The front page story in The Sunday Times of London was straightforward and dramatic: "Iraqi forces . . . have captured Khorramshahr, the most important port in the Persian Gulf. I entered the port behind Iraqi tanks and jubilant toops yesterday morning, just hours after this once-bustling town of cotton, dates and hides fell to the invading Iraqis. The streets and outskirts were deserted and there was every indication that the community had been evacuated at great speed."
So wrote The Times' correspondent, Barrie Penrose, in a story that might have made sense had it appeared late last month, when Iraqi forces did enter Khorramshahr. But unfortunately for Penrose, that story was published nearly a month earlier, Sept. 28. And in a journalistic saga worthy of an Evelyn Waugh novel, one of England's most respected newspapers wound up slightly red-faced.
According to a foreign correspondent reporting from the Iraqi-Iranian front with him, Penrose's premature report -- coupled with his first-person account of entering Khorramshahr -- angered fellow reporters who were deluged with inquiries from their assignment desks. Anxious editors around the globe cabled their correspondents in Basra to ask, in so many words: If Penrose is walking the streets of Khorramshahr, why aren't you?
"The senior British journalist in Basra, from the daily London Times got very edgy," recalls one reporter who was there. "He started interviewing every correspondent who had been with Penrose every minute he'd been in Iraq. The only day Penrose could have conceivably gotten to Khorramshahr, he was with a UPI reporter and photographer. They were interviewed during an inquiry in the dining room of Basra's Hotel Hamdan. They could conclusively demonstrate they'd been with Penrose evey minute of that day, and there was no way he could have gotten into Khorramshahr."
In Waugh's classic newpsper novel, Scoop , a character tells how famous American journalist scooped the world with an eyewitness story of the sinking of the Lusitania . . . four hours before she was hit. "We're paid to supply news," Waugh's charcter's explains."If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn't news."
That may explain some of Penrose's haste. Since the first days of the conflict, Iraqi officers had promised the imminent occupation of Khorramshahr. As the correspondent for The Sunday Times, Penrose had to write for the Sunday paper or wait a long week before he could write another story. Penrose couldn't be reached for comment, but it appears he jumped the gun with his story.
"Clearly that story, we recognize in the light of events, probably went rather harder than the facts warranted," says Peter Wilshire, foreign editor of The Sunday Times and Penrose's boss. "However, having said that, I personally have no doubt that Penrose did enter Khorramshahr as he said he did."
But editor Wilshire admits there's been "a certain amount of Fleet Street levity about the story," and he allows that perhaps Penrose "exaggeraged the significance of it a little . . . He did indeed see Iraqi tanks enter Khorramshahr, but he jumped to the conclusion or accepted the assurance of the Iraqi military that that was the same as having comprehensively taken Khorramshahr. It's a big place, after all; it's a bit like deciding precisely when Washington has been taken.
"Obviously in hindsight we might wish we'd gone a little softer on the story," says Wilshire, "but basically it was the truth. Penrose did a damn good job in difficult circumstances, and we were damn glad to have the story. And if Khorramshahr had fallen in the next few day, we never would have heard anything about it."
On that point, ever Evelyn Waugh would agree.