Change? What change?
When the editor of The Times, John Delane, decided back in 1854 to send a reporter, William Russell, to the Crimea to cover the war, it was because Delane was fed up with relying on military freelances.
The Times had originally engaged Lieutenant Charles Nasmyth, of the Bombay Artillery, to report from the Crimea but had found that Nasmyth really did not understand the concept of news. Russell did not disappoint. He sent stories frequently and at length. He used the cunning, persistence and flair with which he had forced his way on to The Times to write articles that increased his paper’s circulation and prestige and which eventually helped topple the British government.
But his diaries show that his relationship with the paper and its executives were always stormy, especially over his salary and his expense accounts. (Sound familiar?)
“There has grown up a mystique that working for The Times is not so much a job as a way of life,” Russell wrote. “It’s akin to membership of some exclusive and dedicated order, implying a prestige that far outweighs any shortcomings in pay. This notion is naturally fostered by the management.”
This is a complaint that could have been written yesterday by any war correspondent from any major newspaper or TV broadcaster. And does this whinge, written more than 150 years ago, sound familiar? “I made up my accounts for The Times this evening and find I am short of a good deal of money. How can this possibly be?”
Or this: “I have all the risks of a soldier and none of his privileges. As an editor or proprietor I am prepared to pay tax, but it is infamous for the state to come down on a journalist the moment he lands back in his country and take away the remainder of his [advance] expenses.”
He tried to pre-empt complaints from The Times accountants by cataloguing the cost of living in the Crimea: “Â£5 for a ham; 15s for a small tin of meat; 5s for a pot of marmalade; Â£6 for a pair of seamen’s boots, and Â£5 for a turkey.”
The battles over expenses were so frequent and bitter that when Russell returned to London and fame The Times decided on a grand gesture–it put side all his outstanding IOUs for advance expenses and told him he could start again “with what tradesmen call a clean slate”.
It also placed him on The Times list of staff correspondents at a salary of Â£600 a year, providing “you will render monthly accounts of your expenditure showing a clean balance so that we may both know how we stand.”
When he was not away reporting wars – after the Crimea Russell went to the Indian Mutiny, the American Civil War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune and the Zulu War of 1879 – he was expected to help out in The Times newsroom in London.
On one occasion, Delane put him on the sub-editors’ desk and instructed him: “You are to read the copy of reporters and exercise unlimited and merciless power in dealing with it, suppressing all suspicious adjectives and all statements not connected with actual fact.”
And does this lament of Russell’s hit a contemporary chord? “Woke up this morning with the intolerable flavour of claret and cold punch combined about me and wondered again why I did it all, especially the singing of those Irish songs.”
Like many a modern war correspondent, by the time he retired Russell had come to believe that the best days were over and that increasing military censorship had killed the craft that he had helped pioneer.
So it was left to his successor, Archibald Forbes, to say why they did it, an explanation hard to better so many years later.
“It is possible if I had declined [the assignment] I might have been a happier man today. I might have been a haler man than I am at forty-five, my nerve gone and my physical energy but a memory. Yet the recompense. To have lived ten lives in as many short years; to have held once and again in the hollow of my hand the exclusive power to thrill nations; to have looked into the very heart of the turning point of nations and of dynasties.”
I concede that modern communications have made it easier to get the story back to base. But in 1870 reports from the Franco-Prussian war were often published in London the next day. Is it that much better now? As for changes in the nitty-gritty of the craft, what changes?