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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference