Author Richard Evans this month published a book called The Explorer and the Journalist. It tells the story of Philip Gibbs, a Fleet Street legend who dared to question the claims of Frederick Cook, an American explorer, about reaching the North Pole. Here, Evans shares some of the story and suggests what modern-day journalists can learn from Gibbs.
On 4 September 1909, Daily Chronicle journalist Philip Gibbs checked himself into an out-of-the-way hotel in Copenhagen to write what would be the most important article of his career so far.
He was one of many journalists from all over Europe who were in Copenhagen to cover the arrival of the American explorer Frederick Cook, who three days earlier had announced he had become the first person to reach the North Pole.
Up to that point, Gibbs’s career had been a series of false starts – his previous four jobs in Fleet Street had all ended unhappily. But that morning, he had managed to secure a huge exclusive.
He had been in a cafe the previous evening when the wife of another explorer came in. In one of the biggest lucky breaks any journalist has ever had, Gibbs got talking to her and she mentioned that a boat was going to meet Cook’s boat before he reached Copenhagen. Gibbs managed to get a place on the boat, and so while the rest of the press pack was waiting for Cook on the quayside, Gibbs was interviewing him.
As Gibbs sat down to write up the interview, the obvious approach would have been to repeat Cook’s dramatic account of this polar adventure and describe what it had been like to stand next to him as they approached Copenhagen.
But Gibbs hesitated. He was troubled by what Cook had told him about leaving his instruments and observations in Greenland to be sent back to the United States. And there was something else about Cook that did not sit comfortably. Gibbs sensed a hint of evasiveness, a quickness to anger when questioned, and a nervousness when he was called to go on deck to wave at the crowds.
All these combined in Gibbs’s head, and by the time he came to write his article he firmly believed Cook was not the discoverer of the North Pole but a liar who was perpetrating an audacious fraud.
So he faced a dilemma. Just reporting Cook’s comments was the easy choice, but he did not want to join in the celebration of a claim he now believed to be a lie. So while he did not go as far as to accuse Cook of lying, he wrote an article that focused so intently on the question of whether Cook really had reached the Pole that it was obvious Gibbs thought his claim was not be taken at face value. Gibbs would later remember that “when I handed it into the telegraph office I knew I had burned my boats, and that my whole journalistic career would be made or marred by this message”.
His article marked the start of a frantic few days, during which Copenhagen showered Cook with accolades – a banquet was held in his honour, he had dinner with the king and queen, and the University of Copenhagen gave him an honorary degree – while Gibbs tried to prove he was lying. It was a campaign that made him the most unpopular man in Copenhagen: he was booed by fellow diners in a restaurant, twice accused of lying, and even challenged to a duel by one of Cook’s supporters.
But in the end, his dogged pursuit paid off. When a commission of experts finally judged that there was not enough evidence to prove Cook had reached the Pole, his claim was set aside and Gibbs was elevated from relative obscurity to become one of Britain’s leading journalists. It was a platform he then used to carve out one of the most illustrious careers in newspaper history.
I have written a book about Gibbs’s reporting of Cook’s claim, and I decided to call it The Explorer and the Journalist. I did so partly for the obvious reason: it’s a book about an explorer and a journalist. But I also wanted the title to nod to one of my favourite ever books about journalism – Janet Malcolm’s The Murderer and the Journalist. Malcolm’s book tells the true story of how the American journalist Joe McGinniss built a relationship with and then wrote a book about a man convicted of murder, and she uses the story to examine fundamental questions about how journalists approach their work.
I chose a similar title for my book because Gibbs’s reporting on Cook also poses fundamental questions about journalism.
The story of Gibbs and Cook was told in the pubs and newsrooms of Fleet Street so many times it became part of journalistic legend. And the reason it was repeated so often was because it fitted so well with journalism’s idea of itself at its best; Gibbs was the plucky reporter who pursued the story despite the Danish establishment telling him he was wrong.
But the most telling part of the story is not Gibbs’ judgement or courage, but the fact that the vast majority of the other journalists in Copenhagen were so willing to accept Cook’s claim. Perhaps this was down to a mixture of reverence for Copenhagen’s scientists and the fact that hardened news reporters can be surprisingly credulous when confronted by someone with a plausible manner and important news. And maybe it was easier to believe in Cook because believing in him was risk-free, while doubting him would have carried legal and reputational jeopardy.
I expect most news journalists have at some point pulled their punches for the same kind of reasons Gibbs’ peers were insufficiently sceptical about Cook’s claim. But that is not to say the story holds the simple lesson that journalists should “be more Gibbs”. Gibbs would later admit that “I took a big chance, and looking back on it one which was too dangerous and not quite justified”. Yes, he was right, but he did not know enough at the time to be sure of it – for all he knew he might have been maligning a hero.
Gibbs’ courage in backing his judgement may have made for a Fleet Street legend, but for journalists working today, dogmatically following his example of trusting their intuition would, sooner or later, likely lead to disaster. So while a lesson from Gibbs’s reporting on Cook is that journalists should be wary of being part of the herd and conscious of the factors that meant Gibbs’ peers were too willing to believe, it is not the only lesson. The complex truth is that the job of news reporters is to try to navigate the uncertainty of challenging themselves to be sceptical, at the same time as being sceptical of the things their own gut is telling them.
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