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Wednesday, 20 March 2019 06:47 am

A lifetime covering politics

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Ian Templeton has spent more than 60 years as a journalist, 53 of those from Parliament’s press gallery. His services to journalism led to the award of Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in this year’s New Year honours.  He talks to VAUGHAN ELDER.

CYCLONE GISELLE had caused havoc as it made its way down the North Island to the capital. Already bad enough, it was about to get a lot worse. 

As the cyclone struck Wellington, it merged with a storm blown up from Antarctica to create some of the worst weather conditions New Zealand has ever seen. Winds of up to 275km an hour buffeted the capital.

Ian Templeton, then a reporter for the Auckland Star, sat terrified in the passenger seat of a Holden station wagon driven by long-time photographer Morrie Hill.  Hill negotiated the car through the winds, at one stage nearly skidding into a power pole.

They would arrive at the coastal end of the Seatoun tunnel at about 1:30pm. Their car would be the last vehicle allowed through the tunnel.

When he got to the coast the scene he witnessed would be remembered by the name of the ship, the Wahine, one of the most tragic events in New Zealand’s history.

Ian Templeton’s task now was to create a “word picture” of the scene for the evening edition of the Star. Rushing to a nearby house to make the call,  he would tell the newspaper  he’d seen more than 700 confused and frightened  passengers and crew jump ship, some landing in lifeboats and others not.  There “was an unreality that it could be happening,” recalls Templeton.

It was not until later that evening he would find out the extent of the tragedy that cost 53 people their lives.  He would hear it from another reporter who had been to the railway station on the Eastbourne side of the harbour, where survivors were gathered. Many who did not make it into life boats died crushed against the rocks.

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53 YEARS: Templeton still works in the press gallery.

On his 50th anniversary as a press gallery journalist, Templeton would be given a framed copy of his front-page coverage of the disaster for Britain’s Guardian. It now sits proudly in his apartment which he shares with his wife of more than 50 years, Hannah.

For Templeton, in his late 30s at the time, this was not the first and would not be the last time he would cover a story which would become etched in the national consciousness. Being a journalist for more than 60 years has given him a unique viewpoint on our country’s history.

For most of Ian Templeton’s life he has been a reporter based at Parliament’s press gallery. The 80-year-old still reports from Parliament three days a week and has now spent close to 53 years reporting politics from the press gallery. That equates to 14 Prime Ministers and 18 elections.

Many of the stories he remembers most proudly do not involve politics. He singles out when Air New Zealand flight 901 crashed into the side of Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the Wahine disaster of 1968 and the 1951 waterfront strikes as some of his most memorable stories. But most of his time has been spent working from Parliament.

Working out of the press gallery is “endlessly fascinating” and he could not imagine giving it up, he says. He brings up an old adage: “Those who do not remember their history are forced to relive it” but adds: “Each time it is slightly different.” The fact it is different each time keeps him interested, says Templeton.

As he talks about his life and the stories he has covered he is not afraid to pause to make sure he gets the facts right. He speaks slowly and carefully. His colleagues say that his desire always to be accurate came through in his journalism.

The way in which he has conducted himself as a journalist and the length of time he has been in the profession earned him an OBE in 1994, and he became a Companion to the New Zealand Order of Merit in this year’s New Year honours.

Templeton’s journalism career started in 1949 when he was just 17. After being turned down for a job on Dunedin’s now-defunct Evening Star, he got his first job working for the Otago Daily Times. Dunedin was a good place to start his career, he says.

“Dunedin was going through a golden period – it had just celebrated its centenary and many of the country’s head offices were still there,” says Templeton.

After working his way through the ranks and taking a year off to finish his economics degree in 1949, by 1951 he had become the ODT‘s shipping reporter.

It was his job to cover the largest industrial dispute New Zealand has ever seen.

“[Covering the 1951 waterfront strikes] meant that I was able to get a prominent place in the paper on almost a daily basis,” he says.

Covering the strikes helped him build his writing skills and would serve him well for when he went to Britain to work for the Glasgow Herald.

“At the time every journalist had ambitions to go to Britain, which was seen as being the pinnacle of journalism,” he says.

Working in Britain was “a lot of fun”, he says. It’s a phrase he uses often.

The London first-night shows he attended included Look Back in Anger, which would revolutionise British playwriting.

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CHANGING TIMES: Templeton notes how the Wellington skyline has changed.

Templeton would marry Hannah in London and after itching for life back home he got a job in 1957 as the Star‘s Wellington correspondent under editor Eric Dumbleton. During his first years at Parliament he was ahead of his peers in that he would inject analysis into his stories.

Unlike many colleagues, he would never tire of his work in the press gallery: It “still keeps you on your toes”, he says.  The diversity that came with the introduction of MMP has helped keep him interested.

This is typical of a man willing to embrace change. He makes use of modern technology and maintains a blog for Trans-Tasman, a weekly publication read by the rich and powerful, and one he owned up until 2002.  He does not see himself retiring any time soon.

He says journalism is a worthy profession and what he does is for the public good.

His insistence on fairness has been a major reason behind his success, particularly when it comes to gaining the trust of his many sources. By all accounts, Templeton built a web of sources including high- flying Cabinet ministers, civil servants and even prime ministers.

He says his knowledge of economics often got him in the door, especially of finance ministers including Bill Birch in the 1990s and Bill English today.

His sources at the top included Helen Clark while she was prime minister and with whom he had better access than any other journalist.

“She gave me a weekly one-on-one interview which was mostly off the record and that was pretty useful,” says Templeton in a typically understated way.

Marie McNicholas, a journalist who worked with him at the Star in the 1980s, says Helen Clark talked to Templeton because she was aware of Trans-Tasman‘s influence, especially among business people – some of the most important people she had to win over.

His ability to maintain such good sources meant that he had a better understanding of what was going on than other journalists, says McNicholas.

In her early days as journalist at Parliament, McNicholas would be shocked to enter the office only to find a Cabinet minister giving Templeton the inside story on what was happening in government.

Public servants would read his articles to find out what was going on in their own departments, she says.

Max Bowden, who bought Trans-Tasman from Templeton in 2002, says it was Templeton’s ability to “look behind the news” which attracted him to the publication.

“Whereas other reporters look at what is happening day to day, what Ian is looking for is where the government is actually taking us,” he says.

Templeton still does about 50% of the work for Trans-Tasman and no longer has to worry about the administration bogging him down, says Bowden.

EARLY DAYS: Ian pictured right, in 1957

MIRROR IMAGE: Templeton (pictured right) in 1957 and now in reflection.

McNicholas began working with Ian Templeton in 1984 when he was already considered an elder statesman of the press gallery. Working under him for the Star was always a pleasure and his office was more fun than any she has worked in, before and since.  While he was not always the one making the jokes he would always be the one who laughed the hardest, she says.

Having his encyclopaedic knowledge on tap was a major help at the beginning of her career at Parliament, she says.

“He is a good advertisement for those who are a bit shy, and proof that it’s not always the outgoing ones who make the best journalists.”

She is careful to mention that underneath his retiring personality and “goofy grin”, he is a lot tougher than he seems.

 Templeton says he always kept in mind that “loyalty is not just to your sources but also too your readers who are entitled to as much information as you can give them”.

This attitude has occasionally put him at the wrong end of an ear bashing from politicians unhappy with what he has published.

One politician sued him for defamation because Templeton had written that he would never make it into Cabinet.

The case was “a real bugger to deal with”, lasted three or four years and only went away when he was proved right: The MP’s party made it into government and he was not in Cabinet.

Being appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit  “was a sign that I have been here a long time”.

“I was pleased for my family’s sake, they put up with my long hours and maybe I didn’t give them as much time as I should have,” says Templeton.

McNicholas says she cannot imagine life in the press gallery without him. It will lose the physical link with the past and the institutional knowledge he holds, she says.

“If he leaves, he will have to be carried out, possibly feet first,” says McNicholas.

FIRST PHOTO: Ian Templeton  standing on the far right  in his first annual press gallery photo taken in 1957

FIRST PHOTO: Ian Templeton standing on the far right in his first annual press gallery photo taken in 1957

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is an aspiring political journalist. I came up to Wellington after living in Dunedin all my life. I have a degree in politcal science and would love to be a political reporter.
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