‘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.

H.A. Gwynne, later the editor of the fiercely Conservative Morning Post, was a Reuters correspondent in the Boer War (photographed here with Kipling) and in Turkey. Frederick Forsyth, with Reuters from 1961 to 1965, was not highly regarded by his superiors: ‘he views the world around him in rather unreal terms like a spectator at the cinema identifying himself with the larger-than-life characters and incidents depicted on the screen,’ his bureau chief in Bonn wrote of him in 1964. Forsyth a few days later reported that ‘East Berlin seethed with East German troops in the small hours of today,’ alarming the Americans: he had not realised that the military activity was merely in preparation for the annual May Day parade. Fleming and Forsyth must have made more money in their lives than anyone connected with Reuters before the great carve-up of 1984, when Reuters went public. Sandy Gall was nearly shot as a spy in the Congo. Derek Jameson was briefly a member of a leftwing, partly Communist cell that interfered with the transmission of copy. During the Vietnam war, a Reuters stringer worked secretly for the CIA, while really being a double agent for the Vietcong; challenged, he said he never distorted his reports to Reuters because they were the only ones who paid him. On the broad question of whether any Reuters staff were or were not agents of the British intelligence services Professor Read, though he raises the point, is perhaps necessarily vague.

Reuter himself remains enigmatic. His real name was Israel Beer Josaphat, born 1816, and nobody knows why he changed it to Reuter – perhaps because he saw no reason why his career should be restricted by his Jewishness, though he was never ashamed of his origins. He has not a journalist, but an opportunist and entrepreneur; today, says Read, he might have gone into the oil business. The secret of his success was to spot that any organisation disseminating news must to be based in London, where he settled in 1851. Success was not long in coming; the Times was the slowest paper to see the usefulness of a news service that was devoted to factual reporting and objectivity. In recent years Reuters has been criticised for concentrating on financial and commercial reporting, but the architects of this immensely profitable strategy can claim that Reuter himself started it, with his reports of commodity prices. Reuter became a British citizen, though he was made a baron by Queen Victoria’s brother-in-law, Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and he sent his son to Harrow and Balliol. Herbert took over the business after Reuter died in Nice in 1899. All family interest in the firm ceased after Herbert’s own death in 1915; but by that time Reuters was famous.

Incidentally, Read clears up once and for all the matter of Baron Reuter’s pigeons: the one fact about him that everyone knows. The pigeons gave him his start, before he moved to London. He was not the first to use pigeons, but he was the first to establish a regular pigeon news service, to fill a gap in the telegraph between Brussels and the important cross-roads of Aachen. He made an agreement with Heinrich Geller, an Aachen brewer, baker and pigeon-fancier to supply first 45 pigeons, and then 200, which were sent by rail to Brussels daily and flown back to Geller’s pigeon loft the next day. Secrecy was vital. Messages were tied under the wings of the birds and opened only by Geller himself before being sent by messenger to the Reuters office in Aachen. Thus Reuter acquired his first two big newspaper subscribers, L’Indépendance belge in Brussels, and Kölnische Zeitung in Cologne. The pigeon service lasted only two years, until the Brussels Aachen telegraph link was closed. But a Reuters war correspondent used pigeons again from the beaches of France in 1944, nearly a century later.

The expansion of Reuters depended in the 1850s on communications technology – as it still does. Reuter transferred his base to London as soon as a cable link was established between Dover and Calais. Speedy transmission of news of political events was as crucial then as ‘real-time’ processing of foreign exchange movements is now. News of Lincoln’s assassination took 12 days to reach London via SS Nova Scotian to a telegraph station in the North of Ireland and thence to the newspaper offices of Reuters clients. Eight years later, news of the election of President Grant reached London the following day.

The assassination of Lincoln was a clear scoop. There were many others, the death of General Gordon among them. One of the most romantic ‘beats’ – a word that has gone out of fashion – was the Relief of Mafeking, when a Reuters man sent his dispatch from Pretoria to Lourenço Marques hidden in a sandwich, to escape Boer censorship. Almost equally dramatic was the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, when the reporter, having anticipated the final breakthrough into the burial chamber, and having prepared his lines of communication with the aid of a car, a boat and six fast donkeys, use the old reporter’s device of pretending to know more than he really did. He asked an Egyptian official leaving the tomb whether it was true that they had found two sarcophagi. ‘ “No, no,” replied the fat man importantly in French, “Only one.” ’ The news was on the streets in London before the archaeologists had left the tomb. Reuters has also had its failures and inadequacies. It missed altogether the significance of the Gettysburg Address; whoever took down the immortal words was not a Reuters reporter. Like other news organisations, it kept quiet about the preliminaries to the abdication of Edward VIII. It misread the intentions of Hitler.

By and large, however, Reuters is one long story of success. The question insistently, and candidly, addressed by Read is the price at which this success was achieved. Since the earliest days, the organisation has always claimed to be entirely independent; any suggestion that it was not would have been bad for business. Yet the claim was never entirely justified. Reuter was an odd fish with odd ambitions. He wanted to make his service the dominant news service in the world, and to that end established bureaus all over the world competing vigorously with French, German and American agencies. But he also wanted Reuters to be a British imperial institution, opening offices and appointing agents in numerous Asian, African and Australasian outposts of the Empire. Thus Reuters functioned increasingly, as Read puts it, ‘as an institution of the British Empire. This was a great status for a private company to achieve. It was the more remarkable for a firm started by a German Jew who had not even begun to live in England until the age of 34.’

Havas, the French agency, and Wolff, the German agency, received secret subsidies from their respective governments. There were countries in which Reuters, despite its claims, was totally dependent on official money. Egypt was one example. The Egyptian press was too weak to sustain the Reuters presence on the basis of newspaper subscriptions alone, and the Government filled the gap. Similarly Reuters received large sums from the Indian Government; Reuters itself used the word ‘subsidy’ in the 1870s, referring to its subscription arrangements with the Viceroy. When, asks Read, was an official payment simply a subscription to the Reuters news service and when was it a subsidy? Would the service in question have been undertaken without government money? Was the existence of the service public knowledge? If known, was the service understood to be subsidised? Was it equally available to all?

Foreign governments assumed that Reuters was a semi-official body. In Britain, the perception was, and remained, more confused. In I960, the Arab News Agency was the fourth highest overseas subscriber to Reuters, but the ANA was covertly subsidised by the British Government, and ‘Reuters knew it to be so.’ The profitable original contract had been signed by Sir Christopher Chancellor as general manager in 1954; the Reuters board was told that the ANA was subsidised by HMG. The upright Laurence Scott of the Manchester Guardian argued at the board meeting before the contract was signed that the question of serving government-subsidised organisations had arisen before, and ‘the view had always been taken that Reuters was prepared to serve any organisation provided the purchaser did not tamper with the service.’ But the board knew that the ANA was going to become much more than just the purchaser of a service. It was to be the distributor of news in an important part of the world. ‘Therefore,’ Read writes. ‘not only was Reuters knowingly accepting British government money to help conduct its business and to balance its books, it was also entering into a pretence of knowing nothing about the official origins of the money which it was agreeing to accept.’ This is a damning verdict; and Read shows in detail how Reuters continued to accept concealed subsidies from HMG into the Seventies. Some of the money came from the Foreign Office via the External Services of the BBC – an idea suggested by Charles Curran, the Director-General of the BBC. The External Services did indeed use Reuters material, but they paid over the odds for it and the high payments amounted to a concealed subsidy. Looking back later, Gerald Long, Reuters chief executive from 1963 to 1981, admitted ‘unease’ about these arrangements, as well he might.

Even so, Reuters has always, and to a large extent with justice, enjoyed unrivalled prestige. Downing Street kept in touch with Hitler’s speeches during the Munich crisis through a Reuters ticker. This Man Reuter, a popular wartime Hollywood film, starring Edward G. Robinson, boosted the company’s fame. Hitler learned that Himmler was suing for peace from the Reuters machine in his bunker, which told him the game was up. Nasser found the Reuters file admirably objective during the Suez crisis. President Kennedy first heard of Krushchev’s proposed deal over the Cuban Missile Crisis via his Reuters printer.

The transformation of Reuters’ fortunes – its growth from a news service into a huge international provider of economic information, exploiting the latest communications technology – is very recent history. Many Reuters journalists resented the change. They resented it still more when Reuters decided to float itself as a public company in the mid-Eighties. When the idea was first mooted, Alexander Chancellor, Sir Christopher’s son, and a former Reuters journalist, wrote three articles in the Spectator entitled ‘Reuters: The Price of Greed.’ The articles argued that the colossal profits earned by the financial services had become a danger to the integrity of Reuters. Read’s verdict on the complex means whereby large sums were extracted from Reuters by the press barons who owned it, and by the executives who were the architects of its expansion, is that in the end the greed of the greediest press barons was ‘scaled down to merely hearty appetite’, and that protection for the high principles of the firm was strengthened.

As the book comes closer to the present day, it becomes not less absorbing but more disjointed, as the author admits, and perhaps more cautious. It is, after all, a company history. One would like to have known exactly how much money the senior executives made out of the public float, a subject of wide speculation at the time. We learn that Colin Renfrew, the mastermind of the second phase of Reuters’ extraordinary expansion – the mastermind of the first phase was Gerald Long – stood to become a millionaire, but this estimate does not satisfy vulgar curiosity about what he actually ended up with. He was originally given 545 shares priced at £147 apiece but valued two years later at £6450. The loser was the unfortunate Gerald Long, who left Reuters and joined Murdoch’s Times in 1981. Renfrew, in one of his first actions on taking over from Long, arranged for himself and his immediate colleagues to be given share-options. Long’s eccentricities and increasing fascination with food and drink are described; but neither he nor the rather shadowy Renfrew is subjected to the same searching analysis and scrutiny as Sir Roderick Jones, who was ousted, mainly because of his autocratic methods, early in World War Two. Jones is portrayed as highly competent, but also as devious and prone to self-deception.

Reuters in 1989 made a profit as we have seen of £180m, compared with a 1985 profit of £55m. Two thirds of the staff by then were economic journalists. Many were foreign. During the Falklands War, Rear-Admiral William Ash, on censorship duty, telephoned Manfred Pagel, the editor of Reuter News Services, to complain that Reuters had reported the presence of the British fleet near Ascension Island and to ask if Pagel was not concerned about the safety of ‘our forces’. Pagel replied in his German accent that that was Ash’s business, not Reuters. ‘I’m not British.’

But what exactly is the mysterious ‘power of news’ referred to in this book’s title? Can a news agency that strives for objectivity (whatever that may be) exert power, or does the power reside in the commodity itself? News was once famously defined as something that someone does not want published. In that sense, Reuters has not much gone in for news at all. Its revelations have rarely shaken great institutions, firms, powerful people or governments. In Waugh’s Scoop, an agency man, Corker – modelled on the fellow in the trilby hat perhaps – defines news as

what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news.

That is the sort of news that Reuters has principally dealt in. One hopes that the company is now as independent, protected by its profits, as Read says it is.

Oxford University Press ought to be ashamed of publishing this scholarly book without source notes.