Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Unpalatable Truth About Martha Gellhorn 1

I've been meaning for a while now to tackle the subject of The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, an award which, in the words of its creator, the great Australian journalist John Pilger, "is in honour of one of the 20th century's greatest reporters. It's awarded to a journalist whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth. It's validated by powerful facts that expose establishment propaganda, or 'official drivel', as Martha Gellhorn called it." (An unpalatable truth: The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, John Pilger, Information Clearing House, 3/6/11)

So having just learned that the worthy Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook was awarded the Gellhorn Prize in 2011 is probably as good a prompt as any to raise what at first blush may appear to be a rather odd - even highly inappropriate - question: Isn't it perhaps time to rename this award?

Before returning to that question in my next post, a brief introduction to the career of Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) and her connection with John Pilger is in order.

The following sketch, by Shane Maloney, John Pilger & Martha Gellhorn, comes from the Australian magazine The Monthly (5/3/08), and flags the concern I have about Gellhorn as a model of genuine, 'truth-to-power' journalism:

"Martha Gellhorn wrote many things during her remarkable 60-year career. Reports on living conditions in the mine and mill towns of Depression-era America. Newspaper despatches from battlefronts as far-flung as Spain, Finland, Java and El Salvador. Trenchant and prophetic observations on the rise of fascism. Eyewitness accounts of wars, insurrections, revolutions and invasions. Novels, collections of short stories, travelogues and autobiography.

"In 1975, she wrote a 'fan letter' to a stranger she saw on television. He was a 35-year-old Australian journalist named John Pilger. Gellhorn had chanced upon an interview in which Pilger was copping a mauling for his first book, The Last Day, an eyewitness account of the hasty American retreat from Saigon. Personally acquainted with the reception often given to the bearers of unpalatable news, she promptly went out and bought the book. Judging it fine, she wrote to Pilger to tell him so.

"Pilger, it transpired, owed his introduction to Indochina to Gellhorn. Eight years earlier, her articles on the horrors being unleashed on Vietnam's civilians had prompted Pilger's editor at the Daily Mirror to send him to cover the war. Pilger found Gellhorn's fan mail 'moving', but it was another 3 years before the two inveterate travellers were to meet. In 1978, following the screening of Pilger's documentary Do You Remember Vietnam?, they finally sat down together.

"Gellhorn kept a flat, a court of sorts, in London's Cadogan Square. As a young Midwesterner in Paris, she'd modelled for Chanel and Schiaparelli, and she retained a slim, striking elegance that must have contrasted to the lanky Aussie with fiercely independent hair. Over a bottle of Famous Grouse, they talked about 'the struggle of memory against forgetting', agreeing furiously on almost everything. The exception was Palestine. Gellhorn was one of the first journalists to enter Dachau and her adherence to Israel was unqualified. Pilger steered around the subject and the two became good friends.

"Strongly averse to 'the kitchen of life', the former Mrs Ernest Hemingway was a terrible cook. On subsequent visits, Pilger took food. Sometimes they would stroll in the park, talking surfing and snorkelling between denouncing the vileness of Kissinger. An incorrigible smoker, Gellhorn once got thrown out of Selfridges for lighting up.

"Martha Gellhorn was still reporting in her eighties, travelling to Panama in the wake of the American invasion and interviewing street kids in the favelas of Brazil. She died of cancer* in 1998. John Pilger continues to annoy the buggery out of his critics."

To be continued...

[*Although Gellhorn had cancer, it was a pre-emptive pill that actually did the trick.]

No comments: