Colin James on journalism

Colin James’ final column in the Otago Daily Times as a political journalist gives an insight into the craft of good journlaism:

. . . Journalists are close in to events but never part of them. They meet the powerful and the celebrated. Some are seduced into thinking themselves their equals. They are then lost to journalism.

Journalists make no momentous decisions. Celebrity ill-becomes them. They are a channel through which the powerful and celebrated talk to the people and the people talk back.

To others, the journalist seems greatly privileged to be alongside power and stardust. And the journalist is privileged. But not in the way most non-journalists think.

The privilege is to spend a lifetime learning.

A journalist can ask questions of almost everyone and almost all will answer: the powerful and celebrated, the knowing and skilled, the repositories of arcane science or ways of thinking and the “ordinary” guardians of understanding of a community or of a simple truth or of a good way to live an “ordinary” life.

They are all at the journalist’s call. They all teach a journalist who listens.

It’s the journalists who listen carefully who get the inside information and the scoops, not those who do the most talking.

Yet the journalist need not be expert or knowing or complete. The journalist needs understand only so much of a topic as readers-viewers-listeners want or need to know. The journalist has only to light on and illuminate an idea or project or nation or technology.

No other occupation offers that intense opportunity — to learn but not to have to know, to learn a little and move to the next learning.

For a half-century I have had that deeply enriching privilege.

The utu is to listen with respect.

I think he’s using utu in the sense of reciprocation or balance, not revenge.

A journalist is sceptical, alert to lies, deceit, backside-covering and charlatanism. But not cynical. A cynic has stopped listening and learning. A journalist is open. If not, the communication channel that is the journalist will choke.

The utu is also to write down or talk about the learning so that others can know what the journalist has learnt. . . 

My beat was politics and policy, a high privilege. Since politics is power, I met those in power and their advisers and came to understand and respect them, even those I could not admire. Many I the inner person came quietly to like.

Almost all in politics mean well. I learned they are different: they see, or affect to see, only one side of each many-sided story the journalist sees.

Most do indeed mean well, which shouldn’t be confused with mostly doing good.

And since politics seeps into almost every corner of a nation’s life, I met thousands of interesting people from nearly every walk of life.

I met many more when I could put my email address under what I wrote and readers could write to me easily.

Almost all were thoughtful and courteous. The tiny few who were angry or abusive almost all recovered the courtesy and decency that is in everyone when I replied with courtesy and respect. . . 

Courtesy and respect – some regard them as old-fashioned but values like that should never go out of fashion.

The  media would be better if there was more of  both, from journalists, to those they deal with, and from those who respond to what they see and hear in the media.


I met James a few times and was impressed by both his courtesy and his knowledge.

He told me that his determination to be impartial kept him from voting.

I don’t think journalists have to refrain from voting to be impartial in their work.

But I wonder if  it’s just coincidence that the examples he picks in this paragraph are from the left or if they give a clue to James’ political leaning:

. . . When David Lange died and the Greens stood in his memory opening their 2005 election campaign, I the journalist stayed sitting while I the inner person behind the journalist secretly stood. There was the same wrench when the Council of Trade Unions conference in 2015 stood in memory of the fine Peter Conway. . .

You can catch up with James’ writing at his website.

One Response to Colin James on journalism

  1. Ray says:

    Colin said he didn’t vote so as to show his impartiality but a read of any of his columns gave a broad hint on his preference.
    Which was ok when Labour were in opposition, not so good when there was a Labour lead Government.
    But even with that his columns were an intelligent read.


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