The Press in War-Time

By Sidney Brooks

[The North American Review, December 1914]

War and journalism have the common characteristic of being necessary evils, though the particular form of calamity which the former represents is sporadic, whereas the latter is endemic. But beyond being world-wide and apparently inevitable nuisances the two professions have so little identity of nature or interests as to be predestined enemies. War is as old as the hills, and though there can never be anything like finality in the study of it, still its principles, its effects, its natural history, its philosophy have by now been fairly well determined. But journalism still awaits its philosopher, awaits, I mean, some one who will work out the action and reaction of the new and tremendous power of organized publicity upon the general scheme of things. "We are still too near to the eruption of this strange force that has burst upon the world to be able to assess its significance or formulate its relations to life and government and society. A generation still lives which saw the birth of journalism in its present form. It is the product of a quick succession of astounding inventions. The railroad, the cable, the telegraph, the telephone, the rotary press, the linotype, the manufacture of paper from wood-pulp, these are the discoveries of yesterday that have made possible the journal of to-day. But already the Press has taken its place among the permanent social forces. We see it visibly affecting pretty nearly all we do and say and think, competing with the churches, superseding Parliaments, elbowing out literature, rivaling the schools and universities, furnishing the world with a new set of nerves. What marks out our age from all others is precisely this ubiquitous phenomenon of publicity. The ancient world had religion, art, law, commerce, and war. But journalism, the reading habit, the penetration of the printed word—these are peculiarly modern accessories. The whole world of to-day lives in a glass house with all the electric lights turned on and a reporter at each keyhole and staring through every pane; and it is odd that nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has yet attempted to trace out the consequences of this new and pervasive force, to define its nature and functions, and to establish its place and prerogatives by the side of those other influences that were equally operative in the past as in the present. It does not need much perspicacity to foresee that the problem of how to deal with publicity, especially the publicity of the Press, and to adjust the relations between journalism and the private citizen, on the one hand, and the State, on the other, is going to be one of the big problems of the future.

In one supremely vital sphere of national energy the past ten years have seen a decided approach toward just such an adjustment as I believe is pretty sure to extend to other phases of life. War and journalism touch at innumerable points and in almost every case, up to the struggle between Russia and Japan, the points of contact were also points of conflict, and not, as they should and might have been, of co-operation. What we are now witnessing in Europe, in the form of a very rigorous and vigilant censorship of the Press, is an effort on the part of some of the most enlightened democracies in the world to assert the supremacy of the State over this novel and disturbing power of publicity. It was time that some effort of the kind was made. War brings out, as nothing else can, the perils of an unrestricted Press. Secrecy is of the essence of successful journalism. Publicity is of the essence of successful journalism. How is a common ground to be found or manufactured between these abrupt opposites? How is a belligerent to prevent the publication of naval and military movements, the disclosure of which may fatally impair the chances of victory? How is one to reconcile the freedom of an uncensored and irresponsible Press with the concealments, the disguises, and the false scents on which may depend not merely the fortunes of a campaign, but the fate of a nation? Some ten years ago, in what proved to be his valedictory speech as First Lord of the British Admiralty, Lord Selborne emphatically recognised the magnitude of this problem. "I am not exaggerating," he declared, "when I say that the most patriotic journalist, without a thought that he was doing his country any harm, might, in the day or two which precedes war, publish news which might mar the whole issue of the naval campaign of this country."

That sounded like, but it was not, the language of rhetoric. It has happened a score of times in naval and military history that a belligerent has found in his enemy's Press an invaluable, though, of course, unconscious ally. Nor are the instances that one might give all of modern date. Even in the pre-telegraph days, even in Napoleonic wars, information that it was vital to conceal on the one side and equally vital to learn on the other became public property through the columns of an unthinking and unimportant Press; and the dangers of such a situation have, of course, since then been indefinitely increased by every new addition to the means of communication. In the Peninsular War the letters written home by British officers and published in the London newspapers became Napoleon's most trustworthy source of intelligence. In the Emperor's correspondence one constantly finds him basing instructions to his lieutenants on information gleaned from English journals. So serious was the leakage that Wellington had to issue a severe warning to his officers in the shape of a General Order, and, according to Maxwell, kept the plans of his famous lines at Torres Vedras to himself, divulging them neither to the Secretary of State nor to his generals. In the Crimean War it is exceedingly doubtful if Sebastopol would have been fortified at all had it not been for the clamor in the French and English Press that it should be made an object of attack. Sherman's march to the sea owed its inception to his quick utilization of news supplied him by the Southern Press, and it was through the same hospitable source that Grant was able to follow his progress through Georgia and meet him with supplies when he reached the coast. At the very opening of the Franco-Prussian War the German Staff, by a diligent reading of the French papers, was able to ascertain the composition and strategical disposition of all the French corps. A few weeks later, at a time when the German cavalry had lost touch with the French troops, the supremely important information was derived from the French Press that MacMahon was moving from Châlons to effect a junction with Bazaine. No suspicion that such was his intention had apparently crossed the mind of the General Staff; it took all the efforts of the French Press to convince them of the fact. Once convinced, however, they swung their armies round to the northwest and within a week Napoleon had capitulated at Sedan. During the Spanish-American War every move and intention of the American naval and military authorities was published immediately in the American Press; it was not in the least the fault of their journalists that the Americans did not meet with a resounding disaster.

But the struggle which best exemplifies the perils of an unrestricted Press as well as the advantages of a restricted one was that between Russia and Japan. All the details of the Russian mobilization, of the despatch of the various units to the front, their passage of the Urals, their arrival at Baikal, and afterward at the theater of operations, were published in the Russian Press; and the Japanese were able in this way to keep themselves constantly and accurately informed of Kuropatkin's reinforcements. When the Russian squadron left Vladivostok in August, 1904, the news of its departure filtered through St. Petersburg and was published in the London dailies. It was promptly cabled to Japan, and Kamimura was enabled to intercept the force and defeat it. The Japanese, on their side, as every one recalls, made secrecy, just as they made sanitation, an offensive and defensive weapon of extraordinary potency. They took no chances. Least of all did they run the desperate risk of allowing the movements of the fleets and armies to be described or hinted at in the public Press. Whatever the Russians learned of their intentions was gathered without Japanese assistance. When matters were nearing but had not reached the crisis, the Japanese Government issued a comprehensive list of topics, embracing every detail of naval and military preparations, that the papers were forbidden to mention. Journalism in Japan became almost a sinecure; you either published nothing or you went to jail. It is not, indeed, too much to say that the Japanese won command of the sea by first winning command of their pens and tongues. Could they have surprised the Russian fleet in Port Arthur if every Japanese journal had announced the sailing of the Japanese squadrons a couple of days beforehand? Could they have entrapped Rojdesvensky if Togo's whereabouts had been divulged by the Tokio Press? Could Oyama have swept the Russians beyond Mukden if every detail of his numbers, his reinforcements, and the position of his armies had been published for all the world to read? Nothing in that conflict struck one as more wonderful than the calm announcement by the Japanese Admiralty of the loss of a first-class battle-ship a year or so after the catastrophe had occurred. Until then not a word of the disaster had appeared in the Japanese Press. The facts were probably known, because rumors of them reached Europe. But the rumors were always promptly denied, the mystery was never once lightened, and it was not until after Tsushima that the Russians and the world at large learned the truth. And that was but the climax of a policy that knew no variation from the first shot in the war to the last. There is no need to enlarge on its obvious common sense. But I may perhaps add that the precautions which Japan found it necessary to take in her remote and comparatively unfrequented seas are ten times more incumbent upon us in Great Britain who occupy the busiest spot in the world's most crowded thoroughfare.

Yet until the present war we took no precautions whatever. Consider the conduct of the British Press at the time of the Fashoda crisis and the Dogger Bank episode. Nothing was concealed on either occasion. Every card was held face up, exposed to the full view of the world. Through thoughtlessness or ignorance or misdirected enterprise the London papers divulged the movements of British squadrons in a way that played directly into the hands of the other side. "Our own correspondent's" contribution to the Dogger Bank incident, when war with Russia seemed a matter of hours, was a telegram from Gibraltar notifying all whom it might concern that four vessels of the British squadron had been detached and were steaming under full pressure for the North Sea—a piece of news which, had war ensued, might have led to disastrous consequences. The whole world was informed that the British Home Fleet was off the Orkneys, the armored-cruiser squadron under refit, many of the ships being in dock, and that the Mediterranean squadron was in the North Atlantic. Now that surely was neither business, efficiency, sanity, or anything else but just our muddling, haphazard way of doing things. Americans who chafe—they cannot chafe half as much as we do in Great Britain—under the stringency of the present British censorship, and who not only accuse but convict it—a not very difficult matter, I fear—of endless stupidities, must bear in mind from what a state of reckless chaos it has rescued us, and how successfully it has fulfilled its prime purpose of preventing the publication of any item of news that could be of service to the enemy. So far as I am aware, not a single point has been gratuitously given away. Amid all the blundering absurdities of the Press Bureau it can at least claim that the most diligent reading of the British papers since the war began would have failed to reveal the whereabouts of a single ship or the strength or movements of a single troop. A censorship is just as alien to British as to American ways and ideas. But the British papers, without exception, have voluntarily submitted to its imposition with patriotic patience and self-denial. Every scrap of news that could possibly give information to the enemy has been remorselessly "killed." Americans have only to imagine their own Press similarly gagged to judge the greatness of this achievement. They have only to recall the behavior of their papers during the Spanish-American War to realize that, whatever may be the shortcomings of the British Press Bureau, it has completely succeeded in its main object, that of suppressing disclosures that would be useful to the Germans. I have shown by the history of other wars that this is one of the indispensable elements of military, and still more of naval, success. To have compassed it with the microscopic comprehensiveness which has been attained in Great Britain is an achievement that may fairly be held to offset many deficiencies.

The trouble is, however, that the military mind is apt to stop at that point. When the Press is effectually muzzled the soldier is not only satisfied, but thinks he has solved the whole problem. That may be all very well in countries like Germany or Bulgaria or Japan. In those lands not only is the Press comparatively without influence, but compulsory and universal military service is the established custom. And in all matters touching on war and its preparations and prosecution, there is an immense gulf between the nations that have and the nations that do not have conscription. It is a gulf that in its way is at least as profound as the difference between a free State and a slave-holding State, or between a Moslem and a Christian community. It is a fundamental difference that affects and transforms all values, and nothing is more futile than for a British soldier to point to the example of Germany or Japan as one that should necessarily be followed in the totally different circumstances of Great Britain. When he demands that he shall be left free to wage war as the Germans wage it and to publish just as much or as little of its progress as he thinks fit, it is necessary to remind him that Great Britain is not Germany. Both England and the United States are blessed with systems of government that give to the Press a power that is inconceivable in countries where everything is subordinated to preparing for success on the day of Armageddon. The Press with us not only disseminates news, but shapes the thoughts of the nation more constantly and with greater effect than any other instrument, and in war-time especially, when the public mind is excited and opinion exceptionally fluid, its influence is enormously enhanced. That is a condition with which the military and naval authorities have to reckon, or ought to reckon, in devising any sort of a Press censorship. They should remember that in gagging the Press they are gagging not only a news agency, but a molder of public opinion, and they should remember, too, that public opinion, in its turn, reacts nowadays with democratic decisiveness upon the policies of Governments and upon the operations of the naval and military commanders appointed to carry out those policies. It reacts upon them both favorably and unfavorably. On the one hand, a firm and intelligent support of a war by public opinion at home is a great fighting asset. It puts nerve into the Government; it greatly facilitates the financial problem and the recruiting and reinforcement problems; it furnishes the best substitute obtainable under a democracy for the inspiriting autocracy of a Chatham. On the other hand, public opinion in war-time is often ignorantly heedless in clamoring against individuals, in denouncing measures that are dictated by military necessity, and in agitating for, and often forcing, the adoption of policies or plans of campaign in the teeth of professional judgment. In this as in everything else one has to take the rough with the smooth. The main thing is to have it recognized that with the sort of political constitutions that are possessed by Great Britain and the United States, public opinion is a factor of inestimable power in the conduct of war on a big scale.

This, however, is just what the British Government has failed to recognize. It has been fully alive to the capacity of the Press for harm, but obstinately blind to its capacity for good. No regular war correspondents, for instance, have been as yet attached to the British forces in the field or to the British Navy in the North Sea. Newspapers have sent out correspondents to the area of hostilities at their own risks. The War Office does not countenance them, except to the extent of forbidding them to approach within twenty miles of the firing-line or to describe anything that is not at least five days old. Now that seems to me a wholly mistaken policy. It means, in the first place, that we in England receive no accounts of the fighting from unofficial sources except at second or third hand, mere odds and ends of narrative pieced together from the reports, the necessarily confused and circumscribed reports, of stray combatants. Everybody, of course, realized after the Russo-Japanese War and the struggle in the Balkans that the spacious days were gone when a Russell, a Steevens, a Forbes, or a MacGahan could go to the front, could wander about pretty much as he pleased, and could send home his letters and telegrams with little or no hindrance from the censor. But between that and absolutely suppressing war correspondents there is a vast difference. One half of a correspondent, the half that is concerned with the gathering and transmission of news, must, I agree, be strictly controlled. But the other half of him, the half that, without in any way assisting the enemy, keeps the public at home informed, stimulated, and interested, that criticizes intelligently and, if the need arises, does not hesitate to expose defects that in the interests of the services themselves ought to be exposed, and will not be remedied unless they are exposed, the half that acts as a connecting link between the forces at the front and the nation at the fireside, that instructs the public in the nature of the task on which it has embarked, and by vivid descriptions strengthens the resolutions to see the thing through—that half of a correspondent may be at times something of a salutary nuisance, but he is also an auxiliary of the highest utility. The British people both like and feel they have a right to learn what is being done in their name at the theater of war, and to learn it from independent as well as official sources, and in furnishing them with legitimate news, fair-minded comment, and readable narrative the correspondent who knows his business is rendering no small service to the army and navy as well as to the nation.

Part of the art of war, indeed, in a democratic State must be to keep the democracy intelligently interested, and for that purpose the war correspondent should be regarded as an indispensable unit in the equipment of any modern British or American army. By not allowing them at the front the British Government has done no service to the army, has cut itself loose from a valuable source of popular sentiment and determination, and has forfeited whatever benefit may be conferred—and in the past a great deal of benefit has been conferred—by the presence at the seat of war of a corps of trained and detached observers who are competent to discuss the problems of strategy, tactics, administration, and policy as they arise. The drama of war, the "sudden shining of splendid names," the deeds of courage, the life, the sufferings, the triumphs or defeats of our forces on land and sea—these are the things that fire the national heart and call forth the enthusiasm and the spirit of sacrifice and steadfastness that will be needed for victory, and the men to win it. At present for large numbers of the English people the war is too distant and too unreal; it has not been brought before their eyes and minds with even a tenth of the proper vividness; the secrecy of its conduct has done nothing to warm the imagination; and I for one certainly believe that had war correspondents from the first been attached to the British forces, there would not at this moment be the slightest difficulty in raising all the recruits that Lord Kitchener asks for. Moreover—and here again the Government has badly failed—in the absence of war correspondents, a prompt and ample supply of official intelligence becomes doubly essential. But the British War Office and Admiralty have been very backward in recognizing this. In the first three months of the war only three despatches from Sir John French have been made public; the curt daily bulletin issued by the French Government is our only regular and official source of news; and while an officer has been attached to the British headquarters for the express purpose of sending home reports of the operations, his narratives are infrequent, often ludicrously trivial, and not particularly well written. The papers show their opinion of them by either cutting them down or heaping upon them the indignity of small type and an obscure position. The whole business, in short, of stimulating popular enthusiasm by means of the Press has been scandalously mismanaged.

Almost equally pronounced has been the failure of the British Government to grasp the importance of the Press as an influence on Imperial and neutral sentiment. India and all the self-governing dominions have rallied magnificently to the side of the mother-land in this struggle for existence. South Africa, which may seem an exception to this statement, is really a confirmation of it, for the rebellion of Maritz, Beyers, and De Wet has served chiefly to evoke the loyalty and good faith of the vast majority of the Boers who fifteen years ago took up arms against Great Britain. To all these communities, and especially to India, the war is an even more dramatic adventure than it is to Great Britain. A wise statesmanship would surely have seen to it that everything that could be done was done to instruct them on the issues involved, to call forth and guide local patriotism, to keep constantly before their minds a picture of the power and resources of the British Empire, and to inform them without delay of the progress of events and particularly of the doings of their own contingents. Little more was needed than to give the London correspondents of the Colonial and Indian papers a free hand, subject, of course, to the necessary restrictions of the censorship. Yet nothing of the kind was done, and the different units of the Empire have been starved of news equally with Great Britain. One wonders, indeed, how any Englishman can have the face to talk of Germany's misreading of the British character when he finds the authorities in and around Whitehall in a state apparently of as great and far less excusable ignorance. They seem to understand war much better than they understand England or the human, harmless emotions that sway the man in the street or his passionate interest in the pomp and réclame of such a struggle as is being fought out in France and Belgium. Whereas every Indian and every Canadian, New Zealand, Australian, and South-African paper should be vivid with accounts of what the forces of the Empire as a whole and of each section in it are achieving, this war through the obtuseness of British officialdom is being waged in a disenchanting secrecy and darkness.

But the reflex action of this obtuseness upon opinion in neutral countries has been even more regrettable. There were at the beginning of the war several countries, such as Turkey, Greece, Rumania, Bulgaria, Italy, Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, standing on the very edge of the whirlpool and liable at any moment to be drawn into it. There was also another country, the United States, whose neutrality was in no danger of being compromised, but whose sympathies all the belligerents were anxious to claim on their side. In each and all of these lands Germany has conducted a zealous and untiring campaign with the twofold object of influencing both sentiment and policy. They have been deluged with official telegrams from Berlin magnifying every German success, painting the condition and prospects of the Allies in the gloomiest colors, and embellishing the facts without hesitation to suit German interests. The Press, pamphlets, ambassadors, professors, and the hierarchy of the German spy system have all been assiduously worked, and the weapons have varied from the sort of interviews and appeals of which Count Bernstorff has been prodigal down to forgery and whole-hearted lies. Articles from the London Times that never appeared in its columns, speeches by British Cabinet Ministers that never were delivered, have been spread broadcast over the neutral countries of Europe and over the west of America by German agents. Political, social, and commercial pressure has also been brought to bear unsparingly. Americans must not think from the failure of German methods in the United States that they have equally failed elsewhere. On the contrary, Turkey's entrance into the arena, the long hesitation of Italy to throw in her lot with the Allies, the neutrality of Holland and Denmark, the repression by their rulers of the desire of the Rumanian people, and the decidedly pro-German bias of Swedish sentiment are all very largely the work of Germany's careful, shrewd, and quite unscrupulous propaganda.

No Englishman would wish to see his country countering German intrigue by German methods. Beyond furnishing its ambassadors and ministers abroad with dignified reports that bear on them the stamp of truth, the British Foreign Office has in fact taken hardly any action whatever. There was no reason why it should have done even that. It had at hand a far more intelligent and serviceable instrument than any it could have manufactured itself. London is full of the representatives of all the most influential papers published in neutral countries. With hardly an exception these skilled journalists are well disposed toward the cause of the Allies and anxious to set it before their countrymen in the most favorable light. They ask nothing from the British Government except the permission to cable to their journals the news as it reaches them. I will not say that this permission has been refused to them, but it has been granted in such a way as to make it almost inoperative. The censorship, in other words, has been carried to such a ludicrous extent and placed in such incompetent hands that news of the most helpful character to British interests has time and again been held up in the offices of the cable companies and prevented from being sent abroad. Urbane fatuity has rarely, I suppose, been carried further in any Government department than in the British Press Bureau and by the half-pay officers who were installed at its orders in the cable companies' offices. These wondrous gentlemen simply blue-penciled everything that came before them. They censored the Prime Minister's speeches and Sir Edward Grey's, the King's messages to India and the Dominions, and even the official pronouncements of the Press Bureau itself. Happily they have now for the most part been dispensed with. But the Press Bureau still continues to fill the cup of vexatiousness to the brim and to furnish the world with a unique example of how the undoubted perils of publicity during war-time may be avoided and its benefits despised or at any rate ignored.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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