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Hollywood's quintessential English gentleman David Niven tells a very touching story in his autobiography The Moon's a Balloon about his days as an officer in the Highland Light Infantry. He recounts how he went to the hospital bedside of crusty old Company Sergeant Major "Sixty" Smith the day before the battalion left Malta. Smith, a highly respected regimental character, asked the young Niven to arrange for the battalion to deviate slightly from its marching route down to the docks so that he could hear the pipe band one last time before he died. Niven claims to have been with Smith as the pipes and drums marched past and saw tears ran down the old soldier's "granite cheeks" before he slid back down between the sheets and turning his face to the wall. Niven reports Smith died that night. The problem with the story is that Smith died in 1936, in Egypt, and Niven resigned his commission in 1933. The last soldiers of the regiment to see Smith in hospital before they left Egypt reported no premonition of death from the tough old Military Medal winner; who came through the entire First World War uninjured. Smith made fine fodder for one of Niven's many embellished and dubious tales in The Moon's a Balloon. Would Smith have approved; I don't know. The urbane raconteur always had a twinkle in in eyes when he told such tales during television interviews. It was obvious that he was not the kind of man to let the facts get in the way of a good story. He was after all an entertainer. But as News becomes more and more a branch of the entertainment industry some disturbing trends are emerging. Television news anchors are taken more seriously than they should be here in North America. For years US anchor Brian Williams told how a helicopter he was in over Iraq had to make an emergency landing after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. In fact, it was another helicopter flying nearby that was forced down. I won't go into why some Walter Mitty television newsman would make up such a story. What concerns me is the lack of respect he had for journalism. Did he really think no-one would check his story? Though, it took US journalists more than a decade to call Williams out, so perhaps his contempt for his own profession was not entirely without some foundation.


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