The Awful Truth by Adrian Tame

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Talk about culture shock. A young man arrives from England and immediately goes to work with a bunch of hard drinking, hard swearing journalists who make no bones about their dislike for poms. Nevertheless, by lunchtime on the first day he has managed to sink below their low standards and become something of an office hero (sorry, no spoilers: read the book if you dare).

“I had landed up in an Antipodean home for the emotionally disturbed, and they were going to pay me a handsome wage for helping them pretend it was a newspaper.” [p16]

So begins thirteen years of Truth telling for Adrian Tame. From its beginnings in the late 19th century, in the days when criticism of the royal family could lead to sedition charges, the Truth has always been “the scourge of the self-righteous and pompous elites” [p18]. The line between lampooning elites and peddling fiction is thin, and frequently crossed by this newspaper.

The early history is summarised in a few pages and we soon are led to 1960, when an up and coming young man named Rupert burst out of his home town of Adelaide and used his inheritance to buy the Melbourne paper.  Truth was the lowbrow and sensationalist outlier in his expanding media stable; but it was the cash cow that kept on giving.  It put the T in tabloid and gave him a business model for a global empire.  Although it was still a Murdoch paper when Adrian Tame joined in 1973, the mogul-to-be has mostly cameo appearances – some good some bad.

According to Adrian, many journalists and members of the public were wary of Truth journalists and their methods. Predictably, there are any number of anecdotes about (low) life on the Truth and biopics of his favourite colleagues. Salacious work banter and lewd practical jokes seem to be ritualistic. Adrian tells these stories well and they are a constant source of shock, horror and humour.

Interspersed with chapters about the major stories and characters are several chapters which tell a little of Adrian’s life story. It’s not so much that his personal story and journalistic background are earth shattering – but they are thoughtfully relevant and provide a welcome counterpoint to the depravities of the newsroom.  Though not strictly on message, his love for his wife Ann is abiding and she forms a durable link in the narrative.

The photographs are a nice touch. Appearing in the middle of the book, after we have got to know the main characters and assumed they looked normal, they come as a hefty culture shock. Afros, mullets, mos, flares and stubbies all make an appearance – rendering their wearers less like fashion statements and more like alien visitors.

It is easy to like Adrian and his writing. We hear in equal measure his triumphs and his failures – both journalistically and otherwise. His career has been evidently noteworthy. Apart from longevity with the Truth and other media, he was at the helm of many big stories from those decades – including unmasking Petrov, the Tasman Bridge disaster, agent orange, and Maralinga atomic testing. We are invited to cringe at some of his methods as well as cower at his many faux pas – especially with Hells Angels. Despite his rapid immersion in antipodean news culture, he always seems to have maintained a British sense of proportion (drinking episodes notwithstanding).

Sadly (or happily), by the early 1990s, Truth’s culture was no longer relevant and the paper was moribund – in Tim Winton’s words, the battlers had become losers. By the turn of the century, it was gone. One hundred and ten years through the great depression, two world wars, the cold war and the computer age is not a bad run.

The epilogue contains some interesting and probably contentious musings – some global, some domestic. An interesting local hypothesis – born of Adrian’s personal research – is that Australia’s falling newspaper circulations are due to “journalists staying out of the pub” [p295].

Despite the awful title, Adrian (“Ades” to his cronies) sentimentally embraces his time there: “Going to work was frequently wild entertainment” [p293] and his colleagues combined “larrikinism and professionalism” [p293]

He even misses the old days when fake news was more honest.  After a particularly blatant piece of pretence involving a stuffed kangaroo, Adrian asks: “Did I feel guilty? Maybe a little. But by this time I was so far gone in my descent into the tabloid realms of fantasy and falsehood I was easily able to overcome any such scruples.” [p66].

Most of us may not lament Truth too much, but Adrian’s book provides a veneer of respectability. A very entertaining book documenting the rise and demise of an Aussie icon.

Adrian Tame has worked as a writer, journalist and broadcaster in Australia, the UK, North America and Mexico. This is his fourth book.  

 The Awful Truth

(August 2020)

by Adrian Tame

Simon and Schuster (Australia)

ISBN: 9781760850494

307pp; $32.99 (paperback)

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