Each year a prize is awarded to the best reporter in the French written press. Sometimes referred to as the “French Pulitzer”, the prize is named after a celebrated French journalist, Albert Londres. Although perhaps not as well known in the English-speaking world, Albert Londres is celebrated in his homeland for his ground-breaking investigative journalism, which marked a golden age of newspaper reporting.
During his journalistic career, which took him all over the world, London spoke truth to power. His newspaper articles and books highlighted injustices and denounced abuses of power at home and abroad. In his writings, he dealt with many difficult issues, including prisoners’ rights, psychiatric patients’ rights, the white slave trade, prostitution and forced labor in France’s colonies.
London began as a parliamentary correspondent before becoming a war reporter when the first World War broke out. It was his poignant reporting of the bombing of Reims cathedral in September 1914 that catapulted him to national prominence. His writing style was simple, yet incredibly powerful. He wrote in the first person, as if he was speaking directly to the reader. This, together with his use of uncomplicated language and short sentences, proved to be a winning formula. His writing appealed to a broad section of the public and when an article carried his name, circulation figures were boosted. He became a popular and respected voice in journalism.
One of London’s many successes as a journalist was in helping to bring about the closure of one of France’s worst penal colonies. When he visited French Guiana in August 1923, London witnessed at first hand the appalling living and working conditions that the convicts had to endure. As the star reporter of France’s best-selling daily newspaper, The Little Parisian, he was given free access to all areas of the penal colony and was able to speak with prisoners, as well as prison guards. He carried out many interviews and recounted them verbatim in his articles, which included a good deal of dark humor that he used to make the subject of his writing more palatable for his readers. He even interviewed an Irish nun, Sister Florence, who was in charge of the women’s prison. She told him that she had spent 30 years there and that she would soon be returning to France, as it was decided to close the women’s prison.
London also visited the notorious Devil’s Island where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, often for years at a time. This was where Alfred Dreyfus was kept when he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The series of lengthy front-page articles that London produced on the penal colony, which read like a cross between an exotic travel book and a detective novel, were followed avidly by readers back in France, eager to know what happened next. At the end of this series of stark articles, he penned an open letter to the minister for colonies in which he called for the penal system to be reformed. That is what ultimately happened when a law was signed in 1938 to close these inhumane camps.
In later years, London traveled widely, investigating the latest international news story. He reported on the plight of Jews in central and eastern Europe, abuses of power in colonized Africa, ordinary life in Soviet Russia, and terrorism in the Balkans.
He also wrote about seemingly light-hearted stories, such as reporting from the course of the Tour de France in 1924. Unfortunately, as his articles reveal, doping seems to have been a feature of it then too. Four years later, his newspaper articles caused outrage in France when he described how construction of the 500km long Congo-Ocean railway line, which stretched from the capital Brazzaville to the coast, left 17,000 construction workers dead from accidents and such diseases as malaria and yellow fever.
London was on a journalistic mission in May 1932 when the ocean liner on which he was traveling caught fire and sank in the Gulf of Aden. News of his disappearance was reported in newspapers around the world. It is not clear what story he was investigating before he died, but on boarding the liner to make his way back to France, he cabled to say “I’m bringing back dynamite”. Sadly, the exact subject of his last story remains a mystery, but it adds to the myth that surrounds this talented, campaigning writer who never missed an opportunity to speak up for society’s less fortunate. The latest recipient of the Albert London Prize is Luc Mathieu, who won for his series of articles for Release on the conflicts in Syria and Kurdistan in Iraq.