Claud Cockburn: Pioneer of The Mainstream Media


Conservatives today locate the origins of the “mainstream media” in the Watergate and Vietnam era; when every reporter since has wanted to have the presidency-toppling effect of a Woodward and Bernstein. But from Watergate on, the presidencies that reporters have wanted toppled have been exclusively Republican ones.

Much of this partisanship had to do with the inclusion of New Leftist ideologues, ironically once anti-establishment toward the press, burrowing into the profession and the academia that trains future journalists.

Conservatives are certainly correct that the profession today is dominated by leftists who never left the late sixties, where objectivity was an obstacle to their political goals and thus jettisoned; and these propaganda techniques continue today by the journalists who leftist academics indoctrinate as college students.

But conservatives are off the mark as to when the mainstream media came into being. It wasn’t an after-effect of the Vietnam era; but rather, it emerged thirty years before in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). This conflict pitted a legally-elected Soviet-funded leftist government against a military rebellion headed by General Francisco Franco, who in turn was funded by Adolf Hitler.

George Orwell, who fought on the Loyalist side during the conflict, located the emergence of this new mainstream media in Loyalist Spain. Of what was for him a new journalistic entity, Orwell wrote:

“History stopped in 1936…in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.”

Not only did Orwell attack journalists for echoing the Communist Party assertion that “troops who had fault bravely [were]…cowards and traitors,” but also in their reportage of “great battles…where there had been one.”

As such, Orwell originated the comment used today by conservatives by recording his experience of seeing “history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines.'”

But despite the plethora of journalists doing this, he singled out one in particular. It wasn’t Martha Gellhorn (who was up front about her intention to write biased stories by stating “F-ck objectivity”) or her then-lover Ernest Hemingway who defended the charges by the Stalinist secret police (after Spain, he sought a relationship with the Soviet secret police) that those executed were “fascist spies” that compelled Orwell to blow the whistle on such lies in his low-selling expose, Homage To Catalonia (1938).

Instead, Orwell focused his ire on a dodgy British Communist-agitprop merchant named Claud Cockburn.

Today, Cockburn has been lauded as the “greatest radical journalist of all time” (as stated in a New York Times obituary); a fearless reporter whose means (relying on unconfirmed rumors and gossip) justified his ends (outing the pro-Hitler sympathies of the British upper class) in the 1930s.

But even this revealed Cockburn’s love of propaganda over investigative journalism; for by and large the pro-Hitler upper class was upfront about their Hitler sympathies, and thus these beliefs could have been easily and objectively reported by Cockburn.

To his credit, Cockburn never disguised his pro-Stalinism. In his autobiography, written thirty years after Spain, he refused to directly condemn Stalin for Soviet repressions or the dictator’s 1939 military partnership with Hitler, whose joint invasion of Poland from the East by the Soviets and the Nazis from the West started World War II. Cockburn was so radical that he wanted to write his Daily Worker column about the Spanish Civil War under his own name rather than the pseudonym “Frank Pitcairn.”

Nevertheless, Cockburn exemplified partisan journalism which peddled the Manichean pro-Soviet propaganda of the Civil War being about “heroic democrats” battling “fascists” (in addition to military hardware, Hitler also supplied Franco with Luftwaffe pilots).

In this capacity, Cockburn invented whole cloth an imaginary battle that horrified Orwell.

He fulfilled the orders given to him by Communists to write up an “eyewitness” account of a battle that never took place in which Franco’s loyal Moors engaged in an enormous revolt against the general. Cockburn tried to ‘authenticate’ this report with street names and buildings where the fictitious battle took place.

It should be said that this fiction was designed to get needed arms for the Loyalists from their other benefactor, France. Cockburn’s “mutiny” convinced the French that the Franco troops situated on France’s border were weak, and thus sent guns previously stalled to the Loyalists.

Such an imaginary tactic was justified by Cockburn in his 1967 biography as the very type of necessary disinformation used by British intelligence during World War II.

This comparison was appropriate as Cockburn was more than a mere journalist, and in fact served as a spy for the Soviets. Cockburn was associated with a Soviet spy masquerading as a journalist named Mikhail Koltsov, who Cockburn tellingly called the “confidant and mouthpiece and direct agent of Stalin in Spain.”

As such, Koltsov was a doctrinaire opponent of honest reporting, once castigating the inconveniently honest journalist Louis Fischer’s factual reporting as having “done more harm than thirty British M.P. working for Franco. You, as the French say, have lost an excellent opportunity to keep your mouth shut.”

Cockburn echoed these demands for journalistic silence on any inconvenient facts for the good of the Loyalist cause. Regarding the pro-Loyalist poet W.H. Auden, Cockburn wanted him to blindly follow such orders:

“What we really wanted him for was go to the front, write some pieces saying hurrah for the Republic, and then go way and write some poems, also saying hurrah for the Republic.”

To further fulfill such demands required Cockburn to invent a fictitious “fascist fifth column” revolt by the POUM, the military unit his hated George Orwell belonged to in order to justify the mass arrests of these “traitors” against the Loyalist government. In camouflaging what was in essence an attempted frame-up and execution by Stalin on the lines of his murderous Purge Trials, Cockburn had to do a balancing act of both showing the traitorous intent of these “fascists” as well as how unpopular they were with the “anti-fascist” populace of Spain. He did so with obvious contradictory statements, claiming that these “traitors” both seized a large amount of arms by which to overthrow the Loyalist government, while at the same time representing a minuscule portion of a population who supported the arrests en masse.

But unfortunately for Cockburn, Orwell witnessed the bravery and authentic anti-fascism of those he shared the front-line battles with, and hence knew were unworthy of arrest and execution; in addition, Orwell, while on leave, witnessed the “street battles,” and invalidated Cockburn’s propaganda by showing there was no large amount of arms seized by the POUM, and that it was the Stalinists who instigated the battle.

Worse, with one example, he exposed the Stalinist arrests of his comrades on trumped-up charges followed by necessary “anti-fascist” executions with the fate of Bob Smille; a 22-year old Englishman who shared a trench with Orwell and risked his life in several battles against Franco’s troops.

Hence Orwell knew Smille’s arrest by the Stalinists was a frame-up, and learned that Smille’s supposed death from appendicitis while in Stalinist custody was a lie; in reality, Smille died from brutal kicks to his stomach from his captors.

Cockburn, by his example, not only transformed Orwell, from an anti-Stalinist figure willing to put his sentiments on hold for the good of the Republic (Orwell initially agreed with the Party line that the war must be won first before a revolution could be carried out and tried to join the Stalinist-controlled International Brigades right before the POUM repression), but also affected literary history as well.

For Cockburn’s falsifying history furnished, along the police state heresy hunts in Spain, the raw materials for Orwell’s interpretation of Big Brother.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

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