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“The Unclouded Face of Truth Must Not Suffer Wrong”: John Thadeus Delane and the Profession of Journalism

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Among the great personalities in the history of the profession of journalism, certain names stand out. Such men as John Addison, James Madison, Thomas Barnes, William Howard Russell, C. P. Scott, Ed Murrow, Alastair Cook, and William Shirer grace this Hall of Fame. There are more modern ones who are still alive, but their places would be contentious to some and a needless distraction. Undoubtedly, to my mind, towering above all of these is the figure of John Thadeus Delane, who was editor of The Times from 1841 to his retirement in 1877, and who has left an enduring stamp on the standards of rectitude and duty by which the journalist should be judged.

John Walter II, the proprietor, appointed the young Delane after the great Thomas Barnes died on 7 May 1841. Under Barnes, the newspaper had acquired its famous nickname of The Thunderer. It was Delane’s lot to serve the paper during some of the most important events in British nineteenth century history such as the appearance of Sir Robert Peel’s 1834 Tamworth Manifesto (which Barnes had had a hand in writing), the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856, the Indian Mutiny in 1857, and the Relief of Khartoum in 1884.

Through a number of journalistic coups, and principled Editorials to back them up, Barnes and Delane essentially laid down the parameters within which the members of the profession of journalism should seek to be judged.

“A. P. Wadsworth (editor of the Manchester Guardian from 1944 to 1956) [wrote] in his study Newspaper Circulations 1800-1954, … ‘The rise of The Times under Barnes and Delane is extraordinary even by the eccentric standards of our own day.’ The answer lies in part in the meticulous organisation and dauntless enterprise of the men who served the paper.” (Oliver Woods and James Bishop, The Story of The Times, Michael Joseph, London, 1983, p 60)

The Press lives by disclosures

It was normal then to write in what we would now consider a rather pompous and wordy style. And certain mid-nineteenth century terminologies may seem to obscure what was being talked about when seen from today rather than illuminate. ‘The Press’ is still a phrase in circulation but we would more usually come across it labelled ‘the media’. A ‘statesman’ of Delane’s day we would now call a ‘politician’ and reserve ‘statesman’ for someone more elevated and well-respected internationally. And a ‘public writer’ we would describe as a ‘journalist’. We need to bear such differences in mind in order to get at the essences. It was also quite common then for people to say and write “England” when they really meant the “United Kingdom”. This is something that we shouldn’t allow to divert and distract us.

In 1844, the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, a Tory, had become convinced of the need to repeal the Corn Laws although most of his supporters were protectionists. The eventual outcome of this was that the Corn Laws were indeed repealed, and in doing so Peel split and effectively destroyed the Tories, who were eventually reborn as the Conservative Party. Yet Peel and his followers later, in 1859, merged with the Whigs and Radicals to form the Liberal Party. The Conservatives they had left instead produced those titanic figures of Victorian politics Benjamin Disraeli (eventually ennobled as the Earl of Beaconsfield) and the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil.

Delane, who supported repeal, was tipped off by another repealer, the Earl of Aberdeen, who was the Foreign Secretary, that Peel intended to repeal the Corn Laws and that the Cabinet had decided to recall parliament to announce the measure. He reported the fact in the newspaper on 4 December 1845. The article stated,

“The decision of the Cabinet is no longer secret. Parliament, it is confidently reported, is to be summoned for the first week in January; and the Royal speech will, it is added, recommend an immediate consideration of the Corn Laws, preparatory to their total repeal. Sir Robert Peel, in one house, and the Duke of Wellington in the other, will, we are told, be prepared to give immediate effect to the recommendation thus conveyed.”

The publication of the report caused uproar. The next day ‘the opposition of the anti-Repealers proved so boisterous that the Government resigned’ (Woods and Bishop, p 64).

There followed a few fraught days, during which the Opposition tried and failed to form a government. On 21 December, Peel re-formed his administration, and the next year the Corn Laws were duly repealed.

In 1852, The Times discovered that Britain and Russia had been negotiating a secret treaty. Delane published the fact, causing the treaty to fail. The Earl of Derby, enraged, admonished The Times in a speech in the House of Lords, and took the line that it was its patriotic duty to support the government, and by disclosing the matter it had betrayed the national interest. How topical this seems. Delane’s response was the diametric opposite of the pusillanimous conduct of much of the British and American Press towards the behaviour of the Bush and Blair, and Obama and Cameron administrations.

It was the famous Editorial on Friday, 6 February 1852, in answer to this that has set the norms for responsible journalism and newspaper publishing ever since. Delane wrote:

“The Earl of DERBY remarked with considerable emphasis in his speech on the Address, that as in these days the English press aspires to share the influence of statesmen, so also it must share in the responsibilities of statesmen. If the first of these propositions be established, the second follows as a matter of course; and we, of all men, are the least disposed to lower the proper functions or to deny the responsibilities of the power we may derive from the confidence of the public. But, be that power more or less, we cannot admit that its main purpose is to share the labours of statesmanship, or that it is bound by the same limitations, the same duties, the same liabilities as that of the Ministers of the CROWN. The purposes and the duties of the two powers are constantly separate, generally independent, sometimes diametrically opposite. The dignity and freedom of the press are trammelled from the moment it accepts an ancillary position. To perform its duties with entire independence, and consequently with the utmost public advantage, the press can enter into no close or binding alliances with the statesmen of the day, nor can it surrender its permanent interests to the convenience of the ephemeral power of any Government.”

That last sentence is a salutary rebuke to today’s media that seem to take pride in performing simply as mouthpieces for one government, established interest, or political party or another. It seems to see its function as “topping and tailing” government press releases or reports, and taking politicians’ announcements at face value without further questioning or investigation. The journalist’s “nose” has lost its ability to smell out a story.

This has become so blatant, and almost normative, that independent commentators or ‘citizen journalists’ have taken to referring to them disparagingly with a variety of terms such as the “MSM” (or “Mainstream Media”), the “corporate media”, “presstitutes”, or “whorespondents”. Remember it is an aphorism of democracy that for it to function properly, the “dimos”, the electorate or ‘politically empowered class’, must be objectively well informed and not fed Soviet-style with dezinformatsiya. The Press’s job is “to educate and inform”.

“The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation.The statesman collects his information secretly and by secret means; he keeps back even the current intelligence of the day with ludicrous precautions, until diplomacy is beaten in the race with publicity. The press lives by disclosures; whatever passes into its keeping becomes a part of the knowledge and the history of our times; it is daily and for ever appealing to the enlightened force of public opinion – anticipating, if possible, the march of events -standing upon the breach between the present and the future, and extending its survey to the horizon of the world. The statesman’s duty is precisely the reverse. He cautiously guards from the public eye the information by which his actions and opinions are regulated; he reserves his judgment on public events till the latest moment, and then he records it in obscure or conventional language; he strictly confines himself, if he be wise, to the practical interests of his own country, or to those bearing immediately upon it; he hazards no rash surmises as to the future; and he concentrates in his own transactions all that power which the press seeks to diffuse over the world. The duty of the one is to speak; of the other to be silent. The one expends itself in discussion; the other tends to action. The one deals mainly with rights and interests; the other with opinions and sentiments. The former is necessarily reserved; the latter essentially free.”

In the statement “…he strictly confines himself, if he be wise, to the practical interests of his own country, or to those bearing immediately upon it…” Delane speaks across the century and a half that separates him from Blair, Bush, Obama, and Cameron. He says, essentially, ‘mind your country’s own business’ and ‘avoid foreign entanglements’. Or in the famous words of Lord Palmerston (HM Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in 1848) “we have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”  These are usually misquoted as “England has no friends, only interests”. (David Steele, ‘Temple, Henry John, thirdViscount Palmerston (1784–1865)’, OxfordDictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004).

“It follows, therefore, from this contrast, that the responsibilities of the two powers are as much at variance as their duties. For us, with whom publicity and truth are the air and light of existence, there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are. We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequences – to lend no convenient shelter to acts of injustice and oppression, but to consign them at once to the judgment of the world. Statesmen, it is said, have duties of a nicer order; they are bound to repress the throb of indignation which will rise at the sight of evils and oppressions they cannot avenge; they are prone to pursue particular objects rather than to pledge themselves to general principles; they are forbidden to risk for an instant the important interests confided to their care; and, though the support of the public opinion is essential to their success, it is only by rare and occasional efforts that they can attempt to guide it.”

There is a great irony in that statement, given the almost hysterical reactions of many governments to crises which tend to be describable in popular terms as “do something – anything – but we must be seen to be doing something”.

“If the public writer shares in any degree the influence of the statesman, he shares at least few of those personal objects which constitute so large a part of ordinary statesmanship. He is not toiling or sacrificing the best years of his life and the best faculties of his nature in the pursuit of personal aggrandizement, for none can either reward or corrupt the obscure course of his labours. Even the triumph of his opinions is not accompanied by the applause of a party or the success of a struggle for patronage and power. Those opinions which he has defended, and, so to speak, created, slip from him in the moment of their triumph, and take their stand among established truths. The responsibility he really shares is more nearly akin to that of the economist or the lawyer, whose province is not to frame a system of convenient application to the exigencies of the day, but to investigate truth and to apply it on fixed principles to the affairs of the world.

The responsibility we acknowledge has therefore little in common with that of statesmen, for it is estimated by a totally different standard of rectitude and duty. Of all professions, statesmanship is that in which the greatest laxity of practice is tolerated by the usages of society. Concealment, evasion, factious combinations, the surrender of convictions to party objects, and the systematic pursuit of expediency, are things of daily occurrence among men of the highest character once embarked in the contention of political life. We know not if these be useful or essential parts of statesmanship, and we more than suspect that Lord GREY would confess by his own experience that they are not so. But we know that they are absolutely destructive to the credit, the power, and the success of a public writer; and he who would traffic with his pen on such terms had better take refuge at once among those mercenary hacks who court the favours of every successive Government. Of all journals; and of all writers, those will obtain the largest measure of public support who have told the truth most constantly and most fearlessly.

Again, the eyes of a Minister are rivetted upon the interests of his own country, and his duties can scarcely be said to extend beyond it. The press owes its first duty to the national interests which it represents, but nothing is indifferent to it which affects the cause of civilization throughout the world. The press of England, standing, as it now does, alone in the enjoyment of entire freedom, would grievously neglect its exalted privileges if it failed to recollect how much is due to the common interests of Europe.”

There is another irony in this as most of the politicians of the parliamentarily represented parties at Westminster seem keener to stand up for and advocate the interests of the European Union than those of the United Kingdom.

“It may suit the purposes of statesmen to veil the statue of Liberty, and to mutter some formulary of disingenuous acquiescence in foreign wrongs, dictated by their fears rather than by their convictions; but we prefer to await for our justification the day when the entombed and oppressed liberties of Europe shall once more start into life and array themselves under the standard to which we cling. For to what, after all, are the statesmen of England to look for strength and national power, if injuries and offences rise against us, but to the enlightened resolution of the people of England to uphold the principles on which our own polity and independence are founded? Far from thinking that language of too great energy and effect has been employed to convey to our own countrymen a true and just impression of the political condition of the great nation which exists within a few miles of our own coasts, we fear that this sudden change in the state of France is still but imperfectly understood in all its formidable consequences to Europe, and possibly to ourselves. It is the unquestionable duty of Ministers to watch over the maintenance of our pacific relations with other States, and to disclaim all that might be erroneously construed into hostile intentions on our part, while they provide efficiently for the independence and security of Britain against all contingencies. But it seems to us the first duty of public writers is to take care that the people of England are not lulled into indifference to the destruction of liberty and the violation of political rights in such a country as France, since that liberty and those were the chief pledges of our pacific relations and our common interests. It is our duty to point out danger, however remote, whether it consist in the uncertain policy of a neighbouring State, or in our own disarmed condition; and a far heavier weight of responsibility than we now bear might be laid to our charge if we had neglected to describe the late occurrences in France in their true colours, or if we had affected to acquiesce, from a shortsighted and mistaken policy, in a revolution which calls for the utmost vigilance on the part of this country and of the rest of Europe.”

This Editorial deserves to be learned by heart by all journalists, especially those all too common creatures who are seduced by proximity to politicians. They should bear in mind what one wag said, “there is no principle so sacred that a politician will not betray it for gain”. Such are their friends. Or as it says in the Quran, “are they looking for dignity from them? All dignity comes from God entirely.”

“We hold ourselves responsible… to the people of England”

Two years later The Times fell foul of the politicians again.

Having been beating the drum for war in the latter part of 1853, the newspaper continued to follow the public clamour, and this led to a break-down in the hitherto cosy relationship between Lord Aberdeen (who was then Prime Minister) and Delane.

“The run-up to the Crimean War was not The Times’s most glorious hour. If ever there were times when it reflected, rather than led, public opinion, this was one. Privately John Walter admitted that the paper had been ‘brow beaten into support of the war’…” (Woods and Bishop, p 65).

The ‘browbeating’ had been the public hysteria caused by ‘the massacre at Sinope’ on 30 November 1853, when an Ottoman naval squadron had been annihilated by the Russian Black Sea fleet in the harbour of Sinope (the two empires had been at war for some weeks by this time). This incident led to the open breaking point in the relations between Lord Aberdeen and Delane, and in a leading article on 13 December, The Times called for Britain to declare war on Russia.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Crimean War, and the stand taken by The Times, the newspaper retained its principled stand-off from government, and, in dispatching William Russell, who Delane had recruited in 1844 to cover Irish affairs, introduced the world to the War Correspondent.

Delane intended to go for a quick visit himself to see the situation so that he could better handle the news coming back. However, before he could leave, The Times uncovered yet another story which upset the government and opposition. Delane dutifully published. His responsibility as he saw it was “to the people of England” not to Parliament.

The ultimatum from the British Government to the Tsar was sent by courier via Paris, and took quite a few days to arrive in St Petersburg. Delane discovered the gist of the message, and published it before the courier arrived. But the courier took so long, that the Tsar read the ultimatum in The Times first.

The leading article of 28 February 1854 stated,

“The Governments of England and France have resolved to address to the Emperor of Russia a formal summons calling upon him to give within six days from the receipt of that communication a solemn promise and engagement that he will cause his troops to evacuate the principalities of the Danube on or before the 30th of April. The couriers who are the bearers of this despatch from London to Paris started on their journey yesterday morning. The refusal on the part of Russia to comply with this just demand will be regarded by the Powers as a declaration of war.”

Both the British government and opposition were outraged. Lord Derby, the Leader of the Opposition, had already clashed with Delane for publishing a secret proposal by the Tsar to partition Turkey. He now accused Lord Aberdeen of leaking the memorandum to The Times, which was ironical since he and Delane were scarcely on speaking terms after the Editor had gone over to the war party. Delane’s source was almost certainly Sir Charles Napier, the commander of the Royal Navy’s Baltic Squadron.

As Woods and Bishop wrote, “The Times felt called upon to make a declaration of policy and did so in terms which have since served as a credo for all independent journalists.” (p 66)

Delane’s Editorial stated,

“We hold ourselves responsible not to Lord Derby or the House of Lords, but to the people of England, for the accuracy and fitness of that which we think proper to publish. Whatever we conceive to be injurious to the public interests, it is our duty to withhold; but we ourselves and the public at large are quite as good judges on that point as the leader of the Opposition, whose object is not to serve the State, but to embarrass the Ministry.”

It would appear that neither the Republican and Democratic Parties in the USA, nor the Conservative and Unionist, the Liberal Democrat, or the Labour Parties in the United Kingdom, during the recent upheavals since 11 September 2001, have seen their duties quite in the same light as John Delane and the Earl of Derby, behaving little better than the Peasants’ Party in the old Soviet Union whose fig-leaf role it was to give the semblance of democracy but not actually to dissent. It has been the responsibility and duty of journalists to expose this democratic failing: their own failure is a betrayal.

The supply must not be tainted

It is against a backdrop of the impact that John Delane had had on the development of British journalism that we can now appreciate the famous statement of C. P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian (nowThe Guardian) when he wrote in an Editorial on 6 May 1926,

“The newspaper is of necessity something of a monopoly, and its first duty is to shun the temptations of monopoly. Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation, must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

This is another principled statement that deserves to be committed to memory by all who would claim to be journalists.

It is probable that Walter, Barnes, and Delane were Tories, but that political philosophy did not condition or guide their profession. In the light of the prostitution of journalism to propagandise the wishes of the small time politicastros who seem universally to hold high office after 11 September 2001, and likely before, and in the promotion of war against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, it is as well to remind ourselves of what Delane wrote about the danger to ‘public writers’ of trafficking in ‘concealment, evasion, factious combinations, the surrender of convictions to party objects, and the systematic pursuit of expediency’.

“…The responsibility he [the ‘public writer’,or professional journalist] really shares is more nearly akin to that of the economist or the lawyer, whose province is not to frame a system of convenient application to the exigencies of the day, but to investigate truth and to apply it on fixed principles to the affairs of the world.

The responsibility we acknowledge has therefore little in common with that of statesmen, for it is estimated by a totally different standard of rectitude and duty. Of all professions, statesmanship is that in which the greatest laxity of practice is tolerated by the usages of society. Concealment, evasion, factious combinations, the surrender of convictions to party objects, and the systematic pursuit of expediency, are things of daily occurrence among men of the highest character once embarked in the contention of political life. We know not if these be useful or essential parts of statesmanship,… But we know that they are absolutely destructive to the credit, the power, and the success of a public writer; and he who would traffic with his pen on such terms had better take refuge at once among those mercenary hacks who court the favours of every successive Government. Of all journals; and of all writers, those will obtain the largest measure of public support who have told the truth most constantly and most fearlessly.” [emphasis added].

The journalists’ professional organisations and trade unions really need to examine themselves and what they stand for. Are they representing the best standards of the profession as described all those years ago by John Delane, or are they maintaining a closed shop for employees of print and broadcast media companies? Will they review their policies and issue “Press Cards” – that much covetted identity symbol – to freelance and citizen journalists, or will they still reserve them for the full-time employees who have, in many case, become little better than ignorant mouthpieces of corporate interests?

Danny Schechter, the well-known investigative journalist, independent TV producer, and executive editor of MediaChannel.org, commented damningly on the behaviour of many of these people and their bosses

“Like blackbirds in flight, packs of reporters darken the sky, moving in swarms at the same speed and in predictable trajectory. When one lands, they all land. When one leaves, they all leave. The programmers and channel controllers from all the stations are part of the same well-paid elite, steeped in the same values, committed to the mission of maximizing audience share and profits. They are chosen for their ability to play the game and not challenge the audience with too many controversial ideas or critical perspectives. It’s no surprise that they circulate easily within the commanding heights of media power, moving from company to company and job to job. A kind of group think corporate consensus, steeped in market logic and deeply inbred by an un-brave newsculture, breeds conscience-free conformity and self-censorship. This makes frightening sense in a globalized economy where consumerism is more desired than active citizenship, where power is increasingly concentrated and the public is increasingly unwelcome in a public discourse defined by the powerful. If your goal is to numb people and drive them away from active participation, then TV as “weapon of mass distraction” and wall to wall entertainment makes sense. Shut up and shop is the now message, one that makes sense to advertiser dominated media outlets…” (Danny Schechter, “Dung on all their Houses”, Toward Freedom magazine, December / January 2000).

What would Delane and the others make of such conduct of print and broadcast journalists and their publishers? And especially seeing since 11 September 2001 it has worsened outrageously?

It hardly bears thinking about, but it is probable it would have been forcefully stated in another memorable Leading Article that would leave them under no illusions anymore than the Earl of Derby was. It is my contention that the essence of it is already contained in the famous editorials that I have dealt with in this essay, and would be universally damning.

© David Rosser-Owen 2014 All Rights Reserved
 

[David Rosser-Owen, now a Freelance, lives in London. A former regular soldier and academic historian, he is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, and a sometime Member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists. While Managing Editor of Q-News International in the 1990s he ran the in-house courses for trainees. This Essay was written from material used for teaching the Ethics of Journalism.]

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Written by Daoud Rosser-Owen

October 22, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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