A brave reporter and the scoop of the century
In her first week as a reporter, Clare Hollingworth got the ‘scoop of the century’: world war two had arrived. She went on to report from many more war zones. Is courage our greatest virtue?
In the final week of August 1939, Clare Hollingworth had just started a new job in Poland as a junior reporter for The Daily Telegraph. The border into Germany was closed. But she borrowed a car with a British flag and was waved through by security for ‘a day’s shopping’. She had ‘a lovely lunch in Gleiwitz … a delicious bottle of German wine,’ she recalled later. ‘And I saw, hidden behind some hessian, rows and rows of German tanks.’
The story — ‘1,000 tanks massed on Polish frontier’ — heralded the beginning of the second world war. When it began in earnest on September 1st, she was woken in Poland by the sound of anti-aircraft fire. She called the British embassy. ‘The war has begun,’ she told them.
They did not believe her. ‘Are you sure, old girl?’
She held the telephone out of the window. ‘Listen! Can’t you hear it?’
It was the start of an illustrious career as one of the bravest and most celebrated war correspondents of the 20th century. She was rarely far from the front lines: she narrowly escaped death in Jerusalem in 1946; she went to Vietnam in 1972, where she was one of the first to predict America’s failure; in 1989, she watched the violence unfold in China’s Tiananmen Square from her hotel window.
‘If you put me in a rickety lift, I’d be terrified,’ she once said. ‘It’s just that I don’t feel frightened under machine-gun fire. The excitement of the job overcomes it.’
She died on Tuesday, aged 105. But even in retirement, she kept her shoes and passport by her bed, just in case she was called to a story.
Today, reporting on war zones is more dangerous than ever. Journalists were once relatively well protected by their occupation. But lately it has turned them into a target. Over 100 journalists have been killed in Syria since the civil war began. Many more have been kidnapped or injured.
And yet for the right person, the job is intoxicating. When asked where she would like to travel next, Hollingworth replied with a simple question: ‘Where’s the most dangerous place to go?’
A brave front
That kind of courage is madness, say more cautious observers. No story is worth risking your life for, especially when it is easier than ever to keep in touch with locals through Skype or social media. As someone once said: ‘The line between bravery and stupidity is so thin that you don’t know you’ve crossed it until you’re dead.’
This is a coward’s response, say others. Courage is what makes us human and pushes us all forward. What would we be without it? Most admirable of all are the brave journalists like Hollingworth who risk everything in pursuit of the truth. The fact that so many still do so, despite everything, is a testament to human nature.
- Would you like to be a war correspondent?
- Is there a difference between bravery and stupidity?
- Make a list of the three personal qualities you think most important in life. Does it include courage?
- Write your own news report on the outbreak of the second world war, as if you had been there at the time.
Some People Say...
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”Anaïs Nin
What do you think?
Q & A
- Journalism has changed so much, does her story still matter?
- You’re right; technology has changed the industry in a big way. (In 2017, satellites would have noticed the German tanks regardless of hessian curtains.) But there is still value in going to an area and seeing things first hand. And reflecting on Hollingworth’s daring escapades reminds us of the very real risks that journalists are taking in current conflicts.
- Did she have any other big scoops?
- Yes — she would often be irritated that she was only remembered for her first. In 1963 she correctly identified the ‘third man’ in a British spy ring for the Soviet Union. She was also the first and last person to interview the Shah of Persia (now Iran) — he requested her specifically after he was ousted in a revolution in 1979.
- A rough, woven fabric. The material was covering a valley on the Polish border where German troops were waiting to invade — a simple but (almost) effective stealth tactic.
- Second world war
- Nazi Germany began the invasion of Poland on September 1st. War was declared by Britain and its Allies two days later.
- Hollingworth was standing just a few hundred yards from the King David Hotel when it was bombed by a militant Jewish group, killing 91 people.
- America’s war with North Vietnam lasted from 1965 to 1975. Hollingworth predicted early on that America could not win with air power alone; she was right.
- Tiananmen Square
- She was almost 80 at this point, but still loved to be in the action; she would often sleep on the floor of her room just to stay tough, even in her 90s.
- 100 journalists
- According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 107 have died in Syria. The most recent was Mohsen Khazaei, from Iran, killed on November 12th.
- One of the most infamous examples is James Foley, an American reporter who was beheaded by Islamic State.