The Wintec Press Club lunch is staged by the Wintec School of Media Arts three times a year for the benefit of the journalism students. The guest list features big names in politics, media, entertainment, sport, business, law and the arts. And me.
Most tables have one or two students who get to meet industry veterans. It’s a brilliant idea and I have always enjoyed talking with the students. I try to discourage them from entering the profession, suggesting they instead do something useful or lucrative. The speakers are usually eminent media types – last year’s speakers included Paula Penfold from TV3 and Mihi Forbes, then at Maori TV – but once it was Pam Corkery and the time before that Rachel Glucina. This year the first two, bafflingly, were Dave Dobbyn and Hera Lindsay Bird, neither of whom are journalists. But this time we had a real live writer for a newspaper: Rachel Stewart, who has a column in the NZ Herald.
Media star guests included Paula Penfold, Rachel Smalley, Emily Simpson, the poet Sonya Yelich, Adam Dudding, author of the brilliant memoir My Father’s Island (here is my review for the Listener), Sarah Stuart (who, on being introduced to me, said, “Are you the blogger?”) and a visitor from the Manawatu Evening Standard.
Political star guest was Tim McIndoe, MP for Hamilton West and National’s chief whip. He was very funny privately about the previous day in Parliament when they had to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the US presidential election. What he said publicly was, “The motion of congratulations felt like a funeral. Don’t quote me!”
Our host Steve Braunias, a journalism student in 1980, began proceedings on a note of despair: “Thank you for coming today but what’s the fucking point?” There was an empty table in the room, which, he said, seemed to be a metaphor for the redundancies among journalists expected if the proposed merger of NZME and Fairfax went ahead. “Two journalists who have left the Herald have become Uber drivers. And isn’t that a metaphor for what all journalists have become?”
To further lift the students’ spirits, he mentioned the Donald Trump campaign T-shirt: “Tree. Rope. Journalist.”
Before the main event were the annual Wintec Press Club awards. Winner of “Student most likely to achieve world domination” was Dileepa Fonseka. Winner of “Best writer in New Zealand journalism” was Adam Dudding, author of the brilliant memoir My Father’s Island (here is my review for the Listener).
About this time the empty table filled up with some of the cast of Desperate Housewives of Auckland. I had no idea who they were and nor, it seemed, did many others present. On the other hand, our waiter looked like Rick Astley.
There was a raffle ticket at every place setting: the prize was a meat pack (“locally sourced organic sausages”) and a bag of books from VUP. I did not enter: I thought, let someone else enjoy these delights.
Best-dressed woman on the day was won by Noelle McCarthy, resplendent in gold shoes. This was presented by Ann Batley and Rachel Smalley. Best-dressed man went to a student who had gone to a lot more trouble than me: this was presented by Gilda Kirkpatrick. According to Braunias, he narrowly beat “glorious but defeated” Waikato Times editor Jonathan Mackenzie, “a vision in pink going on puce”.
And so to the speaker, billed by Braunias as the star of this “Eating Media Lunch special lesbian edition gab-fest extravaganza”. She basically told her life story.
Rachel Stewart was born in Wanganui in 1962. When she was 11 her parents split and she went with her mother to the US. There was a bad stepfather, she came back to the farm in 1976 to live with her father. The mother came back, the stepfather hit her (the mother) and Stewart broke two of his ribs.
She doesn’t vote, she said.
There was a lot about floods in the Manawatu, insurance, and even more about falconry. This was less interesting than the insurance: “The four main causes of death in the wild are…”
The falconry helped her cope with grief, she said, and then she segued into opinion writing, describing herself as “a misfit with a lifetime of anger-management problems”.
Question time was lively – she was clearly popular with the room. She was funny and open with her answers. It is rare to hear the word “obfuscation” used off the cuff.
We learned that she hasn’t spoken to her brothers for 30 years. We heard even more about insurance. We learned that when she dies, she would be happy to be eaten by a hawk.
She talked about her grandfather murdering “a Chinaman” which caused a sharp intake of breath at the Desperate Housewives table and the loud remark “Chinaman? What the fuck?”
She said, confusingly, “I do vote. I will vote.”
Asked why she writes, she said, “In the act of writing something, I feel a part of a community, a tribe.”
Veteran journalist Kingsley Field asked, “What do you think of 1080?”
“I believe in science, and it tells us that’s what we need to do right now,” she replied, to great applause. The Waikato is 1080-friendly. Also science-friendly.
Noelle McCarthy told her, “You are a force to be reckoned with on Twitter.”
Yes, she is. Which brings us to my Unasked Question: “Do you still want to break David Farrar’s legs?”
In her Herald column the previous month she wrote that she “had numerous rape and death threats merely for expressing an opinion”. Here is the Manawatu Standard report of 24 January 2015 about this. I remember it because David Farrar supported her, writing on his blog at the time: “There is no room for such threats in our country… entirely unacceptable”.
On 17 September she wrote on Twitter, “Apropos of not much, I just wanna say that David Farrar is a little wee tool that I’d just love to meet in a dark alley somewhere. Not kidding.”
She followed up with: “Read this and tell me why I shouldn’t break his little legs”.
The background: on 10 June Farrar wrote this on Kiwiblog, the post Stewart tweeted about:
Makes the Greens look moderate
The Herald reports:
New Zealand needs to get rid of 80 per cent of its dairy cows because dairying is dirtying our water.That was the message delivered to the annual meeting of Wanganui Federated Farmers by its former president.Rachel Stewart, president of the group for four years in the early 2000s and guest speaker at Friday’s annual meeting, is an “ardent critic” of farming.
Dairy off memory is around 7% of GDP. So an 80% reduction is likely to reduce GDP by around $11 billion or $2,500 per capita.
Ms Stewart predicted there would be synthetic milk in five years, and people wouldn’t be eating meat in 10 years.
Her predictions seem as robust as her policies. I’m very very confident people will be eating meat in 100 years’ time, let alone 10.
I can’t see why this should make her wish to “break his little legs”. Nothing personal in it. So the longer version of my Unasked Question was: “We all agree that it’s not OK for anyone to threaten you for expressing your opinion, but why is it OK for you to say want to hurt someone else for expressing theirs?”
But after her confession of anger-management issues, the Unasked Question seemed redundant.
So here is the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein performing Charles Ives’s brief “The Unanswered Question”.
In the comments, reader Agnes Day writes:
“Rachel Stewart has been rather rude about you on Twitter, saying you must be deaf because she never said she doesn’t vote. What’s the story?”
Several other people have mentioned that she called me old, deaf, past my use-by-date etc because she never said she didn’t vote, and suggested I should respond. I won’t on Twitter because that way madness lies, but here is my blog-standard reply to Agnes Day:
Has she? I don't know why she would deny saying she doesn’t vote, because she did – I recorded it in my notebook because it was so surprising. The later quote, “I do vote. I will vote,” was in response to a question after her talk, obviously from someone who was as startled as I was by the remark. Maybe it was an impromptu joke that didn't come off so she doesn’t remember. We must be charitable.