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An interview with Anthony Summers


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 15 June 2006 - 06:41 AM

After completing his education at Oxford University Anthony Summers worked as a television journalist for the BBC. His books include The File on the Tsar (1976), The Kennedy Conspiracy (1980), Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe (1985), Honeytrap (1988), The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover (1993), Not in Your Lifetime (1998), The Arrogance of Power:The Secret World of Richard Nixon (2000) and Sinatra: The Life (2005).

(1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become an investigative journalist?

(2) Is there any real difference between the role of an investigative journalist and a historian?

(3) How do you decide about what to write about?

(4) Do you ever consider the possibility that your historical research will get you into trouble with those who have power and influence?

(5) You tend to write about controversial subjects. Do you think this has harmed your career in any way? Have you ever come under pressure to leave these subjects alone?

(6) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in and covered-up serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?

(7) What is your basic approach to writing about what I would call “secret history”? How do you decide what sources to believe? How do you manage to get hold of documents that prove that illegal behaviour has taken place?

#2 Anthony Summers

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Posted 15 June 2006 - 06:51 AM

[quote name='John Simkin' post='65466' date='Jun 15 2006, 06:41 AM'](1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become an investigative journalist?[/quote]

I don't much like the description "investigative journalist" - it's become debased by overuse and its usurpation by people who couldn't investigate their way out of a paper bag.

As for me, I think I simply felt the stories I was covering - while working for the BBC - often deserved more work and digging than time and budgets allowed. As Senior Film Producer in the BBC Current Affairs Group, I worked with colleagues to encourage that sort of project. Then I left to write my first book, on the disappearance of the Romanovs in 1918, and before I knew it was being described as an investigative journalist. But everyone in journalism should strive to investigate and probe below the surface of the story. If they don't, in my book they're not journalists at all.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='65466' date='Jun 15 2006, 06:41 AM'](2) Is there any real difference between the role of an investigative journalist and a historian?[/quote]

Without intending to be facile, a journalist is a journalist - writing for publication in a newspaper, magazine, or perhaps a book. Or, of course, reporting as a broadcaster. A historian, by contrast, is by definition an academic - who may or may not write for publication. In function, the historian essentially works with what's there in print already or what he or she finds in manuscript form. Unlike journalists, they tend to seek out living witnesses far less often - and in my experience then often proceed to carp at "journalists" who do go out and do "live" research and - perish the thought! - come up with something the historians had missed. One U.S. historian had the gall to say (in connection with one of my books), "If it's not in the files, it didn't happen."

[quote name='John Simkin' post='65466' date='Jun 15 2006, 06:41 AM'](3) How do you decide about what to write about?[/quote]

Either I come up with a subject and persuade a publisher to give me the advance necessary for the research, or - as has happened - a publisher has the idea and asks me if I'm interested in doing a given book.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='65466' date='Jun 15 2006, 06:41 AM'](4) Do you ever consider the possibility that your historical research will get you into trouble with those who have power and influence?[/quote]

Yes, one sometimes wonders if one is in some degree of danger or, alternatively, retribution from people with power and influence. Sometimes there is even evidence that there is some danger. But - and this was true of Woodward and Bernstein when they were working on Watergate - any decent journalist must just shrug, take reasonable precautions, and get on with it. There's no point in being in this business if you're going to be fearful and look over your shoulder all the time. "If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen...." etc.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='65466' date='Jun 15 2006, 06:41 AM'](5) You tend to write about controversial subjects. Do you think this has harmed your career in any way? Have you ever come under pressure to leave these subjects alone?[/quote]

I have not often thought the fact that I tackle "controversial " subjects has damaged my career. Rather the reverse, in the sense that controversy sells books - at least, so goes my perennial hope and that of my publishers. Have I come under pressure to leave a subject alone? Not exactly. During my work on the Kennedy assassination I was physically threatened by some renegade policemen who - I later discovered - were under investigation for being involved in Mafia boss Carlos Marcello's rackets. Otherwise, over the years, there have just been rumbles and grumbles.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='65466' date='Jun 15 2006, 06:41 AM'](6) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in and covered-up serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?[/quote]

The Kennedy assassination is a special case, I think. At first, to its shame, the U.S. media simply trusted the establishment and did virtually nothing to probe into the case. Lazy from the outset, and later gullible and passive. Frankly, they've not done much even since the evidence for "lone gunman Oswald" became evidently fragile. Why? So ridiculous were many of the early "critics", so bizarre was the Garrison circus in New Orleans, that many perfectly honourable reporters shied away from what looked like a quagmire for reputations. So did I - until asked to make a BBC documentary about the work of the House Assassinations Committee.

[quote name='John Simkin' post='65466' date='Jun 15 2006, 06:41 AM'](7) What is your basic approach to writing about what I would call “secret history”? How do you decide what sources to believe? How do you manage to get hold of documents that prove that illegal behaviour has taken place?[/quote]

I spend weeks or months building a huge chronology and reading everything worth reading that I can lay my hands on. Then I start interviewing - usually hundreds of people. There are a number of reasons that may lead one to believe or not believe an interviewee. Sometimes those who seem the most credible turn out to liars, and vice versa. I like to have two sources or more for a fact or assertion - but sometimes one is not that lucky. Then you have to go with your own judgement in the context of all the other related information and the nature of the interviewee. I always let the reader know what my sources are - readers deserve that. How do I get hold of documents? Dozens of ways - the Freedom of Infromation Act, or its equivalent in countries other than the United States, holdings of individuals' personal papers, court records. In short, anywhere.



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