Zero Marks For Littlejohn's Research

 by Martin Belam, 16 August 2005

I'm well aware that rising to the bait in a column by Richard Littlejohn belittles me more than it will disturb him, but I find myself unable to bite my lip today. In today's The Sun Littlejohn wrote:

I went to Hiroshima 20 years ago and couldn't help being moved by the memorial.

But although I hoped it wouldn't happen again, I never thought for a moment that dropping the big one was wrong.

As one American commentator put it: Hiroshima has inoculated the world against nuclear war for the past 60 years.

That's quite apart from crushing one of the most barbaric regimes in history, saving hundreds of thousands of lives and ending World War II.

But listening to some of the coverage, you'd have thought this was an unprovoked attack on a peaceful nation.

One BBC television reporter even referred to Hiroshima as "Japan's Ground Zero"

Now, that last sentence struck me as a little odd, so, call me old-fashioned if you like, but I thought I'd do some fact-checking and assess the validity of my sources. You know, the kind of things that journalists and commentators claim divides "the published" from the self-publishing masses.

Actually, as it transpired, my twenty minutes of snatched internet research this afternoon didn't unearth what I was looking for, a claim for the very first reference to Ground Zero at Hiroshima.

There was this article which claims:

The origins of this term, however, unmistakably point elsewhere: to the so-called Manhattan Project and the nuclear bombing of Japan. The Oxford English Dictionary, citing the use of the term in a 1946 New York Times report on the destroyed city of Hiroshima, defines "ground zero" as "that part of the ground situated immediately under an exploding bomb, especially an atomic one."

I couldn't rely on that as evidence though, because I wasn't able to verify the original quote from the OED.

I did though find these video clips of the aftermath of the Hiroshima explosion. In the first clip the camera points in the four different directions of the compass and the commentator announces that these are the views from 'Point Zero'. It isn't clear whether the commentary is contemporary with the pictures (which are clearly very close to the event, one for example features someone marking in chalk the position of a dust shadow on the floor in the shape of a human being), but judging by the style it certainly sounds like the commentary comes from the 40's or 50's at the latest.

Checking out the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum I found what I was looking for. The interactive map of the Nakajima district cites:

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum Exhibit pamphlet
"Reviving Historic Memories --- The Town at Ground Zero that Vanished"
/ March 2001

Evidence of use of the term 'Ground Zero' to describe Hiroshima, as I had always understood it to be when I was growing up, before it began to be used to describe the site of the World Trade Center after the atrocity of the 11th of September 2001, backed up by this section on the Ground Zero entry on wikipedia - "Before September 11, 2001 the term ground zero was often used for the devastation caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki"

So, it turns out, that despite Richard Littlejohn being a professional journalist, newspaper commentator and author, calling Hiroshima "Japan's Ground Zero" wasn't just a BBC television reporter's idea after all.

You couldn't make it up.

1 Comment

Checking the old OED Online (thanks to the old corporate subscription!)

"ground zero, that part of the ground situated immediately under an exploding bomb, esp. an atomic one."

But I would question whether Littlejohn is (anymore) a professional journalist or a professional commentator - the latter being an important distinction as part of the job description seems enable people to sprout uniformed comment posed as fact.

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