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March 10, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

How to Interview Roger Steele

First things first: get his name right when you email him. After all he was one of the best, most radical editors Salient has ever had. Accord the man some respect! Steele was Co-Editor in ‘73 and Editor in ’74.

What was Salient to you?
It was a means of articulating the revolution. We all believed in major social change and Salient was one of the many ways of achieving that. Some people went on the streets, some people wrote books, some people studied really hard to change the world but I found a much more fun thing to do was hang out with a bunch of people and produce a radical left-wing magazine.

Hardest issue you had to deal with?
There were so many! Censorship was real hard to deal with. We regularly ran material that was censored. Stuff on the police. Constantly threatened with defamation, and finally quite a big one came and whacked us around the head a bit. It was regarding the Rama rent strike; his lawyer sued us for defamation.

Highlight of your time at Salient?
We had a wonderful team of people that worked long hours for bugger all (nothing’s changed. Pols Ed.), the great camaraderie. Probably the highlight was just making a difference. A lot of the things we did resulted in change. Laws like housing laws, to the way police did things. We instituted a court reporting, resulting in raising a bit of awareness about the class nature of the court system. I could go on and on…

Do you still read Salient?
Occasionally. I hardly ever get to see it. I prefer paper in my hand.

If you were to come back to Salient what would you write?
One of the things I am proudest of, was that we published some of the first stuff on Maori Liberation, shall we say. I would continue to write about that sort of stuff. About the great need for New Zealand to become Aotearoa.

What did you see as the role of Salient on campus?
A major sharp point was the universities role as critic and conscience of society, and the fact that it was on campus was almost incidental, but the campus was a hot bed of thinking and radicalism. Some of our attention was focused on the university from time to time, we were always happy to but we figured we didn’t want to get too insular and report on who won the drinking competition. We wanted to articulate the students desire to make a better world.

In 1973 you published US Army bomb making instructions and got away with it. How did you manage to do that?
Well it’s not so much how we managed to do it. There are a few things about my time in Salient that I regret. I think it was just in the name of free speech. It didn’t defame anybody, it wasn’t seditious. Intrinsically it was useful. One editor did a piece about how to stop police dogs biting you and how to kill a dog that was biting you. We figured that if the state was using armed force against radical revolutionary elements then it was in peoples’ interest to know what they were up against. Know thine enemy. I don’t think we ever advocated using the stuff. I then and now find military hardware abhorrent.

Comments on the Rama landlord dispute?
It was intense, we had a Salient van and a Salient car, and we forever tearing off to demonstrations and pickets and to fight evictions. When Rama seized the tenant’s goods we would liberate them, and hold them in the Salient office under semi armed guard. We were the focal point of that. We practised what we preached. We were out there getting beaten up by as many landlords as I have been by cops. We would go in and be with tenant. It was an odd thing. While it was social justice stuff it was also of direct use to students, because students were being exploited by landlords. We figured that everyone would benefit if we took it on.

Peter Franks (co-editor ’73) went to China, during the Cultural Revolution. What impact did that have on you and on Salient?
We had a wonderful partnership, Franks and I, and we still friends to this day. I was never as ardent a Maoist, an ardent as student of Marxism, Lenninism, Engels, Mao Tse Tung, communist thought as the others. I leaned more towards Anarchism, and was accused of being an anarchist, and that’s probably not too far from the truth. Nonetheless. It created a dialectic state of argument and the checking of ideas and was extremely useful. When you are trying to change society you desperately look around for models and ways of doing things. We learnt a hell of a lot from the Chinese and we were really anxious to pass that on to people. A simple example of this was how impressed Frank when they talked about the justice system to judges, and then talked about it to common people and they found the same answers.

An ice pick in the window of the Salient office to ward off Trotskyites?
We had a lot of fun baiting the Trotskyites. A lot of them were our friends, and it was one of the many things I regret. We regarded it as sharpening the swords of the revolution, but that’s how we rationalised it. In fact it was bullshit. It was petty factionalism and we should have been working out ways to work together.

What inspired the court reporter?
Peter Franks’ brother, Don Franks, had been in court and had found that we could become court reporters and he had a very strong socialist conscience and said why don’t we look at the class aspects of the court? We were staggered, then as now by the high number of down and outs, and working class people that were up before the courts and the way they were treated differently to the better off people. We did as much as we could to expose the differential treatment that Maori received, they were far more likely to be imprisoned. This was real groundbreaking stuff that was then picked up by the national media. We believe that Salient was regularly read in Parliament.

How did you deal with censorship?
The printers were quite brave printing Salient. In extreme cases we would print a broadsheet, and had it printed elsewhere or handed it out on campus.

How did you come by Tom Scott?
Tom Scott was our biggest claim to fame. He had been in the hinterland of the Manawatu and we banged him on the front page and he came to the attention of the Listener, and that helped start his career.

Do you still believe in Maoism now?
I am still very open minded. But I think the Chinese have a huge amount to offer civilisation and they’ve gotten it wrong, but who doesn’t?

Would you recommend that students get involved with Salient?
The power to put thoughts into words, and put words into the community is a wonderful thing and it does bring about change and you can have an enormous amount of fun while you’re doing it. We not only got good at journalism, we got good at sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and snooker.

Final thoughts
The freedom of the press is an ongoing issue and we were the first to allow the dreadful tradition of allowing students to say whatever they wanted in the letters column. But nonetheless, the drivel is the price you have to pay for the good bits to get out. There is such a need for iconoclasm and risk-taking in journalism because there is still a hell of a lot of social change that needs to be done.


About the Author ()

The editor of this fine rag for 2009.

Comments (1)

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  1. Kerry says:

    aahh, yes, the student radicals of the 70’s.. Alec Shaw, WTF happened to his social conscience?… along with Chris Trotter!

    beware the middle-aged ‘radicals’ of yesteryear, they’re pretty much all establishment capitalists now ;-)

    Roger is ok; Don franks is still doing radical activism for the union movements. Not sure where Peter franks ended up, but I guess I can ask Don next time I sit near him on the bus back to Aro!

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