Magazine article The American Conservative

Save the Dateline

Magazine article The American Conservative

Save the Dateline

Article excerpt

Without foreign correspondents the press is in a world of ignorance.

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 mat 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 Matfs 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 foreignnews 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. …

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