Anwar Sadat: His part in my downfall
ON November 9, 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made a speech to the Egyptian parliament, announcing that he was willing "to go to the end of the earth for peace, even to the Knesset itself". Two days earlier Israeli planes had struck at two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat was sitting in the Egyptian parliament as an official guest. After hearing what Sadat had to say, Chairman Arafat flew to Damascus and held emergency talks with other Palestinian leaders on what to do.
I was working for the daily News Line at the time, having been brought on largely because of my interest in the Middle East. Seeing the news come over the Reuters machine, I sensed its importance. My "Foreign" pages, 6 and 7, had already been transmitted to the printers - I was always told to have them ready by noon. It was early evening. Most of the staff had gone home or to the pub, and there was just me scanning the incoming news and editor Paul Jennings subbing copy for pages 1 and 2.
I asked Paul if I could have space for the Sadat story, he agreed so long as I kept it short, and I quickly set to work, sticking to the facts, but mentioning the bombing in Lebanon and that Arafat had flown off to hold talks on what to do.
Next morning when I arrived for work I was asked to step into Gerry Healy's office. Though officially no longer general secretary, Healy still held uncontested authority in the Workers Revolutionary Party, kept a close eye on the paper, and personally handled links that had been made with the PLO and some Arab regimes. There was a Palestinian with him now, an unusually dour character called Daoud, whom we understood was from Fateh, though he didn't have much to say.
"What are you doing letting our paper carry an attack on Comrade Abu Amar?!", demanded Healy angrily, - referring to Arafat by his nom de guerre, whether it was to impress me or Daoud.
I was puzzled, thinking in consternation that some irresponsible News Line journalist had written something without my knowledge for which I was getting the blame. But Healy was pointing to my report on the Sadat speech. In vain did I try to point out that I had criticised Sadat, not Arafat, and that the PLO chairman had clearly been alarmed by what Sadat said.
"You're a fucking Rejectionist, Pottins.
And I've got no time for Rejectionists!"
I almost laughed at this accusation. The PLO leadership had indicated that, without abandoning their historic aims, they were willing to participate in peace talks - indeed rather than be sidelined they demanded their right to represent their people - and to set up a state in any part of their homeland from which the Zionists withdrew. Asked whether armed struggle would continue if this happened, Arafat told an interviewer that different conditions would mean different means. Seeing this on TV, and hearing similar views from certain of the Palestinian left, I had thought them very sensible. The rejectionists wanted none of this, clinging stubbornly to all-out struggle "for as long as it takes", while hoping they could rely on backing from some very unreliable Arab states The danger was that the PLO would be shouldered aside and even crushed, as Arab governments pursued a deal with Israel, backed by the United States. Arafat recognised this danger in Sadat's speech.
I was ordered to write an apology to our readers. "Anyway, just because Arafat was there does not mean he approved of the speech", Healy remarked to me quietly as I we left the office. Only in the mind of a Healy or one of his imitators (though perhaps it originated in a Stalin school of journalism) could it be thought that if you said someone was in the building when another person spoke that was to be taken as meaning there was agreement between them! I never did quite get the hang of this way of thinking.
I wrote my note, saying we might have given the false impression that Arafat agreed with Sadat, and apologising to our readers for this. I didn't know if the readers would think we were stupid or that we assumed they were. That lunchtime, it being a nice sunny if somewhat chilly day, I eschewed the canteen, which was next to Healy's office, and went out for some fish and chips, which I took to the park to eat, alone with my thoughts.
When I got back to work, Jack Gale told me that Healy wanted to see us both. I wondered what it was this time - maybe he wasn't satisfied that my apology was sincere. It turned out to be something quite different, or so it seemed. Me and Jack were to go up to Birmingham to get a report on the firefighters' strike.
This was a major confrontation between a vital section of workers and the Labour government. I'd already been down to Portsmouth with a News Line photographer to cover a firefighters' demonstration. Now I'd be able to get out of the office again, make first-hand contact with these workers in struggle, and develop my political experience as well as skills as a journalist.
Next morning we set out in Jack's car in bright sunshine, which seemed auspicious, and as we had a call to make en route in High Wycombe we took a scenic route, as well as enjoying a pint and lunch in a fine old Buckinghamshire pub, for which I think Jack paid, as my
income as a News Line journalist didn't run to such things. (I wish I'd found out where that Libyan gold we were supposed to be getting went, so I could have claimed my share).
That evening we interviewed Ken Cameron, then the West Midlands regional Fire Brigades Union officer, at his little home, and met some firemen on their picket line. I stayed overnight with a comrade in Moseley so I could go out the following morning with some Birmingham friends to visit more pickets on the fire stations.
After attending a trade unionists conference in Digbeth on the Saturday I returned to London on the coach so as to be bright and early for the editorial meeting. When Healy walked in he asked me what I was doing there and told me I was meant to be in Birmingham.
So back it was, to stay on the floor of the comrade in Moseley, who had to put up with me for the rest of the strike which lasted into the new year.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I helped organise a public meeting where Ken Cameron spoke alongside the PLO representative. I got around fire stations from Redditch to Solihull, met some great characters, sat chatting with them around their braziers as well as interviewing them at home, and got a real insight into their struggle. Prime Minister James Callaghan had told FBU leaders "Gentlemen, I must destroy you!" He failed, and they nearly finished him.
At the end of the strike, though the firefighters had not won what they had hoped, they were not destroyed nor downhearted. I was invited to join firefighters in their club in Birmingham Central fire station, where they bought the drinks, and I was not just the only journalist allowed in, but the only person there who wasn't in the fire service.
My wages had often arrived late or not at all, and never been enough to keep me in fares and food, let alone enable me to find somewhere proper to stay. But as well as being hard-up and uncomfortable for a few months, which I could set aside against the importance of the strike, I had registered some odd treatment from my bosses on News Line and the WRP, which left me wondering whether they really cared about these important workers and their strike; and if not, what was the point of sending me to Birmingham? I still don't know the answers.
When the firefighters' strike ended I was told to stay where I was. I managed to find a furnished room, while covering a few news events such as a health service demo. Then I was recalled to London, and given my notice by Healy in person. I was not allowed to use the office where I'd been, but had to work apart from the others on the editorial team. My month ended, I was relieved to get out of the Healy machine, and took a factory job where it was a pleasure to be once again among "ordinary" workers, and able to have a laugh with my mates. Thus had ended my career as a revolutionary journalist.