Remembering a Herald editor embedded with Fascist troops in the Spanish Civil War

There was just one other couple in the cinema at Eden Court in Inverness on a wintry evening in to see Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”. A spell-binding story, it touches lightly on the long shadow of the Spanish Civil War.

Attempts to bury the truth always fail in the end, the movie tells us. Eventually, it will be brought to the surface by those who refuse to forget. And with the digging up of the bodies comes baggage. One character is told to find out where her family were and what they were doing back then, meaning – “who was on the wrong side of history?”

This reminded me of a little-known historical fact that on the wrong side back then was one-time editor of the Herald James Holburn. After being embedded with fascist troops as a London Times reporter in 1937, Holburn filed a report that cast doubt on the claim that the Nazis had bombed Guernica, instead asserting that the damage had been caused by a huge fire.

Holburn was taken on a fascist-led tour of the town in which he failed to spot (as a colleague did) the German markings on unexploded incendiary bombs which had been dropped to wipe out evidence of the attack. His article was based on a briefing from the civil engineer fronting Franco’s inquiry.

When published in London and reprinted on the front page of the New York Times, Holburn’s work muddied the wake of the eyewitness report of his Times colleague George Steer, who had broken news of the attack a week earlier.

What became of Holburn after this? Far from his career ending in disgrace, he continued to be promoted. In later life, he could have been a model for the reclusive editor in Michael Frayn’s satire of Fleet Street “Towards the End of the Morning”, who lurked in his room and was rarely spotted by staff.

Holburn was editor of the Herald for ten years from 1955 to 1965. My uncle David Kemp was hired by him. “Holburn was small and balding, as I remember him. But he was rarely seen. He hid himself, and left the running of the paper to his deputy, Reggie Biles”.  At David’s interview, Biles asked David if he’d thought of joining a trade union, and suggested the Institute of Journalists instead, saying he’d never forgiven the NUJ for “taking us out in ’26”.

Later, when David was working in Northern Ireland covering the Troubles, an interview he got with Irish civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin was suppressed and never saw the light of day. David got the impression the newspaper management thought him too sympathetic to the Republican side and shortly afterwards, he left the paper.

Over the distance of years, the role the British state played in the Troubles is emerging from the fog of war and bad journalism which helped to keep it concealed for so long.

We recently saw the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, still raw for the families of the 14 unarmed civilians who were shot by the British Army during a peaceful protest. Back then, the Times failed to print the report of its most experienced war reporter Murray Sayle, who had recently returned from Vietnam.  Sayle was a prize-winning war correspondent – but it seemed Ulster was too close to home for his account to be trusted. Sayle resigned after his piece was not published.

After being lost on the cutting room floor for 26 years, Sayle handed his copy, dated February 4, 1972, to the Saville enquiry. It read:

“The Army’s version is not only denied by every eye-witness we have spoken to, many of them not Catholic and/or not Irish; it fails completely to answer any of these difficulties: we can find no evidence that any shots, petrol or nail bombs were fired at the Army, or that any of the crowd of civil rights marchers were armed; no wounded soldiers have been produced and none were shot; none of the wounded survivors of the shooting, supposed to be IRA suspects if not members, were searched; no guard was placed over them at Altnagelvin Hospital; we can find no trace of the two alleged by Army spokesmen to have admitted that they were armed, and no trace of arms; four of the dead men and two of the wounded were shot in the back or from behind.”

The report the Times actually published of the event at the time used military language, calling it a “brief but fierce gun battle” in a Republican “stronghold” and did not overtly question the Army’s account.

Reminiscing about this, David said:

“It is a tragedy that many journalists who started out with the highest ideals – or, at the very least, the intention of being honest reporters- felt they were forced to unsee what they had seen, or bend the facts to suit the views of a right wing proprietor and the right-wing editor he’d appointed so that their families could eat… And the ground could be cut from beneath them in other ways.”

I guess at the end of the day, what matters is not really ending up on the right or wrong side of history in the eyes of the future: it is just that truth matters. And when it finally comes out, that we learn from it.

Art, as the Almodevar movie shows, has the power to both shape our understanding of what happened, and to help us make sense of it emotionally.

One of the most famous examples of this is the painting “Guernica”. Picasso drew on Steer’s report of the bombing of civilians to produce what of course became one of the famous paintings of the sufferings of war. ‘Guernica’ was exhibited in Paris in 1937 and then toured where it helped bring attention to what was happening in Franco’s Spain.

David recalls: “Picasso wouldn’t allow Guernica to be exhibited in Spain while Franco was still alive. The picture was returned from New York after the suppression of  the Tejero coup in 1981, which I winessed. I was filming a documentary avout the Spanish Civil War doc at the time, and I was at the celebration party to mark its arrival at the Prado in Madrid, given by the Ministry of Culture.

“To show you how controversial it still was, it was exhibited on its own in a room that was like being under a concrete motorway underpass. It was behind bulletproof glass, and a guard with a sub-machine gun stood at the back of the room.”

jackie kemp

I got this response from David. “An excellent letter. I don’t know if it’s too late for a couple of corrections – neither vital. It was the TEJERO coup. My bad typing, no doubt. And the editor who suppressed my Bernadette Devlin interview was Alistair Warren. He’d succeeded Holburn by the time I got back from the US for my second stint at the Herald – when I was the special correspondent in Northern Ireland at the start of the Troubles.