Alexander Cockburn: Crusading reporter and polemicist who was unafraid to espouse unpopular causes


Reporter, polemicist, pamphleteer, champion of the downtrodden, horseman, and classic car collector, Alexander Cockburn set a high standard of crusading journalism for 50 years.

In the tradition of his father, Claud Cockburn, he espoused causes that were more likely to demolish than to enhance a conventional media career. The targets of his trenchant wit and investigative skills were the powerful, the pompous and the privileged, who exercised or justified abuses of power. Nowhere was this more evident than his persistent advocacy of justice for the displaced and occupied people of Palestine.

With his Wildean wit, love of elegant women, penchant for hunting and fondness for PG Wodehouse, Cockburn defied the stereotype of the disgruntled left-wing scribe blasting away from a darkened garret. For the past 20 years he had run the Counterpunch radical website, publishing house and monthly print newsletter with his friend and colleague Jeffrey St Clair from the comfort of his farmhouse in northern California. To this he added a steady supply of essays, books and lectures that never failed to provoke and amuse.

Born in Ardgay, Scotland in 1941, Alexander Claud Cockburn was the first of three sons born to the journalist Claud Cockburn and the Anglo-Irish writer Patricia Arbuthnot Byron. His grandfather was British Consul in Chunking in China, where his father was born in 1904. An ancestor, Admiral Sir George Cockburn, burned Washington, DC to the ground in 1814, an action that many said the Cockburn brothers (who all followed their father into journalism) imitated whenever they wrote about American politics.

The family moved to Youghal, Co Cork, where Alexander and his brothers, Andrew and Patrick, spent their childhood not far from their Arbuthnot relations in Sir Walter Raleigh's old house, Myrtle Grove. It was at Myrtle Grove that Raleigh planted the first potatoes in the British Isles and Edmund Spencer wrote part of The Faerie Queene. His childhood would have been familiar to readers of Somerville and Ross's The Irish RM. His younger brother, Patrick, wrote a book, The Broken Boy, about their upbringing and the 1956 polio epidemic that claimed Andrew and himself.

His secondary education as a boarder at Glenalmond College, founded by Gladstone as an incubator for Scottish Episcopal clergyman, famously immunised him against religious belief of any kind. From there, he read English at his father's Oxford college, Keble, and followed Claud, a communist who fought for the Republicans in Spain, into radical journalism. Working for the Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman, he joined the group of left-wing activists who ran the New Left Review and became a member of its editorial board. He married the novelist Emma Tennant in 1968, together producing their daughter, Daisy, a year later. The marriage lasted five years. He moved, permanently as it turned out, to the US in 1972 and later added American citizenship to his Irish nationality.

His freelance output was prodigious, as was the figure he cut on the New York scene. In an era replete with outlets for imaginative journalists, he wrote for the New York Review of Books, Harper's and Esquire. The Village Voice, begun in 1955 by Norman Mailer and others as Greenwich Village's riposte to the mainstream press, became his vehicle of choice. "It is probably impossible for people to understand this today," wrote Michael Tomasky, a journalist who worked later with Cockburn at The Nation, "but Alex struck American journalism like lightning when he first started writing for The Village Voice."

Nothing he wrote in his Voice column, Press Clips, or his column in the Nation (whose title he took from his father's novel Beat the Devil) endeared him to the titans of the American press to whom most journalists looked for employment. To him, the New York Times foreign correspondent and columnist CL Sulzberger, whose family owned the paper, was "the summation, the platonic ideal of what foreign reporting is all about, which is to fire volley after volley of cliché into the densely packed prejudices of his readers." His take on Ian Fleming was typical: "Without Fleming, we would have had no OSS [America's wartime spy agency], hence no CIA. The Cold War would have ended in the early 1960s. We would have had no Vietnam, no Nixon, no Reagan and no Star Wars."

Ronald Reagan was a particular object of his attention. Perceiving the actor's significance four years before he was elected president, he wrote, in his Village Voice political column with James Ridgeway, "Ronald Reagan is the politician who is boldly putting forward the ideas and framing the debate this election year… the Democrats are dancing to the ideas of Reagan."

Ridgeway wrote: "Rupert Murdoch, when he owned the Voice, was said to gag on some of Alex's pointed epithets, but he never did anything about it. He actually had us both to lunch and offered us a column." Murdoch's tolerance did not extend to defending Cockburn when the Boston Phoenix disclosed that he had received a grant of $10,000 from the Institute of Arab Studies to research a book on Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Although other journalists had accepted grants from the American Enterprise Institute and similar organisations without attracting protests, He was forced to leave the Voice amid complaints from Zionists. The editors of the Wall Street Journal, unlike those at the ostensibly liberal Voice, went on publishing the column he had been writing since 1980 (until 1990) and defended him in an editorial headlined "Alexflap."

If he attacked the strong, he defended those whom respectable journalists shunned: hunters, gun owners, Scientologists, Edward Said, Norman Finkelstein, the people of Palestine and East Timor and the disaffected, unemployed men who ended up in armed militias. He also defended Noam Chomsky and the editor of Index on Censorship, George Theiner, from attacks by Elliot Abrams, then Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State, who condemned Theiner for publishing Chomsky at all in 1986.

Cockburn responded: "It is not often that one can find so bizarre a case: Abrams superintending a campaign of mass murder in Central America while finding the time to write to a tiny magazine 3,000 miles away about the folly of efforts to discuss censorship in the coverage of Israel in the press of that country's chief sponsor." His criticisms of Israeli occupation policies earned him accusations of anti-Semitism, which he countered in his essay "My Life as an 'Anti-Semite'" (a title no doubt inspired by Grigor von Rezzori's classic Memoirs of an Anti-Semite).

He offended liberal sensibilities with his criticisms of global warming orthodoxy and his observation that some research into the human causes behind it had been funded by potential beneficiaries like the nuclear industry. He compared carbon trading to the sale of papal indulgences.

He probably reached his widest audience with Counterpunch, the newsletter he founded in 1994 with Jeffrey St Clair and the acclaimed Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Ken Silverstein. They sought to create what they called "the best muckraking newsletter in the country." Its exposure of bankers' fraud, pharmaceuticals' use of the poor as guinea pigs, dumping of toxic wastes in underdeveloped countries and the depredations of the wars on drugs and terror qualified it for a place in the hallowed halls of muckraking in America.

His long-time friend Tariq Ali wrote: "If he was unflinchingly materialist in money matters – a tyrant to his debtors, an outlaw to his creditors – he was wonderfully free of the lowering vapours of liberal-capitalist ideology. He had the intensity and energy of someone from an earlier, outdoor age, which is perhaps what allowed him to see this one so clearly."

Alexander Cockburn died at a clinic in Bad Salzhausen, Germany, after suffering from cancer that he kept secret from all except his family for two years, during which he maintained his journalistic output.

Alexander Claud Cockburn, writer and journalist: born Ardgay, Scotland 6 June 1941; married 1968 Emma Tennant (divorced 1973; one daughter); died Bad Salzhausen, Germany 21 July 2012.

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