Launched in Sydney in 1890 as a weekly, for a century Truth remained unique in Australia for its lurid muck-raking and scandal-mongering.
Its specialties were crime, politics, sport, sex and the divorce courts—a formula that made it a key player in Australian tabloid journalism.
Its initiators were Sydney businessmen and political identities who had been embroiled in scandals of their own. The Sunday newspaper’s founder, William Willis, was a member of the Legislative Assembly who was to become notorious for his part in the NSW land scandals alleging that he and William ‘Paddy’ Crick—the Minister for Lands—took bribes from pastoralists for Crown leases.
The paper’s internal politics were just as controversial—especially when John Norton, an ambitious, hard-drinking journalist and aspiring politician, came aboard. There were many brawls among the group, culminating in an extended bout of litigation that ended in 1896 when Willis agreed to let Norton buy the paper.
Norton promptly turned it into a vehicle for driving his political ambitions and airing his personal crusades and grudges. The paper’s particular targets were wowsers, monarchists, the evils of sectarianism and sections of the labour movement. The paper was also viciously racist and xenophobic, and Norton took delight in the numerous defamation actions it attracted.
It proved a popular formula—despite Norton’s extended periods of alcohol-induced illness. When he died in 1916, it was being distributed nationally with individual editions in the main capitals.
He disinherited his wife, Ada, and their son, Ezra, after Ada sued him for divorce—later altered to a plea for judicial separation. But the will was challenged successfully, and in 1920, Ezra took over the running of Truth.
His was a more pragmatic approach. While the paper leaned towards the Labor Party, its stance on specific issues was often dictated by Ezra’s business interests. But it was basically a working-class paper.
It continued to thrive in a competitive market. In 1927, sales stood at 432,500—an increase of 155,000 in seven years. Crime had replaced politics on the front page, and there was a motoring section. Overall, it was thought of as a man’s paper, which no respectable woman would read—despite a column of domestic tips, ‘Making Good Wives Better’.
It retained the racist stance established by John Norton, and pursued certain vendettas. One was against the NSW Police Commissioner, Bill MacKay, for failing to solve several major crimes. It also tapped the deep vein of philistinism running through Australian society. In 1956, it joined other Sydney newspapers in hounding the Sydney Symphony’s conductor, Eugene Goossens, who was at risk of being charged with ‘scandalous conduct’ after films, photographs and books deemed to be indecent were found in his luggage. The following year, it was equally ruthless in pursuing the visiting concert pianist, Claudio Arrau, who had used a public lavatory in a park patrolled by Vice Squad officers.
The end of the Nortons’ ownership of Truth came in the late 1950s, when their rivals were jostling for the chance to become involved in the newly established television industry. Norton was already contemplating his retirement and Truth was past its heyday—at least in Sydney, where it was replaced in 1958 by the Sunday Mirror.
Norton retired in the same year, selling to a shelf company set up by John Fairfax & Sons. In 1960, his interests were sold on to Rupert Murdoch, who kept Truth going in the other states.
The paper’s combination of hard news and soft porn was still working, especially in Brisbane and Melbourne. In 1967, it campaigned against Victorian Premier Henry Bolte’s refusal to abolish capital punishment, and in 1969 it supported Dr Bertram Wainer in his crusade to have abortion laws reformed. But the paper’s circulation fell towards the end of the 1970s, and in 1980 Murdoch sold it to two of his former editors, Mark Day and Owen Thomson, who did well with it for several years. By 1987, the paper’s circulation was falling steadily, however.
When it finally died, it was almost 105 years old and a very different publication from the one established by the Nortons. Its brand of prurience had become thoroughly outdated, superseded by the modern tabloid’s taste for celebrity gossip, while its cheeky, muck-raking role had been taken on by more up-market publications.
REF: S. Hall, Tabloid Man (2008).