4 Feb 2018

Pat Booth 1929- 2018: Enemy of 'the obvious and the innocuous'

From Mediawatch, 9:11 am on 4 February 2018
The career of Pat Booth makes for a failry full file of clippings.

The career of Pat Booth makes for a failry full file of clippings. Photo: RNZ

One of New Zealand’s most respected and admired investigative journalists died on Wednesday.

Pat Booth was 88 years old and he was still working and writing his column Off Pat for the Eastern Courier until 2014.

He was best known for two startling and long-running investigations in the 1970s during a 40-year career at  the Auckland Star newspaper. 

Arthur Allan Thomas

Arthur Allan Thomas. Photo: RNZ

Pat Booth brought to light fabricated evidence in the case against Arthur Allan Thomas, who served nine years in jail for the Crewe murders. In 1973, he promised to take Arthur Allan Thomas home a free man. It was more than six years before he could keep his promise.

As early as 1974, his articles on the case won the national award for investigative reporting. The judges deemed to be “the outstanding investigative story in recent years”.  

“Mr Booth did not forward his series for consideration, but was nominated by the sponsor of the award,” The Auckland Star reported at the time.  

“I was doubtful I could ever recover the physical and intellectual stamina to take up the chase again,” he recalled after being sidelined by surgery in 1976.

A trip to the movies to see All the Presidents’ Men perked him up.

“Next day I was back into the Thomas files. Four years later he was free,” he wrote in 1992.

His reporting was crucial in overturning the conviction and his work was vindicated by the findings of a subsequent Royal Commission of Inquiry.  

"He told me he was asked by his bosses to tone down his coverage on the Thomas inquiry, but he refused to do so," James Hollings wrote in A Moral Truth: 150 years of investigative journalism in New Zealand, before describing Pat Booth as "arguably the finest journalist New Zealand has produced".

Pat Booth also helped reveal an international drug ring during what became known as the ‘Mr Asia’ case in the 1970s. 

That spawned several books  - including his own: The Mr Asia File  - and a popular TV series on both the Tasman  - Underbelly - three decades later.

In 2009, he told RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan he felt the drama's makers had bent the truth for the sake of entertainment.

"They trivialised something that was catastrophic at the time  . . for people who survived this business,” he said

Pat Booth also had to deal with some of them personally.

“I had a mother who rang me during the investigation. She would ask me: ‘Why are you saying my daughter is dead? I couldn’t tell her we knew her daughter was dead, how she died and who killed her,” he said.    

Terry Clark was “a monstrous figure” who killed many people, said Pat Booth.

"Terry Clark issued an underworld contract . . . to do me in at the height of the investigation,” he said.

The price on his head in Australia in 1978 was $30,000 dollars plus air fares.

”The family joked a lot about the price being pretty low,” he wrote in his memoir Deadline in 1997.

But his family was also at risk. Threatening phone calls were frequent and their home was broken into during the investigation and subsequent trials.

“They burst into the house and left our deep freeze unplugged so it rotted and we would know they’d been there,” he recalled.

When his wife complained of a strange noise in the car he discovered wheel nuts on one side had been loosened.

“They were rattling round in the hubcap. A crash could have killed her and could have killed the children,” he recalled. 

Pat Booth went on to other jobs and other stories in later years.

At North and South magazine in 1988, he wrote an article called Facts without Fear: learning to live with the Waitangi Tribunal. It was distributed to embassies and libraries overseas by what was then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a standard reference work on the Tribunal’s work.

He was also editor-in-chief of Suburban Newspapers in Auckland until 2001.

New Zealand Herald senior reporter Phil Taylor - whose journalism has also helped free the wrongly-convicted Teina Pora - began his Herald article marking Pat Booth’s death like this:

“Crusading newspaperman Pat Booth was driven by the belief that the world needs more giraffes - people prepared to stick their necks out.”

He certainly felt that way about New Zealand journalism.

“New Zealand editors and the boards who keep them in their jobs have locked investigative journalism away in a file padlocked and labelled “too hard”. No matter that it is part of their craft and their responsibility,” he wrote in a 2002 book about contemporary New Zealand journalism, Whose News?

“Hag-ridden by accountants and lawyers who wake cold-sweaty in the night over libel laws and conditioned by years of not rocking boats, the prefer the safety of the obvious and the innocuous.”   

Five years earlier in his memoir Deadline, he published this “wish for my profession”.

"Less attention to the effect in ratings or the corporate bottom line. More boardroom and individual emphasis on the good that we can do."