They warned me, before I was sent to cover Washington for my newspaper, "Beware of muggers." It happened to me, though - I was mugged by The Washington Post.
Let me stand that up. The Post, acting for a press gang in the worst sense of the word, struck me a vast psychological blow which robbed me, at least so far as its readership goes and possibly far beyond this, of the "credit card" vital to my survival as a professional journalist: my integrity.
Indeed, the repercussions of this attack so far indicate that I might well be left penniless for life.
An exaggeration? Consider my psychic scar - a bold headline in the July 9 edition of The Post proclaiming me as "The Faker of Fleet Street." How's that for a bruising, for a mugging that, in terms of my career, may yet prove to be a professional assassination?
As a hatchet job, I have got to grant it grudging admiration - it was done with eciat. The knife went in deep, bang on, right between the shoulder blades. Bull's eye!
In other respects, though, the aim was way off - the ethics nonexistent, the accuracy, at best, dismal.
And as proof that it was a vicious and cowardly job, more in keeping with the back alley than the high boulevard of journalism represented by The Washington Post, I would of journalism, elementary jurisprudence available in the that the accused be allowed to speak up before he is sentenced.
Not one attempt was made to contact me. I was judged guilty on the grounds of barroom gossip and stolen private documents.
["Gibbins is mistaken," says James Srodes, author of the article. "I phoned The Daily Mail in London and asked for him, but I was told he was not in. I then asked for the foreign editor, John Moger, and I spoke with him and quoted him in the article." He adds, "No stolen documents were ever involved."]
IF BRITAIN is ahead of America in one leading respect, it is that we have always appreciated the offbeat, recognizing that eccentricity is the chandelier that lights up the grayness of the times. But Mr. Strodes does not approve of me reporting, to cite one of his indictments against me, that little old ladies roam the streets of Washington berating citizens who drop litter.
I stand by this item. I stand by everything I wrote about America. Particularly I stand by the Jimmy Carter beard story. It took three weeks of digging and sifting before I could establish that story as absolute fact. Two of my sources were impeccable. And I am hopeful that at least one of them will come forward and volunteer to break the confidentiality which was the sine qua non of our interview.
In this event, I trust Mr. Strodes will atone by eating his hat - or, better still, borrow a bowler from one of the beggars of Washington for this purpose. Oh, yes, they were there, those beggars in bowlers, and it is only the tunnel vision imposed by Washington life that prevents such a spectacle from standing out in general terms.
I do not criticize that tunnel vision; I can understand how it happens because to live in Washington is to live in a city with the ambience of an attache case, albeit a luxuriously padded one. I went over there with a natural advantage over my colleagues - a sense of curiosity. Washington is a city which swiftly dents that attribute, notwithstanding the excellent work by Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein.
Curiosity produces serendipity, and so I began to score over other papers. Mr. Srodes thinks I was hallucinating. Well, it's true that I was fairly tired when I was sent to Rome on the first day of the Moro kidnapping, went on to Turin to cover the Red Brigades trial - filing news stories and features virtually nonstop - and included other assignments such as riding a dog sleigh in the Artic Circle and climbing a mountain in Switzerland toreport the doings of the British Sherlock Holmes Society. That latter story, incidently, earned me a letter of commendation from one of the participants, Lord Gore-Booth. He praised me for my accuracy and for my kindly sense of humor. Considering that for years he was head of the British diplomatic service and is known in Whitehall as a man with an unerring eye for the phony and the charlatan, I rather value that tribute.
Naturally, I prefer his lordship's view of my integrity to that of Mr. Strodes. But I want to convince Mr. Strodes. Yet he is strangely reluctant to confront me. Let me explain:
I have had number of telephone calls from an impartial figure in this whole imbroglio - a Mr. Disney, unknown to me except for the fact that he is a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto. Mr. Disney wanted to set up, by satellite, a confrontation between me and Mr. Strodes. Mr. Strodes agreed. And, you can be sure, so did I. Then came another call from Mr. Disney, this time bemused and disappointed: Mr. Srodes had changed his mind and would not under any circumstances face me.
Now isn't this odd behavior on the part of a man who was so sure of his ground that his opening paragraph of his hatchery on me began without a quiver of equivocation: "This is the tale of a foreign correspondent who went too far inventing stories for his paper."
[According to John Disney of the CBC in Toronto, he did not at first propose to Srodes that he debate with Gibbons. "Originally," he says, "I just wanted to do a light piece, with Srodes essentially repeating the Post story. Then I thought of the possibility of having the two of them. I called Srodes back a couple of times but didn't reach him. He finally got back in touch with em. At that point he backed off, saying he wasn't interested in blowing the thing up further. Further on I mentioned that I had gotten hold of Gibbins."]
LET'S FORGET the semantics, though, and get on with the nitty-gritty of the sage. A lot of the testimony against me was allegedly based on information supplied by one Ms. Cathy Fox, an American, then the daily Mail Washington bureau secretary, now on the editorial staff of McLean's magazine in Canada, to which country she is emigrating.
She is described in the article as "gleefully regaling the Press Club bar with the well-done messages I was receving from London. And she is quoted a saying that I covered Washington without ever actually leaving my desk. Mr. Srodes, not content with traducing me, apparently is willing to do the same thing to the young lady. For she categorivally denied every point when she was approached by Mr. Disney of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She had never spoken to Mr. Srodes.
I can understand her denial. After all, she has just commenced a career in journalism and presumably wants to keep her ethics intact. The fact is I was in Washington for only three weeks. I arrived on a Sunday and all the following week she was on holiday. That cut down her observation span of my movements, somewhat. She was due in at the office the Monday of my second week but failed to turn up. In addition - and she has conceded this to Mr. Disney - she testifies willingly that for the duration of the NATO summit I spent long hours at the State Department, going there directly from my hotel. The senior press staff of Prime Minister Jim Callaghan can confirm that I covered the story both by day and by night. Indeed, considering that I worked seven days a week I cannot really see how anyone could say that I never left my desk.
[Cathy Fox remarks: "I don't remember if I ever said to Mr. Srodes that Mr. Gibbins had never left his office, I did, however, say to another person involved, John Hamilton of the Melbourne Herald, whose office is next door to Mr. Srodes', that Mr. Gibbins had never left the office to cover a story. I did say that.But then I said, 'No, that's wrong, he did go to the NATO conference.'"]
ONE OF THE so-called "hero grams" quoted in capitals in the article - the cable given most space in The Post - was not a hero gram at all in the context defined by Mr. Srodes, that is, a message from the most senior editorial level. In fact, it was a personal messenger; it has all the official standing of a picture postcard, and it was sent to me by a colleague, a girl who shares my office, and who is the first to admit that she has not a whit of executive responsibility on the Daily Mail.
I knew that every message received by me and every message sent out was being disseminated to the godfathers in the bar one floor up. I was pigued but I took the philosophical view that as journalists we exploit leaks and so we have no real right to complain when our private messages go missing.
But, still on the subject of these leaks, I come to the story that Richard Nixon was threatening to turn up at the NATO summit. That was quoted at some length in The Post and, interesting, included copy that never appeared in the Daily Mail. In fact, my newspaper used two innocuous paragraphs, tucked away unobtrusively at the end of main coverage - even then in only one edition.
I filed this Nixon story rather hastily - there cannot be a journalist in the world who at some time or other has not reacted too enthusiastically - but after rechecking my sources I was not happy and I called my office in London and asked them to kill it. They did, in all editions except the first one, and that had gone to press before action could be taken.
The significant thing is, though, that my "kill" message was telephoned from the State Department, not teletyped from the Daily Mail bureau as was my original story, so Mr. Srodes missed this "scoop."
THE FAKER of Fleet Street . . . the title implies a sort of journalist Red Baron, looping the loop around the truth, dive bombing with fabrications. I dearly wish I had the persons to go with such nomenclature. I'm a dull sort of a chap really. A nondrinker. A man of middle years with more than a quarter century of journalism behind me, my only vice is smoking a pipe nonstop. My avocations are bird watching and classical poetry.
Malcolm Muggeridge went on BBC-TV some time ago and gleefully admitted that he had indeed been a Faker of Fleet Street - when he edited the dairy in The London Evening Standard, he said, he invented every item, year after year. The program showed him back in that newspaper's morgue, going over his clippings, chuckling at his inventions.
From Nova Scotia, author Muggeridge remarks: "What I said was that the experience of being a gossip writer is very valuable and should be part of everybody's liberal education. One of the lessons one learns from it is that if you attribute to some eminent person a remark that you have yourself invented, it is unlikely to be repudiated if it is more amusing than any remark the person in question and therefore live with him forever.
["But I never was editor of the Londoner's Diary, only one of the staff, and his experimentation in inventing remarks was an occasional excercise rather than my invariable practice. After all, eminent people do sometimes make some amusing remarks by themselves."]
In his book, "Tread Softly for You Tread on My Jokes," Muggeridge recalls how, when he was a newspaperman in Moscow, distinguished correspondents - particularly one American whose name is revered still - filed truly wicked and cynical canards in order to ingratiate themselves with the Russian authorities.
For their own reasons - a mistress perhaps, the profits from black market currency - they wanted to make sure that they remained where they were, Muggeridge writes.
And to lesser degree the same basic motivation - I am not saying there is venality but there is a desire to stay on - permeated much of the foreign press in Washington.
Muggeridge served a tedious stint there. He has to make sure that, to some extent, he must refrain from treading on corns or troubling the ulcers of the mightly. To quote Muggeridge on Washington: "The pressures are more subtle and gentle than in the monolithic Communist state - the brainwashing is done with rose water and delicately scented soap. But still there are pressures, there is brainwashing."
And don't I know it!I ruptured the status quo. I decided to roll up my sleeves rather than rest my elbows on the bar counter of the Press Club. Journalism by handout, by press club committee, wasn't for me. A bad mistake, I now see. I knew I was rocking the boat, of course - it never occurred to me that the other occupants, especially knowing that I was there for a short time only, would throw me overboard and leave me to drown.
Kipling - I think a mention of him is opposite in view of Mr. Srodes' fixation with the empire - called the daily press "the old black art." Reluctantly, I am beginning to come around to that view. I am not merely being sniped at - a formal firing squad has assembled and the reloading goes on long after the initial volley through The Post.
Even the gentlemanly Times of London has had a go. One of its columnists remarked the other day that The Washington Post had enjoyed "great fun" at my expense. Is that what it was, fellows? Fun? My only consolation is that if after three weeks I can have such an impact on Washington, then maybe I'm not such a dull chap after all, that the squeals I've raised proved that the foreign press needed to be shalen up. But that reflection does not buy bread or does it pay bills. And I face the distinct possibility that my epithet will turn out tobe ly professional epitaph.