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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
news
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living