9 mins to read

Truth – a proud pioneer of great journalism

New Zealand journalism has much to thank Truth for.

Jock Anderson
Wed, 19 Jun 2013

New Zealand journalism has much to thank Truth for.

With news the hoary old tabloid was not publishing this week, and unlikely to again under its current ownership, a cornerstone of independent crusading journalism fell.

Make no mistake – the Great National Weekly has been a social force to be reckoned with, in whatever incarnation it has appeared over 126 years.

Truth pioneered investigative journalism, delving deep and long into the murky affairs of the powerful, privileged and corrupt.

It kept its feet on the ground and never got up itself.

After all, Truth was just here to help…

It cultivated a racy brand of accurate court reporting which kept its readers informed – with undisguised flair – of the most sordid and gory crimes and criminals.

Truth’s lurid billboards were tabloid gems, often tinged with black humour.

“I Could Teach Your Ma-In-Law To Strip”

“Periscope Peeper’s Peculiar Pastime”

“Well Brought Up Girl And Govt Car”

“Pin-Head And Virgin”

The list is endless.

Truth had friends everywhere
In times when reporters flourished on fronting up to real people, the paper’s well developed network of informative contacts spread through every level of society.

“Friends of Truth” were everywhere. They talked and they were protected.

Truth reporters quickly learned how to push the boundaries of defamation law by cunning use of language in their stories, preferably backed by mountains of damning factual documentation.

Most of the time this worked. When it failed the result for the paper was expensive and for reporters invariably terminal.

Always a defender of the ordinary Kiwi, Truth was the place thousands of folk came to over the years to get a fair go in their struggles with dismissive politicians, heartless bureaucrats, rates-gouging councils, crooked car dealers and stroppy neighbours.

The more wrongdoers tried to hide, the more relentlessly Truth pursued them.

Truth fearlessly championed the causes of generations of New Zealanders with a zeal and compassion others were too timid to touch.

Not everyone agreed
It also picked stories which were less popular, such as the outing of lesbian MP Marilyn Waring, a story which came at a time when society’s views of homosexuality were changing.

The word “gay” had yet to be invented to describe homosexuals.

In any event it is unlikely Truth would have used the word – taking the view that homosexuals, particularly any in high places, were deviants open to corruption and blackmail who should be outed in the nation’s best interests.

When Labour MP Colin Moyle was accused in Parliament by Rob Muldoon of being questioned by police on suspicion of homosexual activities, Truth reporters staked out addresses Mr Moyle was said to frequent.

1981 rugby tour
In 1981 Truth was the only New Zealand newspaper which came out in favour of the South African rugby tour of New Zealand, arguing essentially that sport and politics did not mix.

As the tour progressed, a pro-police Truth seized the opportunity to lash out at hairy protestors, communist-funded unionists, lazy teachers, unkempt bludging students and all manner of “pinko pointy-heads” the paper deemed to be “enemies of New Zealand”.

Rugby fans loved it.

While it maintained a right-wing, pro-police, pro-law and order policy, Truth never shrank from exposing bad apples, and its front pages regularly carried tales of coppers in strife.

Truth tackled everything from spying on transvestite “balls”, chasing speeding tourist buses, infiltrating strange religious sects, unveiling rack-renting landlords and ghost hunting to outing randy clerics and headmasters.

Undercover targets
An undercover operation by a pair of reporters posing as a spiritually-troubled brother and sister was blown after a couple of days when suspicious church elders checked out their car number plate.

They still got a good yarn.

A military-style operation to evict rent-striking families from a block of Lower Hutt flats – in which Truth was primed by self-styled “mediator” Bob Jones to give full coverage to – backfired when the tenants, some of them pregnant, refused to budge.

As Truth photographer Peter Bush kept snapping property developer Pat Rippin and some big blokes wearing black leather jackets, lawyer the late Mike Bungay saw how the PR wind was changing and sounded the retreat.

Often slammed by those it called hairy-legged feminist man-haters for its scantily-clad Page 3 Girl, thousands of swimsuit-clad Kiwi beauties continued to send in photos every year for the paper’s Beachgirl competition.

Ethics of right and wrong
Underlying most of what Truth did, and to whom, was a strong ethical mix of what was right and wrong, fair play and compassion for the underdog.

In recent years the once-proud masthead banner “Above All For New Zealand,” was subsumed by “All The Sleazy Ads Unfit To Print.”

From being the fearless People’s Paper, Truth pandered to the cashflow power of sex peddlers and porn merchants.

There was recent talk of a bold relaunch, a plan to separate the money-spinning sex ads out from a “cleaner” paper less likely to offend shoppers and families.

But as half-owner Matthew Horton, of the Horton Media empire, said this week, plans to rejuvenate Truth just came too late.

How the rot set in
The demise of New Zealand’s toughest talking and most robust paper began in the mid-1960s with the birth of Sunday newspapers.

It is fair to say Truth never recovered from the birth of the Sundays – particularly the Auckland-based Sunday News, which gouged deep into Truth’s exclusive mine of lurid court and crime coverage.

Owned under the News Media Ownership umbrella by the same people, Truth and Sunday News were effectively pitted against each other in very similar markets.

Sunday News brought a fresh approach to weekend sport, for example, with up-to-the-minute results.

With a new formula of entertainment and celebrity puff, the News was a paper that could only go up, while Truth held firmly to its fearsome reputation of weeding out and exposing wicked wrong-doers.

In later years a lot of Truth’s lucrative advertising was moved over to the News.

Truth struggled to maintain its relevance in a market where it once sold around 236,000 copies a week and boasted more than 600,000 readers.

In the grip of Jimmy Dunn
Its strength lay in its independent and uncomprising editorial stance, which rested for decades in the unrelenting grip of director and defamation lawyer the late James Hamilton Dunn.

Rocks and floor boards were lifted and secretive closets emptied as the enemies of the day – as defined by Mr Dunn’s Truth – were ruthlessly rooted out for the weekly delectation of a loyal readership.

As a director of the owning company, Mr Dunn enjoyed a covenant which effectively gave him complete control of Truth’s editorial content.

When Jimmy Dunn called, Truth staffers did his sometimes murky bidding without question.

In his fascinating memoir of the racy life and times of Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People’s Paper, published in 2010, former reporter Redmer Yska captured the paper’s persona perfectly when he spoke of Truth’s swagger of confidence.

How its reporters knew they worked for a paper with balls of brass and would not shrink from clanging them.

No-one who worked on Truth will forget the sharp intake of breath at the other end of the phone which invariably greeted the words: “It’s ……… here. I’m a reporter with Truth newspaper and I’m doing a story about… ”

Truth made enemies – particularly on the political Left and among trade unions – all of whom a succession of editors gleefully reminded willing readers were tools of Satan, pawns of Moscow or a nation-wrecking combine of both.

But as these hordes of Kremlin-funded fifth columnists began to out themselves as election candidates and even entered Parliament, Truth’s bluster began to fade.

It became almost fashionable to be a red-under-the-bed. Almost, but not quite…

A careful balancing act
Truth balanced its editorial content with a careful mix of authoritive sports and racing stories, some entertainment, a bucket-load of juicy court cases from around the country, plus riveting award-winning investigations.

Investigative reporting was what Truth reporters did every day, long before the expression became a trendy once-or-twice-a-year dabble by more conventional media.

Truth carved a swathe through the defamation laws, winning and losing cases in sometimes spectacular fashion.

Brian Edwards in court
One of the first stories I did for Truth in Wellington 43 years ago was to cover television's darling-of-the-day Brian Edwards’ first defamation action – a case he rightly won – which arose from a story claiming Dr Edwards admitted he had political bias.

It emerged that then Truth editor, the late Russell Gault, was so outraged by upstarts on TV he decided to go after the leader of the pack – Dr Edwards.

Gault reckoned taking down Dr Edwards would teach the TV woofters a lesson.

Reporter Martin Smith was assigned to bring Edwards to his knees – with spectacular lack of success.

Smith confronted Dr Edwards, particularly about what Truth regarded as his allegedly sympathetic interview treatment of a Chinese communist-supporting author – Han Suyin, I think her name was.

By the time the defamation case went to trial Gault had gone to live in South Africa.

Sometime after the trial reporter Smith returned to Australia, it was said, to assist police with some inquiry or other.

Dr Edwards, who talks about this encounter in one of his books, had little trouble convincing the then Wellington Supreme Court he told Smith he had no political bias, he played a straight bat, and any political bias would cost him his job.

Despite this, Smith’s story had Dr Edwards admitting political bias.

Truth’s defence failed.

Next time Dr Edwards would run foul of Truth’s Calvinistic approach to bedroom politics, when his lawyer threatened (unsuccessfully) to have editor Bob Edlin jailed for criminal libel.

Russell Gault, credited with taking Truth to its best circulation figures with his campaigns to Birch the Bashers and Stand on Students, returned to edit the paper years later.

But his extreme rabid views had failed to keep up with New Zealand’s rapidly changing social and media landscape.

Serious circulation declines followed as the paper shed experienced long-serving reporters and became more Auckland-focused.

A gross defamation
One of its worst moments in recent years came when it grossly defamed Kiwi pop legend Ray Columbus by accusing him of ripping off rugby bosses over a contract to provide entertainment at Eden Park.

It was a devastating blow to Mr Columbus’ business.

The story was untrue and Truth knew it, but they still published what they knew to be false and tried to defend the story in court.

Near record damages of $675,000 were awarded to Mr Columbus in a futile fiasco which in total cost Truth the thick end of $1 million.

The reporter responsible “went up north for a while” before vanishing from the scene.

By then the writing was on the wall for what was once the most read, most powerful, most feared and one of the most profitable newspapers in New Zealand history.

But does Truth really die?

Is another reincarnation possible for the Old Warrior?

Only time and courage will tell.

Footnote: Jock Anderson worked for Truth in Wellington and Christchurch between 1970 and 1987, when the paper’s branch offices were closed and he and other journalists were made redundant. He rejoined the paper in 2007 as chief reporter when it was bought from Fairfax Media by Dermott Malley and John Pin, before returning to NBR in 2009.

Jock Anderson
Wed, 19 Jun 2013
© All content copyright NBR. Do not reproduce in any form without permission, even if you have a paid subscription.
Truth – a proud pioneer of great journalism