Harrison Christian was a name I first heard in another interview I did, with Steve Braunias (who has just had one of his books shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh crime writing awards, congratulations Steve) upon hearing Harrison Christian’s name I read some of his works, the result of my reading was that I quickly looked up to Christian – and I am looking forward to sending him one of my (coming) works to critique.
Until I send him that work, here is another one of his – or at least his answers to my questions
You’ve done some pieces in conjunction with or telling the story of, criminals. In doing these stories, what have you learned about human nature and/or observed about our justice system?
I think no one is essentially good or bad, but some people have the capacity to do horrendous things without batting an eye. I spent time with sex offender Stewart Murray Wilson, who is one of New Zealand’s worst criminals and who has never admitted to his offending, and the big question with him is, does he genuinely believe in his innocence? I still don’t know. Maybe, when you’re a pathological liar like Wilson, you buy into your own warped reality. I first embarked on the Wilson story hoping to take a relatively sympathetic approach, but that became impossible. I tried to detect some kernel of remorse, regret, or empathy for his victims, and couldn’t. Wilson claimed he was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy. I couldn’t decide whether he believed his own bullshit, and his level of intelligence was also unclear; how could he possibly believe his story was plausible? But he’s a very cunning and manipulative man and a diagnosed psychopath. I researched psychopathy for the piece, and it was pretty bleak stuff to get into. I started seeing psychopathic traits in everyone, including myself! Of course, it’s not a black-and-white definition, it’s a spectrum, and Wilson is at the extreme end of it.
Your Twitter Bio is a quote by one of my most favourite journalists, Hunter S Thompson. Is Thompson a favourite of yours, if so why – and if not, who are your favoured journalists?
Yeah, I first started reading Hunter S Thompson in my late teens. He made me question why I shouldn’t go out and start making stories happen. I wanted to write like him. In 2011 the Occupy Movement assembled a ramshackle camp in Aotea Square – this little island of anarchy in the central city – and I went there with a bottle of rum and had a few hours of near-sleep in a spare tent after talking to protesters all night. I emailed the ‘story’ to a bunch of outlets and REMIX Magazine, in an act of life-changing benevolence, agreed to publish it online.
Soon after that I joined the church of Scientology and did an expose on it which, in another stroke of luck, was picked up by Metro Magazine. None of the other several outlets I sent the story to even emailed me back. Becoming a journalist, for me, was about sending a huge volume of emails and not being disheartened by a lack of response.
What misconception about New Zealand journalism angers you most – and what can we do to clarify said misconception?
I think the stereotype in films and TV shows – journalists as human vermin, flocking outside the homes of the bereaved and hard done by – there’s a shade of truth in that, there are things you do as a journalist that can feel shabby and ignoble, but it’s not the full picture. We’re like lawyers; people aren’t really sure how to respond to us because we’re morally ambiguous and by turns capable of harmful or helpful work.
But we are the canaries in any decent democracy, and I don’t know whether that’s generally understood. It should be. The public should live in fear of the day we aren’t around.
How did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
About halfway through my bottle of rum at the Occupy camp in Aotea Square, 2011.
Sadly, we all know print journalism is dying, so – if you had to write the eulogy for its eventual funeral, what would you say? And who would you invite to the memorial service?
I’m not worthy of writing such a eulogy. I nominate Hawke’s Bay Today reporter Doug Laing for the task. Unlike me, he lived through the halcyon days of print journalism, back when you could “go down the pub and come back with a couple of stories in your back pocket”. A mumbling, dignified old-timer of indeterminate age. Half journalist, half national spokesman for competitive sheep shearing. I worked with him at Hawke’s Bay Today and looked up to him; he’d seen it all, but he was a cheerful fellow, magnanimous and artfully detached from his work, and full of surreal stories. He had half an ear; someone broke into his Napier house and bit it off. He got it sewed back on and caused a waitress to faint when it fell off again while he was ordering a sandwich. As far as I know, he’s still reporting.
One of the reasons I started to write was because I didn’t see people like me represented in mainstream media, why do you think diverse representation in the media is important – or simply do you think it is important and if so, why?
Yeah, I think it’s just as important as diverse representation in politics. When journalists ask questions, they’re asking on behalf of the public – they are ‘representing’ the public in a very real sense, so it follows that their ranks should be as diverse as the population.
How has being a journalist impacted your life, both positively and negatively – has it changed your perceptions or shaped your actions in any way?
I think when you’re first starting out and you’ve got your ear on the scanner, the world can suddenly feel like an incredibly dangerous and chaotic place, with fires springing up everywhere, cars colliding, and people falling down dead in the streets. I would say it has the potential to make you cynical and even paranoid, but it doesn’t have to. That hasn’t been the case with Doug Laing.
Did you like High School English?
I did in retrospect because although I was a fickle student, we had a great reading list. I didn’t necessarily read everything I was supposed to, but some of those books stuck with me.
All of Harrison’s works are on his website www.harrisonchristian.co.nz