“A newspaper has a simple duty to its readers which is best summed up by the biblical phrase, ‘Ye shall know the truth’.
The truth in this case illustrates… the corrupting and fearful effect of war on otherwise decent men, and what can happen when the highest standards of discipline are allowed to fall. That is the lesson, and it can never be taught too often.”
1 Feb 1970
Bob Edwards, editor
Prisoners during the Malayan Emergency: the Foreign Office has produced documents about the deaths of 24 Malaysian men in 1948. Photograph: Jack Birns/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
How The People broke the story
Thursday’s Guardian story about the massacre of 24 unarmed people in Malaysia in 1948 reminded me of a great piece of investigative journalism by The People.
When the shooting of the villagers by British troops was first revealed by the paper it suffered severe criticism from the government, assorted politicians and some readers.
The story, headlined “Horror in a nameless village”, was published on 1 February 1970, when Bob Edwards was editor.
It followed the brave decision by one soldier, a member of the Scots Guards, to counter the official version — that the villagers were shot while attempting to escape from detention.
After he confessed that the villagers* were herded together and machine-gunned in the back, People reporters Ken Gardner and Bill Dorran persuaded several more soldiers to talk.
“They had sleepless nights,” Edwards later wrote in his book, “and were glad to get it off their chests.”
The soldiers’ testimonies, beginning on the front (then broadsheet) page, ran across several more pages inside. Edwards regarded it as the best issue in the paper’s history, and his leader was fine too. It read:
“A newspaper has a simple duty to its readers which is best summed up by the biblical phrase, ‘Ye shall know the truth’
The truth in this case illustrates… the corrupting and fearful effect of war on otherwise decent men, and what can happen when the highest standards of discipline are allowed to fall. That is the lesson, and it can never be taught too often.”.
But the truth was too much for the (Labour) government, which refused to hold a public inquiry. The defence minister, Denis Healey, told Edwards his behaviour had been disgraceful.
The leader of the Liberal party, Jeremy Thorpe, said Edwards should be prosecuted for criminal libel.
Although The Guardian backed The People, the story didn’t get big media or political support. Edwards wrote in his memoirs, Goodbye Fleet Street: “The country was shocked, I felt, but wanted the matter quietly dropped, and that is what happened.”
In fact, Healey did ask Scotland Yard to investigate, but it didn’t get anywhere and the inquiry was dropped by the Tory government that replaced Labour in June 1970.
In September 1992, a BBC documentary, In Cold Blood, revealed fresh evidence that also included the soldiers’ confessions plus accounts from witnesses and police officers who conducted the investigation.
Though Edwards contended that “few” readers complained about the story, The People’s investigations editor, Laurie Manifold, told me during an interview in 2007 that he recalled there having been “lots of cancellations.”
Whatever the case, it was a tribute to all involved — Gardner, Dorran, Manifold and, most especially, Edwards — that a massacre concealed for 22 years was finally revealed.
Guardian reader MichealConnail added this comment
This is unfair to Denis Healey, the best politician not to be Prime Minister in a Labour Government. He instituted the inquiry when he was Defence Minister, but it was Sir Peter Rawlinson QC. the Attorney-General in the Heath Government in 1970, who instructed Scotland Yard officers to end the inquiry,
*The headline on Greenslade’s posting erroneously refers to a ‘Malay massacre’ while the second paragraph erroneously refers to “the Malay villagers”. The villagers of Batang Kali who were shot were, in fact, all Chinese Malayans.