The intro read:
Dinosaurs of print, the tabloids are passing because the rest of the print media – and, increasingly, television – have taken over both their territory and their tone. But Truth, which turns 90 this year, is a survivor. It has swung from left to right, and back again. It has championed the underdog and been a bigoted bully. It has bordered on the pornographic, and called for pornographers to be locked up. With Sunday News pushing slightly upmarket, Truth is now alone in the tabloid market. Denis Edwards takes a look at an unacknowledged side of our literary historyTHE LAST TABLOID
Hedley Mortlock is 53. From here he can see retirement in the distance, and was looking forward to a clear run through to the finish line. The last thing he needed was a jarring reminder of exactly how fragile the tabloid market is in this part of the world. Then he heard that his paper’s Australian equivalent, the Melbourne-based Truth, had closed after 104 years.
The similarities were worryingly close. Circulation in Australia was a comparable 40,000 a week. It too was laden with page after page of lucrative advertising and had a solid sports section. But there was one big difference. Inspired by London’s Sunday Sport, the Australians had begun making the stories up, with headlines like “London Bus Found On Dark Side Of Bronte Beach”, “Elvis Tattooed My Unborn Baby With Star Of David” and “Two-headed Woman – Non-smoking Head Declares War On ‘Filthy Smoker’ Head”.
The readers weren’t having it: even in Australia, there would appear to be a floor level to the media’s “dumbing down”. The end, advertising or not, came quickly.
This ended talk at Truth’s New North Road offices of following a similar line. If Mortlock is to keep Truth from joining the long list of defunct newspapers and magazines, it will be by turning to the basics of the newspaper industry: knowing your market and serving it with journalistic integrity by doing straight, accurate and interesting stories.
Truth’s previous editors must be thankful they are long gone and far from the work facing Mortlock. Tabloid legends Alan Hitchens and Judy McGregor are in the US and academia respectively, leaving Mortlock as probably the only person with the experience for the job. He worked at the English Sun “as a working staffer, not there on some sort of scholarship to see how tabloids operate” before coming back to New Zealand in 1968. He has been at Truth ever since.
His arrival was pure tabloid. He had been hired as Truth’s sports editor on a Friday. He was to start on Monday and had popped in to the Wellington newsroom to say hello and shake a few hands. “The editor came running out of his office, gesturing to me to clear off. He wanted me out of there, because he hadn’t sacked the bloke I was replacing. When I came in there was a new editor. He’d been sacked too!” Welcome to the world of the tabloid.
Truth’s struggles, which have seen its circulation slowly slide from 250,000 in the 1960s to its present level of just over 40,000, are the result of vastly increased competition. “For years there had been the Woman’s Weekly, the daily newspaper and Truth, and there wasn’t much else,” says Mortlock. There is now. The Auckland Sun pushed the Herald into putting out a brighter, livelier paper, including a sharp boost to its interest in spectacular court cases. The new magazines, including Metro and North and South, also thoroughly understood the circulation-boosting potential of solid investigative work and of a brisk scandal, preferably in combination. They certainly weren’t about to turn their backs on a spectacular rape, robbery or murder.
The women’s magazines, in a take-no-prisoners war, shoved and elbowed to be first with the female perspective on anything newsworthy, and chequebooks were ready to help smooth the way to the saddest and/or the most inspiring stories. In a word, the other print media have been tabloidified – as has television. Mortlock has come to dread watching Holmes in particular: “Every night they are doing our stuff, pure Truth stories.”
There is the memory of once-lavish and now-banned cigarette advertising, the defection of brewery advertising to television. And there’s talkback radio. Who needs a newspaper to be the voice of the downtrodden and oppressed or to an air a grievance when you can dial up and be heard, immediately and nationwide?
The response has been to brighten up the paper, filling it with colour and celebrities. The showbiz coverage is boosted by extensive and exclusive clipping rights with UK tabloids. Sex scandals are still prized, although these days they need to be exclusive (nearly impossible, with the women’s magazines and their chequebooks aggressively competing for stories) and make only modest demands on journalistic resources. This is because Truth’s staff is at skeletal levels: Mortlock, three sub-editors and two journalists. These are usually in their late teens or early 20s and from unfashionable polytechs. Turnover is high: people learn and move on.
They are joined by a sports editor, a photographer and several freelancers. They have made Truth a motherlode for those tapping New Zealand’s popular culture, roaming into our social byways: dog shows, brass bands, Freemasonry, trucking and anything likely to be of interest or to affect those at the bottom of the heap.
Truth has, for instance, become the fast-food industry police. “KFC Fries Workers” claimed one story, while another declared New Lynn to be the world’s fast-food capital. More serious is the Captain Cash column, a weekly look at life below the bottom rung. Readers write in with often heart-wrenching requests for money. A 62-year-old widow, supporting a 40-year-old handicapped child, is on a benefit and washes the laundry by hand in the bath. She gets $150 towards a new washing machine. It’s humbling, says Mortlock. “You see the letters coming in, and believe me, you stop complaining about your lot.”
Truth’s coverage of local television is an index of that medium’s departure into the maw of the public relations industry. Truth used to have a free run with the likes of Gloss interviews and profiles. Now, in the Shortland Street era, Truth is B-List. The big stories and big names are given to the A-List: TV Guide, the Herald, the big three women’s weeklies and, further back, the Listener.
Being pushed back from the table has turned into a journalistic plus for Mortlock. It has freed him. If a star is foolish in public, has a spot of bother with a breathalyser or credit card, or tells a fan to “f— off”, others might have to look the other way to ensure an uninterrupted flow of good stories. Mortlock enjoys the prospect of going back to journalism’s roots, the ability to publish and, libel laws notwithstanding, be damned. The official stance from the PR people has been to ignore Truth.
Mortlock isn’t worried: “We’ll just keep going as the stories come along. We have to be doing the best we can for our readers, turning over stones and coming up with good interesting stories. Now and again we trip over the rich and powerful.” For example, when Julie Christie, then sweeping ageing and terrified hacks from the screen as part of her brief to rev up TVNZ’s sports coverage, had some difficulty with officialdom over a hotel she has a financial interest in, Truth ran the story. His competitors wouldn’t have dared.
As editor of Truth, Mortlock is custodian of the most raucous history in the New Zealand media. The paper has swung from left to right wings, and back again. It has championed the underdog, and then been an overbearing bigoted bully. At times ‘it has bordered on the pornographic, and at other times it has called for pornographers to be hurled into jail. It has also been caught in the middle. During the bitterness of the 1951 waterfront lock-out, Truth editors were startled to find themselves the moderates, against an Auckland Star editorial advocating the shooting of the watersiders.
There have been times when it sided with the bigots. “Stop The Yellow Swarm” and “Drive Out The Communist Irish”, it called. When Ian Milner a New Zealand-born academic then working in Czechoslovakia returned home briefly, Truth said he was a “known Communist and must be destroyed or stopped”. Later it pitched enthusiastically into Tim Bickerstaff’s “Punch-a-Pom” campaign. There have been attacks on “state house bludgers”, “reds under the bed” and “idle students”.
That Truth did well with stories like those was a glimpse into the darker side of the gruff, friendly, she’ll be right New Zealand character. For Ronald Hugh Morrieson, who blended knockabout comedy and appalling violence in novels like Came A Hot Friday, Truth was a prime influence – he never missed a copy.
Now and again Truth paid a price for its stands. From 1974 to 1982, under the legendary Russell Gault, a redbaiter and sloganeer extraordinaire, Truth waged campaigns against every group finding itself in the news: students, workers, unions, the lot. Each time the circulation dropped, as those attacked ceased to buy the paper. The biggest drop was when Gault waded into the then white-hot abortion debate. Readership plummeted.
Mervyn Thompson caught the flavour of the old Truth style, using it as a guide through our social history in The Great New Zealand Truth Show. The 1982 play includes, among other gems, a stress-demented Truth editor, short of material and reaching into the past to produce a Truth stand-by, an investigation into the appalling state of housing in areas of rural poverty. Whew, another week saved!
IT ALL STARTED in 1905. The Australian Truth had been founded by John Norton, a colourful figure who had served in the New South Wales parliament, sprinkling his public service with several appearances in the Sydney Criminal Court, charged will drunkenness, assault, criminal libel and sedition. His Truth was described by another, more respectable, paper as “the typical gutter sheet, distilling a crude potstill of pornography from a ferment of sex crimes and divorce suits”. Not surprisingly it was an instant hit and soon turned up on this side of the Tasman. The Wellington agent was quickly whisked into court, charged with “selling an offensive newspaper”. He was found guilty and fined.
This brought Norton to Wellington, blustering, furious and all righteous indignation. The case was re-opened, with the same result. Guilty and a fine. Norton announced his solution: New Zealand would have its own Truth.
The first issue appeared in June 1905. The New Zealand Truth took the Australian paper’s lead. Sex scandals were number one, with divorce cases a close second. Passionate campaigning was all. Its list of campaign causes has a distinctly modern look: higher salaries for teachers, better conditions for nurses, improvement in the lot of the policeman on the beat, and vigorous attacks on “filthy food” served in restaurants.
One early contributor was Bernard Freyberg, later to be a member of Massey’s vigilantes, recruited to break the 1913 waterfront strike, then general and Governor-General. He did the swimming stories, with much grumbling over the sub-editor’s hand on his copy.
The relationship with the police catches Truth’s editorial flips. Things began with a love affair. In 1931 the police were “agents of the oppressive government”, getting a special lambasting for the handling of the riot by Wellington’s unemployed. In 1953 it took on Police Commissioner Eric Compton, accusing him of corruption: though Compton was officially cleared, he took early retirement. The police would henceforth be run by a civilian, Sam Barnett, who did a thorough house-cleaning. Transfers away from any suggestion of temptation were frequent, and links with bookmakers were cut after later evidence showed they were organising themselves to divide territory and to co-ordinate bookmaking and other crime. Thus Truth can make a reasonable claim to having hamstrung the arrival of organised crime in New Zealand.
Though Truth has lowered its sights, it can still sting. It ended Brian Edwards’ chances of being an MP when he stood for Miramar in 1972, by revealing that the woman he lived with was not his wife. Later, it outed maverick National backbencher Marilyn Waring. This revelation eventually became a plus for Waring, hoisting her profile, bringing her support from the women’s movement and the left. The then-PM Robert Muldoon used her enhanced profile as a threat and an excuse to call a snap election in 1984. He lost to Labour’s David Lange.
Then there was the 1981 move from Wellington to Auckland. The colourful Alan Hitchens had taken over as editor. Out went the Wellington-centric stories: government, education, social welfare, employment and so on. In came an Auckland look: faster, lighter and frothier. The plan was for Truth to ride the new freedom in supermarket opening hours, becoming the New Zealand version of the National Enquirer, sold in all US supermarkets. It didn’t work. The women’s magazines breezed past through that fight, although Truth has gone on to pick up useful sales from service stations.
Another convulsion was in 1987. Mortlock had taken over from Hitchens. Things weren’t going well. Circulation was dropping; advertising was soggy. Closure was being discussed. This threat was real. INL, owner of Truth, has a long record of taking strugglers off life-support. One of Truth’s mainstays, its legendary court coverage, had had to go. Court coverage is expensive. A journalist sits in court all week, to produce one or two stories: too meagre a return for a paper with a tightening budget. That court coverage had been both comprehensive and riveting, especially in its enthusiasm for sex and murder cases, and preferably in combination. I know. I had been under orders to study it.
In the mid-60s I was a mint-fresh police cadet. Our instructor, a veteran sergeant, sternly informed us that Truth was essential reading for its police cases and for its details of the judgments in sex trials. This was all a class of teenage cadets needed to hear. Sales of Truth at outlets in the vicinity of the Police Training School at Trentham continued at high levels.
Nowadays, while the horizon is still scanned for those sorts of stories, day-to-day practicalities force attention to the light, the fast and the humorous. Typical is the headline when Hinemoa Elder left television’s Bugs Bunny Show to enter medical school. Truth caught it all in three words: “What’s Up, Doc?”
Truth’s circulation trails the other papers coming out of INL’s New North Road building. ABC (Audited Bureau of Circulation) figures have the Sunday Star-Times at 187,227 copies a week, Sunday News at 135,229 and TV Guide, Truth’s offspring, at a whopping 257,986 a week. Truth is off the pace at 41,825, down from its peak in the early 60s, when it had virtually sole coverage of the finer details of the John Profumo-Christine Keeler sex and spy scandal.
Truth’s readers are solidly at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Mortlock has a solid Maori readership, “and we are very strong in places like the East Coast and West Coast, where they see Auckland as a sort of distant ‘sin city’.” Even with that relatively small group of readers (although pass-on figures are said to be high – one person in a large family buys and hands it on to everyone else) Truth makes money. It has 11 often-electrifying pages of vigorous pitches for sex equipment, massage parlours, adult video and meet-a-mate-for-a-romp advertising.
This is the place to check for information on the very latest from the far frontiers of sexual preference. There are massage parlours catering for the pensioner market. There are exchange programmes – “Cassandra, early 40s English aristocratic blonde, elegant, private apartment”, though exactly what is to be exchanged is not specified. There are long lists of specialised lonely-person products able to vibrate, penetrate and lubricate and sometimes do all or most of them at once. The videos on offer cover a startlingly wide range of sexual options. If it’s been so long since you had sex that you can’t remember who gets tied up, then fear not, the Truth ads will clarify things for you, or give you the phone number of someone who can help. (Truth and its sex ads give an oblique insight into life on Auckland’s northern slopes. Each August sales in the eastern suburbs rise sharply. The theory is that the family has been packed off to Fiji or the snowfields for the school holidays, leaving father at home to graze the sex ads in peace.)
Though the sex ads are lucrative, and ensure the paper’s survival, they are a mixed blessing. They can crimp sales because parents may fear that taking the paper home will corrupt their teenagers. Putting the ads in a throwaway insert didn’t work – understandably, the advertisers didn’t like it. Mortlock’s problem is how to keep the journalism going, and to persuade people to buy it for its stories as much as for its ads. So far his mix of celebrity stories and sharp bites at the rich and famous is keeping heads above water. Or better – an extra eight pages has just been added.
But if ever he needs a reminder that tabloid journalism is a day-to-day struggle, he need only look in the direction of Melbourne, where they have crated up Truth’s files for the archives and sold off the desks and chairs.
Denis Edwards later worked for Truth and in the course of his duties attended a lunchtime event in Auckland’s Fort Street when an American “porn star” was performing. A few minutes into her act she fell writhing to the floor. The audience cheered. But in wasn’t part of the act – she was having some kind of seizure, an ambulance was called and she was rushed to hospital. Denis wrote the story for Truth and the billboard that Thursday was:
PORN STAR GOES DOWN ON STAGE