How would legendary foreign correspondent Clare Hollingworth have reported on the world of Twitter and Trump?

How, for example, would you tweet the start of World War Two? Amid the abuse of social media, how would you convince readers that, yes, the Nazis really are about to invade Poland?

Robert Fisk
Thursday 12 January 2017 17:25 GMT
Clare Hollingworth, who died this week aged 105, pictured in 2009
Clare Hollingworth, who died this week aged 105, pictured in 2009

What would Clare Hollingworth, who died this week, have made of Donald Trump? Or the world of Twitter? Each time one of our breed departs, we predict the end of the foreign correspondent. All of 40 years ago, one of the first radio interviews I endured – for an Irish station, I recall – involved a debate not about the future of our calling but the date of its demise. When television brought us news pictures by satellite, we used to be asked, what was the point of grinding out the words to describe what the world had already seen on screen? Hollingworth’s death at 105, at an age when joy at her final stunning longevity must smother sorrow, will surely set us off on another premature obituary of the job she loved and lived for and which she still wished – almost blind and scarcely able to walk – to enjoy after she had scored her century.

Yet in a strange way, she might have grasped Trump’s dilemma. She knew all about Russian espionage – she broke the story of Kim Philby’s defection, albeit that The Guardian sat on her story for three months. That wouldn’t have happened in the age of the tweet. She was close enough to British diplomats (rather too close, I suspect) to understand how vast political power can be used to destroy statesmen.

Christopher Steele, the author of the spicy Trump sleaze report, would have been the sort of guy Hollingworth might have sought out. He has a Bond-like name and a company called Orbis – the same name, by the way, as the communist Polish travel agency which once organised my trip to Cold War Poland. No connection, of course, and today’s Polish Orbis long ago shook off its communist masters.

Hollingworth would have had some sharp observations on the Trump drama. You’d think, these past few weeks, that the world faced unprecedented and catastrophic dangers after the US election. “Not since the Second World War...” is the tired old cliche I keep hearing. Really? What about the Korean War, or the Vietnam War, during which she was a correspondent, and the Arab-Israeli wars which she also covered? Even Hollingworth’s witness to Second World War, surely, puts the Trump’s nonsense in the shade.

“See you again soon,” we chorused as we took our leave of her in Hong Kong 10 months ago, in a pre-Trump world, the fragile old lady hunched on a sofa in her narrow apartment, filing cabinet drawers still crammed with unopened champagne bottles from past birthdays.

How else do you say goodbye to such an elderly soul? Was I cruel to expect her to recall, yet again, the greatest scoop in the world, spotting the Nazi tanks on the Polish border on the eve of the most titanic war in human history? She did manage to reply to one of my questions: did the British really disbelieve her story until she held her phone out the window so the embassy staff in Warsaw could hear the German tank tracks? “They knew,” she said. “Oh yes, they did.” Her foreign desk at The Daily Telegraph was more sceptical. Oh God, don’t we all know the feeling...

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Oddly, Hollingworth – like me, perhaps – might have felt a strange sympathy for Trump in his present dilemma. For over the decades, I’ve come to regard the American “intelligence community” – clearly no friends of the President-elect – as a bunch of chumps, ill-educated and spooning out the tosh that presidents usually want to read, unable to understand the Middle East after bathing in Israel’s propaganda bath.

The CIA and the FBI, remember, are the patriotic heroes who not only couldn’t predict the collapse of the Soviet Union but utterly failed their nation by ignoring all the evidence of 9/11 before it happened. Then, encouraged by the Israelis, they went along with the blanket of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and helped to propel their country into a disastrous war – which in turn produced the Isis “caliphate”. All this and we’re supposed to take America’s spies seriously?

But sure enough, with the help of the ever supine American media, we’re supposed to forget their miserable record and pretend that the intelligence boys and girls are again all super sleuths who really should be believed when they say Putin is hacking America. In other words, despite his inane contradictions, Trump – who probably is truly crackers – may be treating the US “intelligence community” with the disrespect they deserve. And social media, spitting out their own unsourced stories with the help of CNN and the rest, are playing their own role in this charade.

Yes, if Putin engineered Trump’s election, that’s an international scandal. But here’s what social media and the big American papers and channels aren’t asking about.

Isn’t it also an international scandal when Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, flagrantly intervenes in US politics, encourages Congress to ignore the wishes of President Obama, and allows the Israeli lobby in the United States to bully the country’s political representatives into permitting Israel to go on building colonies for Jews and Jews only on stolen Arab land? Netanyahu played a role in Trump’s election, just as Israeli diplomat Shai Masot in London wanted to “take down” UK politicians who disagreed with Israel’s outrageous policies on the occupied West Bank (and “take down”, by the way, has a far more sinister connotation in Israeli military parlance than merely destroying someone’s reputation). For Masot was also outrageously interfering in Britain’s democracy.

Like Trump, I noticed, he did occasionally tell the truth. And when the Israeli spook described our buffoon of a foreign minister Boris Johnson as “an idiot”, my faith in Israel’s usually hopeless intelligence service was almost restored. However, the media let the Israeli side of the Trump election – and Israel’s interference in the UK’s governance – fall to the wayside. It’s one thing to take on Putin or Trump; quite another to confront Netanyahu.

But back to Hollingworth. Her memory often broke up, like a news broadcast from a faraway country on an old short-wave transistor, fading in and out as we talked, and sometimes she did what so many old people do when asked the same question for the thousandth time: she remembered what she remembered saying last time.

I pressed her on one subject she hadn’t, so far as I know, ever spoken of before: will newspapers survive in the age of the internet? “Newspapers will end up on computer,” she said bleakly. That was the nearest she got to talking about the future of social media.

My interview with Hollingworth was the last story I wrote for The Independent on Sunday, whose last print edition contained her words. In just a few days, I would be filing my reports from the Middle East for The Independent online instead. So was that it? As all corporeal newspapers appear about to collapse around us like soaking wet, irretrievably ruined library books, do we surrender, go gentle into that good night, convince ourselves that new generations will no longer read the tactile printed word any more than we would today seek information from a hand-written, illuminated parchment? And, can a non-print world cope with the Trump?

How, for example, would you tweet the start of World War Two? Amid the abuse of social media, how would you convince readers that, yes, the Nazis really are about to invade Poland? Or – since the “post truth” age of lying permits anyone to deny Hitler’s Holocaust on the grounds that this is a “perspective” – is there any hope of being believed?

Hold a telephone out the window today, and I assure you someone will claim the sound of tank tracks is fake – a lawnmower, perhaps, or the loading of a garbage truck – and that the whole story is a “false flag” operation or that Poland invaded Germany, not the other way round. This is, in fact, exactly what Hitler wanted the world to believe when he ordered his thugs to dress up concentration camp victims in Polish uniforms and scatter their bodies around a German radio station for the inspection of the press.

Goebbels himself thought that Hitchcock’s film Foreign Correspondent – the movie that first inspired me to become a reporter – was a brilliant piece of enemy propaganda. He would have liked YouTube, too, for he could manipulate the pictures, reuse them on different occasions, control their images. And if you filmed the German tanks on your telephone, he’d say it was an old clip from the Spanish civil war.

I think Hitler would have liked the world of blogs and tweets – Trump’s favourite messaging service – and internet hate.

In fact, a lot of the hatred on social media – anonymous, obscene, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, Nazi-like in its fury – does read like the original fascist outpourings of the 1930s. In the Reich, they wouldn’t even need a maximum of 140 characters. “Ein Volk. Ein Reich. Ein Fuehrer.” What a tweet! Only 33 characters. It’s just two letters longer in English.

Trump has nothing on this, even if he does ironically accuse his enemies of acting like “Nazi Germany would have done, and did do”. The point, of course, is that the perfect tweet, like the abuse of social media, is short, preferably unforgettable, aimed at the weakest mind. “Juden Raus!” “Jews Out!” And this vilest of all threats was actually the name of a children’s board-game in Nazi Germany, a tweet for the kids (11 characters).

Sure, it can be used both ways. “Ich bin ein Berliner” was Kennedy’s wonderful defence of democracy (20 characters), or “I am a Berliner” (15 characters), which the US president drew from that proud and ancient boast of “civis romanus sum” (17 characters), “I am a Roman citizen” (20 characters). Caesar’s “Et tu, Brute?” comes in at just 13 characters (in English, “And you, Brutus?” at 16).

But this is piffling stuff when you want to tell the truth. Lincoln’s Gettysberg address (“Four score and seven years ago...”) was criticised at the time for being too short (275 words – too long for a tweet, but a tweet of a speech if ever there was one). The assumption was that you had to develop an argument at length, and by and large this is true. If a soundbite – a vocal tweet-bite, I suppose – is briefly memorable, you need an explanation.

Hence the need for words, sentences, paragraphs. Hollingworth wrote several books – the title of one of them, There’s a German Just Behind Me, (31 characters) is itself a brilliant tweet, but her best is her autobiography, Front Line. So here she is, describing her own flight from the Germans across the countryside of doomed Poland where the only “offering of interest” in a village awaiting the Nazi onslaught was the Orthodox church.

“I sat with my head against the church wall, hearing the chant through the thin planking and gazed across the marshes. The red earth burned through a thin covering of grass. The plain was patched and striped with yellow, russet, olive-green and purple between great clumps of black trees. The sun hung rayless from a burnished sky that made cloud and land blush and gave distinct form to haycocks and cattle. Cold smoke lingered on the horizon.”

This is, in essence, a first-class piece of war reporting. The warning comes in what Noam Chomsky once defined as “foregrounded elements”, the words you don’t expect or which appear wrong, the surprise in almost every sentence. The church is obviously made of wood, the trees are black rather than green, the landscape blushes. But the smoke on this hot September day – the only image of the war – is cold.

And I must say, having typed these words on the screen, that they do not hold the same power as they do on the printed page of the book which I have beside me, and from which I am quoting. The printed word in a book is not there to be clicked through, the paragraphs skipped with a space bar. The word should carry an authority which forbids scientific intrusion. It demands that most elusive and most necessary of all processes: reflection.

Forget social media for a moment, can websites provide the same? It’s easy for me to miss the newspaper I can hold in my hands – but it’s also easy to forget the advantages. How quickly I’ve forgotten the wretched newsdesk phone calls asking me if I can “keep the story down to 600 words” because of extra advertising or fewer pages. Or the most agonising question of all: “Will your piece hold for next week, Bob?”

No longer. Today I can write more freely – look at the length of this article – and I have more readers on the web than I ever had in the printed Independent.

In battle of “fake news” and lies versus some form of objective reflection, I suspect it’s the length of the paragraphs, the stories, the articles that matter.

Whether or not you choose the definition of reporting I’d prefer – to be neutral and objective on the side of those who suffer, rather than the old 50 per cent to each side football match “neutrality” – it’s the time and length you’ve got to explain an argument and provoke that all-important reflection that matters most. That’s why this week’s Trumpery went awry.

Social media, often very unsociable indeed, managed to worm its way into the already cowardly “mainstream” media while the right-wing and pro-Israeli Breitbart and Fox News could suck up to the President-elect and gain his favour. Perspective was there none. Reflection was there none. Even if Trump is incapable of this, it does not excuse us.

Print, website or television screen, it’s the writing that matters.

So here’s a question for you readers at the end of a long article that could probably only appear today – and at such speed – on a website. Which paragraph do you remember? The tweets, the Trumpery, Putin, Netanyahu? Or Hollingworth beside the rural Polish church, listening through the wooden walls to the sound of hymns while the “cold” smoke of war drifted over the horizon?

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