asked if he wanted to come to a free lunch in Hamilton featuring Te Radar as guest speaker. He asked if he could bring a friend. Yes, of course, I said, hoping that he meant David Bain. He meant an attractive younger woman.
In any case, Karam's appearance at the lunch caused quite a stir. I kept hearing other guests mutter, sometimes angrily, "What on earth is Joe Karam doing here?"
I liked this response very much. I felt in an instant that I was on to something by inviting Karam - someone well-known, a constant figure in the media, always in the news. A few months later, when I staged my second lunch, I set about inviting an eclectic range of guests - news media, and also newsmakers.
Hence a squadron of Auckland media, and Waikato identities such as horse breeder Sir Patrick Hogan, former Green Party MP Nandor Tanczos (then living in a house bus in Ngaruawahia), Hamilton criminal defence lawyer Roger Laybourn, Cambridge author Stephen Stratford, award-winning Hamilton radio personality Mark Bunting, and Richard Swainson, the owner of Hamilton's marvellous arthouse DVD emporium, Auteur House.
I also invited Winston Peters. He was in limbo back then, voted out of Parliament, written off; he arrived late to the lunch, grumpy and flustered, complaining that his GPS had directed him somewhere well away from the Ferrybank. He cheered up when he walked inside and was greeted with a spontaneous standing ovation.
Winston, Nandor, Holmes . . . Adding to the surreal nature of the event was the fact that another guest, the veteran cartoonist Peter Bromhead, had got it into his head that he'd been invited to give the speech. He sat there bewildered when Paul Holmes climbed on to the stage. He waited for him to finish. It was a long wait for everyone.
I was touched that Holmes accepted the invitation to speak at the lunch. He should have been taking it easy, but he always was a restless spirit, and he could seldom resist an opportunity to have fun in a public place. We sent him a cab to and from Auckland; when he got out of the taxi at the Ferrybank, his trousers were wet - he'd spilled coffee on a sensitive place.
He was in good spirits, but he seemed to talk forever at the lunch. He raved and he rambled. His speech got off to a hesitant start and never recovered. He found it maddening. As one of New Zealand's greatest entertainers, an inspired and antic broadcaster, he was determined to win his audience over. He had done that all his life, on TV, on radio, in print, in person; and now and then he made the crowd roar with laughter, and lean closer to hear what he had to say. But he couldn't sustain it. His health was bad. He was knocked about by the prostate cancer that finally killed him in the summer of 2013. He was a dear person and he tried his absolute best on that sunny winter's day in Hamilton.
A tone was set, a theme was developed. Guest speakers chosen for their celebrity; media types and famous people approached to come for a free meal. I'm amazed and grateful that Wintec continues to support it. It's a nice to have, and it's become a kind of central station of journalism, a unique gathering of some of the most distinguished and interesting journalists in New Zealand. Just as importantly, the guest list has continued to feature newsmakers. The motto of Press Club is, "We're all in this together."
Hence the inclusion of guests such as Sarah Ulmer, Marcus Lush, Don Brash, Finlay Macdonald, Dame Malvina Major, Jacinda Ardern, Tom Scott, Michele A'Court, Wallace Chapman, Guy Williams, Colin Craig, Colin Meads, Dame Margaret Wilson, Alan Crafar, Garth McVicar, Russell Brown, Matthew Hooton, Carly Flynn, David Farrier, newspaper and magazine editors, athletes, mayors, lawyers, models, entrepreneurs, academics, shopkeepers, a guy who owned half of the bars in Hamilton (Jason Macklow) and a guy (John Lawrenson) who owned the other half. Bevan Chuang was all set to attend the most recent lunch, with guest speaker John Campbell, but had to attend an annoying inquiry into something to do with Len Brown.
The guest speaker who followed Holmes in 2010 was due to popular demand. I asked the students who they wanted. They wanted Michael Laws, and hoped he'd say something outrageous. At the Ferrybank lunch, though, he came across as a sweet and rather puckish fellow, perhaps silly and facile, but not at all threatening.
In fact, Laws was upstaged by a gatecrasher. His name was Jack Gielen, a longtime Hamilton activist. I'd never heard of him. All I knew was that a possibly manic fellow in an elegant white suit burst into the Ferrybank, armed with a megaphone, and started hollering.
I threw Jack out. I probably should have asked him to stay. He wouldn't have been out of place; the circus had come to town, complete with groovy sounds from Wintec music students. Zing Zhao has played an 18-string Chinese zither, and Dave Napper has played a sitar which he'd bought from a Waikato farmer who kept it under his bed.
Two guest speakers have died: Holmes, and criminal defence lawyer Greg King. The fact of Greg's suicide in the hills of Wellington was in horrible contrast to the man who gave a Press Club speech only a few months previously. He was passionate, candid, fascinating, truly alive.
Actress Robyn Malcolm spoke lucidly about what it's like to be dumped on by the media. Seven Sharp presenter Jesse Mulligan spoke sensitively about what it's like to work on a show dumped on by everybody. I probably jumped the shark with his invitation. His programme's relationship with journalism is approximately less than zero. I redeemed the good name of the Wintec Press Club by finally inviting an actual journalist to speak - TV3's political editor Patrick Gower.
But the guests of honour at every single Press Club free-lunch extravaganza are the students. They are the reason the Press Club exists. They're also the reason I exist in my fleeting role at Wintec, and why I keep going back. I curse them and call them terrible names but I love them. The class of 2013 has been the best I've worked alongside; the future of journalism is Kelsey Wilkie, Olivia Johnstone, Caitlin Wallace, Sharn Roberts, Sophie Iremonger, Taylor Sincock, Gemma Stanbridge, Ria Elkington, Melissa Wishart, Ali Nicholson, Sacha Harwood, Candice Jones, Reese Flaxman, Jade Laan, Ciaran Warner, Libby Wilson and Corey Rosser.
What does an editor in residence do when he's in residence? I'm still making it up as I go along. I don't teach. The students already receive a solid and expert education in journalism practice and principles. I just sort of muck around on the sidelines, sometimes bang on about the kinds of things I do as a journalist, curse and encourage them, pin up a gold-star chart monitoring their progress (really), take them to the pub and, three times a year, put on a show.
From the introduction to Lunch and journalism: the Wintec Press Club, published by the Wintec School of Media Arts, featuring 20 profiles of guest speakers written by the Wintec school of journalism's class of 2013.
Sunday Star Times