A Different Kind of Journalism

Powerful, passionate, patriotic and personal—that was Matthew Halton.

Does it matter who reports the news? Not which network or which newspaper, but rather which reporter? This is an important question. In the aggregational din of digital media, the individual reporter’s voice struggles harder each day to be heard. Much “news” today is a cacophonous mash-up produced under gruelling pressure with scant room for investigation, let alone reflection. What was once a willing audience is now a restive crowd, wary of authoritative expression, often claiming an equal right to define and disseminate the news.

Into this troubling landscape drops a gripping biography of a tireless reporter whose voice was confident, courageous and unmistakable. From 1932 to 1956, in print and on the radio, Matthew Halton related momentous events to Canadians in reports saturated with significance. Class struggle and coronation in Britain, the ominous rise of Nazi Germany, the civil war in Spain, appeasement at Munich and, finally, the Second World War—Halton reported all of it, first for the Toronto Daily Star and then, from 1943, for the CBC. His story has been meticulously assembled by his son David, himself a long-time CBC foreign correspondent. Dispatches from the Front: The Life of Matthew Halton, Canada’s Voice at War is a well-wrought tribute to a man and a craft, the best account ever written of a Canadian reporter’s life and work.

Halton was born in 1904 in Pincher Creek, Alberta, to English parents—would-be farmers who ended up as townspeople. First published at age twelve in the local newspaper, the Echo, he excelled at school, qualified as a teacher and with stints in rural schools put himself through the University of Alberta. On a scholarship he did graduate studies at the London School of Economics, freelancing columns to Alberta newspapers whose quality landed him a job at the Star in Toronto when he returned to Canada. After little more than a year, his talent for interviewing and writing won him the post of London correspondent.

Newly married and well supported by Canada’s most enterprising daily, Halton plunged into chronicling Europe’s accelerating slide toward disaster. “Matt defined himself as a journalist with a mission: to sound the alarm about the rise of Fascism and the craven response to it by the Western democracies,” Halton writes. He calculates his father’s output at one story per weekday—political reporting and analysis leavened with features and celebrity interviews: Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, Leon Trotsky, Jawaharlal Nehru. As time passed he and his wife, Jean, whom he had met at university in Edmonton, became familiar guests at London salons and parties. In 1937 they had a daughter, Kathleen, who became a journalist and the wife and biographer of critic Sir Kenneth Tynan; three years later, son David was born.

Halton spent much of the early 1930s in Germany where, his son writes, “he practised the journalism of righteous advocacy, was pilloried for his views, and ultimately was vindicated.” As a student at LSE he had been influenced by the left-wing politics professor Harold Laski, and he proudly called himself a socialist. But however righteous his reports from Germany may have sounded, they were based on a marathon of shoe-leather factual reporting: two months of visits to every corner of the country, in which Halton spoke to scores of Nazis and their opponents, attended disturbing massive rallies and visited the newly built concentration camp at Dachau. The resulting 30-part Star series left little doubt about what might lie ahead. As Halton writes: “Matt saw German anti-Semitism not as a marginal phenomenon but as part of the central core of Nazi ideology.”

Some two dozen Canadian reporters were accredited as war correspondents between 1939 and 1945, but Halton had a running start with his knowledge of the terrain, the languages and the political antecedents. His exploits began with the Russian conquest of Finland in the winter of 1939–40 and included, most famously, close to 18 months in North Africa, with his Star stories syndicated in Canadian, British and U.S. newspapers. As the CBC ramped up its nascent news service, it called increasingly on Halton to supplement its own reporters’ coverage. Eventually he accepted an offer to work full-time for the national broadcaster.

Halton’s radio war reports, some of which can be heard at CBC Digital Archives, are unabashedly personal, even patriotic. In one report from El Alamein, Egypt, where in 1942 the Allied forces halted and then reversed the Axis advance through North Africa, he set the scene with a description of turquoise sea, oasis and desert, and warplanes that “wheeled and dived like silver hawks.” Then this:

At worst we are hopeful, at best we are more than confident … We may smash them, or it may be touch and go. Or we may lose, and see the destruction of our army and our power in the Middle East, and the prolongation of the war. But I think there will be victory. And if I could choose where in the world I would be at this minute, I should choose the place called Alamein.

The rhetorical devices are a touch too obvious. The sentiment is generic, the cadence designed to stir the heart rather than enrich the mind. But Halton had earned the right to address his audience in a voice of his choosing: by being on the scene, by having been there before it mattered so much, and by talking to far more people than he ever needed for a single story.

David Halton has researched his father’s life prodigiously—among his stories and broadcasts, letters to his wife and other family members, and other documents. He had the great benefit of more than 90 interviews conducted by playwright Kenneth Dyba for an earlier biographical project. He tells us much about how the war work was done: with portable typewriters, primitive battlefield recording technology, travel provided by military minders and, of course, under censorship. His goal, he says, is empathy but not hagiography, and indeed the story includes elements of the archetypical male correspondent: prodigious drinking, repeated infidelity (familiar to and apparently tolerated by his wife) and a lack of attention to personal health. (Halton died at 52 after a stroke that followed an operation to remove a stomach tumour, possibly suffering from early-onset dementia.)

Halton’s story also illustrates the limits of reportorial power. His reporting from Germany “had no discernible effect on government policy and little success in changing public attitudes,” his son writes. In our own time, too, the primary responsibility for inhuman acts lies with the humans who commit them, and with those who possess the power to prevent them yet do nothing. Truth telling does not always lead to victory, much less justice.

Halton writes that “cool, detached reporting” is valued more today than his father’s “heavily editorial” writing. Nevertheless, skilled, committed reporters know how to shed light without generating excessive heat. The best develop a distinctive style; it enriches our understanding, and we remember their bylines and signoffs. At least, that is how it has been. The recombining and replicating capacities of digital media encourage other things: anonymity, homogeneity, manipulation. Still, we now have Dispatches from the Front to remind us what the sustained, focused voice of a dogged reporter can achieve.