The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)
As a general experience in securing first news for daily papers, there is a story behind the objective sometimes even more thrilling than the scoop itself. Every live wire on a newspaper staff lives day and night in eagerness for items that will beat the other paper—with an eagerness as keen as the cricketer for his century or the footballer for his try. There is no vocation in modern days that offers the same amount of thrills that is provided in the pursuit of news on a city paper. It is not a case of the daily round and common task—it is a life of the unexpected for the writer who is keen on his job and who is down on the book for all the things that matter in the emergencies of the city. Every star reporter on every daily paper could tell stories behind scoops that would make fiction go hide her face for lack of imagination against actuality. Of course, some of these behind-the-scoop stories can never be told—not even when the doors are closed; and New Zealand's newspapermen are perhaps the world's best and most reliable keepers of secrets.
My own most exciting, dangerous and most disappointing misadventure occurred just thirty-four years ago and had to do with the arrival from England of Lord Plunket (whose lady mothered the fine institution bearing her name to-day) to take over the Governorship of New Zealand. Mr. Charles Earle, C.M.G. (now head of the “Dominion,” then a sub-editor of the “Evening Post”) had set the main -by scooping the arrival of a previous Governor. A prince of scoopists, C.E. had accomplished the impossible in securing an interview for publication with his Exclusiveness. Therefore, when Lord Plunket was due to arrive off Worser Bay in the liner “Gothic,” Editor Gresley Lukin gave instructions that his Excellency be interviewed for the “Evening Post.”
“But it isn't done,” said the chief reporter, Mr. Jack Gibbons. “Earle did it!” rumbled the big Australian; and in relaying the order to me overnight, Jack said: “There's no comeback to that, Tom.”
It takes the fathers and grandfathers of Wellington to remember the exceedingly crude, rough and lonely conditions of Worser Bay and its neighbourhood in the mid-winter of 1904. I failed to get a permit from the Health Department to accompany on board the little Duco, the port health officer, Dr. Pollen, a very genial official, but one who had explicit instructions not to facilitate the enterprises of “those devils of the press.” The department put a curb on enterprise.
My troubles began, after a trip across Miramar and Seatoun in an express from Newtown in a rain storm. At 8 a.m., when trudging over the hill to Worser Bay, the sun was shining for a brief spasm, when the top of the hill overlooking the bay was reached. The Heads were in the distance and there in the middle foreground lay the handsome liner gaily decorated from stem to stern with bunting all dressed up to go to town.
Standing on the shore looking across the intervening stretch of water I found my problem anything but solved. How to get out to that ship? “Yes,” said one of the few residents of the seaside resort that was to become so popular, “you'll get a boat down at the shed. Come with me and I'll fix you. I was thinking of going out to the ‘Gothic’ myself.” But the boat was gone! “I'll go home to breakfast,” said the local. “You go and ask the fishermen to take you out.”
Johnny the Greek, who had been at the bay seemingly from the time of the whalers, did not like the idea of taking a boat out in the breakers that rolled in like they roll at Bondi. Anyway, that boat drawn up on the beach was too heavy for him to handle—“an' you no help!” as he looked contemptuously at my lean phiz, with my figure swathed in a heavy rain-laden overcoat, muffler round my throat, gloves on hands and a big brolly under my arm. That ancient Greek was a man of discernment as well as experience.
Plodding along towards Karaka Bay in search of a crew generally and of Friend Resident particularly, I met another local busily engaged in splitting rocks with which to pave the muddy places leading to his seaside cottage. Had he seen a man in gum boots and a hurry? Certainly. That was Wyatt, the keeper of the store just round the corner. “You're a newspaper chap, eh. Well, I'm a footballer, see. (A hint at a controversy raging in the papers). I don't like the papers just now, though I must admit the ‘Evening Post’ has been fair on this rough clay question. But, Lord! it would be fun to see the fellows who write down us footballers dumped into the sea. Oh, nothing personal— I wish you better luck than that if you're really going off to the' Gothic.' I'll watch your progress.” (I'll say right here that he got an eyeful.)
When Mr. Wyatt had finished his breakfast and reached the beach again a boat was seen making its way to Worser Bay. It was the missing dinghy, with a crew of three boys. As the boat came bumping through the page 77 surf I put the proposition. Yes, they would take me out to the “Gothic.” It was a holiday from school for them, and they had lots of time. Two of the youngsters got out of the boat and I got in—and into trouble instanter.
“Don't let her get broadside on, now!” they yelled in chorus. But the warning was too late for the landlubber, who slipped and floundered as the boat swung round into the trough and shipped quite two loads of wave, at the same time unshipping the scribe before the Pharisees, including the footballer. As another breaker visitor from Bondi came rolling along the watery way the Rugby chap yelled: “Jump!” And I did—into the broiling sea; overcoat, gloves, umbrella and muffler.
The assemblage had been mysteriously augmented by two young athletes in club jerseys and “en masse” they gleefully hauled me out of a predicament that was very wet, indeed. “You had enough?” asked the storekeeper. “Not nearly. I've got a job to do—get me out to that ship before she loses me!”
The dinghy was hauled ashore, dewatered, and the voyage was made with nothing more inconvenient than another heavy shower of rain. From the boat to the Duco, thence up the gangway to the deck of the liner, where my card brought the Governor's aide-de-camp, Captain Braithwaite.
Could he secure for me a personal interview with his Excellency? He returned with the message: His Excellency's regrets, but he was busy with private secretary Waterfield. They were going through a mass of official papers which required attention before the “Gothic” reached Wellington. And that was that. The scoop had failed!
But there was no failure for the “Evening Post.” An oil launch standing by took me to the city with particulars of the notabilities on board I had gleaned, with notes on the passage and items about the Plunket family. Thus the “Evening Post's” readers got ahead of the morning paper, then the “New Zealand Times.” In addition, I wrote a column article on “Seeking an Interview—the Misadventures of a Journalist,” which the editor classed as “full of human interest and atmosphere”—and sent me home to get dry, which was my best reward.
Shortly afterwards I was introduced at a public function to Governor Plunket by his A.D.C., as “the reporter who was tipped into the sea, you know, sir, when you would not give him an interview for the ‘Evening Post.”’
“And a jolly good job you didn't get that interview young man,” said his Excellency with a grin as he shook hands—“for that article you wrote was a dashed sight more interesting and entertaining than any interview I could have given you. And I got a jolly good laugh out of it, eh, Braithwaite!”