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RIP Clare Hollingworth

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I woke today to the news that we lost another great: Clare Hollingworth, war correspondent extraordinaire. Hollingworth is best known for her WWII scoop (see today’s many tributes)—but I’m also fascinated by her work in Algeria during its War for Independence from the French.

According to the Guardian’s obituary:

By the early 60s she was living in Algiers for months at a time and survived the ransacking of her hotel bedroom by OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) terrorists who objected to what she was writing. On another occasion she held off a gang of OAS gunmen with nothing more than an imperious threat to use her shoe.

Tom Pocock’s recollections of meeting her in Algiers in 1962 include further details of her willingness to leave the European sectors of the city and walk around the Casbah—”They might throw a brick at you because you’re a man. They’d only throw slops at me.”—and her close contacts with Algerian nationalist (FLN) leaders. Hollingworth’s Algerian connections and comprehensive coverage of the nationalist cause carried extra weight in a conflict whose resolution came not from military loss but from the unwillingness of the French population to support the war (particularly after revelations about government use of torture).

As an historian, I’m particularly indebted to those journalists who offer us that “first draft of history.” I also recognize our shared commitment to witnessing. We all need the people who go to the front lines;we need their recounting and their analysis. Without their reports, without those who seek out the bystanders and the actors and the victims, we don’t have paths to justice or to changing what needs to be changed. The best journalists are often the first to diagnose our ills.

But they’re only the first step—because then it’s our responsibility to listen. And once we’ve heard, we need to think and we need to act. War correspondents have been vital to our understandings of wars. From Hollingworth’s realization that Hitler was indeed invading Poland to the revelations of Bosnia’s concentration camps, dedicated journalists have forced us to see the things we desperately wanted to ignore. That power may have waned in recent decades—certainly we seem able to hear all manner of horrific tales from Syria without being moved to action (granted, figuring out a correct course of action at this point is terribly murky).

Heather Schwedel, over at Slate, gets at the core of this:

Clare Hollingworth was hailed as a hero for breaking the story that Germany was invading Poland. Today, would anyone believe her? Would half the world believe her and the other half ignore her? Would she even be able to get the scoop in the first place, when most news organizations don’t have foreign correspondents anymore? Journalists admire Clare Hollingworth, but no one gets to be Clare Hollingworth anymore. Barely anyone got to be like her the first time around, either: Hollingworth was one of only a few female war correspondents, and she spent much as her career toiling as a stringer, a situation that modern journalists will have a much easier time relating to. Still, her example is one that should be held up. Not content to be confined to an office or press pool, Hollingworth never stopped wanting to go where the action was.

Of course, discounting journalism is hardly unique to our time. Hollingworth told the Telegraph in 2011:

“My mother thought journalism frightfully low, like a trade…She didn’t believe anything journalists wrote and thought they were only fit for the tradesmen’s entrance.”

Moreover, it took quite awhile for news reports about Nazi military plans, later revelations about the Holocaust, and the stories of atrocities in Sarajevo in the 1990s to move governments and populations to direct action.

But that’s no reason for journalists to stop chasing down the facts and sending them to us—and it’s all the more reason that we need to be listening carefully. In a time when truth is being undervalued, the media are under attack, and who-knows-what major policy shifts are on the horizon, it’s worth remembering that a lot of important activism is rooted in access to good information. After all, before Hollingworth became one of the most famous war correspondents of the twentieth century, she was organizing peace petitions for the Labour Party in Leicester.

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