It was one of the most ingenious scoops of all time. In May 1902, the leaders of the Boers were meeting in secret in Vereeniging, South Africa to discuss whether to agree to proposals put forward by the British to end the three-year-old war. An account of the conference written by Margaret Lane nearly 40 years later relates the steps that were taken to prevent any information about the deliberations from reaching the outside world:
The whole camp was closely fenced about with barbed wire and guarded by sentries, for on the Boers’ decision on the question of independence the whole fate of the Peace Treaty depended and [Lord] Kitchener was determined that nothing should leak out until the signing or rejection of the treaty was a fait accompli. The war correspondents were on the wrong side of the barbed wire, and fretted and argued and lodged complaints to no purpose.
Yet back in England, the Daily Mail “annoyed its rivals and astonished its Government by coolly prophesying that the signing of the Peace Treaty could be confidently expected within a few days.” And on the very night that the Boers agreed to sign the peace treaty the Daily Mail, thousands of miles away in London, was getting ready to print the story in the following day’s edition. How on earth did the news get out?
Step forward Edgar Wallace, the Daily Mail’s 27-year-old South Africa correspondent. While the peace talks were taking place, Wallace, puffing away calmly on his pipe, took regular train trips past the camp on the Vaal River train. One of the men who guarded the Boer camp was an old friend of his. The accomplice had been equipped with three colored handkerchiefs: one red, one white, one blue. If he wiped his nose with a red handkerchief it meant “nothing doing.” A blue one would mean “making progress.” While a white one would mean “treaty definitely to be signed.” So it was that Edgar Wallace was able to scoop the peace treaty for his paper and put himself on the road to fame and fortune.
I wonder where today’s equivalent of Edgar Wallace can be found.
It’s a pertinent question because the profession of foreign correspondent—for a long time the most glamorous and exciting journalistic gig around—is not exactly thriving. And not just because newspaper proprietors are making cutbacks: the problem lies with the nature of the papers themselves in the second decade of the 21st century.
A few weeks ago I was sorting out a box of old British newspapers from the 1970s and early 1980s. What struck me most as I read through them was the preponderance of news stories and relative absence of “comment” articles. In the days when newspapers were first and foremost newspapers, foreign reports—from all corners of the globe—filled up a sizeable chunk of the pages. Not only that, but these foreign-news reports were matter-of-fact accounts of what actually happened or was said and were quite gloriously un-opinionated. Take this article entitled “Strong Marxist Lead Needed, Hua Tells Dissenters,” by Nigel Wade, writing from Peking in the Daily Telegraph of May 4, 1979:
China needed stronger leadership by the Communist party, if it was to modernise itself successfully, the party chairman Hua Kuo feng, said yesterday. … ‘[T]he socialist modernisation programme we are now carrying out is a magnificent revolutionary cause,’ said Hua. … [H]e drew a firm distinction between ‘bourgeois democracy’, which he rejected, and ‘socialist democracy’, which he said had to be combined with centralism and discipline. The socialist system was ‘incomparably superior to capitalism’, he emphasised. History since 1919 had proved that ‘only socialism can save China’.
If you read Wade’s report there is absolutely nothing to tell you that the newspaper it appears in was a supporter of the British Conservative Party and editorially opposed to communism. The Telegraph’s man in Peking simply reports what Hua says, not what he thinks of what Hua says. We really have no idea as to whether he thinks that what he’s heard is wonderfully inspiring or load of old rubbish.
Elsewhere in the Daily Telegraph that day, David Adamson informed us that the prime minister of Transkei in South Africa, Chief George Matanzima, had announced that Transkei’s London-based representative, Mr. Humphrey Berkeley, had been dismissed from his post. David Shears in Tehran reported that “a million chanting mourners for the assassinated Ayatollah Morteza Motahari turned his funeral procession into a gigantic anti-Communist demonstration. Turbaned mullahs were among those in Teheran who yelled ‘death to the communists!’ and one even carried a sub-machine gun.” Bruce Loudon in New Delhi reported, “uproar arose in the Indian Parliament as rival MPs debated the latest activities of Mr. Sanjay Gandhi, controversial son of the former Prime Minister.”
In The Times of Nov. 13, 1979, Christopher Walker, filing from Nablus, told us “widespread unrest among the 700,000 Arabs living in the occupied West Bank is posing an unexpected threat to the slow-moving negotiation over Palestinian autonomy between Israel and Egypt.” On page 10, Nicholas Ashford, reporting from Kampala, informed us that “there is growing concern among western diplomats in east Africa over the deterioration in relations, between Kenya, the bulwark of western interests in the region and the new Ugandan government.” The Times’ lead story that day was “Mr. Carter cuts off Iranian oil imports,” the headline followed by a paragraph which stated soberly: “The 75 ambassadors in Tehran were asked by Iran yesterday to back its demand for the Shah’s deportation from America. As the American Embassy occupation continued to the eighth day, President Carter hit back by halting all oil imports from Iran.”
Halting oil imports from Iran is once again a news story in 2012, but the contrast in the way it and other foreign news stories are reported today as opposed to 40 years ago could not be greater. Whereas in the ’70s, foreign correspondents working for broadsheet newspapers were expected to file factual, non-opinionated articles to their news desks and allow readers to come to their own conclusions, today foreign news invariably comes with a loaded headline—“Election distorted by ‘bribery, fear and threats’ as Tehran claims huge turnout” was a recent Times caption—an opinion attached, and often a suggested course of action. And while opinion was left to the editorials and the very elusive comment piece—in The Times of Nov. 13, 1979, as in the Daily Telegraph of May 4, 1979, there was just one “comment” article, by Arrigo Levi, entitled “More détente, not less, could be a remedy for its inadequacy as a peace strategy”—today comment is ubiquitous.
The legion of foreign correspondents, bashing away at their typewriters with cigarettes drooping from their mouths and faithfully filing copy from Kampala, Rangoon, and Transkei have been replaced by a legion of highly opinionated comment writers sitting in front of computer screens in air-conditioned offices. If these writers reflected a wide range of opinion it wouldn’t be as much of a problem. The trouble is, they don’t. “Through the 24-hour media, the commentariat shapes the wider agenda and moulds public perceptions,” says veteran journalist Peter Wilby. “It declares certain opinions off-limits. Though the British press prides itself on its variety of opinion, the range among established commentators is actually quite narrow and, frequently, they all charge together in the same direction.”
We saw this uniformity most disastrously, on both sides of the Atlantic, in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Two of the British newspapers that played a key role in cheerleading for the conflict were, ironically, The Times and the Daily Telegraph, along with their Sunday stable mates.
At the time of the invasion around 38 percent of Britons supported a military attack to remove Saddam Hussein, according to an ICM opinion poll. I wonder if the total would have been even that high if influential papers like The Times and Daily Telegraph had been content to remain principally news gatherers and had not morphed into crusading propaganda organs. By 2003, The Times was devoting a whole page to comment, running three opinion pieces as well as its Thunderer column, while the Telegraph’s comment had extended to two pieces plus a Notebook column. A decade on and the takeover of comment is even more pronounced: The Times’ opinion section consists of four daily pieces plus a Thunderer, the Daily Telegraph has four daily comment pieces plus Notebook.
With opinion pieces or opinion-heavy reporting replacing cool, matter-of-fact reporting, the big winners have undoubtedly been groups like the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, whose views are far more likely to be found in elite circles than amongst the general public. The less well-informed the populace is about foreign issues, and the more conflicts or potential conflicts can be portrayed in simplistic black-and-white terms, the better for the proponents of perpetual war. Agenda-driven ideologues—people who base their understanding of a particular country according to their own world view, and who may have never even visited the place about which they opine, now have far too much of a say.
At the same time, the expert who really knows the terrain is often drowned out. Think back to the Iranian presidential elections of 2009. We read column after column from armchair pundits in the U.S. and UK telling us that the regime stole the election and that the opposition had really won. One of the few articles challenging this dominant narrative was a piece in Time entitled “Don’t assume Ahmadinejad really lost” by Robert Baer. He wrote:
Before we settle on the narrative that there has been a hard-line takeover in Iran, an illegitimate coup d’état, we need to seriously consider the possibility that there has been a popular hard-line takeover, an electoral mandate for Ahmadinejad and his policies. One of the only reliable, Western polls conducted in the run-up to the vote gave the election to Ahmadinejad—by higher percentages than the 63 percent he actually received. The poll even predicted that Mousavi would lose in his hometown of Tabriz, a result that many skeptics have viewed as clear evidence of fraud. The poll was taken all across Iran, not just the well-heeled parts of Tehran.
What’s the main difference between Baer and the legion of pundits who told us that the election had definitely been a fix? The answer is that Baer knows Iran like the back of his hand, having been a CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East. He’s no neoconservative ideologue with an axe to grind against Tehran; neither is he a supporter of the Islamic regime. He is simply a man who wants to tell things as they are.
The only way our newspapers will go back to the ’70s and start giving us more matter-of-fact reports from far flung places and less “Words will not do. Assad understands only force”-style lectures is if the people who buy them exert enough pressure.
Organizations such as News Unspun and Media Lens show us how to challenge propaganda that masquerades as news. The former highlighted a recent front page article from The Times entitled “Defiant Iran cuts off oil to Britain,” in which the writers referred to “Tehran’s atomic weaponry,” despite no evidence of such a thing existing. Media Lens, a UK-based watchdog project that analyzes “mainstream media bias,” has a stated aim of encouraging “the general population to challenge journalists, editors and media managers who operate a de facto propaganda system for establishment/elite interests.”
The evidence of the last 30 years is that this “de facto propaganda system for establishment/elite interests” works so much better when newspapers stop being newspapers. “I don’t want correspondence, I want news” Mr. Powers, editor of the New York Globe, tells reporter Johnny Jones in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1940 film “Foreign Correspondent.” Amen to that.
Neil Clark is a contributor to The Guardian, The Australian, and other newspapers and magazines worldwide.