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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: A well-behaved press

15 August 2014

8:00 AM

15 August 2014

8:00 AM

‘War and the press’, from The Spectator, 15 August 1914:

When Mr Churchill paid a high compliment in the House of Commons to the British newspapers he said no more than was deserved. The newspapers are now under control by law, and we need not specially praise them for a reticence and a public spirit which are exacted of them. At the same time, there has obviously been no attempt whatever by them to dodge the letter of the law, or to give themselves the benefit of the doubt in ambiguous circumstances – a benefit which might aid a newspaper greatly in competition with its rivals. The chief merit of the newspapers, however, was their conduct during what Mr. Churchill called the precautionary period, before war was declared. Then there was no fear of statutory penalties, yet the entire Press voluntarily observed a silence that was one of the most remarkable things we can remember. If we had not experienced it, we could have not believed that such secretiveness in a country like ours – which multiplies the hundreds tongues of rumour – would have been possible. We heard much of Japanese reticence during the Russo-Japanese War, but it is not now seen to have been more remarkable than our own. The words “Expeditionary Force” ceased to exist for every British newspaper.

What is the explanation of the faithful service which the newspapers have rendered to their country? It is simply that at last Ministers have been sensible enough to take the Press into their confidence, tell editors what was being done, and ask them to mention no subject on which publicity which injure the plans of the War Office and the Admiralty. The result was a complete success we have witnessed. If any member of the Government was more responsible than another for this piece of great practical wisdom, it was, we believe, Mr. Winston Churchill. He was himself a special correspondent in South African War, and consequently formed an opinion of the essential decency of editors which seems to have been beyond the grasp of his predecessors. When one comes to think of it, it is strange that the situation should have been misread for so many years. One would think that it would have been patent to anyone who took the trouble to examine the facts that even the less reputable newspapers commit errors, not because they want to be unpatriotic, but because the temptation to outrun their rivals in the race for news is too strong for them. It is absurd to suppose that papers which print leading articles in and out of season imploring the Government of the day to strengthen the Navy, or increase the Army, or rearm the Artillery, are really unpatriotic at heart. Yet there has been a long succession of Ministers, Admirals and Generals who seem to think, not only that this supposition might fairly be made, but that it might advantageously be acted upon. The fact is that the two motives that inspire the conduct of a newspaper – the desire to serve the country, and the commercial desire to serve itself – are in continual conflict. Fossilized administrators at the Admiralty and the War Office have in the past recognized the latter desire, but overlooked the first.  Yet all the time, as we have ventured to point out before now, it was quite easy to conserve the first and cure the second by the simple device of trusting newspapers and putting them on their honour. Tell a self-respecting man a secret and accept his pledge not to repeat it, and he would feel disgraced forever if it appeared in his newspaper. That is only human nature. The whole dangerous area – the area of injurious competition among newspapers in telling war secrets – can be ruled out by pledging all the proprietors and editors simultaneously. The only point ever in doubt was whether the editors and proprietors would be willing to be appealed to or pledge for the precautionary period. That doubt disposed of, the success of the plan was certain. Delane used to say, indeed, that one of the things he chiefly dreaded was that people might tell him political secrets. When he was weak enough to listen to secrets he was instantly muzzled. He could make no use of it. “Yet,” as he said, “I probably should have heard it in any case without any obligations of secrecy.” One is inclined to doubt now whether soldiers, sailors, or politicians in high positions in the past who did not recognize that the Press, as an enormous existing power for good or ill, or to be used in the right way (lest it should itself decide to behave in the wrong way) were fit to guide their country through a great crisis. The knowledge of human nature was insufficient. We may be thankful that the times have changed, and that such persons are not now in control. The Press have been given its opportunity of self-suppression, and have used it nobly.

In what we have written we have not left out of mind the dangers of a too intimate relation between any public Service and the Press. We all know and despise the “advertising” officer, and we have all heard of that sort of official who feeds the journalist with valuable information on the understanding that the journalist shall crack up his patron’s theories in the Press. The process is scarcely distinguishable from blackmail. Now there is a Press Bureau in full blast, and though we think it has a useful and steadying influence at present – nothing could be more sober and well balanced than these journalistic productions of Mr. F. E. Smith – we trust it will never be allowed to become a precedent for any attempts on the part of a Government to confuse opinions and facts. It is all too easy for the Government to make use of such an institution as a Press Bureau if it wants to gain currency and popularity for certain ideas. In Germany the “official” Press and the continuance of the Bismarckian method of using the Press are, we can say without exaggeration, one of the chief supports of the vile diplomacy which has involved Europe in war. The Times informed its readers on Wednesday of a curious German manoeuvre which proves Bismarck’s methods to be as much alive as ever. It received from a German in close relations with the Emperor a letter expressing a profound surprise and pain at the thought that Englishmen should believe the Emperor capable of disturbing the peace of Europe. This letter was timed to be published on the day (August 3rd) on which Sir Edward Grey made his memorable statement in the House of Commons. The editor of the Times, finding that the assertions in the letter were at complete variance with what he knew to be the truth, decided not to publish it. On the night of August 3rd the Times received, by a pure accident, from the well-known German Official Press Agency (the Wolff Bureau) a telegram which was intended for an agent of that Bureau in London. The telegram informed the agent that the Times would be publishing a letter from a well-known German public man and instructed him to telegraph it word for word back to Germany. The author of the letter had evidently informed the Official Agency of what he had done, or the German Government had themselves prompted the letter. If it had been telegraphed back to Germany, it would have had the authority of having been printed in the Times, and would seem to Germans to have something of the value of independent evidence.

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