‘Believe nothing until it has been officially denied’
Claud Cockburn was a Marxist and a journalist whom some have called the father of investigative journalism. To British politicians, pursuing appeasement with the European dictators in the 1930s, he was a considerable thorn in their flesh. Cockburn was brave, often funny and incredibly resourceful.
Claud Cockburn was born in Peking (now Beijing) where his father was a British diplomat. Back home, he was educated at Berkhamsted School (where the later novelist Graham Greene was a fellow pupil) and Keeble College, Oxford. Three years at The Times (1929-1932) were followed by many years contributing to the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker under the pen name Frank Pitcairn and, under this guise, he covered the Spanish Civil War.
After the war, he moved to Ireland where he appeared in the columns of The Irish Times, amongst many other newspapers and periodicals. Cockburn wrote several books, most notably the novel Beat the Devil which was later filmed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart. Later, he became a regular contributor to Private Eye. He was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
When I wrote my novel The Blue Pencil in 2012, Cockburn was one of the central characters.
The novel is set in the ‘appeasement years’ (1936-1939) and focusses on the efforts of a young journalist Roger Martin to expose the National Government’s efforts to control the media and quash anti-fascist truths for fear of offending Hitler and Mussolini. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who was desperate to avoid a second great Twentieth Century war, was the chief architect of appeasement. In this he was aided and abetted by several journals including The Times and The Daily Mail. Newspapers which attempted to draw attention to the real situation in Nazi Germany were excluded from Downing Street press briefings and their journalists were threatened with, and occasionally suffered, physical violence.
Roger Martin’s chief ally in the battle against this censorship was Claud Cockburn. In 1931 Cockburn began publishing a news sheet The Week which told readers the stories most of the mainstream press didn’t print, under threat from the government. By the mid 1930s, the main focus of The Week was on the government’s relationships with the European dictators and Cockburn found himself often receiving hot information from writers employed by national and evening dailies that the owners of these newspapers refused to print. The Week, printed on a Gestetner machine in a small office in Victoria, became the chief source of real, as opposed to, fake news.
By the time Roger Martin had become a close friend and ally of Cockburn in the months leading to the outbreak of war, the renegade news sheet publisher was seen, by the establishment, as a threat to national security and was closely watched and harassed by MI5 and Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. The Week was frequently threatened with suspension. The virulently anti-Nazi Foreign Office mandarin Robert Vansittart was also a valuable source of intelligence
In The Blue Pencil, Roger Martin uncovers a plot to appease Hitler based at Cliveden, the country home of Tory MP Lady Astor and her husband, the owner of The Observer newspaper. Frequent visitors to Cliveden included Geoffrey Dawson, Editor of The Times, British war time Prime Minister Lloyd George’s former Private Secretary Lord Lothian, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and other pro-German members of the British establishment. The one-time German Ambassador to the UK, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was sometimes seen there. Cockburn exposed this ‘Cliveden Set’ , along with Reynolds News,’ and Roger Martin uncovered further treasonous activities emanating from the Berkshire Mansion.
Cockburn also makes a brief, but very significant, appearance in my third novel The Summer of ’39 which takes the story from the end of appeasement to the start of the Second World War. The UK is blessed with an absence of media censorship but its possible believe that Cockburn’s presence during today’s febrile political shenanigans would have made life even more interesting.