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Not to bury the NZ Truth, but to praise it

July 16th, 2013 By Emerson Vandy

Telling the Truth is a revolutionary act

In the last month, New Zealand lost a newspaper of some significance, with the NZ Truth deciding to stop the press!... permanently. On the one hand, losing a few spray-tanned flesh tones from the newsstand at the dairy in the weekend doesn't seem a huge loss. Gratuitous bikini shots in print media aren't an endangered species, after all. The subjects that sustained its readership in recent years have been well covered in the retrospectives published in New Zealand’s print media in the last few weeks. GANGS. DRUGS. SCANDAL. And of course, SEX.

However, not a lot of column-centimetres have dug into the historic content side of Truth, captured on Papers Past – and it should be acknowledged what a brilliant and influential publication it was in its youth.

Masthead of the NZ Truth in 1930.
Masthead of the NZ Truth, as it was in April 1930.

The Truth is rarely pure and never simple

What made it so brilliant? In a word...er, words. The Truth's editorial team recognised that events could be sexed-up, and not just in the literal sense. They understood that there was a reader’s pleasure (and a commercial case) to be found in whimsical wordplay.

Case in point: consumer dairy products, commodities, legislation, boards, percentage, and Parliament. Some of you are falling asleep just reading those terms. Well, not if you read about them in Truth.

The brilliant headline BUTTER BOODLERS BASTED – PLUTE'S PREVARICATING APOLOGISTS EXPOSED – FATEFUL FACTS AND FIGURES FORMULATED leads an article on those very topics, and with an intro like that, who could resist reading it just a little?

The Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it

Truth prided itself on going in to bat for the consumer, the worker, the "little guy", and it took up a range of causes in support of the common good. While that agenda sold newspapers from the moral high ground, Truth also wasn't above keeping the newsagent busy by using artful alliterative aspersions alluding to a more adult agenda.

"PORNIC PICCADILLY" was the headline above a July 1906 article that outlined the plight of the principal streets of London, arising "through droves of foreign 'lydies' of pleasure practically monopolising Picadilly and Regent Street". The writer also stated, "The scandal has grown so grave that general indignation is being aroused".

As you can see, the subjects related in the article were pretty "warm", as the paper would say, and this clearly had some resonance with readers, because the paper swelled in popularity. Through this lens of licentiousness, New Zealand's latent love of the lascivious was exposed, and the Truth's wordplay soared as the subject mined the depths of (in)decency.

Believe those who are seeking the Truth. Doubt those who find it

Divorce cases were generally a rich source of material, and quickly became a staple of Truth's coverage. The following is an extract from one such case and is an example of the balance between playful storytelling and scandal that Truth's editorial came to favour:


And Her Light o' Love Laurie

Alfred John Bulliff, of Nelson, sought severance from his Ellen May on the grounds of naughtiness with a gentleman named William Laurie. It was at Sleepy Hollow, the Appleland of Noo Zee, where Alfie first felt the strange languor that Cupid enthralls his victims with and calls it "luv." Ellen may have had the same yearning. At any rate, on April 9, 1900 (A.D.), they each told the performing parson that "they would." But Ellen didn't.

They lived at Nelson, Blenheim and Gollan's Valley. During the period from 1900 they had not been indolent and had given the census four distinct shocks. Those shocks consisted of two boys, who were living with Alf, and two girls, who were living with the erring Ellen.

If you tell the Truth, you don’t have to remember anything

Sometimes divorce was the vehicle through which a greater social issue could be disseminated – forming a perfect storm of public interest v sauciness, as in 1913, when a Christchurch policeman was fired for not asking for the permission of his senior officers before marrying a divorcee.

The Truth took the sensible view that however scandalous divorce was, surely the act of marrying a divorcee didn't justify taking a good cop off the beat. The police didn't back down on the issue, and Truth sure didn't sell less papers as a result – the early 1910's were a strong period of growth for the paper.

Not surprisingly, ex-cops involved in divorce proceedings also did their part for the Truth readership's love of sassy syntactic structures.

The article "WHITE'S WICKED WAYS – An ex-‘cop’ and his cissy", covered the "warm" divorce case between Rose and David. From the article:

She said she married David in January, 1906, and had presented him with herself in miniature the following year. At the time of marriage, Davey was a "John Hop" at Alexandria, but the pair were subsequently shifted to Port Chalmers, at which fast and furious bit of earth, in 1908, the Whites indulged in the luxury of a "maid," Cissy Honeybone, by name.

(As an aside, one almost wonders if that was the maid's real name, but we shan't let that little point derail this dissertation. After some suggested misadventure on David's part, the article continues…)

When things appeared to be smoother, she returned and everything was pretty middling until a night in October, 1910, when Rose tucked herself under the blankets at 10 o'clock. Waking, some hours later, she became uneasy at David's absence and, slipping on a few things, she commenced to reconnoitre. The plot thickened when she reached Cissy's boudoir upstairs and found that flighty flapper missing. Further along the passage, there was a double bedroom, towards which she directed her footsteps. In there she found David and Cissy tucked in nice and cosy. "Hubby" negotiated a flanking movement and beat a dignified retreat. Then there was a big row, which ended In Cissy being emptied out.

There’s a world of difference between Truth and facts

It seems inevitable that its success gave prominence to a new and colourful lexicon. The word "Wowsers" is often attributed to the Truth – and the phonetic re-spelling of words to contextualise a narrative point of view was a hallmark. "Officah" for policeman, was an example. A "hice" was the dwelling of English noble-folk. A generously-proportioned individual was "Pawky", "'appy 'ome" with it's absent "h's" denoted the English manner, "sassiety" pages covered the doings of the well-known, "whuskie" was an alcoholic spirit deriving from Scotland, and "disthreshful" was apparently how an Irishman would describe something that caused distress. Quoted by Truth, the "old scots law-lord", no doubt discussing rules of language, said it best when he stated: "I draw my law frae my he'rt no' frae a wheen o' damned books!"

Goodnight NZ Truth, you leave a world richer for your existence and poorer for your departure.

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17 July 2013 10:51am

There's a great podcast about the Truth here: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/handsonhistory/downloads-and-podcasts

16 July 2013 12:02pm

I loved this story from 1908 "Mixed Masterton Morals. Gay Birds Out forJoy. Some Frisky Frolicsome Flossies