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Ian Cross pictured on Column Comment. Photo/Bill Beavis

Ian Cross, celebrated Listener editor, 1925-2019

The former Listener editor turned around a magazine going through turbulent times – which he discussed in a previously unpublished 2014 interview. 

Ian Cross, who died recently aged 93, was editor of the Listener for only three and a half years, but he left a lasting imprint. Under him, the magazine was transformed from one principally concerned with arts and letters, and thus widely seen as elitist, to one more recognisable as the Listener of today, with a range of content that covered the populist as well as the cerebral.

Cross was appointed editor in 1973, inheriting a publication (then Government-owned) that had been destabilised under the turbulent editorship of Alexander McLeod. A capable journalist but bereft of personal skills, McLeod not only antagonised his bosses, writing trenchantly liberal editorials that challenged the conservative political mood of the time, but also got offside with many of his staff as a result of his mercurial temperament and authoritarian management style. He was eventually fired, leaving behind a workplace bitterly divided into pro- and anti-McLeod factions.

Ian Cross in 1975. Photo/Bill Beavis

After a brief interregnum in which revered former editor Monte Holcroft reoccupied the editor’s chair, Cross was brought in to steady the ship. He came to the job with a CV that might have been tailor-made, combining daily newspaper journalism experience (he had been chief reporter for the Dominion in the 1950s, and had previously worked for the Labour Party-owned daily, the Southern Cross) with television exposure (as a newspaper critic on Column Comment) and an enviable reputation as a fiction writer.

His 1957 novel The God Boy, partly inspired by a murder trial he had covered as a young reporter, but incorporating elements of his own Catholic childhood, had won international acclaim. Published overseas before it was released in New Zealand (the New York Times called it “a brilliant first novel”), The God Boy gave Cross a measure of literary cred that should have assured him of acceptance by the New Zealand literati, who regarded the Listener as their house journal. In fact, it didn’t, and he was never entirely accepted by the prevailing literary clique as one of them.

If this bothered Cross, it didn’t show. Like many good journalists, he always retained something of the quality of an outsider.

On a July 1977 cover.

He went on to write other novels, but none as successful. In any case, as the father of a young family, he preferred the financial security of a regular day job to the precarious existence of a writer. He was, at various times, a public relations manager for the New Zealand Police, the Justice Department and the Feltex NZ carpet company, so by the time he returned to journalism at the Listener – on a substantially lower salary than Feltex had paid him – he had added corporate management to his skill set.

In an unpublished 2014 interview, Cross told the Listener he was given a free hand on taking up the editorship. The magazine was seen as a problem child after the turmoil of the McLeod years and no one in the state broadcasting bureaucracy wanted anything to do with it.

He proceeded to put his stamp on the magazine by recruiting unproven talent to complement staff with mainstream journalism experience. Cross was an astute spotter and nurturer of raw ability and he had the confidence to let neophytes establish their own style, uninhibited by the constraints of traditional journalism training.

An outstanding example was Tom Scott – “hiring him [to write about politics] was the first clever thing I did”, Cross recalled – but there were others. Helen Paske, Rosemary McLeod, Geoff Chapple, David Young, Denis Welch, Karen Jackman, David McGill, Gordon Campbell, the cartoonist Burton Silver and the humorist AK Grant all flourished under the regime of stylistic freedom that Cross encouraged. He also remembered giving an internship to a promising teenager named Pamela Stirling, who, to his later “delight”, would eventually become one of his successors as editor.

The BCNZ head in a 1984 cartoon by columnist Tom Scott, whom Cross defended when he came under attack from Robert Muldoon. Cartoon/Tom Scott

His other enduring contribution to the Listener’s legacy was to broaden its reach. “The magazine could afford to be elitist and esoteric up the front [where the general content was] because it had the programmes down the back.” But unlike his predecessors, Cross wasn’t content to rely on the magazine’s statutory monopoly on publication of the full week’s TV and radio programmes (newspapers could publish them only one day at a time) to deliver readers. “I brought it down to the issues of the day,” he recalled. “It became a forum for current affairs journalism rather than literary criticism.”

This meant introducing more populist content while retaining enough of the magazine’s literary emphasis to satisfy traditional readers. It’s a balance that the magazine still aims for today.

Part of that diversification involved publicising TV shows that many 1970s Listenerati disdained. But in that 2014 interview, Cross was also keen to emphasise the space the magazine gave to rugby. (“Blessed rugby,” he called it with a chortle.) Cross wrote several editorials celebrating the sport as a unique expression of New Zealand culture, and even went as far as controversially backing sporting contact with apartheid-era South Africa. His editorial stance caused an uproar, but he credited it with helping broaden the magazine’s readership and increasing its circulation, which doubled during his tenure. Other factors helped, too. The introduction of colour television in 1973, and the launching of a second TV channel in 1975, inevitably stimulated interest in the medium and helped push the Listener’s sales to a peak of nearly 400,000 by the early 1980s – by far the largest paid magazine circulation, per head of population, in the world.

Ian Cross in 1985. Photo/Kenneth Quinn

By that time, Cross had moved upstairs – promoted in 1977 to the position of chairman of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, later the BCNZ. It was a job in which he found himself first defending state broadcasting’s independence against an often-hostile National Government, and later against a Labour-driven dismantling of the public broadcasting system. He retired in 1986, and in a 1988 memoir, The Unlikely Bureaucrat, laid bare his disgust at what had happened to broadcasting.

Born in Masterton and educated at Wanganui Technical College, Cross grew up in a small rural community and never lost sight of broadcasting’s obligations to viewers and listeners in the heartland. He didn’t lose his affinity with, and respect for, ordinary people, either. He told the Listener in 2014 that he got on well with autocratic National Prime Minister Robert Muldoon because he understood his background. Neither man had a privileged upbringing.

In another Listener interview, with Geoff Chapple in 1977, he expressed admiration for the way American culture celebrated “the common man”. An intellectual who sometimes displayed traces of anti-intellectualism, Cross once nominated Barry Crump as the author who best captured the New Zealand spirit – a statement that seemed calculated to antagonise the literary elite. He also took a dim view of self-aggrandising media personalities and believed firmly in neutral, fact-based journalism.

With Tui, his wife of 67 years. Photo/Cross family

Although he was viewed with suspicion by the Labour Party, his ideological leanings, if he had any, were not easy to pinpoint. He renounced Catholicism while still a boy, but his editorials often took a conservative line and his novel After Anzac Day – set during the 1951 waterfront dispute – was criticised by the left for not being sufficiently sympathetic to the union side.

As broadcasting chairman, Cross insisted, in the face of union opposition, that the 1981 Springbok tour matches be televised. But he also defended Tom Scott when the cartoonist and columnist was under attack from Muldoon, and he was a champion of public broadcasting who lamented the commercialisation of television and the dumbing-down of content.

Cross died in a rest home on the Kāpiti  Coast on November 2. Tui, his wife of 67 years, died a month earlier. They are survived by four sons and their families.

This article was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.