Her name has dropped out of history but, in her day, she was called a ‘breast-beating Boadicea’, ‘the Florence Nightingale of the wounded Tory intellect’. In the 1930s and 1940s, Dorothy Thompson was as well known as Walter Lippmann, and their columns ran on alternate days in the New York Herald Tribune.
After she interviewed Adolf Hitler in 1931, Thompson wrote ‘that unless things change radically, there will be war in Europe before the decade is out’. On a return trip in 1934, she was the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany for ‘the crime of blasphemy’, probably a sensible move as she was prescient about the Nazi madness, predicting that Czechoslovakia would fall after Austria and that Poland would follow. Unlike her fellow scribes, she predicted the Hitler-Stalin pact.
And she was a heroine of mine. I still have my copy of Let the Record Speak, columns she wrote between 1936 and 1939, that my grandmother gave me when I got an after-school job on my small-town newspaper. In those days, we believed that news-papers were the spinal column of democracy and that a community had only as much dignity and goodness as its local paper.
Although she died (in 1961) before my meagre newspaper career began, Thompson became my inspiration. Daughter of an English-born Methodist preacher, she doggedly worked her way to the top. In 1939, in England to address the House of Commons, she had lunch with Nancy Astor, dinner with H. G. Wells, went to the movies with Anthony Eden and spent the weekend with Winston Churchill. Not only was she one of the loudest voices attacking Hitler, her syndicated column had seven million readers.
Somewhere along the way however, my own brilliant career stalled. After a promising start -for two years in my twenties, I edited a weekly called The Molly McGuire whose main purpose was to oppose the war in Vietnam -I wandered off course. I didn’t become a foreign correspondent or an intrepid muckraker, but, as I watched the New York Times risk all by publishing the Pentagon Papers and the Washington Post take on Watergate, I still believed that the press was in the vanguard in the fight for truth and justice.
Those heady memories came back to me last Sunday night as I watched the blurry News of the World video showing the Duchess of York selling access to her former husband. I’d give anything not to have seen it. Even if Sarah Ferguson devotes the rest of her life to caring for lepers in the Sudan, those images will remain: the wine bottle, the cigarette, the ‘bring it on’ gesture with her hand as she sells her soul for half a million pounds. But my sick feeling isn’t because she betrayed the Royal Family. I feel wretched because this is what our newspapers have come to. More cheap and squalid than anything the Duchess agreed to is the whole nauseating set-up, because entrapment is as sleazy as journalism can get.
The News of the World-and The Times-is owned by Rupert Murdoch, a republican who believes that anything that heaps disgrace on the Royals is fair game. But entrapment is a long way from the honourable tradition of investigative journalism. It crosses the line of elemental decency. Stories like the one about the Duchess don’t just demean her and, by association, the Royal Family. They demean the newspaper that set it up and the newspapers that carry it. Ultimately, it demeans us
the readers. When newspapers become cheap propagandists, they betray their readers.
I always loved the image of Thompson writing in bed, chain-smoking Camels. I wish I’d had her nerves and intelligence. And her prescience. I think if she read this story, she’d predict another fatal pact: that between newspapers and the devil.
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