Life Story: Journalist, educator, writer Noel Harrison dies, aged 87

Noel Harrison, a journalist, educator and author.
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Noel Harrison, a journalist, educator and author.


Noel Harrison, journalist, educator, writer, b March 24, 1929, Palmerston North; m Velda (diss); 1s, 1d, partner Lyn Gammon (deceased); d June 21, 2016, Wellington, aged 87.

Newshounds across the country can thank Noel Harrison for establishing the institution that flung many of them into the fourth estate. In 1966, he founded the Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey University) School of Journalism, which became the school of choice for budding journalists.

When Harrison suggested the intake, just 10 in its first year, be half male, half female, a member of the polytechnic committee scoffed saying journalism was no place for a woman.

Wellington Polytechnic Journalism School founder Noel Harrison.
Massey University

Wellington Polytechnic Journalism School founder Noel Harrison.

Harrison reminded him it was a government-funded course paid for the taxpayer "and that was the end of the discussion. But it was a view shared by many at the time," Harrison said in an interview a month before his death.

Set up in a 'broken down old prefab' on the campus, Harrison made the class like a working newsroom. His students, one of whom was Fran Wilde, were sent out to report on jobs as if they were working on a newspaper. It was a thrilling ride for the would-be journos, one of whom even got arrested reporting from a rooftop protest.

Their baptism by fire was reminiscent of his own. Harrison recalled starting out on The Southern Cross newspaper in 1948 and being sent to the magistrates court, with no training, to report on proceedings there.

"It was absolutely horrific," he said.

He worked at The Southern Cross till 1953 when he joined The Dominion in Wellington as a parliamentary reporter.

As a journalist he once took on the formidable trade unionist Fintan Patrick-Walsh and it is said he received death threats. Harrison decided to be damned and publish his stories on Walsh anyway.

Harrison was the youngest of five sons. Their parents, Jock and Catherine, worked as itinerant farmers around the Manawatu, Taranaki and Horowhenua areas. The family moved many times over the years but Catherine put a great emphasis on the importance of a good education and the children were all intellectually bright.

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He met Velda when he was 18 and she 17 at a dance in Newtown. They married in 1949 and had two children together, Eric and Yvonne.

While Harrison and Velda parted after nearly 50 years of marriage, Velda remained great friends with him and his new partner, Lyn Gammon, who died 10 years ago.

Velda and Harrison were companions in their later years and she nursed him till the end.

Harrison graduated from Victoria and Canterbury Universities with a BA in economics and history and MA in history. 

After a decade as a journalist, he left the trade to retrain as a teacher. 

His first job was at Wellington Technical College, now Wellington High School, where he had also been a student. 

The family spent five years in the late 1960s and early 1970s in London, where Harrison worked in teacher training.

They later moved to Fiji where he would work for both the University of the South Pacific and UNESCO helping to develop local school curriculums.

In 1978 Harrison became chief executive of the Whangarei Polytechnic. It was here, many years later, that he came to legal blows with John Banks, then a local MP.

Harrison lost his job as principal of the then Northland Polytechnic in 1990 after Banks accused him of fraudulently enrolling pre-school children attending the Northland Polytechnic creche as students to get extra funding.

Harrison was charged by the Serious Fraud Office but part way through his trial, at the end of the prosecution evidence, Judge Avinash Deobhakta told the jury there was no case to answer and discharged him.

He was exonerated and won a $124,000 Employment Court payout for wrongful dismissal. He successfully sued Banks for defamation in 1997. Though he was awarded $55,000 damages, by later agreement Banks paid no money.

He went on to write a biography of him titled: Banks - Behind the Mask. The book is largely an account of information, anecdotes and criticisms of Banks sourced by Harrison from individuals, newspapers and magazines, parliamentary records and tapes of Banks' Radio Pacific show.

The stoush took a huge toll on Harrison, who never fully got over the episode.

Harrison was a writer and researcher for the NZ Maori Council, Te Uri-o-hau. He was a serious author writing The School that Riley Built, preserving the history of the Wellington High School. He also penned a biography on Sir Graham Latimer, who died just weeks before Harrison.

He was intellectually rigorous and a great campaigner for social justice.

He was also a feminist, spending his last few years raising awareness about the rise of female genital mutilation among the Somali population in New Zealand, and urging police and politicians to take the problem seriously. He campaigned relentlessly with doctors and police for them to see genital mutilation as child abuse and has been credited with changing attitudes and approaches to the problem.

His bookshelves were lined with books about women: Women politicians, women artists, women scientists, women writers.

Harrison, who is survived by Velda, his two children and two grandchildren, would have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the journalism school he set up this year.

While he believed the industry had changed immeasurably since he started out in it, he still believed in the institution itself.

"It's so exciting because you are dealing with what makes us tick as a society," he said in his last interview.

Sources: The Dominion Post, Harrison family, Melissa Jeltsen, Carey Clements, Massey University.

 - Stuff

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