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Friday, 3 June 2011

Although born in the US, Martha Gellhorn lived in the latter part of her life in London, and the prize named after her - for "journalism that challenges secrecy and mendacity in public affairs" - is awarded by a judging panel appointed by UK-based organisers. The international nature of the prize is fitting. Gellhorn garnered fame for reporting from all corners of the globe, most notably in Spain during the civil war (1936-39) and in Europe at the close of WWII. Gellhorn earned her stripes through connections to the Roosevelt White House and by reporting on poverty in America but she subscribed to universal values of human dignity and justice. And like Julian Assange, who has just been awarded the prize, she was controversial. She was married a number of times, most notably to the author Ernest Hemingway.

The award of the Marth Gellhorn prize to Julian Assange is good for Assange - it gives him needed support during a difficult period of his career as a journalist - and good for the prize - by raising awareness of it. It seems fitting that Assange should win it. Gellhorn had little patience with humbug and official posturing and created a reputation through grit and by consistently focusing her attention on important global concerns. Gellhorn's reputation is possibly greater than Assange's in terms of the quality of her writing - she pioneered literary journalism techniques that were only widely adopted 30 years after she began to use them - but the two sing from the same scoresheet when it comes to bucking the system.

Assange has recently been compelled by external events to lower his profile, leading to a reduced journalistic output, but new ventures that build on the foundation established by WikiLeaks have emerged in numbers. This means that there will be more radical transparency in future regardless of how the battle between Assange and the US Administration turns out. Gellhorn's reporting set a new standard for journalists everywhere. Assange continues to confound those who seek to blindfold the people and save the status quo. Gelhorn's example fuelled later generations of writers as they explored new ways of talking about the world. Assange is an inspiration to those who would change the world.

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