02 June 2005

Waugh Reporting from Abyssinia, 1935-36

Nothing that the correspondents imagined about covering the [second Italian] war in Abyssinia could match the hilarious reality. When Scoop, Evelyn Waugh's irreverent novel of Fleet Street and the hectic pursuit of hot news in "Ishmaelia" by the newly appointed war correspondent William Boot, was published in 1938, it was hailed as a "brilliant parody" of his experiences in Abyssinia. What only the war correspondents present at the time knew was that Scoop was actually a piece of straight reportage, thinly disguised as a novel to protect the author from libel actions....

Unfortunately, the patronage of even the Emperor [Haile Selassie] himself was of no help in getting any real news. As [Daily Express correspondent O. D.] Gallagher noted, "a reporter who cannot speak the language of the country he is working in can never get at the facts because he is completely at the mercy of either his interpreter or the official handouts. Not one correspondent in Addis spoke Amharic except a Lithuanian, who was general assistant to Jim Mills of Associated Press. The rest of us had to rely on what our Abyssinian interpreters told us in their poor English or on official handouts."

The interpreters/assistants/personal spies, as they were variously called, were cashing in on their ability to speak English and on the strength of their salesmanship. Waugh secretly employed an Abyssinian called Wazir Ali Bey, until, so he said, he found that Ali Bey was also secretly employed by nearly every other correspondent in the capital. It was no use for a correspondent to decide to dispense with an assistant and set out to find news for himself. For one thing, there was the language problem, and, still more important, the Emperor refused to allow the correspondents to leave Addis Ababa, claiming, probably with reason, that, since his tribesmen could not distinguish between an Italian and any other European, he could not be responsible for their safety. He also no doubt suspected that some of the correspondents might well be spies....

The clampdown on news from the Italian army coincided with the flush of invented stories from Addis Ababa. Since an invented story, unhampered by facts, makes more exciting reading than a heavily censored account of a minor engagement, newspapers plumped for the stories from Addis Ababa, and thus created a false impression of what was happening in Abyssinia.

Towns formerly held by the Italians were reported captured. Casualty figures were grossly exaggerated. [Herbert] Matthews has said he tried to tell the New York Times that lurid accounts from Addis Ababa should be treated with the utmost caution, but no one in New York appeared to pay any attention to this warning. What Matthews was up against, of course, was that the truth, that the Abyssinians stood no chance against the Italians' mechanised army, was unpalatable; sympathy suspended the reader's critical judgement, and he preferred optimistic but fake reports from Abyssinia to more factual reports from correspondents with the Italian army. Editors were not slow to sense this. "The commands of Fleet Street became more and more fantastically inappropriate to the situation," Evelyn Waugh wrote. And as Wazir Ali Bey, the most active of the interpreter-assistants in Addis Ababa, retailed reports of more and more clashes in which the Italians suffered heavy casualties, "Wazir Ali Bey's news service formed an ever-increasing part of the morning reading of French, English and American newspaper publics."
SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley, with an introduction by John Pilger (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), pp. 187, 189, 193-194

Compare Inside the Information Bubble during the Ethiopian Famine, an excerpt from Robert Kaplan's Surrender or Starve (Vintage, 2003).

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