What makes a good journalist, as opposed to commenter, cultural critic or activist? Inquisitiveness, I suppose; a desire that the truth be told; perseverance, and courage. Perhaps most of all, though, a sort of intellectual courage to accept that your prevailing beliefs might be wrong.
I watched Mr Jones earlier in the week, an account of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who exposed the truth about the Ukrainian famine (for a good review, I’d recommend Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian.)
Mr Jones is thought-provoking but it is bleak — as you’d expect, I suppose, of a film about the Holodomor — and feels personal. The screenwriter Andrea Chalupa is of Ukrainian origin and director Agnieszka Holland is Polish, and both their families experienced the horrors of ideology in that benighted part of the world.
But it’s bleak not just because of the hunger and horror but because of its ultimate Orwellian theme — that lies often overcome truth. Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow, was a fraud and hack who was feted for telling western optimists what they wanted to believe about the Soviet Union; Jones told them the depressing truth, that the utopian experiment was a disaster, and was sacked.
This is a story so timeless it’s almost a fairy tale, and still goes on today — numerous individuals make a good living spouting garbage because it’s the sort of garbage the educated middle-class want to believe.
In the early 20th century progressive, educated westerners wanted the Soviet Union to be a “new civilization”, as the Webbs called it, so the New York Times and its readers lapped up what Duranty told them — and this had huge, long-term consequences, especially in regard US handling of Stalin.
While Jones’s story was deeply tragic, Muggeridge’s was bleakly comic, having gone over to the USSR with a group of other naïve westerners and had all his illusions blown away. If you want to read about Muggeridge but can’t face a whole book’s worth, then I strongly recommend Scott Alexander’s very funny review of Chronicles of Wasted Time.
As Alexander points out, Muggeridge also had that useful quality occasionally needed in public debate: a determined belief that everything is going to hell. Often those people are wrong, but when they’re right — as in Europe in the 1930s — they’re useful to have around.