OBITUARY:Arthur Gavshon

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The Independent Online
A penniless Jewish South African journalist taken on by Associated Press found that his London digs in 1947 were so lousy and he was so lonely that he spent a large part of the night browsing through unlikely and abstruse magazines. In the course of reading Shipping News in the early hours of the morning, the young Arthur Gavshon came across an obscure item. A ship called the Exodus, formerly the American liberty hulk the President Warfield, had left Sete in south-west France bound for Haifa.

Gavshon realised that this was a Jewish emigration ship and broke the news to a concerned world. The Exodus was boarded by the British navy and the whole story became world news. For the next four decades Gavshon produced more raw news in and out of London than any other single journalist.

Arthur Gavshon was born in Johannesburg of immigrant Jewish parents from Tels in Lithuania. His father was a professional soldier in the ill-starred Tsar's army and his mother was a teacher; they left for South Africa faced with the prospect of pogroms. Gavshon attended Pretoria High School for Boys, but shortage of money compelled him to leave school to work as a labourer in a South African flour mill. His mother, of whom he was immensely proud, taught Russian to English-speaking students; this gave him a contact with the South African Daily Express which started him in journalism.

His application got him the post of parliamentary correspondent of the Express in Cape Town and at this time he edited a magazine, Libertas, which was one of the few organs to champion the budding struggle against racial discrimination in South Africa. This was to be a lifelong cause.

In 1943 Gavshon volunteered to join the South African army and was posted to 23rd Field Artillery of the Sixth South African Division. He took part in the fighting all the way up Italy and his modest stories of what happened at the Battle of Montecassino were deeply moving. He was demobilised, in London, in 1945. Within a week his worldly possessions in a rucksack and his camera were stolen. By good fortune he was offered a temporary job subbing for the Associated Press of America, and he grasped it.

It was Gavshon's experience in the war that gave him an empathy both with professional soldiers and with politicians such as Denis Healey, beach-master at Anzio, Col George Wigg and the host of MPs who were colonels DSO and Bar, MC and Bar, who with dignity occupied the Conservative benches in the 1940s and 1950s.

Though I knew Arthur Gavshon extremely well I do not know to this day how he cast his vote at general elections. As a journalist he quickly reached an importance such that he could have private off-the-record interviews with Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson and Ted Heath. He was equally trusted by senior Tory and leading Labour politician alike.

In 1963 he published his first book, The Last Days of Dag Hammarskjold. As an investigative journalist Gavshon had become more and more convinced that the dynamic Swedish general secretary of the United Nations had not met his death by accident but rather by murderous design. He persuaded the Pall Mall Press to publish what amounted to his anecdotal evidence that Hammarskjold had been brutally murdered and had not simply met an air accident over Katanga. Before I led the parliamentary delegation to Zaire in 1990 I had a briefing from Gavshon about the up-to-date evidence in the affair. He was extraordinarily well- informed and those with whom I was able to talk in the former Elisabethville, Lumumbashi, corroborated that all the factual information that Gavshon had given me was true.

This was no more than what Gavshon's many contacts would have expected of him. Not for him easy acceptance of a press release. He was contemptuous of press releases. When I tried to persuade him that he should turn his attention to the sinking of the Argentine cruiser Belgrano during the Falklands war in 1982, I found that he was immensely difficult to persuade because of the deep nature of his probing. Once persuaded, he set about the task of writing The Sinking of the Belgrano with a seriousness of purpose which included bringing in Desmond Rice, an oil executive who had worked in Argentina and had access to vital raw information.

It was this fastidious concern to be accurate along with the fact that his world-wide outlets were not matched by those of any journalist in London which persuaded the most serious people in British public life to give him time. For example, I quote from Richard Crossman's diary of Tuesday 3 February 1970 - Roy Jenkins, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had asked him for lunch and he had forgotten about the invitation:

Curiously I was free but for a rather discreditable reason. I had arranged to lunch with Arthur Gavshon whom I last lunched with a fortnight ago. He had been asking me about the British refusal to condemn CS gas and the trouble we were getting into at the UN. I didn't have to tell him very much, because he knew the whole story and was telling me how vilely Cabinet was behaving.

I had tried to explain why the Cab-

inet was in the right and he had said "This is the kind of story which must be published. It will teach you a lesson. It's impossible that the British Cabinet should behave in this way." I said, "I'm afraid I'm quite convinced that if it is published it will show that Denis Healey is right, not Michael Stewart, because it would be clearly hypocritical for us to make speeches in the UN opposing these gases and then to use them in Northern Ireland."

Arthur told me that he had got this whole story beforehand but now Tam had seen in the Daily Express a sensational story by Chapman Pincher and I knew this must have come from Arthur. I don't think I can deny that by arguing that we were right I had given a little more for his piece and I knew straightaway that there would be trouble. So I cancelled our lunch today and now when Roy leant across [at Cabinet] and asked me to join him I said I could. However it went completely out of my head.

Crossman regarded Gavshon, as did other leading politicians, as his outlet to abroad. Viscount Whitelaw said yesterday: "Arthur Gavshon was a very fair journalist. He listened to what was being said and then made up his mind."

The trust which Gavshon inspired was exemplified by the decision of the white Englishwoman Ruth Williams to take him with her when she went out in 1955 to the then Bechuanaland to be married to the black tribal chief Seretse Khama - in the teeth of world-wide publicity. Gavshon never to my knowledge took advantage of a personal situation for the sake of the story.

The last thing that Gavshon said to me was how thrilled he was to see developments in South Africa which could not have been foreseen when he wrote his (extraordinarily perceptive) book Crisis in Africa: battleground of East and West, published by Penguin in 1981.

Tam Dalyell

Arthur Leslie Gavshon, journalist: born Johannesburg 28 August 1916; London correspondent, Associated Press 1947-70, 1971-76, Diplomatic correspondent, Washington 1970, 1976-77, European diplomatic correspondent 1977-81; married 1954 Audrey Ross (three daughters); died London 24 July 1995.