The salacious demolition job on Martha Gellhorn cannot obscure a remarkable human being

16 April 2001

The other day, the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism was awarded in honour of the great American reporter who lived in this country until she died three years ago. Gellhorn adhered to no consensus of the kind that shapes and distorts so much journalism. She regarded governments, indeed all authority, as her professional enemies, and their propaganda as "official drivel".

Almost 20 years ago, during the miners' strike, the sprightly 75-year-old reporter got into her car and drove into the Welsh valleys. Most of the media were then concentrating on miners' violence on the picket line, which echoed Thatcher's "enemy within". She phoned me from a call box in Newbridge. "Listen," she said, "you ought to see what the police are doing here. They're surrounding villages at night and beating the hell out of people. Why isn't that being reported?" I suggested she report it. "I've done it," she replied.

That's why the Martha Gellhorn Prize is different. Too many awards these days go to top-of-the-head windbags; few are won by truly independent reporters who bother to go and find out, and who are as subversive in their attitude to power and authority as she was. Jeremy Harding, this year's winner, is one such reporter. The author of a brilliant article in the London Review of Books, entitled "The Uninvited", he conducted a painstaking investigation into those vilified as a threat by sections of the (award-winning) media: refugees and asylum-seekers. He traced the refugees' journey and he dismantled stereotypes. The runner-up was Linda Melvern, who revealed, in the Observer, the culpable role of the United Nations in the Rwanda genocide. A special commendation went to Don Hale, the editor of the Matlock Mercury, who almost single-handedly got Stephen Downing out of prison where he spent 27 years for a murder he did not commit. As one of the judges of the Gellhorn Prize, I relished the task of honouring some of the best journalism in the name of one of the very best.

Last week, the Sunday Times magazine published another kind of journalism, or anti-journalism. This was a character assassination of Gellhorn by a former fashion writer called Georgina Howell. So much of it, promoted as "the untold story" of Martha, was a distortion of her life or simply wrong. Martha's brother, Dr Alfred Gellhorn, describes it as a "fictional account of Martha's life by someone who clearly did not like her". Howell claimed to base her piece on a new biography by an American, Carl Rollyson, whose original manuscript drew a 25-page rebuttal from Martha herself. He waited until she could not answer back. In the Howell piece, his assertions and those of the Sunday Times are impossible to distinguish. You get a flavour from the front page and cover headlines, which claimed that the writer H G Wells was Martha's lover and that her husband, Ernest Hemingway, tried to kill her. Neither claim is supported by even the article itself.

According to Howell, Martha's marriages were "never for the right reasons". She developed "the dislike of people that overcame her in recent life". She "did not enjoy sex", and "her sexuality was separate from love, almost all her life". "It is hard to believe," wrote Howell, "that she can have liked herself very much". She "collected scalps" and was obsessed with finding ways "to pay for her privileged life". The clear inference is that she used sex to promote her career. None of this is supported by a shred of evidence. Howell did not speak to any members of Martha's family or to her friends. Yet she can read the minds of the dead. She wrote that Martha "did not want to be her mother's daughter". The opposite was true. Dr Gellhorn says his sister was immensely proud of and close to their mother, a famous women's rights campaigner. The main "untold story" is her marriage to Hemingway, in which Martha is represented by the Sunday Times as an uncaring shrew and Hemingway almost as a victim, rather than the deeply disturbed individual who conducted a monstrous public campaign aimed at humiliating her and who later killed himself.

Her stepson, Dr Alexander Mathews, says: "Martha comes across as a promiscuous bag lady who deep down hated humanity. She was anything but. She loved and respected especially those who were active in making the world a better place. We knew her as a vibrant, intelligent, brave, funny, witty, warm human being." As her friend of 30 years, I can substantiate that.

With faint praise, Howell acknowledges Martha's legendary bravery: that she went to front lines where women were banned, often showing the kind of initiative that marks truly great reporters. She was at the front in the Spanish civil war; she followed the troops to Normandy in June 1944. She was one of the first to enter the death camp at Dachau, where her words were like bullets from the heart. She was among the first to identify the Vietnam atrocity as "a new kind of war" against civilians. "Is this an honourable way," she wrote, "for a great nation to fight a war 8,000 miles from its safe homeland?" For this, the American press suppressed her articles and the US military saw to it that she was banned from south Vietnam. She was too dangerous. She was a truthful witness on the side of the underdog.

The problem that Martha Gellhorn still presents to the jealous, the envious and the scandal-mongers is that she was brave, beautiful and clever, and she passionately held political principles that never went cold. Worse, she was a woman, who was decades ahead of her time in pushing the boundaries of her gender. Salacious demolition jobs on remarkable human beings after their death are not new; and they are as craven as ever.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library