Douglas Hamilton drowned in Israel on Christmas Eve

The finest reporter I met in my career

By Daniel Simpson

Some biting insight spiked by Reuters

Words can't bring Doug Hamilton to life. To call him a journalist's journalist makes him sound like the pompous clichés he despised. And quoting him doesn't do justice to his wit, or the kindness that inspired so much affection. He cared about colleagues, not impressing those with power. He also strove to tell the truth, in ways that were rarely appreciated by Reuters, for all its advertised commitment to "accuracy and freedom from bias". 

Had he worked elsewhere, he'd have had more freedom to express himself. Yet even though its limits drove him mad at times, he believed in the value of writing for a news wire, from which the rest of the world's reporters lift ideas. If it were edited with Doug's humanity and insight, we'd all be better informed, with far less cant.

When I first met him, he'd recently interviewed Noam Chomsky, for a feature on the politicised hypocrisies of "justice". I can think of no one else at Reuters who'd dare conclude with the comment: "the operational definition of war crime at Nuremberg was a crime that they committed and we didn't." Doug not only filed such lines routinely; he fought the desk to put them out. If he was prickly when dealing with editors, it was often because they failed to see what mattered, mistaking exactitude for preciousness.

I got to know him as a young reporter in the Balkans. He set an example I admired. He rattled out authoritative analysis in the time I took to craft a simple headline. And he did it with an effortless panache. I feared he must be full of himself to begin with, but he generously offered advice, and shared his box of fine cigars. He was never a preachy dogmatist, or dull. He wrote as he spoke to his friends when he'd had a few drinks, and not what he thought he ought to say at work. The staid confines of style guides couldn't constrain him. Though formidably read, he abhorred pretentious prose, and what Orwell called "words [that fall] upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details." 

He did his best to expose propaganda, but his most incisive work was censored, in the name of preserving a spurious objectivity. Doug explained how this made reporters "complicit enablers", to quote the former White House mouthpiece Scott McClellan. But he couldn't do much to stop that by himself, except to state the bleeding obvious. "Death-dealing weapons are depicted as antiseptic tools, soldiers as men of peace," he wrote in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. "Old generals hired by television give advance play-by-play of the action. War, they dutifully intone, is not inevitable. Maybe so. But if it begins, charred flesh and mangled bodies, death and dismemberment will be."

When Reuters restrained his opining, he'd find a source to do it for him, preferring cartoons to the comic pieties of analysts. "I miss the first Gulf war, when we had actual allies," he quoted from Doonesbury in early 2003. "This time we've been reduced to bribing our allies not to oppose us."

Doug's frustrations didn't prevent him having fun. His pastiches from the Olympics were hilarious. He lampooned "Las Vegas chorus-line" synchronised swimmers, the "four-legged Fred Astaires" of dressage and the enigma of women's triathlon, which moved him to free associate in wonder: "Why does the Weakest Link stand there and let himself be humiliated when he could jump out and throttle the compere?"

Instead, the compere throttled Doug, spiking his satire on gymnastics. Its geopolitics was deemed "too far out" for Reuters' strictures. "An unknown athlete from a Rogue State mounts the pommel horse and executes an exquisite Axis of Evil," he reported. U.S. agents pounced at once. It wasn't like Cold War "Winning by Mass Doping (WMD)", when "forehead veins at the Pentagon would pop at the CCCP emblem," and "athletes had the 1,000-yard stare of clean sporting enmity." No, in the 21st century, "we combat WMD by what's known as National Technical Means - three armoured divisions, a couple of nuclear aircraft-carrier battle groups, a strategic bomber wing and it's all over in five years or so."

Doug's ambitions were hard for Reuters to accommodate. He held himself, and other people, to high standards. Reality often fell short of expectations. This depressed him as much as knockbacks from his bosses. He could have left to be another Robert Fisk. But he'd rather have been Bob Dylan or William Faulkner, and if he couldn't do better than them, he'd stay at Reuters. 

May the spirit he embodied live on in those who loved him, and the agency he served until he died. Although he enlivened the humdrum business of reporting, one of his most heartfelt publications was this letter, which he wrote in the summer we met in Macedonia. He went out of his way to help me find my own. I'll miss him and I hope he rests in peace.

In Defense of the World's Holden Caulfields
Published: July 6, 2001
Regarding "The Tiresome Legacy of Holden Caulfield" (Meanwhile, July 3) by George F. Will:
Mr. Will's attack on "The Catcher in the Rye" betrays all the buttoned-down aridity of the far right in America. The dried-up intellectualizing of this pencil-sucking dweeb smells of the grave. He has never been broke, got drunk or smoked a joint. More to the point, has never gone wrong or felt wrong. What a sad boast. He reminds me of Chekhov's "Man in a Case," wrapped in a mental overcoat and galoshes in all seasons.
Holden Caulfield, for all his gauche phrase-making, felt empathy for those who were not of the herd. As Nietzsche said: "The strong are weak when confronted with the organized instincts of the herd." May the likes of Mr. Will never ride herd on America. It would suffocate.
DOUGLAS HAMILTON

Amen.


Further Reading