Is The Cruiser Springing a Leak?

While the termination of Mary Holland's contract as Dublin correspondent of The Observer after 11 years covering Irish affairs for the paper has inevitably attracted most attention in the media there are signs that The Observer's journalists are now limbering up for a major confrontation with the Cruiser on his increasingly imperial interpretation of his role as Editor in Chief.

On December 11 an unusually large meeting of The Observer's NUJ chapel passed unanimously a motion expressing deep concern about the implications of Mary Holland's case, and asking the Editor in Chief to meet the chapel in person as soon as possible, to explain his views. What was noteworthy about the meeting was the number of senior staff on the paper, most of whom would almost certainly incline towards Dr. O'Brien's view of Irish politics rather than Ms. Holland's, who spoke in favour of the motion. In fact, while the current aggravation has exploded around Mary Holland's dismissal, it's clear that The Observer chapel, which is gentlemanly rather than militant in its attitudes and deeply loyal to the paper, would not have issued what is tantamount to a political challenge to its prestigious Editor in Chief, if the journalists were not also deeply concerned over Dr. O'Brien's increasingly autocratic handling of a whole range of editorial matter. In recent weeks this has ranged from the coverage of British Leyland's troubles to the Women's Pages of the paper.


When the Cruiser joined The Observer two years ago his appointment was greeted with considerable euphoria within the paper. It was felt that an intellectual of international stature, who had long been a respected contributor, had joined the paper. The name of George Orwell was invoked in awed comparison. One staffer explaining the desire of the oil-rich Atlantic Richfield Company to secure his services exclaimed, "After all what's the point of buying the Berlin Philharmonic if you don't have a von Karajan."


Some members of The Observer staff, particularly those who had covered Ireland during the Coalition government's rule were a bit more wary. The Cruiser's reputation as the scourge of RTE, his accusation of some Irish political correspondents of being "Provo stooges", the extraordinary incident when he revealed to Bernard Nossiter of the New York Times that he was keeping files of letters written to the Irish Press which expressed republican sentiments, all these were recalled. However, Dr. O'Brien agreed to meet the NUJ chapel and succeeded in allaying fears. It was, after all, made clear to most of them that different standards probably should apply in Ireland and that in any British context O'Brien would once again prove himself the liberal they had all long loved. Censorship of any kind was out of the question.


For a while all went well. There were slightly curious incidents, like the somewhat obsessional signed editorials on Ireland and the occasion when the Cruiser (harking back to his brief distinguished career as theatre critic for Magill), insisted on writing a second review of a play by Belfast dramatist Stewart Parker, considerably more acclamatory than that of the paper's own drama critic. But on the whole the journalists were happy enough. It was agreed that if Dr. O'Brien suddenly wanted to launch into reviewing that was his right. No one was against diversity of views.


The first signs that all might not continue quite so rosily had nothing to do with Irish coverage, but concerned the paper's distinguished correspondent on African affairs, David Martin. Africa was a subject on which O'Brien held strong views. One of his first pieces of major reporting for the paper was on Rhodesia where he interviewed Ian Smith. David Martin, a former Financial Times journalist, had covered the independence struggles in Mozambique and Angola before joining the staff of The Observer, for whom he worked from an office in Lusaka. In the Rhodesian conflict he was known to be close to the front line black governments and to the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. It was on this score that he fell foul of O'Brien, who seems to have regarded Mugabe, in particular, as a black extension of the Provisional IRA. An article about him in The Observer had so enraged Mugabe, that he walked out of a BBC studio interview when he heard that O'Brien was also to take part. From his early days at The Observer O'Brien made no secret of his disapproval of Martin.


In the event the first major row, in October 1978, the 10th anniversary of the start of the Northern troubles, concerned Mary Holland's article on a Derry woman she had known for the whole ten years, Mary Nelis. The article commissioned by the magazine's editor, Peter Crookston and received with a 'shout of praise', was an attempt to show how an ordinary woman with no initial republican views, could become caught up, through her family in the tragedy of the violence. Of her seven sons, the eldest of whom had been 11 in 1968 and whose education was her major preoccupation, two are now on the blanket in H Block. O'Brien's outrage at the article and the intemperance of his letters on this theme to Mary Holland caused considerable editorial shock in The Observer, not least because his remarks about Mary Nelis, (in which he spoke of the "killing strain" of republicanism running in families and the mother being usually the carrier), could have been actionable by Mrs. Nelis. However, as an exercise in frightening his staff the Cruiser's handling of the whole business was effective enough. In future no major feature was to appear in the paper or the magazine without his personal approval.


The next incident, also involving a magazine article was by the paper's Scottish correspondent Bryan Wilson. He has always seen similarities between the problems of the West of Scotland and the West of Ireland and this article was about Inishturbot. From the magazine's point of view one of its main attractions was that it provided an excuse to send one of its best photographers, Alain Le Garsmuir, to take some moodily beautiful pictures of the West. Once again the article was first accepted then withdrawn without explanation. The chief sub editor on the magazine told Wilson that O'Brien had killed it though the editor denies this. It subsequently appeared in Magill.


These incidents, could, of course, be dismissed by most of The Observer's staff as internal arguments. A great deal more anxiety was felt by the middle of 1979 over what was going to happen to David Martin, particularly as the Rhodesian story continued to occupy the centre of British politics. This autumn, while the Lancaster House Conference was still in progress Martin was told that his Lusaka office was to be closed on the grounds of economy. The Observer also explained that it was not practicable to have someone covering Africa who is not acceptable in South Africa, though most British newspapers employ different reporters to cover the black African states and South Africa for precisely the reason that few journalists are acceptable in both. It now seems that the furore over Mary Holland's dismissal may have- had a restraining effect in the Martin case. He has now been sent to Salisbury for six months to cover the elections and what follows in Rhodesia, though a question mark still hangs over what happens to him after that.


But it has been Dr. O'Brien's activities in more recent weeks which have now alarmed wide sections of The Observer's staff who would not ordinarily be much inclined to enter political battle with a man who is after all still an intellectual idol to many British liberals. At the beginning of November the excellent Women's Pages of the paper, edited by former Guardian journalist Suzanne Lowry, decided to run a long extract from a book by an American feminist writer tracing the take over of medicine by male doctors, particularly the male dominance in the field of obstetrics. Interested readers of the piece were somewhat puzzled by a long introduction in bold print at the top of the page which seemed to sneer at the whole book as hysterical and over written. This introduction was inserted at the insistence of Dr. O'Brien, not hitherto known for his views on either feminism or obstetrics.


Then there was the business of the British Leyland editorial. When British Leyland's chief convenor of shop stewards, Derek Robinson, was sacked in the third week of November the story was a major one for the British press. It was also extremely complex and sensitive given the Tory government's policy on lame duck industries and the possible closure of British Leyland. On this occasion Dr. O'Brien wrote an extremely strong editorial on the subject, without either consulting or showing it to his industrial or business staff, a fact which caused considerable anger when discovered.


So, by the time Mary Holland's case broke in the Irish newspapers and the statement attacking her judgement had been given to Irish journalists, there was a considerable body of journalists on The Observer who had no strong views on Ireland but were beginning to have very strong views about Dr. O'Brien and his propensity for rushing into print over the heads of his specialist staff. This was what accounted for the unusually determined mood at the NUJ chapel's meeting on December 11.


Whether all this is likely to bother The Observer's American owners, the oil company, Atlantic Richfield, is unlikely. Dr. O'Brien still enjoys a high reputation as an intellectual in America and even more so in Britain, where he is treasured as the voice of reasonable Irish opinion. What may concern Atlantic Richfield however, is that The Observer is already losing circulation steadily against the competition of the newly returned Sunday Times. At this junction they may not care to see The Observer rapidly acquiring a reputation, particularly given its past traditions as a great liberal newspaper, as having an editor determined to use the paper to propagate his own political views and exclude anyone with whom he does not agree.