HMS Erebus: Pulitzer winner Paul Watson quits Toronto Star over Canadian Prime Minister 'cover-up' of British shipwreck

The award-winning Watson resigned from the Toronto Post over what he claimed was its 'refusal to publish a story of significant public interest'

Adam Sherwin
Thursday 09 July 2015 20:07
HMS ‘Erebus’ and HMS ‘Terror’ were used in Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to discover the North-west Passage in 1845
HMS ‘Erebus’ and HMS ‘Terror’ were used in Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to discover the North-west Passage in 1845

Even the Pulitzer winning journalist Paul Watson accepts that the fate of two 19th century British explorer ships might appear obscure grounds upon which to go to war with your employers and accuse the Canadian Prime Minister of a cover-up.

But an obsession with the wreck of the HMS Erebus, and a doomed Arctic expedition which has inspired poets and novelists for 170 years, prompted Watson to quit his newspaper job amid a hail of counter-claims and conspiracy theories that stretch to President Putin’s imperial ambitions.

The award-winning Watson resigned from the Toronto Star over what he claimed was its “refusal to publish a story of significant public interest.”

Watson is determined to tell readers the truth behind a search expedition, backed by Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, to discover the HMS Erebus, which alongside HMS Terror, set sail in 1845 on an expedition headed by the explorer Sir John Franklin to traverse the Northwest Passage.

Both vessels succumbed to the Arctic ice and vanished in the late 1840s with all 129 passengers lost. It is suspected that some may have resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.

The ships’ murky fate has earned mentions in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne.

Watson, who won a breaking news photography Pulitzer in 1994 for a photo of a dead US soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu during the civil war in Somalia, joined the Canadian search expedition last year, which discovered the well-preserved shipwreck of the Erebus, near King William Island, about 1,200 miles northwest of Toronto. The ship's bronze bell was recovered by divers.

Watson, who had been on the lead exploration ship, the icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, argued that official accounts of the discovery were “distorted and inaccurate”.

He claims to have been repeatedly frustrated from telling his version of events by the Star, blaming a person close to the Prime Minister’s office, who has influence at the paper.

Back home, statues were erected to honour Sir John Franklin

The journalist, a winner of five Canadian journalism awards, quit after editors placed him under a “six week reporting ban” and finally told him it was not a story the Star wished to “engage in.”

Watson said he wanted to give voice to federal civil servants who were annoyed that their leading role in the discovery of the wreck, which had eluded generations of search parties, had been written out of a version of events promoted by Mr Harper and an official documentary film of the expedition.

In a blog, he wrote that “a quarrel over the search for two ships that sank in the middle of the 19th century probably doesn't strike people as the best reason to turn your back on a six-figure salary and walk the plank.”

Watson, who has covered conflicts in Somalia and Kosovo, continued: “I’ve lost track of the times I was nearly killed because I knew I had to give a bigger voice to frightened, intimidated people who couldn't stand up to power on their own... I decided to sacrifice my livelihood for the truth". It was time to “stand up for the people being silenced and give them voice”.

Asked by the Canadaland website if the official “feel good” version of events was linked to “Harper’s claim of Arctic sovereignty in conflict with Putin, with Russia, over vast natural energy resources which are thought to lie underneath the ice,” Watson replied: “Right” but added “I don’t want to fall into the trap of spinning conspiracy theories.”

Watson named John Geiger, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s CEO and a former editorial board director of the Globe and Mail, who took part in the expedition and has been accused of taking inflated credit for the discovery, as a central figure in the suppression of his story.

Geiger travelled on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a Russian flagged civilian vessel given prominence in the official film of the search, although Watson maintains the Laurier played the lead role.

“I do know that he (Geiger) has access to the Prime Minister’s office. I do know that he’s been photographed in close situations around campfires in the Arctic with Stephen Harper,” said Watson, who criticised the award this week of a Polar Medal to Geiger for his role in the discovery.

Freed from the Toronto Star, Mr Watson promises to tell his full story. His contention appears to be that Government partners, including the Government of Nunavut, the Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Canadian Coast Guard have been depicted as as supporting players to the Geographical Society and the Vavilov, when they had actually provided the expertise and leadership for the expedition.

Mr Harper hailed the shipwreck find as a “historic moment” in his battle to assert Canada’s “Arctic sovereignty” in the face of US insistence that the Northwest Passage is an “international strait.”

John Cruickshank, The Star’s publisher, said there was “no truth whatever” to Watson's suggestion that the Star had constrained his reporting or “refused to publish a story of significant public interest.”

Watson admits even he doesn’t know the full story – but when he was told to drop it, he was convinced somebody had something to hide. “Everyone says, I don’t really get this,” he said in an interview. “I don’t get this, either. But if you pull enough threads, it’ll start to unravel.”

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

Commanded by British naval explorer Sir John Franklin, HMS Erebus – named after a region of Hades in Greek mythology – and sister ship the Terror, set sail on a mission to open up the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage on May 8, 1845.

The prize was a route around the frozen north of Canada to the Indies that would avoided patrolling French, Dutch and Spanish ships.

Manned with 128 hand-picked officers, the vessels were last spotted entering Baffin Bay. It is believed they became trapped in Arctic ice near King William Island.

The crew abandoned ship in a desperate attempt to find safety. Some succumbed to cannibalism with Inuit legend telling of “white men who were starving" as late as the winter of 1850.

Franklin’s fame as an Arctic explorer prompted the admiralty to send the first of several search parties. Songs were written about Franklin and statues erected to an explorer who remained a Victorian hero despite the loss.

A 1980s expedition found evidence that the crew died from a number of causes, including hypothermia, scurvy, and starvation while trying to trek overland to the south.

Under Prime Minister Harper, Canada has reasserted its claim over the Northwest Passage which has opened up the trade route to Asia sought after by Franklin. Canada must be ready to respond to any Russian incursions into the region, he warned.

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