For fact’s sake: the golden age of investigative journalism
Will we ever read the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh and his ‘unwanted truths’ again?
Two wonderful memoirs to look forward to in the coming weeks — Rather His Own Man: In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers by Geoffrey Robertson (Biteback) and Reporter: A Memoir by Seymour M Hersh (Alfred A Knopf).Robertson, an outstanding lawyer at the centre of some of Britain’s most high-profile human rights and free speech cases, had earned himself a reputation as a troublemaker in his native Australia long before he arrived in the UK as a Rhodes scholar.
As a high school pupil in Sydney in the early 1960s he became an anti-censorship activist, a cause he took up after coming across a banned copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. His first big success in this role was his exposé of the fact that state schools in Australia, unlike private ones, still taught bowdlerised editions of Shakespeare. Elsewhere, he managed to convince the cricketing legend Don Bradman that Australia should boycott apartheid South Africa.
A natural raconteur and ardent supporter of left-wing causes, Robertson was part of that wave of Australians who took London by storm in the 1970s and 1980s. They included Clive James, Germaine Greer, Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch and Barry Humphries, among others. He even married one of them, the novelist Kathy Lette.
As an outsider from the colonies, he enjoyed giving the British establishment the needle whenever he could, and relished exposing the hypocrisy of the class system whenever possible. He defended the London brothel madam Cynthia Payne, and his interrogation revealed that her clients had included peers, politicians, vicars and prominent lawyers. After her astounding acquittal, Payne was asked on television why she’d never named her clients, and she famously replied: “Well, me morals may be low, but me ethics is high.”
In 1977, he defended Richard Branson against obscenity charges after his Virgin Records label released the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. He and fellow lawyer John Mortimer, coincidentally the author of the wonderful Rumpole of the Bailey stories, managed to prove that the offending word “bollocks” appears in the Caxton’s Bible, and was replaced by “stones” in the King James version.
Hearing this in court, Johnny Rotten, the Pistols singer, handed Robertson a note that read: “Don’t worry. If we lose the case, we’ll retitle the album Never Mind the Stones, Here’s the Sex Pistols.”On to Reporter, by Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh, now in his 80s and a man described by the New York Times as perhaps the best-known “lone wolf” investigative journalist of that long-gone “golden age” of American reportage.
He was something of a maverick: he threw typewriters out of windows, was petulant, stubborn, even prudish. He fell out with his editors and was scathing of fellow journalists, accusing them of laziness for not following up on the stories he broke.
And what stories they were: the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968, the treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003 – stories that exposed brutality, torture, state-sponsored fake news, illegal surveillance and much, much more.
Perhaps Reporter’s most sobering revelation is that this standard of journalism is a thing of the past. Hersh reveals that he’s a veteran from an era “when reporters for daily newspapers did not have to compete with the 24-hour cable news cycle, when newspapers were flush with cash from display advertisements and want ads, and when I was free to travel anywhere, any time, for any reason, with company credit cards”. A time, then, when newspapers gave their reporters time and money to report “unwanted truths”.
HATCHET JOB OF THE MONTH“Starting with his horrible greasy nicotine-stained comb-over, on view in any number of back flaps, was there ever a more preposterous author than Anthony Burgess?” So begins Roger Lewis’s review of The Ink Trade: Selected Journalism 1961–1993 (Carcanet), a collection of columns and “why-oh-why” think pieces to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of the A Clockwork Orange author.
The book was compiled and edited by Will Carr, deputy director at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. He thinks the world of Burgess.
Lewis clearly doesn’t. The author of a hard-hitting biography, he regards Burgess as a crushing windbag. The chief problem here, he argues, in The Times of London’s Saturday Review, is Burgess’s smugness.
“Because there was an insufficiency of self-mockery,” he writes, “Burgess’s pomposity killed any humorous texture. There is no animating comic spirit. When, for example, he defines a poet as ‘an exophthalmic goitrous quill-chewer’, or says of Hemingway’s suicide that ‘there was an odour of approaching nemesis’, I simply groan with irritation and annoyance — ‘Will you please come off it.’ You can see why Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis deemed Burgess a pretentious, even meretricious idiot — and why when Burgess said ‘micturition’ in Jefferey Bernard’s hearing, the Spectator columnist asked him, ‘What’s wrong with piss?’”Lewis also takes Burgess to task for his contemptuous dismissal of contemporary British fiction: “Novels,” as he put it, “about living on a Thames houseboat or about Primrose Hill lasagne and fornication.” He looked down on successful authors such as John le Carre and Umberto Eco and had no understanding or sympathy for life as it is lived.
“He never noticed anything outside his own big head. His failure as an artist, and the reason why his work lacks all psychological conviction, is that he always wanted to be universal, mythical — to write about Heaven and Hell and eternity; earthly powers … As only [Burgess] would have put it: ‘There is something ontologically disturbing about fiction that deals with human affairs from a fanciful cosmic viewpoint.’ Well, quite. I prefer houseboats (Penelope Fitzgerald), lasagne (Beryl Bainbridge) and fornication (Kingsley Amis) myself.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“Do not ask questions. Thy faith will save thee.” — The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey (Pan)