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Claud Cockburn

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Claud Cockburn


December 15, 1981

Beat the Devil

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Patricia Cockburn (m. 1940), Jean Ross

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Francis Claud Cockburn ( ; 12 April 1904 – 15 December 1981) was an Anglo-Scots journalist. His saying "believe nothing until it has been officially denied" is widely quoted in journalistic studies, although he did not claim credit for originating it. He was the second cousin, once removed, of novelists Alec Waugh and Evelyn Waugh. He lived at Brook Lodge, Youghal, County Cork, Ireland.


Claud Cockburn Quotes

Life and work

Cockburn was born in Peking (present-day Beijing), China, on 12 April 1904, the son of Henry Cockburn, a British Consul General, and wife Elizabeth Gordon (née Stevenson). His paternal great-grandfather was Scottish judge/biographer Henry Cockburn, Lord Cockburn.

Cockburn was educated at Berkhamsted School, Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, and Keble College, Oxford, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts. He became a journalist with The Times and worked as a foreign correspondent in Germany and the United States before resigning in 1933 to start his own newsletter, The Week. It has been claimed that during his spell as a sub-editor on The Times, Cockburn and colleagues competed (with a small prize for the winner) to write the dullest printed headline. Cockburn only once claimed the honours, with "Small Earthquake in Chile, Not many dead". No copy of The Times featuring this headline has been located although it did finally appear, decades after the recollection, in Not the Times, a spoof version of the newspaper produced by several journalists at The Times in 1979 during the paper's year-long absence due to an industrial dispute.

Under the name Frank Pitcairn, Cockburn contributed to the British communist newspaper, the Daily Worker. In 1936, Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, asked him to cover the Spanish Civil War. He joined the Fifth Regiment to report the war as a soldier. While in Spain, he published Reporter in Spain. In the late 1930s, Cockburn published a private newspaper The Week that was highly critical of Neville Chamberlain. Cockburn maintained in the 1960s that much of the information in The Week was leaked to him by Sir Robert Vansittart, the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office.

At the same time, Cockburn claimed that MI5 was spying on him because of The Week; but the British historian D.C. Watt argued that it was more likely that, if anyone was spying on Cockburn, it was the Special Branch of Scotland Yard who were less experienced in this work than MI5. Cockburn was an opponent of appeasement before the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. In a 1937 article in The Week, Cockburn coined the term Cliveden set to describe what he alleged to be an upper-class pro-German group that exercised influence behind the scenes. The Week ceased publication shortly after the war began. Watt alleges that the information printed in The Week included rumours, some of which suited Moscow's interests. Watt used as an example the claim The Week made in February–March 1939 that German troops were concentrating in Klagenfurt for an invasion of Yugoslavia, which Watt says had no basis in reality.

Cockburn was attacked by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia (1938). Orwell accused Cockburn of being under the control of the Communist Party and was critical of the way Cockburn reported the Barcelona May Days. According to the editor of a volume of his writings on Spain, Cockburn formed a personal relationship with Mikhail Koltsov, "then the foreign editor of Pravda and, in Cockburn's view, 'the confidant and mouthpiece and direct agent of Stalin in Spain'". And, according to writer Adam Hochschild, Cockburn claimed to have been an eyewitness to a battle he'd actually invented out of whole cloth. This hoax was intended to persuade the French prime minister that Franco's forces were weaker than they actually were, and thus make the Republicans seem worthier candidates for help in obtaining arms. The ruse worked, and the French border was opened for a previously stalled artillery shipment. Cockburn acted as fabulist for the Republican cause, Hochschild writes, "on [Communist] Party orders".

In 1947, Cockburn moved to Ireland and lived at Ardmore, County Waterford, and continued to contribute to newspapers and journals, including a weekly column for The Irish Times. In the Irish Times he famously stated that "Wherever there is a stink in international affairs, you will find that Henry Kissinger has recently visited".

Among his novels were Beat the Devil (originally under the pseudonym James Helvick), The Horses, Ballantyne's Folly, and Jericho Road. Beat the Devil was made into a 1953 film by director John Huston, who paid Cockburn £3,000 for the rights to the book and screenplay. Cockburn collaborated with Huston on the early drafts of the script, but the credit went to Truman Capote. The title was later used by Cockburn's son Alexander for his regular column in The Nation.

He published Bestseller, an exploration of English popular fiction, Aspects of English History (1957), The Devil's Decade (1973), his history of the 1930s, and Union Power (1976).

His first volume of memoirs was published as In Time of Trouble (1956) in the UK and as A Discord of Trumpets in the U.S.. This was followed by Crossing the Line (1958), and A View from the West (1961). Revised, these were published by Penguin as I, Claud... in 1967. Again revised and shortened, with a new chapter, they were republished as Cockburn Sums Up shortly before he died.


Claud Cockburn married three times: all three of his wives were also journalists.

  1. Hope Hale Davis: child Claudia Cockburn Flanders (wife of Michael Flanders)
  2. Jean Ross (model for Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles of Cabaret fame): child Sarah Caudwell Cockburn, author of detective stories
  3. Patricia Byron in 1940 (née Patricia Evangeline Anne Arbuthnot (17 March 1914 – 6 October 1989), daughter of Major John Bernard Arbuthnot and Olive Blake, (author of The Years of the Week and Figure of Eight): children Alexander, Andrew (husband of Leslie Cockburn), Patrick

His granddaughters include RadioNation host Laura Flanders, ex-BBC Economics editor Stephanie Flanders, and actress Olivia Wilde.


Claud Cockburn Wikipedia

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