Finlay Macdonald on Ian Cross (1925-2019)

Finlay Macdonald marks the death at the weekend of author and former Listener editor, Ian Cross, once memorably described by Paul Holmes as "a sullen old f...wit".

Ian Cross died just short of his 94th birthday, and with him went a brand of cultural nationalism we don’t hear about so much these days. He was well remembered in most obituaries for his editorship of the Listener, his stewardship of public broadcasting, and for having written The God Boy. But it was Cross’ belief that New Zealand should throw off its colonial shackles that animated his considerable achievements, a belief he would come to accept was overtaken by events and new ideas.

“I have always believed,” he wrote in his 1988 memoir The Unlikely Bureaucrat, “that New Zealand will finally wriggle clear of the cocoon of its colonial mentality only by giving expression to, and respecting, the scarcely articulated reactions of its native-born people.”

He wrote this partly in response to criticism he had endured as editor of the Listener from some of his own staff, who viewed his more socially conservative editorials as out of step with the progressive line they thought the magazine should be taking in the mid-1970s. Cross, on the other hand, was arguing that national identity resided also in the attitudes and habits of everyday New Zealanders, even if they enjoyed rugby and didn’t really care so much about politics.

Later, in an interview with the Herald, he lamented the globalisation of culture which, he felt, meant even our greatest writers – Gee, Sargeson, Frame – could not entirely break free from traditions imported from elsewhere. He thought post-colonial New Zealand would have needed to live in isolation for two centuries for anything genuinely original to have emerged. "I would say the nearest we got to indigenous literary expression, and don't cringe here, was early Barry Crump,” Cross ventured. “Because he hadn't read much, it came straight from his guts.”

His own celebrated novel The God Boy is itself a story of struggle against the hand-me-down conformism of post-war New Zealand society, and his 1993 novel The Family Man was meant to be titled “The Colonial Man” until his publishers had their way. It wasn’t just cultural cringe Cross believed held us back. He also felt many potentially brilliant careers had been thwarted by the nasty village politics and whispering campaigns of a mean-spirited and closed-minded political class.

It was in journalism and broadcasting that he would come closest to putting his ideas into effect. As Listener editor he hired new blood – Tom Scott, Rosemary McLeod, Burton Silver – and set about dismantling what reminded him of “a feather-bed for tired journalism covered by a massive eiderdown of bureaucratic inertia”. He also demonstrated a tactical shrewdness by moving the TV listings to their own easy-to-find place at the back of the mag, and dragging the programme schedule closer to the on-sale date. “As circulation started to climb and pundits offered explanations for this,” he wrote, “it was amusing to see how the importance of some of these decisions was overlooked entirely.”

In 1975 the advent of a second TV station supercharged the Listener’s upward trajectory, sending circulation to nearly 400,000 – more than 10 percent of the population at the time – and sucking advertising revenue into its pages like some prehistoric Facebook. Pretty soon its commercially-owned competition was crying foul over the Listener’s supposed listings monopoly, and Robert Muldoon (who once described it as “a journal directed towards the effete intellectual trendy left”) eventually obliged by removing the programme copyright that underwrote its extraordinary success.

By the time I washed up at the editor’s desk in 1997 that historical (and largely circumstantial) highpoint had become something of an albatross around the magazine's neck. Smoothing the pillow of a dying masthead was the general tenor of much media commentary. Competitors enjoyed the inevitable effect of commercial gravity on our circulation numbers (an experience they would soon share, of course). But we could also look to the Cross-era Listener for guidance – good journalism, intelligent arts and books coverage, satire and new writing were part of its DNA. If it would never sell as well again, it could at least be true to that legacy.

Cross had moved on long before, becoming first chairman and later chief executive of the Broadcasting Corporation. It is him we have to thank for the creation of TVNZ, the result of his amalgamation of TV One and South Pacific TV. His reasoning was clear, and in line with his cultural nationalist principles – end the false competition between two state-owned commercial stations, carve off a channel to become the public broadcaster and eventually sell the rest.

One has to wonder what things would look like now had he got his way – his model is still basically the one being touted by public television worthies three decades later. His mistake, he would later admit, was to assume that no future government would completely abandon the idea of non-commercial television, let alone a Labour government. And then along came Roger Douglas.

Contemplating what became of local television under free-market rule, Cross memorably described TVNZ as “a hooker who walked the marketplace selling her favours, with the government of the day acting as her pimp by taking a share of what she earned”. The new star in this benighted firmament was Paul Holmes, who responded by calling Cross “a sullen old fuckwit”.

It can all feel a little like ancient history now. Holmes died in 2013, the Internet and social media changed everything, the Listener sells a fraction of what it did at its peak, and successive governments have continued to fail the test of expanding a public interest ethos within broadcasting. Notions of national identity aren’t fixed forever. As Cross admitted to the Herald, “I have grandchildren and they aren't the New Zealanders I envisaged.”

But that’s what happens when you make it to nearly 94. You outlive people, eras, ambition, political fashion, even your own dreams. And yet Ian Cross also managed something a little timeless. In championing a confident, inclusive national culture he also became a part of it. That, at least, will outlive him.

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