19 Nov 2023

'True newspaperman' Fred Tulett leaves a legacy

From Mediawatch, 9:07 am on 19 November 2023

Long-serving Southland Times editor Fred Tulett has died - leaving a legacy of more than 50 years in journalism in which he mentored many top journalists who followed in his footsteps.  

The news of Fred Tulett's death - and an account of his life - filled the Southland Times from page last week.

The news of Fred Tulett's death - and an account of his life - filled the Southland Times from page last week. Photo: Southland Times,

On Wednesday last week the Southland Times filled its front page with news former editor Fred Tulett had died, aged 77.  

News of Fred’s death also spilled over onto page two of Southland Times paper last week.     

"News of Fred Tulett’s death relegated a strong story about the financial struggles of medical trainee interns to page 3. He would have gone crook about that," his Times colleague Michael Fallow noted in a separate obituary - A titan of old-school journalism - published in Stuff’s papers last weekend. 

Fred had edited the paper for 15 years following stints at Wellington's Dominion, the notorious tabloid Truth and several papers in the UK. 

At his funeral in Alexandra, Stuff’s chief publishing officer Jo Norris recalled Fred’s remarkable scoop about suspected Israeli agents being spirited out of the country after the Christchurch quake in 2011. 

Soon after, Fred made headlines himself by personally sampling the synthetic cannabis product Kronic and then calling for it to be banned immediately in his paper's editorial the next day.  

But Fred’s best-remembered scoop was one that came out of the blue in 1984 when he picked up a ringing phone at the Dominion Sunday Times. 

It was Naomi Lange - wife of then PM David Lange - on the line. 

This was at a time when their marriage was on the rocks. She spilled the beans to him about David's adultery and Fred put it in the paper - but not before pondering the public interest in the exposure of this.  

Almost 20 years later, when Fred was at the Southland Times, the story of an affair involving Auckland mayor Len Brown made nationwide headlines.

But this time the story was being peddled by political opponents of Len Brown who was facing re-election.  

At that time Fred Tulett spoke to Mediawatch about whether the public interest would be served by this private situation being revealed in these circumstances. 

"Of course, it's our business. We're talking about a high profile politician that people have had to make judgments on in deciding whether or not to vote for him. And this is all about people being able to make informed decisions about what's going on. Let's be realistic about this," Fred told Mediawatch at the time. 

"But it depends on relevance. When I was chief reporter at the Dominion I was aware of affairs that were going on at Parliament. But you have to find a relevance to make it newsworthy," he said. 

"This latest thing with Len Brown is really interesting because of the stories . . . pressure being put on this woman by Brown's political opponents. That's becoming the story  - and a much more interesting story," he said. 

"We live in a fascinating world now because of all the social media. It's really helpful for journalists, working with Twitter and Facebook. We're getting information all the time from the public - and that's great. But we have to be careful to make sure that we're checking everything - that it's accurate. And if it is - we've got a story." 

Fred retired from journalism later that year, having led several Southland Times campaigns on local issues. 

One about water quality in 2013 prompted Federated Farmers local president to complain: “They are giving us caning”

He said the editor “has cooked his goose with rural people, because they are not buying the paper”.

“The hand that feeds gets smacked all the time,” Federated Farmers national president at the time, Don Nicolson, also complained. 

But that's part of journalism’s job description - and the sort of thing Fred Tulett might have happily put on the front page in place of any account of his own career.