An Unpalatable Truth: The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism
London, 2 June 2011
Thank you all for coming to the 12th annual award of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. Some would say there are too many awards for journalism that merely celebrate the status quo. The Martha Gellhorn Prize is very different. We believe it’s the most prestigious and sought-after award for journalism in Britain because it recognises that the best journalists are subversives – because the truth is so often subversive.
Let me quote in full why we give it: “This prize is in honour of one of the 20th century’s greatest reporters. It’s awarded to a journalist whose work has penetrated the established version of events and told an unpalatable truth. It’s validated by powerful facts that expose establishment propaganda, or ‘official drivel’, as Martha Gellhorn called it.”
Martha Gellhorn, an American who settled in britain, is renowned as a war reporter. She was more than that. As both a reporter and humanitarian she was also a pioneer: one of the first in Vietnam to report what she called “a new kind of war against civilians”: a precursor to the wars of today.
She and I became good friends. All my fellow judges have that in common; we knew Martha and understood what she meant by “official drivel”.
Her phone calls were memorable. She would call me very early in the morning and open up the conversation with one of her favourite expressions – “I smell a rat”.
When George Bush senior invaded Panama in 1990, pursuing his uppity, former CIA buddy General Manuel Noriega as a pretext for controlling the Panam Canal, the media reports made little mention of civilian casualties. My phone rang. “I smell a rat,” said Martha.
The next day she was on a plane to Panama. She was then in her 80s. She went straight to the slums of Panama City, and walked from door to door, interviewing ordinary people. That was her way.
She estimated some 6,000 people dead from the American bombing that had accompanied Bush’s invasion. She then flew to Washington and stood up at a press conference and asked a general: “Why did you kill so many people then lie about it?”
Try to imagine the BBC asking that. That is what we are honouring today. Truth-telling, and guts.
This year is different from previous years. It has been a momentous year in journalism that has forced us to modify the rules, such as each submitted article running to at least 1500 words. For the first time, we have gone to the internet and searched for work you are unlikely to read in a newspaper. The choice was amazing. For this reason we are giving a Martha Gellhorn Special Award.
There are the three finalists for the Special Award. They are Umar Cheema, who writes for the website The News International in Pakistan. His work exposing official corruption is simply astonishing. Let me give you a flavour. Here is the first paragraph to one of his pieces:
ISLAMABAD: An officer convicted by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) of financial and economic crimes for 14 years has been appointed head of the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) Economic Crime Wing (ECW) by the PPP government after his crime record was concealed during the promotion process [because] he is a friend of President Asif Ali Zardari.
Imagine writing that in Pakistan, a country in turmoil. Umar Cheema has been harassed and tortured. On Tuesday, the body of another courageous Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad was found, murdered. Umar was due to fly to London to be with us today, but the British High Commission in Pakistan refused to expedite his visa within 12 days of his application – knowing that we wanted to honour him. A disgrace.
The second finalist for the Special Award is Charles Clover of the Financial Times. What impressed us was his powerful investigation into far-right gangs in Russia and their links to the government. This was brave, tenacious and meticulous work. The third Special Award finalist is Jonathan Cook, who is based in Nazareth. I have been reading Honathan’s work on the internet for years. On Palestine and Israel, I can think of no more reliable source. His de-coding of propaganda and analysis is so good, so consistent, it is always bracing.
Jonathan Cook and Charles Charles Clover, together with Umar Cheema, are the winners. It was impossible to choose. Each of you receives a cheque for £2000.
I mentioned that this was a momentous year for journalism. A revolution is taking place: a revolution in information that threatens old power orders, in politics and journalism. WikiLeaks is at the forefront of this revolution.
When he founded WikiLeaks in 2006, Julian Assange wrote, “The goal is justice, the method is transparency.” This moral dimension of truth-telling and justice has been largely ignored, and WikiLeaks has been portrayed as a phenomenon of the hi-tech age, which it is. But it is much more. It reveals what our politicians say in private, and how they lie in public. It tells us how wars begin and how innocent men, women and children are killed and maimed in faraway places, in our name.
This information is precious for it not only informs; it empowers people rising up in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia and Palestine.
In 2008, when he was running for president, Barack Obama, said: “Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal.” As president, Obama has pursued and prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other US president. Bradley Manning for one.
And this prize-giving occasion pays tribute to the heroism of that young man.
Julian Assange is an editor, publisher and journalist in the oldest and finest tradition of our craft. He is brave. He is a true agent of people; and I should say that those who dismiss him a hacker merely betray themselves as hacks.
WikiLeaks has given the public more scoops and more truth than most journalists could imagine: certainly more than those who police the perimeters of the mainstream media, who indulge in a censorship by omission and who understandably feel threatened by Assange and WikiLeaks, whose independence and achievements stand in vivid contrast to their own.
In March 2008, a Pentagon secret document made clear its plans to destroy trust in WikiLeaks. Criminalising and smear would be the methods. One of the ways of fabricating a charge against Julian Assange in Washington is to somehow prove he is not a journalist and is therefore not protected by the First Amendment. We judges were unanimous. The award of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism repudiates that slur; above all, it honours a remarkable recipient.
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