Page images

whole series of beliefs and expectations theretofore held in suspense. In a moment, long vistas of speculation, with their bypaths, become solid ground, over which the political writer is able to conduct his public with confidence at an hour's notice.

But the hour's notice the hour's notice is very desirable. It gives the writer ease ; it smoothes his way; it may even be accounted necessary for his own good and the good of his work; but he does not get it so often as in times of old. By a few precious minutes at every stage of the day's business, there was a more leisurely way of doing things thirty years ago. Step back twenty years farther, and see how leading articles were written for the most exigent and enterprising newspaper of the period. Describing the beginning of his connection with the Times,' Lord Blach ford says: "I dined with Mr Walter and his son in Printinghouse Square at five o'clock, and found that I was expected to write an article then and there on one of the subjects of the day. I protested my inability, not supposing myself capable of doing such a thing in less than a week. This was pooh-poohed. I tried, found it possible, and found also that I was expected to repeat the process next day. Same hour, same dinner, short conversation after dinner, when the subject was announced, and I was left alone till tea-time, when Mr Walter appeared, read aloud what I had done, with criticisms, and, after correction, carried off the copy to the printer. When the article," taken up for completion after tea, 66 was finished, the same process was repeated; and when I was disburdened of the whole article I went home to bed." And in this

[blocks in formation]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

This was in 1842. Before 1862 leader-writing had lost much of the ease and fireside charm which Frederic Rogers enjoyed, but yet its practice was more unembarrassed and deliberate than the advance of civilisation allowed it to remain. The one fact that thena-days there were no Atlantic or other long distance submarine cables to pour news into "the office" from all parts of the earth, at all hours of the day and night, marks a great difference in favour of the scribe. Mainly on this account, he now begins to write at about eleven o'clock at night, -often without knowing what new facts may come in before twelve to make rewriting necessary, or what may sary, or what may "transpire" before breakfast-time next morning to belate his premisses or throw doubt on his conclusions. In consequence, not seldom is he driven to hedging ingenuities of locution which enfeeble what he has to say. But a worse result of the endless stream of rumours, reports, and "revelations," together with the imperative up-todate competition deplored by our dramatic critic, is one that seems to be gaining ground fast. Every novel and plausible rumour being the rumour most up to date, it is allowed an importance that very rarely belongs to it. The leaderwriter feels that it must not be supposed to have escaped his vigilance; he must take notice of it: in doing so he must search out its remotest inner meanings for whatever up-to-dateness they may reveal; and the consequence is that reports which in nine cases out of ten are born to flutter for a day

and then to perish, are discussed as gravely as if they were in every sense the last word.

It will be understood at once, of course, that these remarks more particularly apply to journalistic comment on foreign affairs, which are now and are likely to remain by far the most important of English affairs; and no one who studies them in the newspapers will accuse me of exaggeration on this point. It can be explained, of course, if explanation which offers no hope of remedy is of any comfort; but never till now has there been such an inpour of startling reports, unexpected developments, surprising portents, keys to the situation, revelations of the most authorised description-yet nearly all factitious or fanciful; and never before has there been such eager snatching at the latest supply of a commodity which, in its effect on the consumer, resembles West Coast gin: exciting much but debilitating more. That is the evil of it. As for the leader - writers, "the facts of competition, and that people generally prefer a thing done soon to having it done well, compel a notice" of these rumours and reports which otherwise would never be wasted on them. As for the public, before long the public mind tires under the profitless confusion so assiduously provided for it; and it would be strange if the instructors of the public mind did not sicken a little too. Meanwhile, what is most substantial and most necessary to keep in view is in danger of being overlaid and forgotten. Here at the least is a very great nuisance, the which we were spared when telegraphic enterprise gave less facility for a traffic which is not always innocently distracting; for sometimes in politics, as sometimes in


finance, the wires are used to propagate impressions and alarms more useful to the senders of the message than to anybody else. Obviously, it was a very great advantage to be comparatively free of such irruptions, to be ourselves rarely disturbed by them, and to write for a public that did not go wild twice a-week over sensational telegrams prepared with too little care or a vast deal too much. "Prodigious fabrications are evidently taking the place of serious and carefully sifted news." It even goes as far as that, according to one of the most moderate and soft-speaking of London journals.

These developments confirm rather than weaken an old opinion that the most difficult and least satisfactory service of the Press in Britain is the Foreign Correspondent's. Its difficulty is indeed so great, even as practised by the worthiest among an able and honourable set of men, that it seems nearly unattainable. Consider what the position of a Foreign Correspondent is. As agent of a British firm, he is sent to some great capital to obtain a constant supply of a valuable commodity. It is of different qualities this commodity - the most esteemed being, as usual, the sort that is hardest come by. The new, the secret, the unknown in international politics are the greatest prizes; but even the most precious of these loses 95 per cent of the value it would otherwise have for the firm at home when it is not "exclusive." That

it should be exclusive is everything that is to say, that no other correspondent of a similar firm should have a share in it. But in every great capital a dozen correspondents of similar firms

3 c

compete against each other; and very keen the competition is, because the success of one man is in its own exact measure a reproach and a humiliation to the rest. And with all this competition, what have the rival seekers after the new, the secret, the unknown, to offer for it? Nothing: nothing tangible, of course. In France a good deal of business is done in this commodity on a solid footing; but there the inquiring firms are mostly financial, operating for bourse-purposes and by no means to supply the public with news. The Own Correspondent has no commission to pay a political functionary's debts or anything of that sort, and would not consent to work in any such way. He has nothing to offer but his card and his civilities, wherever he may seek what he is in want of daily. Even for the means of carrying on an inferior though still important part of his duties, he must studiously compete with the rest of the dozen in being agreeable. It is his business to make himself persona grata with all the more lofty functionaries in Court and Government, or how shall he hope for a good place for describing State festivities or on grand ceremonial occasions? And then as to higher things, how else is he to stand a chance of getting choice political information? To be sure, there is resort to the British Embassy in the capital to which he is accredited; but though our Foreign Office officials abroad are a trifle more yielding, I believe, than they in Downing Street are, there are no flintier sources of political revelation in the world than the British secretariat. The other Embassies afford better sport, and it is a matter of great importance to be on friendly terms with them

all; for it is impossible to say when any one of them may not have reasons of State for worrying another by the revelation of a half-formed scheme or the publication of a compromising despatch. Above all, the Foreign Correspondent must stand well with the Government of the country he lives in; and the only way of keeping well with these highest dispensers of information is to take a friendly view of their policies and proceedings whenever it is possible and as long as it is possible.

Now as the British journalist carries the spirit of independence abroad with him, and is, according to my observation and belief, remarkably sensitive to the professional point d'honneur, he has an extremely troublesome time of it between what is expected of him at home and the pressure to which he is subject in the capital where he is stationed. That it cannot be otherwise is in the nature of men and things; and no man needs another's glasses to see the length and breadth of the facts. It is only a ruder and coarser embarrassment for the correspondent in France, in Germany, in Austria, when his editor, acting upon an independent opinion, writes in persistent hostility to the Government in either of these countries. And what is the result? The result that might be expected is a good deal of complaisance. As a matter of fact, however, there is very much less of it than might be inferred without excess of suspicion. But yet, as I have had occasion to remark before now, it is at this point that the independence of the English press is weakest. it is most often exposed to subversion-to subversion of a very subtle kind; and unfortunately


the public cannot always see where the correspondent has been "planted" with some insidious suggestion, some half-true yet wholly mendacious denial, or some statement intended to assist the least admirable arts of diplomacy. But this is by no means an uncommon operation in troubled and exciting times, when the correspondent himself, perhaps, is caught by the fever that rages about him. Not, of course (but that has been understood all along), that there is the faintest reason for complaint when British interests are involved, or British honour. Nor can there be the least reason for fear, either when the correspondent is an Englishman or when he is a foreigner scrupulously faithful to his salt. But when foreigners are employed to send foreign news to English journals, together with hints and criticism of foreign affairs, these writers should be warranted in capable of undertaking a divided duty.

In any case, whatever danger there may be lurks not in the news that the correspondent sends, but in the comment, the conveyance of impression, which form so large a part of the telegraph matter from abroad. What is meant by that may be illustrated by a little experience of my own, otherwise hardly worth mentioning. In the early days of the 'Pall Mall Gazette' I had a visit from a certain Dr P., a Berlin official. He introduced himself as coming directly from the German Chancellor with a proposal which von Bismarck took a personal interest in. He often read the 'Pall Mall Gazette,' and was greatly pleased with, much admired, or sincerely respected, a variety of qualities which he habitually found there. On that

account the Chancellor desired to be of use to the Pall Mall Gazette,' as he might be by supplying the paper occasionally with really good information on foreign affairs. If that would be agreeable to me, Dr P. would be the means of despatching such news from time to time-a regular correspondence at irregular intervals being the kind of thing proposed. Further to enable him to show that this was a genuine offer, von Bismarck had intrusted to Dr P. a few lines in his own hand to say as much. Document then produced, shown to me, and returned to Dr P.'s pocket-book. With the best face at my command, I asked whether it was proposed to send news alone, or also to send letters of observation and comment; to which the reply was that both news and comment were intended. What I then said I do not remember; but my meaning was to point out as inoffensively as possible that the 'Pall Mall Gazette' being a small paper, the Chancellor's kindness would be much enhanced if nothing but concrete news was sent, or such information as could be conveyed in a simple paragraph of affirmation, explanation, correction, or denial. We seemed to understand each other at once; and though Dr P. said very politely that no doubt this could be arranged, I never heard another word of the business he came about after he had left the room.

The bearing of this little story lies in the fact that brief paragraphs of plain statement bring the writer to a full sense of his responsibility while he is inditing them; and that the language of reporting is neither fluid enough nor voluminous enough to carry any great amount of feeling or innuendo, whether for business or

undesigned. Dr P. meant business, no doubt, though to my mind not very culpably; ruse is the recognised instrument of every diplomacy except our innocent own. But even in professional politics there is such a thing as unconscious feeling, unintended twists of partisanship; or else what is meant by the belief, which exists in every Foreign Office, that an ambassador may live at one Court too long? Not that the particular signs which suggest too long a residence at the same post are often shown in the case of the correspondent. I do not know that he ever shows them, indeed. But, being human, he is in danger of answering more than he is aware to the various influences persistently bearing on him. It

even possible to plant him with misleading ideas, interested suggestion, erroneous sympathies; and since that is the case, we may doubt whether journalism is improved by taking from the correspondent long screeds of speculation and comment for publication under the head of News.

That is the objection. So printed, they delude-not by intention of the writer, but through the imagination of the reader. We all know how unconsciously imagination can lead us astray. Because these screeds are telegraphed, and because they are printed with news as news, the writer's remarks are invested by most minds with the importance due to a statement of facts. Whatever may be his aim, whether to persuade or dissuade, to appease or inflame, to allay mistrust or to alarm suspicion,— all is understood as if resting on a background of actual knowledge. To the fancy of the reader, the special correspondent in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, is always a news

writer. He never loses that character, whatever he may say; and so the reader often takes that for veiled information which is merely speculative, or the fancy of excited sympathies, or even something which somebody hopes to bring into existence by persistent prophecy.

For these and other reasons, I can but think it would be well were foreign correspondents to go back a little to their old ways, which were the ways of simple and straightforward reporting. Nor are they strange to us even now. Reuter's agents adopted them, and faithfully stuck to them till quite lately; with the result that Reuter's telegrams came to have more weight generally with experienced readers than those of any newspaper correspondent. Now that Reuter's agents seem inclined, here and there, to depart from the unambitious simplicity of the reporter, reason the more for rescuing political discussion from a great deal that distracts, overloads, and fatigues it. It may be asked whether I propose, then, that opinion and observation accumulated by watchful and keenwitted correspondents "on spot" should go to waste. Of course I do not. But I do think that more of it might advantageously pass to publication through the sieve of editorial responsibility; and that to appear in its true character all such matter should be printed apart from the news columns, where it takes a significance and authority which it should be guarded from.

That avowed partisans should be employed to send home news from foreign parts, and be so employed because they are partisans, is an entirely new thing in journalism, and one that would have been thought incredible not very long

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »