FAIRFAX, Virginia _ The greatest nightmare of a reporter is to have the veracity of his or her reporting questioned by peers and to be unable to refute the career-destroying charge that they chose fiction over fact.
Paul Morton of the Toronto Star volunteered to parachute behind Nazi lines in 1944 to report on the Italian partisans fighting a guerrilla war against the Germans. But while he covered the conflict at great personal peril, the British army decided erroneously that the partisans were a bunch of communists and Morton a liar. The last thing they wanted was Morton to write favorable stories about them. So his press accreditation was revoked and the newspaper fired him, suggesting his stories had been fabricated.
Seven decades later, what happened to Morton still matters because it highlights the difficulty of truthfully reporting about war, the dangers of journalists embedding with fighting forces, and the tenuous relationship between the truth and propaganda in wartime.
I have been a war reporter most of my career and when I heard the story of Morton, I vowed to find the truth about a dedicated journalist who risked his life for a story only to be discredited.
Everyone agrees Morton was no saint. He drank too much. He stirred up the occasional military mess. But he was a committed reporter who risked it all in search of the truth. Dusty archives in Italy, London and Ottawa prove that as Morton carried out his assignment he was betrayed by his own government authorities and his colleagues. History supports Morton’s conclusions that the Italian partisans were not communist nor aligned with Moscow.
Why was it important to exonerate Morton after almost seventy years?
George Orwell in his novel 1984 wrote : “He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past..’’ In other words we learn from the past. We learn what works and what doesn’t.
Paul Morton’s story is a cautionary tale about why journalists should be wary of manipulation by the military when covering conflict. And today there is as much secrecy and as many covert military operations as there were in 1944.
As Morton described what befell him: “I went in behind the lines and emerged as a kind of agent. I went in as a reporter and came out a kind of soldier. I sometimes wish I had never gone in at all.’’
Don North, director of Northstar Productions, Inc. in Fairfax, Virginia, covered the Vietnam War for NBC News and writes regularly for Vietnam Magazine and Consortiumnews.com. He is the author of Inappropriate Conduct: Mystery of a Disgraced War Correspondent.