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<i>Truth's</i> page 3 girls have an enduring legacy in the public mind, but a new book takes a different kind of intimate look at a weekly newspaper that ruled for 60 years.
In July last year when Wellington historian Redmer Yska arrived at Auckland Airport for a prearranged rendezvous with ex-Territorial Army officer Paul Freeman, he was frustrated but not entirely surprised that Freeman didn't show. Instead, Yska, who was researching the history of Truth newspaper, considered himself lucky to have had one previous meeting with Freeman who, 35 years ago, played a critical role in a front-page story that, even by Truth's standards, was sensational.
In a big banner headline (Truth was never afraid of those large fonts that more conservative newspapers saved for covering declarations of war) the edition of Tuesday, July 29, 1975, simply said "THE PLOT", and under it, "How NZ was to be taken over". The paper alleged that Bill Sutch, Jack Lewin, Gerald O'Brien and Norm Kirk, "two former top public servants, an MP and the prime minister", had together "hatched a sinister scheme to socialise New Zealand".
As Yska relates it in his about-to-be-published book, NZ Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People's Paper, the origins of the story, as with so many others, lay with Truth's lawyer, later to be its board chairman, James Dunn. For nearly 40 years Dunn, as Truth's in-house censor, read almost every word of every edition before it was printed. But his influence was not only on what not to publish for fear of defamation suits. He also played a backroom editor-in-chief role and was himself the source of many stories, including those that satisfied his virulent anti-Communist beliefs, which were shared by editor Russell Gault.
Earlier in 1975, Sutch had gone on trial for breaching the Official Secrets Act, allegedly by passing information to KGB agents during a series of clandestine meetings in Wellington that were secretly observed by the Security Intelligence Service. Sutch was found not guilty but, as Yska reports in his book, three days after the trial, "the first of a series of lengthy articles about Sutch appeared in Truth. A vast quantity of personal and financial information was published over three consecutive weeks to back up the weekly's claim that Sutch was in fact a spy, a liar and a contemptible individual."
Yska says the forensic detail in Truth's material was such that family and supporters were sure it was derived from "official" sources, although the reporter, Rosalind Laing, says the facts were all sourced from the Evening Post library and linked, by her, to "known history".
Whatever the original sources of those reports, they were but a warm-up for what Truth was about to publish. Yska explains in the book that in the wake of the Sutch exposure, police, on behalf of the SIS, were interviewing many of his contacts. Island Bay MP Gerald O'Brien was one.
In his notes of that interview, a detective wrote down that O'Brien said he, Sutch and Lewin had prepared, at Kirk's behest, two papers, "setting out the policies that the Government was to follow, including the nationalisation of all banks and insurance companies and a merger between the Bank of New Zealand with the Reserve Bank".
This potentially politically explosive but highly secret note was filed with police and the SIS, but just months from the general election, a copy of it almost certainly fell into Truth's hands. How that happened remains unexplained, although it was later established that senior SIS staffer Rohan Naldrett-Jays took a copy from a locked safe at SIS head office and mailed it to his friend Freeman.
"Freeman informed his lawyer and the police, and contacted Prime Minister [Bill] Rowling's parliamentary office," writes Yska. "Bizarrely, police allowed Freeman to personally hand back the stolen document to Rowling at Auckland Airport."
But on the same day the note was handed back, Truth produced a story mentioning an economic plot against the country, and hinting it had more details to reveal. "It seemed clear," writes Yska, "that Freeman was not the only one who had read the detective's notes, and also that he, Naldrett-Jays or some other party had given Truth a copy. The timing of Freeman's theatrics at Auckland Airport seemed suspicious, at worst designed to cause trouble for Labour."
Although the contents of the note were not disclosed publicly, Rowling was furious and announced an inquiry into the SIS, with the SIS chief responding to the Prime Minister three days later that he had no reason to think the case was linked with the stories appearing in Truth. But the next edition of Truth went further, and then on July 29 came the exposé of The Plot, claiming the plan involved Sutch assuming control of the Reserve Bank and being "responsible to the Government for the operations and control of the whole financial structure".
Beside the story, Gault had penned an editorial saying "this sordid, deceitful business is much more worthy of a Communist bloc totalitarian regime. Or are we closer to that state under the present Government than most of us had realised?"
Truth never admitted to having had a copy of the SIS document, but Rowling later released it publicly and Opposition leader Rob Muldoon used it to deadly effect in the run-up to the election.
Yska, who thoroughly researched the episode for his book, says he is grateful for assistance from the SIS. "I don't believe there are any documents proving that Truth and the SIS were bedfellows, and in fact [SIS head] Warren Tucker told me there is no such material on the files," Yska told the Listener.
But does this mean the relationship didn't exist? In his book, Yska says it is safe to conclude that "over many years, sources in or close to the SIS did pass information to Truth. The relationship would have been fluid and informal, but the SIS, like its British counterpart MI5, is likely to have had officers authorised to have contact with journalists."
However, the real driving force, says Yska, would have been Dunn himself. He and SIS chief Bill Gilbert had both been "gunners" at officer level in World War II, and served at the same time. It has been said they were messmates.
The way information was passed, says Yska, might have been over a scotch and soda in a club, perhaps followed up with a scribbled note, but always deniable. "As a historian you have to have documents so I think I've gone as far as I could, but it was great being able to have conversations with Gerald O'Brien, and also track down Freeman and have the meeting with him."
At that meeting, Yska says Freeman tantalised him with 10 large scrapbooks covering the events of 1975, including copies of his correspondence with Naldrett-Jays, which, Freeman told Yska, would finally explain what The Plot was really all about. But Freeman never arrived for the airport meeting - his no-show becoming just one more enigmatic footnote in an already strange episode.
The book reveals that Dunn's son, who was working for the paper at the time of his father's death in 1978, was "still involved in making payments to several ex-SIS agents on retainer".
Yska's conclusion is that the story was a classic Truth "beat-up" - "a story without substance built on a silly comment to a policeman, but I'm still intrigued by the motivations of those who leaked the material". That period in 1975 was, says Yska, a difficult time not only for the country, but for Truth as well. The backdrop to the Sutch investigations, from the paper's perspective, was that Truth, which had dominated its sector of the media for 60 years, was facing a declining circulation. Talkback radio, Sunday newspapers and television were all eating into a market Truth had once called its own. The paper, which had reached a peak circulation of 240,000 copies a week during the Profumo scandal in the early 1960s, had dropped below the important psychological 200,000 mark by 1975. "It was a very public humiliation for a once-invincible media giant," writes Yska.
Truth was started in Wellington in 1905, modelled on its successful Australian namesake, owned by English-born Australian John Norton. Norton was described by the Bulletin as a "freak, big man, small man, philanthropist, scoundrel" and is described by Yska as "a combustible mix of tycoon, journalist, do-gooder and chronic fall-down pisshead".
Truth considered itself a national paper, the first in New Zealand to attempt national distribution. By 1906, it claimed to reach "every Miners', Gum-diggers' and Timber-Getters' camp". Unfortunately, none of the first 55 issues of Truth survive, possibly, Yska speculates, because libraries "were emulating their counterparts in the United States in consciously excluding the yellow press 'that soiled the breakfast cloth'".
It was the paper of the working man, exposing injustice, and standing firmly in opposition to Puritanism and do-gooders. One of Truth's lasting contributions to the lexicon is that Norton certainly used, and claimed to have invented, the word "wowser", with the Oxford English Dictionary noting that its first documented appearance was in Sydney Truth in 1899. "An expression of solidarity with working-class readers, Norton's wowser became the heart of his paper's identity - an object of hate, scorn and ridicule," writes Yska. "It remains a derisory term today."
For its first half-century, the paper was run by Australians with a tried-and-true formula "that was very well established with crime and sex and random muck-raking as the core elements", says Yska.
Based in Wellington, always with a close eye on politics, Truth distinguished itself from other papers early on by its interest in sex crimes, its coverage of divorce cases, and its hostility towards racial minorities other than Maori, who were portrayed positively. Chinese suffered particularly, although Yska observes that throughout its life Truth was at its most merciless when attacking individuals, rather than whole racial groups. Time and again in Truth's history its editorial policy has been to be vindictive towards a person it has, for some reason, singled out for vicious treatment.
In the early years the paper bordered on revolutionary in its editorial support for unions hoping that, "united Labour, once cognisant of its strength, can, with one mighty heave of its shoulders, remove the burdens with which it is now so sorely oppressed".
But soon the country was at war and Truth took an ardently anti-militaristic position, in particular standing against conscription. To stay onside with readers, it became an advocate for "the boy in the trenches", demanding better conditions for soldiers and their families at home.
Yska argues the paper forced New Zealanders to face the dark side of a society that respectable newspapers "alluded to only in code", and it included coverage of people like baby farmers and sexual predators. "For the first time, Truth presented them back to us in a sensational but seemingly irresistible way. Overnight it became our best-selling paper and it seemed we couldn't get enough of it, yet it made our 20th-century world somehow scarier. As Janet Frame wrote in her brilliant remarks, the paper covered unsavoury events that were just too terrible to be discussed or even acknowledged."
Beyond the war, and for many decades afterwards, Truth carved out a strong consumer-focused niche. It was always, says Yska, a paper of contradictions. "It's always more complicated than meets the eye."
Dunn, who acted as editor-in-chief, possibly to the surprise and dismay of many of the men who sat in the editor's chair, "was the shaping spirit of the paper, a Rupert Murdoch working behind the scenes and pulling all the strings". Usually, he and the paper had an unerring instinct for being in touch with readers' sensibilities, but Yska singles out a 1976 story as an example of a grave miscalculation by Gault, and a sign of Truth's desperate search for scoops to halt a falling circulation.
The front-page headline on August 24 that year reads "MP's odd love affair", and the story begins, "Marilyn Waring, National Member of Parliament for Raglan, is a lesbian."
Waring, forewarned of the publication, had tried to stop it, but Truth's then owners, Independent Newspapers Ltd (INL), had managed to have the injunction overturned. The outing of Waring, writes Yska, created shockwaves, "generating sympathy for the young and widely liked member of Parliament and bringing a massive backlash against Truth. It was further evidence of how much the weekly was out of step with the emerging social movement of the 1970s, [that was] embracing women's rights, civil rights, the environment and gay and lesbian rights."
While researching the book, Yska emailed Waring, asking if she would talk to him. "I got an instant response, and she didn't want to talk to me. I've heard that she's mentioned it in speeches over the years, and has obviously moved on, but I still think there is something there - the fact that 34 years later she doesn't want to talk about it shows how wounding it was. It was a scary paper. It was a paper that scarred."
Yska saw that first-hand when he did two reporting stints at Truth. "When the chief reporter, Tony Dominik, hired me, he was kind to me. I met some lovely people there, but at the same time the paper was drawing blood every week, destroying people every week, so it was terribly, terribly cruel. It's power was quite terrifying, and there was a line of Dunn's that he had a file on every New Zealander."
The early years of heavy-handed involvement by newspaper management in editorial decisions became a stark contrast to Truth's more recent past when its management under the ownership of INL, far from pulling the strings, preferred to turn a blind eye to its miscreant weekly. By the 1990s Truth was becoming more sleazy. In that period Rick Neville was INL's general manager of publishing, and he told Yska INL's board members became increasingly uncomfortable that their reputable company was publishing a newspaper like Truth.
However, Yska writes that whenever those sitting around the board table were briefed on the newspaper's profits, conversation died away. But as Truth became increasingly salacious, it became more difficult for its owners to look the other way, as this account from Neville shows.
"The INL board used to meet in Wellington for its monthly board meetings, always on a Friday. Which, unfortunately, was the day Truth came out. A pile of the papers would be delivered and plonked on the mahogany front counter, invariably to be seen by board members on their way to and from the boardroom. One Friday, I remember seeing that week's Truth on the counter - it was an outrageous front page featuring some low-life licking cream off the very flat stomach of a celebrity tart. Quickly as possible, before any board member arrived, I turned the pile upside down."
But Truth's publisher could no more hide from it than the newspaper could hide from the harsh realities of publishing a tabloid whose day had past. Much of the territory that Truth had once claimed as its own had gone. "By the 80s it had been ransacked," says Yska. "Fair Go had pinched its whole consumer side, it had lost the divorces, and it was like [the Kiwi movie Goodbye] Pork Pie, with bits continually falling off but, by God, it kept going."
Yska ends the book in 1982 with the paper's move to Auckland, although he notes it was not until late last year, "after 104 remarkable years in New Zealand journalism, [that] Truth quietly sank into liquidation. Truth Weekender, complete with 16-page sex-industry pullout, quickly took its place. The wicked old title refuses to die."