John Norton may have invented the word "wowser". There's evidence to suggest the Australian's brand of journalism may have been the inspiration for the Dirty Digger himself, Rupert Murdoch. A judge once described Norton as a "habitual drunkard of the worst type" and he was also before the bench for sedition and libel.
The perfect chap, then, to found that unique newspaper The Truth, which this week breathed its last after 118 years of publication.
"It was the most powerful paper of the 20th century," claims historian and former Truth hack Redmer Yska. It was, for a long time, also our best-selling - at one stage claiming to be read in every second household in New Zealand. While the latter-day Truth was a lightly regarded collection of smut, drugs and gangs, it was once a ferocious, campaigning, snarling beast of a newspaper - founded on divorce cases, politics, championing the working-man and yes, sex.
Truth began life in 1905 demanding better salaries for teachers, policemen and the introduction of a "tote" at the racecourses; along the way it revealed tarring-and-feathering in Opunake, unmasked the wartime conman Sydney Ross (subject of TV film Spies and Lies) and accused 1952 police commissioner Eric Compton of illegal phone-tapping.
All the while, circulation grew. By the mid-50s, says Yska, who wrote Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People's Paper, they had a million readers.
Then, in 1958, came the first, telling blow to begin a half-century decline: a law change preventing Truth reporting every salacious detail of divorce cases, one of their staples. "It was like the sun had gone out," says Yska.
Under the editorship of Russell Gault, who took over in 1966 at the age of 23, Truth lurched rightward, including a campaign, spurred by assaults on two reporters, to bring back corporal punishment for violent offenders, headlined "Birch the Bashers". By then, Truth staff were already earning an infamous 12.5 per cent extra for "danger money" and covering "odium".
Perhaps the extra cash attracted them, for some remarkable names began their careers in this unlikely setting: the political cartoonist David Low, celebrated sports photographer Peter Bush, Radio Hauraki founder David Gapes (who hid in the roof of an Exclusive Brethren church for a story), parliamentary reporter Barry Soper and even the late film-maker Bruno Lawrence (Goodbye Pork Pie), who in 1960 was filing racy stories about cannabis gangs but, so he said in his autobiography, quit when he was fronted about his sources by detectives and admitted: "The whole thing's bullshit anyway, I was told to write an article so I wrote one." One reporter of the time, Kevin Sinclair, quoted in Yska's book, said it was a "training ground for generations of journalistic hoodlums, practised evaders of the truth".
Truth was certainly a regular visitor to court. It managed to libel pianist Jimmy Montecino twice, 55 years apart, by reprinting its original story from 1924 but forgetting the first payout. Among others who made money from Truth were singer Ray Columbus ($675,000 in 1997) and Labour ministers Phillip Holloway ($11,000 in 1957) and Martyn Finlay ($15,000 in 1969). The broadcaster Brian Edwards was paid $6000 in 1964 (after presenting a repentant Truth reporter as a prosecution witness), then had to repay much of it when he lost a second action two years later. Edwards admitted a reluctant admiration for Truth: "They were somewhere you went for a fair go in the days before [the TV show] Fair Go, they were the consumer champion."
Yska joined the paper in 1977 as a university-educated rookie. "It was pretty harrowing, actually," he says. "It was basically Muldoon's attack dog, running agendas, taking people out every week . . . it was anti-union, anti-Maori, anti-protester. A conservative megaphone."
Edwards agrees. "People were fearful of being exposed by the Truth; it was one of the worst things that could happen to you, suddenly finding a Truth reporter on the phone. Your knees started to tremble because they could destroy people."
Little surprise, then, that in 1970 ball-bearings were fired through the windows of the Auckland office, accompanied by a note from the "Auckland Liberation Front" calling Truth "the most bigoted right-wing press in the country. This is only a warning. Print the real truth".
Gault campaigned against abortion (reportedly waving a foetus in a jar around the office) and in support of sporting contacts with South Africa, prompting playwright Mervyn Thompson to stage a drama involving actors playing masked Truth writers giving Nazi salutes.
Veteran activist John Minto remembers: "It was a dreadful rag. The Truth was just awful." But it had its benefits. When Minto's Halt All Racist Tours (Hart) ran short of funds, Truth found out. "They had this headline, ‘HART in thered, Reds are in Hart', the idea that we were all f----ng communists," says Minto. "They published this story and we got huge donations from the public. Whenever they savagely attacked us, the donations would roll in. They were a great fundraiser for us."
There was a cosy relationship between Truth and the intelligence service, Yska's book detailing SIS men drinking in the office on Friday nights. A celebrated 1975 story "The Plot", claiming a cabal of civil servants were trying to nationalise the entire finance sector, probably leaked from within SIS.
Gault went further. The edition of August 24, 1976, outed the then 24-year-old National MP Marilyn Waring as a lesbian. The cover words were stark: "Marilyn Waring, National Member of Parliament for Raglan, is a lesbian. Her lover is a former Hamilton housewife and mother of three, who left her husband and children about three months ago to share a Wellington love nest."
Truth, which defended the story on the basis people had a right to know, received a highly critical mailbag. Waring, now a prominent academic, politely declined comment when approached last week. Edwards said the outing caused a "tremendous stir" among fellow journalists. "Most of us felt pretty cross about it at the time."
But gay Green MP Kevin Hague, in his final year of high school when it happened, says: "In 1976, good role models were few and far between . . . Truth was a far from reliable source but we became experts in latching on to thinner straws than that, and it was powerful. Marilyn has been a hero of mine ever since."
Truth congratulated itself on its 75th anniversary in 1980 by declaring contemporary rivals "predicted an early demise - but they were wrong. New Zealand needed a controversial newspaper". But its slow, steady, neglected decline now began in earnest with a shift to Auckland from its Wellington base. Soon, it was all about sex and where once page three updated housewives on vegetable prices, topless girls now greeted readers.
Jim Mahoney joined the paper in 2001 and by 2004 was editor. "My children were ashamed of me," he laughs. "Was it fun? Yes it was." Yet when he wrote a billboard slogan "Fat, boozy sluts: Kiwi girls are easy" to sell a story about Kiwi backpackers in London having a reputation for promiscuity and weight gain, his daughter was among those wanting copies as ironic bedroom posters. Mahoney presided over yarns claiming Osama bin Laden resided in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Arctic Circle (not simultaneously), and headlines including "Aliens ate my undies".
"I wasn't too proud of that one," he says. "But I liked ‘Aliens gave me an orgasm'." The edition that led on that headline, sharing the front page with "Smile, you're on Brothelcam" (with page three following up with "Bonkfest in the Bush") enjoyed a 12.5 per cent sales spike. Research told them readers wanted gangs, drugs, hookers and crime.
While circulation continued to fall, the paper remained profitable, if a poor image fit for owners Fairfax, particularly, the prostitutes arriving at the front counter to pay cash for advertisements. The Headhunters visited once to complain about coverage, staff hiding in the mailroom with cricket bats, just in case.
But for similar reasons it remained popular in some quarters. Prison authorities banned Truth in 2011, upsetting Arthur Taylor, a long-term guest of Her Majesty. "For all their shock-horror reputation, they have been the only newspaper for many years giving much coverage to events inside prisons," Taylor wrote to the Star-Times last week. He has several hundred copies in prison storage, confiscated after the ban.
Fairfax finally sold up in February 2007 to Hawke's Bay entrepreneur and rally driver Dermott Malley and former Herald publisher Matthew Horton. Truth declared "the cheeky weekly still has plenty of fizz".
One tradition definitely continued: described in the 1920s as the "electric chair", the editor's post remained an uncertain seat. There were five in the final six years, concluding with acerbic blogger Cameron Slater. Ex-Sunday News man Joe Lose was perhaps Truth's shortest-serving editor, lasting five months as caretaker. "We'd always looked at it and had a laugh. It had always been the people's paper, and it had lost its way." Ambitions were now more modest. "The main thing at Truth was to make sure you didn't get sued," Lose said. "I didn't. That's my claim to fame."
Lose says it's always sad when a newspaper closes. But few seem to be mourning Truth, even its own historian: Yska says it had "been on life support" for three decades. "Papers do have their lifecycle," says Yska. "And Truth has had a very, very interesting lifecycle."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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