Both loved and loathed, the New Zealand Truth newspaper prospered throughout the twentieth century and wielded considerable influence at all levels of society. And its colourful warts and all story is now the subject of a book by author and former staffer Redmer Yska called Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People’s Paper.In its hey day, the newspaper was read by every second household, and Kevin Sinclair, a former Truth chief reporter, says it sold an “astonishing one copy for every ten people in the country”, even though he says you could never find anyone who would admit to reading it.
Best remembered for its page three girls, sex and crime scandals, reactionary politics and general muck-raking, the paper did have a close and long association with the Security Intelligence Service. It left lasting scars on the people it smeared and would pursue any individual broadcaster it saw as having left-of-centre views. Brian Edwards, who was targeted in 1969, recalls answering the telephone and finding a Truth reporter on the other end as “a scary experience”.
“It was unbelievably unpleasant and extremely frightening. This was a very powerful publication,” he says. While former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer worked as a teenage law clerk in the paper’s offices because he was interested in the law of defamation. “I sought a job at Truth to learn the rudiments, from a practical point of view,” he says.
Truth journalists also sought, and were granted, a legendary and unique award that put their pay above standard industry rates.
“It was negotiated by agreement, you’ll never see it written down,” says Tony Wilton, a Truth sub-editor who later headed the Journalists’ Union. “It was for odium, contempt and physical danger. It might be described as sleaze money, but it was also danger money.”
Author Redmer Yska first worked as a copy holder at the newspaper in 1977 at the age of 24 and soon picked up the signature outraged tone when he became one of is reporters. The second time he worked for Truth was as entertainment editor, during the 1981 Springbok tour. Thirty years later, he applied for and was granted a National Library Research Fellowship and this book, which is based on microfilm copies; a cache of 2,000 issues at Porirua City Library dated from between 1942 and 1964; the Board’s minute books from between 1928 and 1973; and many interviews the paper’s legal advisers, litigants, former staff and readers, is the result.
“Truth was New Zealand’s first modern newspaper, it was part of the great New Zealand clobbering machine and it shaped the media we have today.”
Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People’s Paper will be launched on Thursday 18 November, 6 – 7.30pm, Unity Books, 57 Willis Street, Wellington. It is available from bookstores nationwide and online at www.craigpotton.co.nz.
Life in the messy, clattering, smoked-filled newsroom at Garrett Street followed a sequence that had barely changed in a generation. The Truth week was properly underway by Thursday, as reporters filed in from the offices, restaurants and hotel bars where they had gleaned their stories.
At wooden desks, deep in piles of newspapers and manila envelopes stuffed with clippings, journalists typed out paragraphs of ‘copy’ on small sheets of blank paper, pausing to chat on clunky black telephones. In an adjacent room known as the ‘subbery’, half a dozen copy or sub-editors sat at a wide desk covered in piles of paper, scissors, scalpels and old dried up gluepots, shaping this material and adding headlines and captions.
On Monday mornings the focus was on laying out the crucial front page. Once a story was ‘subbed’ it was sent for hot metal typesetting to a team of 15 skilled linotype operators who sat at 90-character keyboards, casting every line in molten lead on two-metre-high iron contraptions in the adjacent printing factory. Squads of compositors, or ‘comps’, then assembled the type into pages, and staff in the ‘reading room’ checked the initial page ‘proofs’ for errors. These were then dispatched for advance reading by Dunn, the ‘censor’ across town in his Grey Street offices.
Journalist Neil Birss recalls the rigour surrounding the process: Each final, revised proof of the galleys of type, checked and returned by Dunn, hung on a nail in the subbery. Each proof had a big stamp with the words ‘Passed by the Censor’. When signed proofs for each story were in, the page could go into the production phase. Dunn read every word.
Early on Monday afternoons, the high-speed rotary presses would start up, watched over by a team of 40 printers in ink-stained blue overalls.
Kilometres of newsprint flowed over metal moulds of that week’s Truth, fitted to the presses. By 8p.m., most of the edition would be printed and ready for distribution to a thousand dairies. Casual labourers toiled through the night, loading wiredup bundles onto a succession of trucks.
Linotype operator Rod Hunter, who came to Garrett Street as an apprentice in the early 1960s, recalls Dunn’s visits to the plant: ‘We saw him as a nice old guy who paid us well. He’d often joke: “No wage increase this year, boys. I’ve just bought myself a new Jaguar”.’