‘No, no,’ replied the fat man

Michael Davie

  • The Power of News: The History of Reuters by Donald Read
    Oxford, 330 pp, £20.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 19 821776 5

The first thing that must strike anyone opening this well-produced book – and they may do so with apprehension, since company histories are notoriously bland – is the wonderful harvest of illustrations, ranging from No 1, a photograph of the founder and his son, the strangely whiskered Julius Reuter and Herbert, circa 1870, to No 63, a Reuters news picture of the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. No 17 shows an outpost of the Reuters empire in 1900: Kalgoorlie, Australia, with men in suits and one in a straw hat lounging outside the Miners Institute, which also serves as the office, as a notice says, of the Reuters Telegram Company Limited. No 27 shows the substantial Delhi office circa 1920 (India was a prime source of Reuters’ profits), with a camel and driver passing by. Thus the imperial nature of Reuters is at once established in the mind of the reader.

The best picture of all, though, was taken in 1935 during the Abyssinian War. In a rubbish-strewn street sits a calm-looking European in tie and double-breasted suit working at a typewriter on a small table, a pen sticking out of his breast pocket, wearing on his head, of all things, a trilby hat with a broad black band; lined up behind him are three messengers waiting to take his copy to the post office. The man is identified as the Reuters correspondent, J.W. Collins. The text tells us, though, that the Reuters correspondent in Abyssinia in 1935 was Major Jim Barnes, whose book The Universal Aspects of Fascism had contained a foreword by Mussolini, and who was regarded even by Sir Samuel Hoare, the Foreign Secretary who gave his name to the notorious Hoare-Laval Pact, as ‘an ardent Italian propagandist.’ Barnes subsequently adopted Italian nationality and broadcast from Italy in support of the Fascists during World War Two. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop was inspired by the foreign correspondents he met in Abyssinia in 1935.

The history of Reuters is by no means as dull as some might assume. In Fleet Street today, the company’s imposing and faintly imperial headquarters at No 85 – designed by Lutyens, and illustrated here in 1951, decked with flags and a centenary banner boasting ‘This Is the News Centre of the World’ – is the only survivor of the great news structures of the past. The Daily Telegraph building is now an insurance company; the ‘black glass Lubianka’, formerly the Daily Express, is covered in scaffolding; the all-night milk bar opposite Reuters, where printers used to eat steak and chips, has been refurbished and decorated with a poster advertising holidays in the Alps. Reuters has never been richer. Its profits, shown in an appendix, were £209,600 in 1969; in 1979, £3,100,000; in 1989, £180,534,000. They have risen since then. It is a great story, featuring some rum characters.

Donald Read is an emeritus professor of modern English history at the University of Kent. This is an authorised account, commissioned and copyrighted by Reuters, but ‘the text has been prepared with complete independence.’ The lists of acknowledgments are awe-inspiring, ranging from the Cheltenham Ladies’ College Archives to Herr Weise, Rheinisch-Westfählisches Wirtschaftsarchiv, Cologne. He makes good use of his exotic cast, to leaven the lump of company accounts, technology and policy. Sir Roderick Jones, head and dominant owner of Reuters in the Twenties and Thirties, was a snob. He liked to employ Etonians, partly, to do him justice, because Reuters men were supposed to be able to mix easily with diplomats and foreign ministers. In 1933 the Etonian Ian Fleming – ‘his appearance is good, and his manners are agreeable’ – covered the show trials in Moscow of the Vickers engineers. ‘Moscow, Wednesday. As the famous clock on the Kremlin Tower strikes 12 the six Metropolitan-Vickers English employees will enter a room ... thronged with silent multitudes ... massive indictment which may mean death or exile. Within the packed room there will be a feeling of the implacable working of the soulless machinery of Soviet justice.’ Not many reporters would dare to write like that today. Fleming’s Moscow reporting, Jones knew, at 2000 words a day, had cost whereas extra payments from Reuters clients for the service had brought in only £511. Fleming, despite his prose, was offered a job in the Far East at £800 a year, but still left to become a stock-broker. Money, besides news values, has been at the heart of the Reuters operation.

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