Smithson: An historic example of unfair dismissal

In the history of questionable dismissals of employees, the saga of journalist Edward Kennedy has to rank near the top of the list.

In the history of questionable dismissals of employees, the saga of journalist Edward Kennedy has to rank near the top of the list.

More than 65 years after his firing, his former employer has apologized.

Kennedy was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press news agency during World War II. He was stationed in liberated France in 1945.

His claim to fame was that he broke possibly the biggest news story of the 20th century, Germany’s surrender to the Allied forces. Unfortunately for him, that scoop was also his temporary downfall.

Germany’s unconditional surrender was documented and signed in the early morning hours on May 7, 1945 at allied headquarters for U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower in a schoolhouse in Reims, France. Kennedy was the Paris bureau chief for the Associated Press and was one of a handful of people who knew about it prior to its official announcement.

He was one of 17 reporters allowed to witness the signing ceremony.  They were pledged to secrecy by a U.S. general as a condition of being allowed to see the surrender in person.

Allied generals and politicians wanted the reporters to sit on the story for approximately 36 hours to appease Josef Stalin, who would be holding a similar, later, signing ceremony in Berlin.  However, the news was announced early on a German radio station, in an area controlled by the Allies, so Kennedy presumed that the news embargo must have been lifted.

After reporting the Germans’ surrender, by telephone, to the Associated Press bureau in London, England, the story hit the news wire that same afternoon, pre-empting Stalin’s planned ceremony in Berlin.  The formal cessation of hostilities was not to occur until the next day but, nonetheless, the secret of the surrender was out.

Kennedy believed that the reason for the Allies’ requested delay in releasing the news of the surrender was purely political rather than military in nature.  He apparently rationalized his early release on the basis that, while the secret was being held, soldiers were still dying in needless combat.

According to his memoir, Kennedy suspected his actions might lead to retribution.  Apparently he stated to the Paris bureau staff, “I may not be around here much longer.”

The fallout of the early announcement was swift and harsh for Kennedy and for the Associated Press organization.  The U.S. military initially suspended the ability of Associated Press to dispatch any news from the European theatre of war and it expelled Kennedy from France and pulled his press accreditation.

Within months of his return to New York (where he was left dangling without an assignment), the Associated Press fired him.  It had already condemned his actions when then-president Robert McLean stated publicly: “The Associated Press profoundly regrets the distribution…of the report of the total surrender in Europe which investigation now clearly discloses was distributed in advance of authorization by Supreme Allied Headquarters.”

Only later was there an acknowledgment by the military that the German radio broadcast had preceded Kennedy’s reporting by several hours and so, in reality, he hadn’t revealed any existing secrets.

Kennedy did have some supporters at the time but, overall, it seems he was very unpopular among fellow reporters, with the military, and in the eyes of various American publications.  One called his actions a “grave disservice to the newspaper profession” and another said he gave the press a “black eye”—apparently freedom of the press wasn’t their primary concern at the time.

Kennedy remained adamant that he had done the right thing in the circumstances, later publishing an article entitled: I’d Do It Again.

Now, 67 years later, the president and CEO of the Associated Press seems to have come around to Kennedy’s way of thinking.

Tom Curley has recently been quoted as saying that Kennedy “did everything just right.”  He denies that the Associated Press had an obligation to obey the military censors’ order to sit on the story, since it had become clear that the news embargo was for ceremonial, rather than military, reasons.

Curley has been quoted as saying: “It was a terrible day for the AP. It was handled in the worst possible way…” and “once the war is over, you can’t hold back information like that. The world needed to know.”

Curley has called Kennedy’s firing “a great, great tragedy” and has given him a perhaps long overdue pat on the back for upholding the highest principles of journalism, for doing the right thing and for standing up to power.  Kennedy remained in the journalism business, working as managing editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press in California and later as the publisher of the Monterey Peninsula Herald.

Edward Kennedy died in 1963, in a traffic accident, at age 58.

This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work go to:

www.smithsonlaw.ca