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Watching the Watchdog: Bang-Bang Men

07/22/2013 06:13 EDT | Updated 09/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Tim Knight, writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada. Full Disclosure: he worked with Don North at ABC in New York and CBC in Montreal and this column is adapted from the forward he wrote for Don North's book.

Don North is a damned fool.

Always has been.

Likely always will be.

Today, Don hangs around Fairfax, Virginia, marketing his book on Canadian journalist Paul Morton and trying to be a good husband to the lovely Deanna.

He's out of Vancouver, worked at CTV, Global and CBC here in Canada. And at ABC, CBS and NBC in New York.

I tell you he's a damn fool because he's a war correspondent. What's known in the journalism craft as a bang-bang man.

It's one of the world's most dangerous jobs. Over the last 21 years, somewhere in the world, one journalist every week is killed in the line of duty. Any day now, there will be an announcement that one thousand journalists have been killed during that time, most while covering wars.

Don North has covered 15 wars, which is more than most of us can name or remember.

Among them, Vietnam, Borneo, Cambodia, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Egypt, Israel, the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq.

So now he writes a book. Not about his own wars. No, Don's book is about someone else's war. And about journalism betrayed, courage punished and all-round sheer, bloody-minded paranoia.

Title of his book is Inappropriate Conduct, Mystery of a Disgraced War Correspondent.

It's the story of Canadian journalist Paul Morton in World War ll. North sets its theme in the very first words:

"War changes and often harms not only its combatants but also its eyewitnesses."

Here's a summary: In 1944, senior Toronto Star correspondent Paul Morton parachuted behind enemy lines to report on Italian partisans fighting on the side of the Allies against both their own and the German armies.

Morton's first report, after two months with the partisans, was published in The Toronto Star on October 27, 1944. Then he filed eight more stories on his time with the partisans.

But at this stage in their war, favourable publicity for the Italian partisans was the last thing Allied Command wanted. The partisans may have been brave guerilla fighters who helped the Allied cause, but many were also communists. And communists, to the Allies, were the new Nazis.

Harry Hindmarsh was The Star's editor at the time. (Today, he's most famous for forcing a reporter named Ernest Hemingway to quit because he didn't want stars in his newsroom.) Likely under heavy pressure from the Allies, Hindmarsh killed Morton's eight remaining reports about the partisans and their war. Adding deep insult to this injury, The Star held some sort of investigation which decided that Morton had never spent those two months with the partisans.

He'd lied.

The word spread like an epidemic through the Toronto Press Club. Paul Morton of The Star had had faked an assignment. His own editor said so. Morton's journalistic career was finished. Years afterwards he died, broken and bitter, in Toronto.

Don North heard the story, started researching. He found papers in London, Turin and the Canadian military archives in Ottawa confirming, in great detail, that Morton had told the truth about his months behind enemy lines with the Italian partisans.

So North asked John Honderich, former publisher and editorial page editor of The Star, now chair of Torstar's board of directors, to look into the Paul Morton affair:

"John, as a former Toronto Star publisher you may have some knowledge of this story or know where the bones are buried. I hope you might share my interest in righting a terrible injustice to one of our colleagues and at long last recognizing Paul Morton's talent and courage in wartime reporting."

North goes on in his book: "After several letters were sent, Honderich answered my request and checked out Toronto Star files for any mention of Morton. He also inquired with the family of Harry Hindmarsh for letters or papers to explain the enigma of Paul Morton, but with no success."

All very complex and mysterious.

Now, everyone agrees Paul Morton was no saint. He sometimes drank too much. Covering wars certainly makes you thirsty. And he shot up the occasional military mess. Which war correspondent hasn't dreamed of doing that?

But Paul Morton, according to North, was a fine and dedicated Canadian journalist who risked his life for a very important story -- something only the bravest and most dedicated of our honourable profession are ever called upon to do.

And when he survived his Italian assignment -- his chances were estimated at roughly fifty percent -- and got back to Toronto he was betrayed by his own newspaper.

North tells Paul Morton's story in gritty, believable, detailed page after page. And tells it with passion and the sort of empathy that can only come from one courageous war correspondent reporting on another.

Don North deserves a best-seller.

If you want more, buy the book. It's called Inappropriate Conduct, Mystery of a Disgraced War Correspondent.

P.S. Looks like yet more wars are scheduled for the Middle East sometime soon.

Don North will likely sense the drumbeat before the rest of us. He'll paw the ground like the old warhorse he is and pack his camera once again.

This is my last war, he'll promise the lovely Deanna.

And she'll smile and shrug and understand.

Again.

--------------------

Andy Little died last week.

Andy could turn a routine news story into simple, sparse, blank verse which, if you had any feeling for the music of storytelling, would bring tears to your eyes.

Once upon a time, back when CBC cared enough to train its journalists, I was its lead TV Journalism trainer. Half a dozen of us, including Andy, founded the infamous Flying Circus and jetted around the country persuading CBC journalists that there was a better way to commit TV journalism.

That reporters and anchors, for instance, should speak and behave on camera like real people, not teleprompter-worshipping automatons.

Andy was one of the best of the Circus.

It was sheer, bloody delight to watch this polite, quiet, gentle, easy-going man deconstruct a star TV reporter's news story with razor intelligence and make it ten times as good. He did it with caring and elegance, and when it was over the reporter he'd been tearing apart felt no pain, only respect, and determination to do better next time.

Andy Little was a fine journalist, a splendid storyteller, a great teacher and a lovely man.