“Ingredients: 99.9% Truth, 30% Sport, 30% Boobs, 100% IN YOUR FACE!”
That’s the way the long-running New Zealand tabloid Truth describes itself. And while we might quibble over Cameron Slater’s suitability regarding the first three of those, the last is beyond doubt.
And the symbolism is pretty potent. I can’t think of another example in which a blogger has been parachuted directly into a newspaper’s editor chair. It may not be the last, however.
Feather-ruffling, rancorous and prolific, the man behind the rightwing Whale Oil blog will edit one of the country’s oldest titles – and one of the few that remain in New Zealand ownership.
It is a paper with quite a history – as documented by Redmer Yska in his acclaimed book NZ Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People’s Paper.
Joanne Black spoke to him for the Listener in 2010:
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”.