The News Man

Last updated 15:51 16/12/2013
Fred Tulett
FAIRFAX NZ
Southland Times editor Fred Tulett.

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The Southland Times' editor Fred Tulett is retiring. But not in a "shy and . . ." sort of way. Michael Fallow offers a career retrospective.

His is a stentorian voice. A commanding bass that should have a place on the Richter scale. One that bespeaks of combative skills he does, indeed, possess, and a high temper that he does not.

Fred Tulett is more inclined towards teasing than tantrum, though he should learn not to make his wee jokes on the phone, because if you can't see the mouth twitch then even his most lighthearted remarks tend to sound disconcertingly authoritative.

The best thing about that voice, for his staff anyway, is that when personages of some importance, real or imagined, come to confront him in a spirit of stern correction or, even better, high dudgeon, they better have a strong case or they're liable to find themselves, even to their own ears, sounding squeaky by comparison.

Tulett had the voice of a weatherbeaten newsman long before he ever deserved it. He was fending off approaches from radio even as a teenaged cub reporter at The Timaru Herald, a job his mum set up for him, then told him about.

"Nothing to do with me, " he reflects. But back then it was just one more way that families stepped up. Especially those like the Tuletts who had abandoned their drought-stricken South Canterbury farm when he was four.

After nine months in the proofreading room he was deemed ready to start writing. The view shrivelled, somewhat, as he spent a memorably agonising hour filling his wastepaper basket in attempt after attempt to put a 25-word introduction on the Gleniti Gymkhana results.

Turned out writing was hard. "For a while I didn't get it, really. It just wasn't working."

Mercifully, a celestial shaft of light hit the young reporter at the Timaru fire brigade's monthly meeting at which the fire chief openly accused his board of turning a blind eye to safety requirements and accepting favours for doing so.

Tulett's pen fair flew in his hand. He tore back to the office, sat down, and for the first time words and sentences formed an orderly queue in his mind. Because this, he knew, was a story worth telling. It just was.

"Who helped you?" his editor demanded, not unreasonably.

The next day, full of himself after his first front-page lead, young Tulett was back in front of the editor for a grave rebuke and reminder of his responsibility to do more than just cherry-pick the flash stories. That brigade meeting had also decided to put a new emblem atop the stationhouse doors. How had he missed that one?

Many more front-page leads followed, particularly after his move to Dunedin's Evening Star, a rather malnourished alternative to the Otago Daily Times. Then came word that that terrible rag Truth was hiring. Upright New Zealanders wouldn't have it in the house. Yet weekly sales of 230,000 copies attested to an ardent readership, however tilted.

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''It was a mixture of sex and serious investigative reporting,'' Tulett recalls.

Every rape case, every murder case, even every divorce, were to be found in its columns. Yet the vocational advantages went beyond the wage- topping "stigma money" the paper paid to compensate for the reputational taint of being a staffer.

Tulett developed his chops as an investigator.

"It was that salaciousness that paid for the serious stuff. Truth was the Fair Go of its day, only much more powerful."

Eventually, wanderlust took him to Fleet Street, with his first wife Jenny and young children Matt and Louise. Letters announcing his availability for job offers went universally ignored, but his time in journo pubs yielded a shift sub-editing stories at the oh-so- venerable The Times. This, he was gravely told upon arrival, was a writer's newspaper. Prose entrusted into his care was not to be troubled by the impertinence of sub-editorial meddling.

Message received and understood. And ignored. "My second night there . . . a report that was just so tortuous . . . I gave up and rewrote it."

Next day he was steeled for a reproach that didn't come.

He scarcely had time to work out why because he'd arrived just in time for the December 1978 industrial dispute that closed the paper for 11 months and sent him down the road.

Still, this particular road was Fleet Street and in the following five years he worked for most of its papers, most notably the Evening Standard picture desk, the Financial Times foreign desk, and the News of the World sports desk.

These jobs were a combination of intensity and institutionalised rorting. Expenses were signed for under assumed names and at very least amounted to 10 pounds a shift, assuming you didn't actually leave your desk. Potentially a great deal more if you actually exited the building.

Which happened a lot. The day was punctuated by "shorts". Start at 8am, first edition gone by 9, so time for a short - to the pub for a pint of heavy warm English beer. Back for the next edition, then it was 10.15am and time for another short. Lunchtime entailed several pints.

By then he'd be feeling it. The Kiwi just had to accept he couldn't keep up with the hard-drinking culture.

But he could otherwise handle the pressure just fine. And the resources were formidable. On the Financial Times foreign desk he had a Rolodex of 350 correspondents worldwide at his short-notice beck and call, and a budget that ensured they simply never said no.

Stakes were high in human terms too.

Tulett found himself handling late- night calls, scared and urgent, from his man in Poland, phoning through stories, from a different location every time, to cover the rise of the defiant Solidarity trade union movement while eluding the forces searching for him.

The Tuletts lived in a terrace house in Seven Kings, northeast London, where Fred's Antipodean fondness for turning the narrow strip of precious backyard space into a pocket Eden of gardening and barbecues initially marked him as a neighbourhood eccentric, until community appetite triumphed over English reserve.

When, after 4 1/2 years, the family was ready to return to New Zealand, it seemed only reasonable that a barbecue for one or two friends and neighbours was in order. Picture the standard gathering around smallmeats.

Now add a pig and a whole lamb - "a Scottish lamb, mind you" - neighbours on both sides uplifting their fences to accommodate 300 of Fleet Street's more-or-less finest, a great many of whom were still to be found at 4am, strewn in various states of repose on beds, couches, floors, and stairs.

Probably the odd gutter, them being journalists.

Heavy drinking may have been commonplace, but meat was hellishly expensive. "When we got up the next morning not one fleck of meat was left," Tulett recalls, with the satisfaction of the unreconstructed carnivore that he is.

By 1983 Wellington's morning daily, The Dominion, had a sorry reputation as a quick read, generally inferior to the afternoon The Evening Post. Back reporting, the newly arrived Tulett swiftly scored three consecutive front- page leads from a single morning covering court. "I did not, " he recalls, "do myself any favours with the staff."

As he tells it, this was a defensive newsroom. Before the end of the week a delegation of reporters went down to see editor Geoff Baylis to complain that he was filching stories off their rounds. Duly noted. And shortly thereafter he was made assistant chief reporter.

One day he arrived to find the team clearing up from an editorial Christmas lunch, to which he had not been invited. When he became chief reporter, the CR's secretary immediately resigned. Within a few months most of the senior reporters had moved on.

"Which was a really bad thing, " he says. (And there's that tiny mouth twitch).

He developed his own team at the Dom and the stories strengthened, circulation increased, and the awards started coming.

The single turnaround moment, he reckons, came after Labour's firebrand Trevor de Cleene insisted that reporter Anita Busby had misquoted him.

It was an assertion that at the time might have seemed institutionally plausible, given the frequency of printed corrections and the prevailing view that the Dom was thin and superficial.

But Tulett - and this was not really the done thing at the time - had rigged up a phone in the reporterage to tape key interviews. The Dom ran a front- page story and splashed the fully vindicating transcript across page 2. By 10am, Busby had received a huge bunch of flowers from de Cleene, with a note of apology and an invitation to lunch.

Tulett's newsroom became famously - OK, notoriously - assertive, to an extent that he was summonsed to a senior police officer's office. Chest out, red-faced, the bullish Police Commissioner John Jamieson, thumped the table, underlining his points with a Bang! Bang! Bang! Then came the rebuttal. Every bit as ardent, loud, and hard on the table.

Tulett worked closely with David Hellaby, a legend in 1980s journalism, on some scary stories.

An expose of Registered Securities Ltd was potentially ruinous for The Dominion.

As the judge considering a gagging writ determined: either Tulett's affidavit was wrong, in which case the company could claim substantial damages, or it was correct, in which case people who had invested their retirement savings needed to be protected. The story was published, it did stack up, and offenders went to jail.

Tulett also worked with Hellaby on a story of the police's tactics while using smalltime rogue Graham Ashley Robert Palmer as a snitch to get at a gang of counterfeiting Croatians.

The police and the SIS found out that the reporters had tapes that Garp (as the reporters called him) had surreptitiously made during debriefing sessions, including none-too-scrupulous instructions about the potential for violence against innocents and the methodology for misleading a judge to keep their man out of prison.

Three things happened. Editor Baylis was approached by a senior public servant - he would never say whom - to call off the investigation in the national interest. Then Hellaby's office was burgled.

Then Tulett found his car had been entered and, by way of warning, a cord had been run, symbolically, from the drivers' door, around the steering wheel and down to the accelerator.

Major journalism awards attended these stories. Gratifying. But chief reporting has its corrosions and in time boredom set in.

The challenges of editorship appealed.

When Clive Lind's departure from The Southland Times created a vacancy,

Tulett came down with his second wife Eirwen and their two young children, Samantha and Jonathon, in 1998.

Times staff had checked out their new boss' reputation, as you do, and were met with confident reassurances that he was a journalist of exceptional calibre, but equally implacable reports that he was an ogre of no talent. Tulett arrived to tell his new staff he knew of their inquiries, and that some of the stories they had been told were true.

Sure enough, his was a flinty arrival. As far as readers were concerned, their new editor's first conspicuous decision was to dump the block of cartoons that had been running on page 2.

Tired old cartoons sucking up all that lovely news space? Oh, do you bloody think so? Yes, we bloody do, replied 100 complainants, within a matter of days. Fair enough, back the cartoons went, albeit waaaay back in the nooks and crannies of lesser news pages.

Tulett really wasn't displeased. There had also been an element of provocation, testing the community's sense of ownership of their paper, behind the call.

(Anyone still thinking he is anti- cartoon should know that, defending a complaint to the Press Council from a reader upset by a the Times running a Footrot Flats cartoon of Dog pining underneath the elevated "Bitch's Box" he wrote in his formal reply that where he saw it as Romeo and Juliet, the complainant saw it as Debbie Does Dallas.)

In short order he was refusing to back down from stories that led to a spate of fallings-out with authority figures. One with the local police hierarchy, to the extent that Times reporters were briefly banned from police press conferences . . . and the Fire Service, whose commissioner received a double-barrelled rebuke not only for the inadequacy of his complaint but also for using a schoolmistress tone . . . and local Rotarians who, after a fruitless hour trying to persuade him against publishing a story, left unsatisfied "but not before telling me they thought it best I didn't apply to become a member of Rotary".

Internally reporters found him encouraging, not scary, though he rode them to do fewer talking-head stories. "When someone tells you something, " he'd say, "all you really know is they've told you something. So what's really happening?"

The Times quickly looked different, too. He changed the story groupings, persuaded management to print far more colour photos, and championed many more second editions targeting the population growth areas in Queenstown and Central Otago.

Out there in the community, he was a real agitator.

The Times was to be more than ever a participant in the community rather than an observer of it. He knew Wellington politics well enough to be exasperated by the lament that Southland needed Government help to get out of the doldrums.

And when he joined Progress Southland (which operated under Chatham House rules so he was pledged not to report it) it rankled to realise that each local authority had a tourism and business development section that scarcely communicated with its riv. . . sorry, counterparts.

Invited to speak at a Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, he thought he'd prepare by researching how many local organisations had words like "advance", "develop" and "progress" in the title. When he got to 29 he stopped.

His call to rationalise this disunity was duly received but the support proved, over the following months, to be "lip-service crap".

So he confronted them with a specific plan, drafted in collaboration with chamber head Wayne Affleck, and said it flatly. Unless there was immediate change he would withdraw from Progress Southland - and then be empowered to start writing about it.

A facilitator was promptly appointed and the upshot was Venture Southland. Not everyone would commend him for that initiative, he knows, but he stands by it.

"Venture isn't perfect. I'm sure everybody has their frustrations with it. But at least it's a united voice."

As he moved around the public speaking circuit, this by now famously hard-nosed new editor would make a point of declaring "I believe in Santa". Wellington's ogre loved that town's Christmas parade and pulled together a backroom committee to revive Invercargill's from 1999 on.

The Times became conspicuous for its community projects, carried out as circulation drivers, but nevertheless in reaction to perceived need, be it anti- bullying or anti-obesity series, financial literacy and home gardening projects, a fire safety campaign which, supported by the Invercargill Licensing Trust, included free smoke alarms to each household in Invercargill.

But nothing was as audacious as the We Need You campaign of 2001, a Tulett project if ever there was. He had the Times print a special edition - 514,000 copies - to be inserted into northern newspapers to alert the rest of New Zealand to the south's job opportunities.

It won the Qantas Media Award for best editorial project with significant impact on the community. Judge Peter Scherer called it "a truly ambitious and effective exercise in journalistic boosterism, precisely planned, professionally executed and prodigiously fulfilled".

Meanwhile Eirwen, who in Wellington had been press secretary to several National cabinet ministers, had become the Invercargill City Council's communications manager. Mayor Tim Shadbolt has worked productively with both, but there have also been some royal battles.

During one stonker in 2009 he fumed: "I've said this before and I'll say it again: there is one couple in this city with power and influence over both what happens at the Invercargill City Council and The Southland Times - one works to control the council and senior management with a manipulative fist of iron and the other controls this newspaper, which has a virtual monopoly on the daily news of our city."

This attack appeared in the mayor's regular Hotseat column in the Times. The virtual monopolist printed it. Putting aside the accuracy of the independent charges, the impression of power-couple teamwork is one that Fred Tulett insists was always kept within appropriate professional boundaries.

It's true that he had no closer confidante. "For most of the 15 years I've been here, Eirwen was the one I could most comfortably toss ideas around with, " he says.

"From time to time she would inadvertently tell me something and I would religiously ignore it. Seriously. Because you had to. And there were times I told her things about what we were working on, and we both knew those conversations were absolutely private. They had to be."

From his perspective, he and Mr Shadbolt generally got along OK, though their respective positions meant conflicts did arise. He agrees with the old saying that a journo's job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

"People in positions of authority can begin to believe in their own infallibility, you know?

"It happens to editors as well."

He's talking about the separation.

An editor is almost never off the clock. Newspapers, websites, the companies that own them, and the communities they serve, collectively place huge, all-but-incessant calls on an editor's judgment.

He tried to balance it all, even down to a rock-solid rule that he'd be home for the evening meal with the family. But "you become complacent . . . arrogant.

The thing is that a marriage is a partnership and both have to work at it, If you don't, people eventually give up. I didn't see it coming at all."

The pair do, however, remain united in their pride in their kids. Even Tulett's senior staff are largely in the dark about his own raft of journalistic awards, but on any given day plenty of them should be able to tell you the latest achievements of Sam and Johnny. It tends to come up.

Lately, Tulett has had the sorrowful task of handling redundancies, part of the global dynamic of far-from- seamless transition from print to the digital future of multi-media news entities.

Tulett's mileage in the print medium hasn't translated into any old- timey distrust of the increasingly important online platforms. He just wants the news out there, accurately presented and explained.

Such things are now a challenge for the incoming editor, Garry Ferris.

For his own part, the departing Tulett has some projects in mind, but won't say what. Books? Possibly.

For the first couple of months he'll be enjoying himself spending summer with the kids and turning what's now a Queenstown holiday house into a home. Maybe put in a garden. 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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