Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday January 4th, 2015
Two of my oldest and dearest friends gave me a wonderful Christmas present. It’s the biography of Matthew Halton, a newspaperman and later CBC broadcaster widely considered Canada’s greatest foreign correspondent. He reported from Europe in the decade leading up to World War II, and was in Britain and with the troops throughout the war itself. His was among the radio voices of my childhood memories of the war, and later he was one of my professional inspirations. This compelling and frank biography titled “Dispatches from the Front” was written by his son David, a noted CBC broadcaster in his own right and someone with whom I have been friendly for many years.
Matthew Halton’s greatest work was a series of in-depth reports from Germany, published in the Toronto Star in 1933 - the year Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party seized power. Far more than most observers at that time, Halton was remarkably prescient as to Hitler’s true intentions. While even as the great American political analyst Walter Lippman was praising Hitler as “the authentic voice of a genuinely civilized people,” Halton had no doubts that Hitler was preparing those people for war.
In the lead paragraph of his German series Halton warned, “I have seen and studied the most fanatical, thorough-going and savage philosophy of war, ever imposed on any nation…Germany is literally becoming a laboratory and breeding ground for war.” And while the rest of the world was tragically slow to recognize what Hitler’s anti-Semitism meant for Germany’s Jews, Halton was not. Again in 1933 he wrote, “The terror goes on unremittingly in the form of a deliberate and implacable intention to wipe the Jews out of the economic and social life of Germany.” Sadly, even that was an understatement.
It would be comforting to be able to say that Halton’s German series, syndicated throughout Canada and in some American border cities, awakened people and governments to the threat that Hitler represented. Basically, it did not. In fact, his critics, of which there were many, accused Halton of being a “Communist” and a “warmonger.” As biographer David Halton writes, “Memories of the slaughter of WWI were still vivid. From the political left to the right, most Canadians felt there was no reason to take sides in European problems.”
Yet while Matthew Halton failed to prevent the outbreak of WWII, this hardly diminishes the extraordinary quality of his work. In fact, it stands as a shining example of what the very best foreign correspondents hope to achieve, namely - a profound understanding of the international events they are covering and an ability to make these stories meaningful to readers, viewers and listeners back home.
The history of the modern foreign/war correspondent began with the Crimean War, a 19th century conflict involving Britain, France and Turkey against the Russians. It was a war of minor historical significance but for two things:
-It marked the beginning of nursing as a profession when the British nurse Florence Nightingale was sent to the front in response to newspaper reports about wounded soldiers suffering horribly from lack of medical treatment.
- And those stories about the wounded had become public knowledge because for the first time, British newspapers had begun to publish news from the battlefront from their own on-scene civilian reporters. Previously war news appeared haphazardly, usually based on letters sent by junior officers.
Among the first and most famous war correspondents of the time was an Irishman named William Howard Russell of the London Times. According to Phillip Knightly in his definitive history of war reporting, “The First Casualty”, Russell’s work was closer to the truth than anything the public had previously been permitted to learn. Words such as “folly,” “ignorance,” “blunders,” became commonplace in reports of the day. Queen Victoria let it be known she was displeased with the Times, and there were those in high places who believed the work of Russell and the Times was little short of treason. Knightly sums it up, “It is clear that before the Crimean War ended, the Army realized it had made a mistake tolerating civilian reporters, but by then it was too late. The war correspondent had arrived and when the American Civil War broke out five years later, five hundred of them turned out to report the conflict on the Northern Side alone.”
The war correspondents of the Civil War were legendary and romanticized. But as Knightly points out in his history, “The legend overlooks the fact that the majority of correspondents were ignorant, dishonest and unethical (whose dispatches) were often inaccurate, invented, partisan and inflammatory.”
Over the next hundred and fifty years and several major wars, the quality of war reporting greatly improved. Yet governments and the military have remained suspicious if not hostile to reporters - a feeling that is usually mutual. On the other hand, until about the end of the 20th century, foreign/ war correspondents had a certain cachet and a mostly positive image among the American public.
But ironically, at a time when there have never been better technological means to deliver the important news from the far flung corners of the earth – in real time - there is actually a dramatic decline in interest in such news. Apparently in these days of the digital social media, foreign reporting, once thought of as exotic, is now seen as exceedingly ho-hum – and the foreign correspondent has become an endangered species.(In my day, each of the three television networks had a dozen to fifteen, full time staff correspondents working abroad. Today, they have two or three.)
Yet who among us would want our news from the world’s battlefields and negotiating tables to depend solely on the word of the government - or from those either unskilled or with unknown agendas? Only those who do not wish to know what their government is doing in their name – which was the prevailing attitude of the German people, prior to and during World War II.
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