Never the whole truth, Spiro Zavos

Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People’s Paper
Redmer Yska
Craig Potton Publishing, $49.99,
ISBN 9781877517303

 

During most of 1979 I lived with my family in Menton, in the south of France, trying to write the Great New Zealand novel as a Katherine Mansfield Fellow. That May, The Real Muldoon, my political biography of the New Zealand Prime Minister was published. The book’s editor and publisher Ian Grant (who is a superb practitioner, incidentally) decided I needed to come back to New Zealand for interviews and other promotions. So I caught a bus to Nice, flew to Frankfurt, suffered a longish Hong Kong stopover, and landed almost two days later at Auckland Airport. I staggered, bleary-eyed and stiff-backed, from the international to the domestic section to catch a final flight to Wellington for a TV interview with Muldoon that night.

Along the way I noticed a billboard for the Truth newspaper. There on a (muck-raking) yellow background in letters of huge black type was the hard-sell message: “NEW BOOK INSULTS MY MUM – ROB”.

The new book was none other than The Real Muldoon. The insult related to the scoop I’d gathered from Warren Freer (a Truth bête noire once described by the newspaper as “the worst kind of communist sympathiser”) that Muldoon’s mother had been a member of the Labour Party in Freer’s electorate. There was also the matter of the book’s cover. It depicted Muldoon as a puppet type of figure. The dust jacket showed the puppet’s arms cut at the elbows. But the New Zealand Listener, whose long extract from the book had prompted Muldoon’s outburst, revealed the full puppet on its cover with stumps in the place of hands. Muldoon believed the cover made him look deformed. He was furious.

The Prime Minister supported this Truth front-page verbal assault with a series of vicious, personal attacks against me in his Truth column, “Rob Says”. It resulted in a vintage Truth onslaught. The book had over 30 errors, Muldoon claimed. Wrong. I had got the name of his mother wrong. Wrong again. Zavos was “a scion of the Greek fish-and-chip-shop aristocracy” who had tried to rise beyond his proper station “by marrying a diplomat’s daughter”. Correct in facts but wrong in its nasty insinuations. A prominent civil rights lawyer made contact. He offered to act for me in a defamation action. I turned him down.

Why? I believed that Truth, for all its faults (and they were many), was a battlers’ newspaper in an era when the major newspapers were pious establishment mouthpieces. I disagreed with the tactic often adopted by the Left to sue Truth. My belief was and is that people in the public eye have to expect (in the expression used by Harold Wilson, who himself faced plenty of verbal bouncers) to face and confront the fast bowlers without recourse to trying to gag opponents.

My book had a number of bouncers that had forced a Muldoon retaliation. Moreover, I was friendly with a number of Truth journalists, all of them excellent practitioners: Bob Edlin (later to become Truth’s youngest editor at age 27), the charismatic photographer Peter Bush and, especially, Hedley Mortlock, Truth’s engaging and extremely competent sports editor. Mortlock, as it happened, was the newspaper’s last editor when it degenerated into the house magazine of the sex industry with billboards like: LOTTO LOUSE GOT ME PREGNANT.

While chatting about politics, rugby and life in the messy Truth office in Garrett Street with Mortlock and others, I’d occasionally notice the tallish, pale-faced Russell Gault, the demonic and slightly mad (in my opinion) editor of Truth at the time. He had sunken eyes and a menacing look about him. He would engage in intense, whispered conversations with, say, Tony Dominik, a star reporter. We all presumed that Gault had just received his latest briefing about reds under and in the beds from the Security Intelligence Service.

André Gide was once asked who was the greatest French poet. “Victor Hugo, alas,” he replied. I would paraphrase a similar answer if asked which has been New Zealand’s greatest newspaper: “Truth, alas.”

Redmer Yska, a reporter on Truth at the time I was a front-page story, and now a Wellington journalist and historian, has written a lively and informative account of the paper’s history. It is the best book about journalists and journalism in New Zealand I have read. In a measured and informed manner, he exposes why the newspaper in its glory days deserved its huge 200,000 circulation. And why this circulation deservedly collapsed under the editorship of Gault, who became power-mad as “a hard-driving demagogue”.

Truth notables are depicted by Yska accurately and are skilfully put into their Truth context: the guiding genius, defamation expert, military-obsessed and back-room fixer with contacts with the SIS, James Dunn; the old Wellington and Catholic identity Pat Lawlor, who finally resigned over his horror about the newspaper’s “slimy court sensations”; Sir Bernard Freyberg, who contributed a swimming column, “Plunge” in the 1920s; Iris Wilkinson (Robin Hyde), a lively staffer for a couple of months on the women’s page; Brian Connolly, a masterful, safe-handed editor; John A Lee, whose novel Hunted, a searing account of Depression New Zealand, was serialised over 13 weeks to huge sales; the business leader Sir Cliff Plimmer, who acted as a smooth conduit between the newspaper and a conservative political leadership; Maurice Shadbolt, a stringer who reported bizarre stories from Taranaki; Geoffrey Palmer, who for 18 months edited Truth’s “Ask a Lawyer” department: and Gault, the Lucifer in the newspaper’s Paradise Lost saga, who infamously outed Marilyn Waring (as a lesbian), Brian Edwards (in a de facto relationship) and Dr Bill Sutch, Jack Lewin and Gerald O’Brien (supposed organisers of a “sinister scheme to socialise” New Zealand). It was the demagogic Gault who instigated the insane “Birch the Bashers” campaign that finally destroyed the newspaper’s credibility as a battlers’ champion.

Yska’s account starts in 1905 with the establishment of Maoriland Truth by John Norton, one of Sydney’s infamous “Wild Men”. The new New Zealand newspaper was modelled on the Sydney Truth, a notorious scandal sheet that in the words of an historian of journalism was “aggressive and irreverent, mocking kings, governors and other great personages”. The New Zealand edition, with the slogan “Above All for NEW ZEALAND” on the masthead, followed a similar line of attack.

“Wowsers” were exposed and vilified. There were relentless attacks on supposedly corrupt police officials. Maori were romanticised, and Chinese and other foreigners lambasted. The appalling treatment of pacifists in WWI was fearlessly exposed. Sex scandals were a staple. In 1920, a Wellington establishment figure Ernest Wilmot, who exposed himself to Kelburn schoolgirls, received the full Truth treatment. Starting in 1931, four best-selling cookery books were published. Sordid details of divorce cases were avidly reported. In 1953, New Zealand was agog when an Auckland millionaire wool broker, Charles Prevost, brought a divorce petition against his wife Yvonne. Gordon Hutter, a high-profile radio sports announcer, was cited as the co-respondent. The case went on for two weeks. The supposedly solid and respectable world of Auckland’s establishment was exposed in all its rotten excessive and expensive awfulness.

Yska argues that this case prompted the Labour Government to take away the rights of newspapers (essentially Truth) to unrestricted coverage of divorce cases. This decision created unintended consequences. Truth filled the sex scandal void with SIS-inspired attacks on Labour politicians, trade unionists, anti-tour agitators, anyone with Left inclinations, Maori radicals or any individuals (people like myself) who upset its demigods. These groups, however, were the core of the readership.

They turned from Truth to talkback radio, the new medium of television and to the new Sunday newspapers. These outlets were Truth-lite. But with their consumer advocacy, an extensive coverage of sports, columnists with strong opinions, celebrity gossip and highly-charged political coverage they retained enough of the elements that made Truth (deservedly) such a popular newspaper in its greatest days.

Karl Marx suggested that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. I take this aphorism to mean that great institutions kill themselves in the end by becoming caricatures of what made them great. This is what happened to Truth. The newspaper turned on the people and groups it had once championed. This important story in the social history of New Zealand is sympathetically and artfully told by Yska. In my mind’s eye I can see the appropriate Truth billboard: “NEW BOOK TELLS TRUTH ABOUT SCANDAL-SHEET”.

 

Spiro Zavos is a Sydney reviewer.

 

 

 

Truth, for all its faults (and they were many), was a battlers’ newspaper in an era when the major newspapers were pious establishment mouthpieces.

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Posted in History, Media, Non-fiction and Review
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