Diana Goodman's speech to J50 dinner, 26 November 2016

Good evening, fellow journalists and guests. Or, as the newly elected leader of the free world would describe us: ‘horrible, disgusting people; hateful sleaze; slime; scum. And, ‘the most dishonest people in the world.’ Coming from Donald Trump, that’s quite something.

Thank you, Grant, for your introduction. I feel most honoured to be asked to speak to you at this 50th anniversary celebration. Being welcomed back by the School of Journalism, 46 years after I graduated, is a considerable privilege – as was receiving my honorary doctorate from Massey University earlier this year.

I think all of us have a favourite quote about journalism. I have two. The first is attributed to Louis Heren of The Times, who was told by an older colleague: "When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself, ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’"

The second is from the British war correspondent Nicholas Tomalin, who declared: “The only qualities for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.”

I’m not sure which, if any, of those qualities I had in place when I arrived at Polytech straight from school. The idea of a career in broadcasting was not yet on the horizon for me, but I’d known since my early teens that I wanted to be a journalist. I think one reason was that our family had been caught up on the fringes of a scandalous murder case in the early 1960s.

My siblings and I were instructed that we mustn’t breathe a word to anyone, otherwise ‘journalists’ might find out and come knocking. We obeyed, of course, but the idea of the exotic power of the press stuck with me and resurfaced when I was considering what career to pursue.

When setting up the journalism school, Noel Harrison had decided that half of each year’s intake must be women. He recalled later that there was widespread resistance from within the industry. Many believed that ‘women had no place in journalism’.

One of the first things we needed to learn was how to type. And I remember we did that accompanied by the sound of loud marching music to keep-us-typ-ing at the right speed. You can imagine how that went down with a roomful of stroppy trainee journalists – most of us still in our teens. Luckily, our tutor, Betty Noble, was a Quaker and knew all about patience.

When I joined The Dominion in Wellington as a cadet reporter there were a number of women on the news team. Although we were subjected to pretty well constant sexual harassment, there was no discrimination in terms of the stories we were asked to cover. That was unusual for the time.

Yet, women were not promoted beyond a certain point – even those who had been there for 20 or 30 years.  And there would have been no chance of The Dominion having a female editor – the role that Bernadette Courtney fills today.

Naturally, nights on the late shift listening to the police radio played havoc with our social lives, and even then it was clear that a life in journalism would come at a cost in terms of personal relationships.

Your friends learn to expect that you’ll miss all the big events: birthdays, weddings, christenings. ..

As a foreign correspondent I developed a reputation for leaving in the middle of my own dinner parties after a call from the news desk in London – or not turning up to them at all. I’m sure many people here have had similar experiences.

Marrying another journalist with equally demanding working hours is one solution in terms of finding a partner who understands. But competing ambitions can make that difficult.

I met my first husband, who was also a radio journalist, soon after arriving in England at the age of 23. He was a fantastic guide as I learned about British politics and culture, and the law as it applied to journalism in the UK.

My first big break came when after joining the BBC in Manchester, I landed a post in BBC Radio’s ‘network reporting pool’ in London.

As the only woman, I faced considerable hostility from my male colleagues who firmly believed that women were not up to the job.

After all, only eight years earlier, a confidential BBC report had concluded that hiring women to do hard news would be nigh on impossible. The report said they ‘would be unable to work in the cold and wet’ and could not ‘make overnight stays on location with a man, as wives would not like it’.

My colleagues’ antagonism intensified when I landed a plum foreign assignment:  covering the first overseas tour by the Prince and Princess of Wales, to Australia and New Zealand.

If Kate and William seem popular now, then multiply that tenfold. The crowds really were enormous, as was the appetite back in Britain for coverage.

But, when I got home after seven exhausting weeks on the road, I discovered that my husband had run off with a newsroom assistant.

I had ‘put my job before my marriage’, he said. He was also resentful about the fact that I appeared to be edging up the career ladder faster than he was.

I detected more than a frisson of schadenfreude amongst my workmates in the reporting pool when they heard about my personal problems.

But schadenfreude was replaced with further resentment when I was dispatched to Beirut, where the civil war was at its height.

The neighbourhood where the BBC office was located came under shell and mortar fire and there was indiscriminate machine gun fire in the streets.

Incidentally, while in Beirut, I bumped into Tom Aspell – a fellow Polytech graduate, who was a producer for ABC News America. We were surprised, to say the least, to encounter each other in the middle of a civil war.

My presence in Beirut provoked letters of complaint to the BBC – from ‘Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’ and his ilk – complaining about a woman being sent to a war zone. One suggested that I was putting my male colleagues in danger, because in the midst of a battle they would feel obliged to protect a woman.

Sure, being under fire was frightening for all of us. But as a generation of younger women have proved in various conflicts since, courage is not related to gender. I can only observe their work with enormous admiration.

Eventually, the Foreign Office announced that they would stage an evacuation by helicopter to lift British women and children to safety.

Dozens of Lebanese families turned up hoping they might be taken too, but the British officials had to ignore their pleas. Watching desperate families begging to leave their homeland is heart-breaking and it’s a memory that has stayed with me right through the years.

Another long-lasting image is from a story I covered 11 years later in Budyonovsk, on the steppes of southern Russia.

Chechen separatists had taken hundreds of people hostage in the local hospital during a fierce battle with Russian forces over several days. An estimated 129 were killed and more than 400 injured.

When a ceasefire was reached, the surviving hostages, traumatised by the bloodshed they had witnessed, walked from the hospital where they had been held, down the dusty road into town in a long column.

Some new mothers, weeping, held their babies in their arms while older women in headscarves tried to shepherd the other children. It was a scene that visually seemed both a throwback to the deportations of World War 2 and a precursor of today’s refugee crisis. 

My other memory of Budyonovsk is of a fellow TV correspondent – not from the BBC, I hasten to add – who literally stumbled into the grave of a murdered hostage, in his desperation to get the grieving family in the background of his piece to camera.

As we know, competing with rivals amidst the pressure of a story does not always bring out the best in reporters.

But it’s a huge leap from that to a view that seems – disturbingly – to be increasingly common: that journalists can no longer be trusted to be independent in their coverage. A photograph taken at one Trump rally showed a man wearing a T shirt with the message: ‘Rope. Tree. Journalist.’ I don’t think he was joking.

Here at home, an otherwise pleasant, middle-aged woman became quite vitriolic when she told me she was pleased that Trump had won. She said it would ‘wipe the smiles off the faces of those smug, liberal journalists when they sit around drinking their wine and thinking they know everything’.

I believe we must recognise these attitudes but also robustly defend our profession.

In more than 40 years in journalism I was never once pressured about what to write on political grounds. And in my experience, the BBC fiercely resists attempts to influence its news coverage. As a result, it knocks heads with critics of all political colours.

Yet the notion that the media are biased, stretched from the US presidential campaign to the EU referendum in Britain to the refugee crisis in Germany.

One German woman vox-popped about the alleged rape of a young girl by two Syrian refugees summed it up after the story was found to be entirely false. ‘I don’t know if it’s true,’ she said, ‘but I believe it.’

Oxford Dictionaries hit the nail on the head in choosing ‘post-truth’ as its international word of the year.

The New York Times chief executive and former BBC director general, Mark Thompson, wrote recently that ‘internet idealists’ originally imagined the worldwide web would ‘encourage wider and richer debate’.

Instead, he said, ‘words hurtle through virtual space with infinitesimal delay… A politician can plant an idea in 10 million other minds before leaving the podium…

He added, prophetically: ‘The enemies of free speech are gathering.’

Some sections of the US media worry that for too long they treated Donald Trump with detached bemusement and did not move earlier to counter his lies. Others, that they gave him too much coverage because his demagoguery was so astonishing.

Rigorous fact checking did not help, since the fact checkers themselves were denounced by the Trump campaign.

So how should we in the media respond?

In Britain, it’s been suggested that during the Brexit campaign the BBC’s strict rules on impartiality ‘torpedoed the search for truth’. One critic described the BBC as being ‘maddeningly balanced’.

As a result, it’s been argued that in this new media climate it may be time for a discussion about the wisdom of maintaining an impartial stance.  Not least because enforcing it can require ‘false equivalence’: giving both sides of a lopsided argument equal coverage. 

However, a change to its editorial policy would run counter to everything the BBC has traditionally stood for.

During my time at the corporation, the only area where impartiality was not required was in covering apartheid in South Africa. Being anti-apartheid was regarded as a given.

In terms of trying to establish the truth, Moscow was my most challenging posting. It was difficult, not to say impossible, to balance the expectations of the news desks in London with the reality of Yeltsin’s Russia.

There was an assumption that Russia was now a free and democratic country and as a result, official information and access would be instantly available to journalists. The situation on the ground was quite different.

I recently came across a new book about Russia entitled ‘Nothing is true and everything is possible’. That sums up perfectly what working in Russia was like. For example, when trying to get the truth about the war in Chechnya or President Yeltsin’s frequent illnesses. Had he suffered another heart attack or was he in hospital with a ‘common cold’, as the Kremlin claimed?

Of all the stories I worked on in Russia, the one that received the largest response was a report on the plight of handicapped children in a badly under-funded Russian orphanage.

At that time, ninety-five per cent of all children born with a disability in Russia were rejected by their parents.

Hunger, pain and despair pervaded the orphanage. The youngsters were washed, changed and fed – effectively nothing more.

Some of the inmates, unable to feed themselves, died of starvation. Others rocked silently or beat their heads against the wall until they bled.

And this, at a time when Russia’s future oligarchs were lining their pockets with money stolen from state enterprises or acquired in dodgy deals during the process of privatisation.

I am often asked how gender affects the way that people react to female correspondents. On the plus side, interviewees are sometimes more willing to talk to a woman – believing us to be more sympathetic – and as a result it’s easier to get access.

But in many parts of Russia and Eastern Europe, I did, of course, come across prejudice against women that was no longer quite so common elsewhere. The president of Romania, Ion Iliescu, when told that I would be covering the country’s post-Communist transition, demanded that the BBC send a ‘proper correspondent’ – i.e. a man. Naturally, the BBC took no notice.

A right-wing leader in Hungary said during an interview: ‘Mrs Goodman, you must be Jew woman, no?’ I couldn’t claim Jewish heritage but I was indisputably a woman. He seemed equally offended by both identities. It was a moment of great radio.

Inevitably, World War 2 was always a shadow in the background in my time as a foreign correspondent. When I was based in Bonn I made a radio documentary called ‘Children of the Reich’, about the descendants of leading Nazis. Should the sins of the fathers be visited on the sons?

In Russia, I visited Volgograd, the city formerly named Stalingrad, on the 50th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

1.1 million Soviet soldiers died at Stalingrad, along with the entire German Sixth Army – 300 thousand men – and tens of thousands of civilians.

By comparison, Britain and the Commonwealth lost half a million soldiers and civilians in the entire war.

When I was growing up, New Zealand education put Britain at front and centre of the Allied victory. But from the Russian perspective, they won the war.

I had been filling in at the Moscow bureau since 1986. But by the time I was formally stationed there I had married for a second time and we had a six-month old baby in tow.

That added another dimension to the posting, including a Russian nanny with completely different child rearing ideas.

She held the firm conviction that sugar was essential for growth, and that babies should be wheeled onto the balcony to get some fresh air – even when the temperature was way below freezing and snow was thick on the ground.

For us adults, living in Russia presented another difficulty: being presented with large meals and lashings of vodka – sometimes by hosts who themselves had very little.  

Superstition dictates that a bottle of vodka must emptied at the drinking session where it’s opened. And it’s said that the national sport in Russia is ‘spectacular drunkenness’. But as a result, a quarter of Russian men die before the age of 55, and overall male life expectancy is just 64. 

During our time in Moscow, we lived in a foreigners’ compound that had been home to the BBC since the early 1960s. As well as news organisations and journalists, it housed diplomats and their families.

The MI6 station chief lived there – a charming, very musical man, who was officially listed as being a counsellor at the British Embassy. The diplomat living next door to us – who, with his wife, became a good friend – was also alleged to be a spy. Intrigue and suspicion were all around us.

The late Noel Harrison said that for him, journalism was not a profession, it was a trade. Its aim was simply to provide information about the things that were important to the public.

I believe that we also have a duty to bear witness to history as it’s made, often by listening to the voices of the participants.

I was conscious of doing that in East Berlin, after opening a BBC bureau there soon after the Wall came down in 1989. I watched as the East Germans wrestled with the consequences of the collapse of communism, and the extraordinary speed of German unification.  

The former East German leader, Erich Honecker, was charged with manslaughter for the shoot-to-kill order at the state’s borders. Seeing him in court, by then a frail, sick old man, it seemed astonishing that he had held an entire nation in a grip of iron. The same was true of Erich Mielke, the brutal former head of the Stasi, who was both ailing and allegedly senile. He claimed not to be able to understand the proceedings in court.

From time to time I interviewed a quiet young East German woman, the daughter of a pastor, who had just entered politics. Her name was Angela Merkel. Her West German mentors regarded her as a token woman and a token East German, and had no inkling that she would push them all aside to become the most powerful politician in Europe.

Before I finish, I would like to talk about the ‘f’ word: that is, feminism. When I was preparing my speech to the Massey University graduation ceremony in May, I was advised by friends not to mention it.

‘It would not go down well with young people,’ they said. For many, feminism was a word laden with unfortunate baggage.

Yet, in my view, it’s pretty straightforward. The latest Oxford English Dictionary defines feminism simply as: ‘The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’

I became a convert in 1972, when Germaine Greer visited Auckland and received a rapturous reception at the Town Hall.

I looked up the cuttings to see how the event was reported. Naturally, it was covered by a male journalist. In his opening paragraph he included a quote from an ‘elderly gentleman sporting a short back and sides and an RSA badge’, who said that Dr Greer was ‘not a bad lookin’ sheila, at that’.

Later in the story, Greer was described as ‘a very tall, slim and undeniably feminine figure’. No need for anyone to feel threatened, then.

The idea of demanding equality was an important driver throughout my career. And I urge everyone here tonight to reclaim at least the spirit of the word ‘feminism’, regardless of how it has been debased by its opponents.

  • In New Zealand there is still an overall gender pay gap of 14 percent – the worst in nearly a decade. Let’s hope the new pay resolution agreement makes a difference.
  • Research shows that while the number of female journalists continues to increase, women are much less likely to be asked to comment on a news story.
  • And it’s no secret that women posting online receive by far the worst abuse.

In conclusion, I would say that when I look back at my career, being a New Zealander was a significant asset. We make good journalists because we have stamina and determination, a healthy amount of curiosity and resourcefulness, and the right degree of disrespect for authority. We are also difficult to place in terms of class.

I had an exciting time living and working in different parts of the world. And I consider myself fortunate to have been given the opportunities I was.

Now, as a proud, reborn Kiwi, who has settled back in, I can honestly say, “It’s great to be home again.”  

Thank you. 

Massey Contact Centre Mon - Fri 8:30am to 5:00pm 0800 MASSEY (+64 6 350 5701) TXT 5222 contact@massey.ac.nz Web chat Staff Alumni News Māori @ Massey