Mark Jennings remembers television journalism veteran Keith Slater, who died today from cancer after nearly 40 years in the industry
There is a moment of truth that all investigative reporters face when, after months of work, they submit their story to the editor, or for television reporters, the executive producer (EP) of the programme they are working on.
Most stories contain a least one weakness, one point of vulnerability and the reporter knows it. Although often nobody else will notice it.
When I was working on TV3’s 60 Minutes programme as a producer with reporter Melanie Reid, we had many moments of truth.
The programme’s EP was Keith Slater and we would wait nervously for his verdict on the story.
Without exception Keith would call us (we were based in Christchurch then) immediately after viewing and with his unfailing politeness say, “I think the story is great but what about this point?” He would have zeroed in on the weakness with laser-like precision.
Keith Slater was a brilliant EP. Among the programmes he produced were 60 Minutes, 20/20, A Current Affair, Fair Go and The Ralston Group.
He came to journalism through an unusual route. When he turned up in South Pacific TV’s (now TV2) newsroom in the late 70s, Slater told everybody he had been a shearer.
“I will never forget that Keith was the only person who had been a shearer to get a job in journalism in New Zealand,” said broadcasting veteran Kevin Milne.
“I’m not a hundred percent sure it was exactly true but it gave Keith a point of difference … and he played it well, turning up in the newsroom in an olive-green tweed jacket and beige twill trousers.”
Newsroom’s Melanie Reid has no doubt that Slater was the “real deal”.
She recalls a time when the two of them were filming a story for 60 Minutes in the North Otago country town of Kurow: “We walked into this shearing shed and we could tell the farmers thought here are a couple of Jafas from Auckland. One yelled out to us – have you come to shear some sheep mate? – Keith ambled over, grabbed the blades and shore a couple of sheep with absolute precision, you could have heard a pin drop.”
This rural background probably helped Keith get a job on the long-running Country Calendar but he didn’t stay long on the farming programme.
The fierce competitiveness of news and current affairs was too big a drawcard for Keith.
He was one of the few producers to cross backwards and forwards between the great rivals TV3 and TVNZ.
His loyalty to whoever he was working for was so absolute that he was welcome in both newsrooms.
Melanie and Keith worked together on many big stories at TV3 including investigations into the cases of David Bain and Peter Ellis.
“Keith always used a simple test for investigations, he would ask – is the one thing that needs to be true, actually true?” said Reid
“Before the Barclay story (which Newsroom broke this week), Keith, although he was now very sick called me and asked me if Todd Barclay had recordings of Glenys Dickson’s conversations and could I prove it. I replied yes and he said, ‘Well the one thing that needs to be true is true – go for it’.”
Keith Slater was admired for many things but his resilience was unrivalled by anyone in the industry. He was at work before most reporters arrived and never missed a day.
After having chemotherapy, he turned up when no one expected him to be there.
If Keith Slater had been born a few decades earlier he would have been a WW2 fighter pilot.
His friend and former TVNZ colleague Mike Valentine said Slater had “an absolute passion for flying and for the pilots of WW2″.
“He admired their courage and bravery, so much.”
The last story Keith Slater told was probably his favourite. He had completed a series of video interviews with the last remaining New Zealand pilots from WW2.
And according to Melanie Reid, the project was extremely important to him.
“It always worried him that these NZ heroes would not have their stories properly recorded. Keith was quite sick when he did the last interviews for the series but he was like those pilots, so courageous and nothing was going to stop him completing the mission.”
Keith Slater will be remembered for his honesty, his humour and his hard work. He will also be remembered for a line he repeated often in the TV3 newsroom.
As Amanda Gillies, news anchor on TV3’s The AM Show recalls, Keith hated attending meetings. “I spoke to Keith every day for 16 years but we never once had a meeting.”
“He used to tell everyone – losers have meetings, winners have parties.”
Today, journalism lost one of its true heroes.