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Thursday, June 30, 2011
The BBC’s big summer drama, The Hour, set against the backdrop of the 1956 invasion, will have more resonance for ex-EDP man John Fairhall than most. Why? Because he was there. He tells his story...
The big BBC television drama this summer is a six-parter, The Hour. With an all-star cast – the beautiful Romola Garai (of Emma and The Crimson Petal and the White), Dominic West (of the cult The Wire) and Ben Whishaw (of Brideshead Revisited) together with award-winning playwright Abi Morgan (White Girl, Brick Lane) – it sounds promising viewing. But what makes it unmissable for me is the timing and setting of the plot – 1956 and the Suez Crisis.
In 1956, without telling the electorate, parliament or even some of his own Cabinet, the British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden secretly plotted with France and Israel to invade Egypt. The pretence, fed to the British public, was that Britain and France were intervening to halt the war between Israel and Egypt.
That invasion, and an 11-day war to seize the Suez Canal, is fact. On to it the BBC drama has grafted a fictional 1956 television news team. Boss of the team is a spirited and glamorous woman (Garai), assisted by a brilliant, and outspoken young foreign correspondent (Whishaw) and a charming and charismatic front man (West).
They discover the British government’s murky dishonesty. Dilemma! Should the brand-new television team scoop the TV world and tell all – and probably be accused of treachery, as well as blighting their newly-launched careers? Or should they go with the establishment tide?
A lively enough plot, but what will make it irresistible watching for me is that I too was a foreign correspondent covering the Suez Crisis. Not for a fictional television news show, but for the real-life EDP.
Abi Morgan is renowned for getting to the emotional truth of hard subjects in her plays – sex-rafficking, murder, tsunami. So what will she make of an event that was the trigger for the end of the British Empire, that overturned the Middle East, with results that are in every news bulletin today.
Was Britain’s attempt to grab back the Suez Canal a wicked folly, or (as most of the press said at the time) a splendid attempt to put a Hitler-like president of Egypt in his place and assert Britain’s proper place in the world.
The people of Norwich in 1956 were divided. I remember one crowded public meeting praising Eden’s strong action, and another crowded meeting saying he’s “off his chump”.
The last-minute debate in the Commons – with the invasion fleet already en route to Egypt – produced the biggest protest demo London had seen. “LAW NOT WAR” was the cry. Britain had seen nothing like it before, and did not again until then prime minister Tony Blair sent an army into Iraq.
Suez was only a decade after the second world war and some ex-soldiers said they had fought to prevent miltary invasions. But some historians now say that, probably, a majority of Brits did agree with Mr Eden – that Britain had a right, and a duty, to send troops to control its great trade artery, the Canal.
The men of 1956 had fought in the war, but after that came Palestine, India, the Korean War, 10,000 troops fighting Mau Mau, 40,000 fighting Malayan Communists, trouble in Borneo, riots in Aden, garrisons spread across the still-vast British Empire, from Hong Kong to the West Indies.
I was conscripted for two and a half years, after the second world war, and in 1956, like many thousand others, was on the ‘Z’ Reserve. I could have been ‘called to the Colours’ at any time, as some ‘Z’ reservists were for Suez. Each fortnight through the 1950s 6,000 young men put on their uniforms for National Service.
Military service was normal. A lot of men did not like it, but most did as we were told. There must have been conscientious objectors, but I never met a single one. During the invasion – officially known not as a ‘war’ but as a ‘police action’ – there was only one report of a Serviceman refusing to fight. An RAF bomber pilot let down his undercarriage, stranding his aircraft, rather than going off to bomb Egyptian civilians.
Many of the journalists who reported Suez, like many of the EDP senior staff, had had some experience of war. When I went to London (was it Hendon airport?) to fly out to Cyprus – the take-off base for the invasion of Egypt – I was the youngest of the hundreds of correspondents, and also the odd man out.
Most of them were former war correspondents and were soon swapping tales of former battles – with Germans, news desks and expenses accountants. The Reuters man, Sean Mayes, wore a paratroop beret, in memory of parachuting into the disastrous Arnhem battle. Apart from one group I happened to share a meal with – one Guardian, one New Zealand, one South African and one Italian journalist – I never heard any of the correspondents debating the morality of the Suez invasion. Journalistically, it was considered to be ‘bad form’ to talk of morals.
But there was one exception – James Cameron. He got involved in a shouting match with the British General Keightly. Writing for Picture Post and the News Chronicle, Cameron had become a national figure in the 1950s, notably with his exposure of UN troops’ atrocities in the Korean War. He was one of the 400 or so journalists who gathered in Nicosia, Cyprus, waiting for the invasion of Egypt. We knew the invasion was coming, but didn’t know when. We certainly did not know that the reason given for a British and French army going in to separate the Israelis and the Egyptians was a fabrication.
In the crowded long bar of Nicosia’s Ledra Palace Hotel, rumours swirled. Frustrated by the censorship, Cameron, the world’s greatest journalist, was going to abandon the world’s biggest news story and go back to London. And the censorship was very, very tight. Quite apart from being the base for the invasion of Egypt, Cyprus was involved in the fierce EOKA guerrilla campaign to expel the Brits and make the island part of Greece. Bombings and ambushes were frequent – 114 British soldiers were killed by EOKA.
Technically, in Cyprus we were in an ‘active service area’. And to get there, with hopes of going on to Egypt, we had to become official war correspondents. We – Cameron included – had signed up, and so were subject to military discipline, and military censorship. All copy had to be submitted – and much to some foreign correspondents’ annoyance, had to be in English or French.
I, along with the other accredited war correspondents, was given a copy of the Regulations for Press Representatives accompanying a Force in the Field. In Army-press relations, they said, there must be “complete frankness on the one hand; loyal discretion on the other; and mutual co-operation in the great and almost sacred task of leading and steadying public opinion in times of national stress or crisis”.
These days, the political commentators would ridicule that “almost sacred task”.
When she wrote The Hour, Morgan must have taken into account the, by current standards, astonishing lack of information. I remember watching, with hundreds of other correspondents in Nicosia, French bombers flying overhead. When we asked we were told they were just practising. In fact they had just been over to Egypt, bombing Port Said.
There was no citizen journalism in 1956, none of the mobile phones and pocket cameras that these days record and within minutes transmit round the world every flare-up. And it was not just the journalists who were cut off. It was was a bad time for shortwave radio – something to do with sun spot cycles – and in the middle of the invasion,the War Ministry in Whitehall once lost radio contact with its Army in Egypt. Even the special press channels via the Royal Navy broke down. Twenty-four hours after they went ashore with the troops some correspondents had still not managed to get a line of copy back to Fleet Street.
At the height of the Suez Crisis, the broadcasters and the press came under heavy pressure. The chairman of the BBC’s board of governors interfered with programming to support the government’s case. But it was only many years after 1956 that we found out Eden had wanted to take over the BBC. He actually had the legal instrument to do so drawn up.
Long after the British and French troops had left Egypt, it emerged that a seriously-ill Eden had called for the assassination of Egypt’s President Nasser – “I don’t want him neutralised. I want him destroyed!”.
Before the invasion, some of the correspondents in Cyprus had pleaded to be allowed to join the first wave, and parachute at dawn on Gamil airfield. Only one, Peter Woods of the Daily Mirror (who later became a BBC newsreader) was approved, on the grounds that he was a trained parachutist. That evening I was flown into Gamil and saw him. He had broken both ankles on landing.
His landing was not the only thing that went wrong. It was a rushed job and not all the scores of shiploads of men and materials arrived at the right place at the right time. There were some fierce, but brief fire-fights, but by the time most of the correspondents arrived there was only a little sniper fire.
A few Army press releases, and President Eisenhower by threatening to wreck the British economy, had stopped the Suez ‘police action’.
Within a week or two, some knowledge of the British, and French, and Israeli duplicity began to emerge. Earlier, the only breach in the censorship came from James Morris (now Jan Morris), the Guardian’s correspondent. He met some French pilots who cheerfully said they had been bombing Egyptians – this being before the war had been announced.
The Guardian, Observer, and News Chronicle denounced the “folly and crookedness” of the war. And 54 years later Abi Morgan’s fictional television team gets hold of an advance copy of The Observer article, decides to broadcast it, and The Hour is away.
Television foreign correspondents are, I suppose, normally ‘hard-bitten’, and The Hour character played by Dominic West is said to be also hard-drinking and a heavy smoker. On my first foreign assignment I was by no means hard-bitten, although, like most EDP reporters, I did drink quite a few pints of mild and bitter in The Wild Man in Norwich, and I did smoke far too much.
But the correspondent who covered Suez for the BBC, Norfolk man Peter Hardiman-Scott, was far, far away from the fictional newsman. He was a small, relaxed man, with a sharp and subtle intelligence. Not exactly hard-bitten, but when prime minister Harold Wilson accused him of inaccurate reporting he did phone No 10 and extract an apology from Wilson. He was the BBC’s political editor for 15 years, and when he died one obituary said he was the best political commentator the BBC had ever had.
I met him in Cyprus, as the world’s press waited for the invasion, and he was very helpful to the inexperienced EDP reporter. He was from King’s Lynn, and told me that the first freelance article he wrote was for the EDP.
Not exactly hard-bitten, either. He became very nervous after an EOKA gunman had blown up the BBC car and riddled it with bullets. He knew members of EOKA were working in our hotel – they left releases about their successful ambushes under his bedroom door. After being bombed Peter did tip waiters very generously.
I met up with him in later years in Boxford, Suffolk, after he had retired. He was known as a well-published poet, and also for his collection of Norwich School paintings, and his cellar of fine wines. I should have liked Abi Morgan to have met him.