The foreign correspondent: James Cameron, 1911-85

A voice of wry observation and quiet authority that made humane sense of distant events to a domestic public helped James Cameron become the most respected international journalist in post-1945 Britain. But is there room for his world-reporting craft in a very different media age, asks David Hayes.
David Hayes
17 June 2011

The professional life of the journalist James Cameron, who was born on 17 June 1911, is indelibly linked to the major events and issues he reported in a career spanning half a century until his death in 1985: wars in Korea and Vietnam, cold-war standoffs, late-colonial emergencies, the dark overhang of nuclear weapons in an era of superpower rivalry. His work in other fields - books, including the autobiography Point of Departure, and television, where he became from the mid-1960s an accomplished travelling observer, including of his own copious career - also played a great part in securing his reputation more widely among Britain’s public as a figure of journalistic integrity and authority.

The recognition of James Cameron’s achievement and example is reflected in the memorial award granted annually for distinguished foreign-affairs journalism by a British correspondent, an annual memorial lecture delivered by a respected practioner of the trade, and more generally in the esteem that still, a generation after his death, attaches to his name. All this is enough to justify a brief recollection on the centenary of his birth, and reflection on the enduring vitality of the classic virtues of journalistic inquiry he is held to embody.

The witness

If every notable journalist’s career is forever marked by a single moment, in James Cameron’s case it took place in 1950, during the early stages of the Korean war, while he was working alongside the photographer Bert Hardy for the news magazine Picture Post. Their illustrated account of the brutal treatment of political prisoners in Busan by forces of the South Korean leader Syngman Rhee was all the more shocking since the war had the authority of a United Nations resolution and Rhee owed his position to the United States.

The exposure of what Cameron was to describe as “a straightforward case of political tyranny...under the United Nations flag” was, in the fevered atmosphere of the early cold war, regarded by those with the power to act not as a humanitarian or legal scandal but as a journalistic one. The appearance of the photos in the Picture Post resulted in the forced resignation of the publication’s editor, Tom Hopkinson, on orders of the proprietor, Edward Hulton. Cameron’s follow-up story, laboriously reworked to make it as “austere” as possible and remove any taint of emotion and partisanship (“I never worked so hard to write so badly”, he later said) was censored, and he resigned from the magazine.

Cameron, the London-born son of a peripatetic and troubled Scottish lawyer turned novelist-journalist, had begun his career in Dundee and Glasgow with the DC Thomson group, acquiring there the technical and inventive skills (including copious use of couthy anonyms) necessary to master the style of this extraordinary company, sustained across a myriad of publications each designed for a particular social group: namely, moulding the divided and often desperate worlds of inter-war Scotland into a mawkish-comical plain-folk moralism.

He moved in 1935 to the Daily Express and was subsequently transferred to London. At the time (and for decades later) that paper reflected the distinct imperial worldview of its proprietor, the Canadian tycoon Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), one that - since empires need to be alert to rivals and threatening crises, and for a world empire every crisis is potentially threatening - accommodated considerable space for foreign affairs.

It was at the Express that Cameron (who had been rejected for military service on health grounds) reported on the latter stages of the second world war, and where the combination of wry observation, clear eye, quiet authority and instinctive human sympathy that was to inform his work began to emerge - for example, in his portrait of the atomic-bomb test-explosion at Bikini Atoll in 1946. The importance of the event to this (in Patrick Wright’s words) “determinedly independent reporter” can be gauged by the fact that the nuclear-test turned him into a lifelong opponent of the possession as well as as use of nuclear weapons.

From the Picture Post he moved (after an interval) to the News Chronicle, a paper born during Queen Victoria’s reign which had no empire to believe in and - like many publications, before and since, whose heart beat on the left - commanded more editorial talent and distant affection than resources or good management. Here he continued to report from around the world - Kenya’s insurgency, Vietnam’s war, Albania’s isolation, Israel’s construction, South Africa’s apartheid - and consolidated his reputation as the foremost “foreign correspondent” of the age.

The News Chronicle’s fate worse than death was in 1960 to be submerged in the Daily Mail (then, it is hard to recall today, far exceeded by the Express in readership and influence among a great cross-national and cross-class public). Cameron, who had left the paper just before the end, had already published a number of books of extended reportage (among them Mandarin Red: A Journey Behind the ‘Bamboo Curtain’ [1955] and The African Revolution [1961]), and was to write several more over the next decades; a deepening relationship with India, which he had reported on since the early years of independence, produced the affectionate memoir, An Indian Summer (1974).

The most substantial of these works was the autobiography Point of Departure (1967), a reflective, episodic survey of his career and life until his mid-50s; it may be by later social standards reticent about personal matters, but the descriptions of the death in childbirth of Cameron’s first wife or of his loving relationship with his deteriorating father are all the more impressive for being written with characteristic restraint. 

The fixture

James Cameron would continue to write for a variety of publications in his last two decades, including as a columnist for the Guardian. But it was as a television journalist that he became known to a different and far wider public, presenting occasional features for current-affairs programmes (such as This Week [ITV, 1956-78] and Camera in Action [ITV, 1965]; and documentary travelogues (such as the series One Pair of Eyes [BBC, 1967-74] and Cameron Country [BBC, 1968-71]) where he revisited places he had worked as a newspaperman and reflected on change, or made more tranquil parts of the world the field of his lapidary observation. He also wrote two plays for television: The Sound of the Guns (ITV, 1979), set among correspondents seeking to report the Suez invasion of 1956 from their base in Cyprus; and The Pump (ITV, 1980), a psychological drama which drew on his experience of a bad car-accident in India.

Here, Cameron was to gain public election to that mini-pantheon of trusted voices and visages - almost always male, quite often craggy even when not of especially advanced years - that came to be seen (largely in retrospect) as the exemplars of good British television in the early years of mass-ownership. The others include Richard Dimbleby, Huw Wheldon, David Butler, Charles Wheeler, and David Attenborough.

Attenborough was Cameron’s first commissioner for the BBC, though the latter had earlier written, produced, and directed a moving forty-three-minute film - Eyewitness...North Vietnam (1966) - whose remarkable images of a people living with war have something of the quality of those taken around the same period by the French photographer Marc Riboud, than which there is no higher praise.

Cameron’s successful transition to TV (which included a penetrating documentary on The Spanish Civil War [Granada / Channel 4, 1983], co-scripted with a distinguished foreign correspondent of a younger generation, Neal Ascherson) makes him something of a pioneer, given how natural - even in many cases automatic - such a move was to become in the self-consciously “multi-media” environment of later decades (and with more “multis” today than could be imagined even in 1984, when Cameron made his last series, Once Upon A Time, of which the first of five episodes, a fascinating historical document, is available on YouTube).

Yet it is also a vital point - relevant to many discussions of the parabola of television and of the history and future of the internet, though frequently neglected by them - that Cameron’s generation brought with them into television and imprinted onto it the experience and learning, the cultures and codes, the disciplines and presumptions, through which they themselves had been formed. In this sense, whatever credit or demerit attach to their “pioneering” role are associated also with television’s pre-history and its inhabited worlds (newspapers, books, universities, magazines, radio - as well as war and politics). This is of greater moment than ever in an epoch when so much television has become about television, and when the net is just beginning to work through a similar cycle.

If James Cameron’s status as one of the greatest British journalists is secure (and here it seems appropriate to add that by personal and professional formation, and indeed by sensibility, if not by accident of birth, Cameron is clearly also a Scottish journalist), some of that may be owed to the retrospective glamour that an extended television profile (whatever the genre) tends to confer. This makes it even more to Cameron’s credit - and perhaps, again, to television’s in its first generation - that his work in the medium seems continuous with what went before: the emanation of a single person, writer, and view of the world. That integrity, surely, is the principal source of the trust his voice and memory still command.

The legacy

More broadly, the centenary of his birth is an occasion to consider his legacy, at least as it relates to the journalist’s (and the foreign correspondent’s) role and the principles that underlie it. The very different media universe that has evolved even since James Cameron’s death measures a distance that can curdle words such as “legacy” in an instant. Though it must be remembered that the world of journalism also changed greatly during his own lifetime (something he writes affectingly about in the opening pages of Point of Departure), and that he managed to survive and professionally flourish across many decades and under several regimen. What, then, remains beyond the body of his work itself?

The aforementioned memorial-trust prize is one immediate reference-point. Each year the award is made for an outstanding body of work that seems to the judges to exemplify the spirit of Cameron’s work. The list of recipients - among them Ed Vulliamy, Maggie O’Kane, and Suzanne Goldenberg - is an indication of the quality of journalism still being produced in the field (in these cases in relation to the war in Bosnia and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

A glance at today’s newspapers and broadcasting outlets reveals many more candidates; in the context of the major stories of 2011 alone, a personal selection would include Patrick Cockburn and Kim Sengupta of the Independent (for their reporting and analysis of Libya’s war); Heba Saleh and Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times (for their coverage of the Arab revolutions); and Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times (for his dispatches from Fukushima and other parts of Japan’s tsunami-hit northeast). In an intense year for international broadcast journalism, with its distinct disciplines and constraints, the work of such correspondents as Bill Neely (ITN), Lindsay Hilsum (Channel 4 News), and the unsung middle-east expert Jim Muir (BBC) is consistently impressive.

The fact that foreign correspondents of such quality (and there are many others) are still employed, resourced, able to work and publish or broadcast, and reach their publics suggests that the craft of which James Cameron was a leading exponent remains in good health. At the same time, a dynamic new media landscape, with its sheer proliferation of information and news outlets and its rapidly evolving technologies, creates challenges for this and all other forms of serious journalism - especially in a situation where the trade is vulnerable to being shredded by desiccated technologists into the “production, transmission and consumption of content”, detached from any necessary professional obligations or public responsibilities.

At another level, the idea of the foreign correspondent in the classic era of newspaper journalism always presupposed a clear partnership between the distant reporter as (more or less) the sole source of information and understanding, and a domestic-national readership. A context of multiple transnational channels of and instant access to news has vaporised this model as it has much else. To twist the knife further, the same fragmentation of media and audiences casts a pitiless eye on the idea of the foreign correspondent as intertwined with that of a unified “public” (presumed to be intelligent, curious, civic-minded, interested in the world beyond the country’s borders, even in need of a certain patrician enlightenment).

The combination of these outstanding exemplars of current international journalism and of the unimagined changes that have taken place in its practice even since James Cameron’s time underlines the permanent fluidity of the early-21st century media world. All the more reason to be ready both to embrace the best of the new and to take care of the fundamentals, in the spirit of Gandhi’s wise words: “I want the winds of all the world to blow through my house, but I don’t want to be swept off my feet”.

Among those fundamentals is attentiveness to the informed and earned judgment of the individual journalist, including the foreign correspondent, the person who never quite belongs (or sleeps). For it is his or her singular voice which still pumps the heart and keeps life flowing. Here too, James Cameron said it best:

“It’s simple enough, but look at it: one day we may need to know”. 

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