Uplifting the News
One of the Uplifted
A DEPUTATION filed into Sir Robert Borden’s office with faces that were long and lugubrious. As they were all newspapermen, this was distinctly unusual. But shortly afterwards they filed out again and this time they beamed with smiles. They had made a request, even a demand, and the premier had seen eye to eye with them; at any rate, he had not said them nay.
Union Government had made up its mind some time previous that it would be a good plan, seeing that party lines were down for the time being and that the press of the country was not supposed to have any politics, to keep a close hand on the press by corralling the Ottawa correspondents and giving them an earful of the right dope. This plan took the form of semi-weekly conferences with members of the Government to which the newspaper men were invited and asked to listen carefully. They were told many interesting things with a view to explaining the attitude of the Government toward the questions of the day but were cautioned not to print anything lest it might be an aid and comfort to the enemy. In short, the news was for their private information and not for the Hun or the Canadian public. This was tough on the boys; to be given the Sphinx’s secret—if the Sphinx ever had a secret—and then to be told not to spread it. Tantalus never had harder luck with the drink he wasn’t allowed to quaff or Sisyphus with the stone he wasn’t allowed to roll past the brink than these Ottawa correspondents with the “scoops” they were forbidden to print.
Naturally they got fed up on these inhibitions so that presently the semiweekly conferences became rather a bore. At first there were four Cabinet Ministers present, including Premier Borden, and the full corps of journalists, but later on, there was only one Cabinet
Minister present, Newton Wesley Rowell, whose happy thought the conference was, and only a half attendance of newspaper men. Mr. Rowell delivered the monologue in his best Epworth League manner, but there was a great deal of yawning. When the boys didn’t yawn they looked out of the windows and wondered idly if this was what Union Government was coming to—the lid tight on and Mr. Rowell on the lid.
“All I could see in it,” said one veteran correspondent to me, “was a copious addition to the Ten Commandments. Our little semi-weekly meeting with the statesmen bristled with thou—shalt—not. The Government took us into their confidence the same way the cat took the canary— they just naturally ate us alive and then smiled at this amicable arrangement with the press. I got pretty sick of it.”
“I think,” said another, “that Premier Borden sympathized with us. There was that in his eye which said ‘This is camouflage. We must satisfy our new earnest brother who has bright ideas on the subject.’ I tired of it very soon. I am a great admirer of the Bible but I never did think that it gave its big stories the right amount of space. When I get a piece of news I like to play it up—not to play it down or say nothing about it. I have always gone on the principle that I was writing for daily papers, not for an almanac.”
“I went to the meetings,” said another correspondent, “because I was always hoping that something would explode. Nothing ever did. Mr. Calder and Dr. Reid watched the sermon, pretty close. Not a word, not a syllable was uttered that might build up a personal machine for any one Cabinet Minister, with the Canadian press as a lever.”
“I never paid any attention to what was said,” another correspondent confided.
“I knew it was all a bluff from the start. I took part in the conversation of course— that is to say I listened to Mr. Rowell’s sweet nothings—let ’em go in at one ear and out at the other—but I never got anywhere. Most of my time I spent observing a mosquito that had been left over from last summer. It had camped over the cornice by the President of the Council’s room and evidently it was waiting the W’ar out. I went to at least a dozen of the conferences and I noticed that the mosquito slept through ’em all. Once or twice he stirred feebly but there was no point to his remarks. How could there be, with the example he was getting?”
COMPLAINTS followed. So finally the correspondents went in a body to Premier Borden and spoke to this effect: “From time immemorial we have been in the habit of taking our news where we found it and printing it when we got it. We don’t want anything better. We admire Mr. Rowell’s diction very much but is it your idea that all the news should be filtered through one man? It is a pure, pure fountain, we admit, but we would not drink at it exclusively.”
And Premier Borden answered:
“Quite right. Do it the old way.”
And the old way it is now and hereafter.
BUT the uplift movement has unfortunately been operating elsewhere than at Ottawa. And the result has been seen in a completely supine press. To give them full credit the Canadian newspapers have never perforated pessimism or blackened gloom. On the contrary they have kept up a merry are-we-downhearted chorus even when all the rest of the world was looking facts in the face, including the London Times which did not hesitate to tell the War Office where it got off and
on. We have been more English than the English in our obedience to a brass-hat censorship. At this moment Canada has a stake of half a million men and a billion and a half of money in the Great War but our press has never presumed to give advice to that amount or an infinitesimal fraction of it. While the press of the other allied countries was talking up to the full extent of their men and money contribution to the war our own neat little parlor-broken press was telling us to be good and believe only what they printed and one way and another carry ourselves like cheerful idiots to the end that the war might be won without disturbing anyone’s peace of mind.
From time to time the press of the other allied countries—and the press of England most of all—has told the men at the top what they ought to do and that in good set terms. What they told the men at the top was generally what a good business man would have told them who wanted the war handled in a prompt, efficient and workman-like manner with a view to getting the job over as soon as possible. At the proper intervals during the last four years the allied press has yelled in turn for more munitions, more men—more money always came without asking—more unity of command, and last but not least, for more brains. And the men at the top, though painfully slow to jump, have jumped at last in response to this loyal clamor and have done, one after another, all the things that were asked, which after all were only the things that an intelligent layman would suggest who delved far enough into his common sense to appreciate the fact that red tape, plodding regard for incompetent seniority,
neglect of brisk merit and useful ambition, scorn of new ideas, divided counsel and divided command, would never win this or any other war-—no, not in a thousand years. In a word, these inconsiderate newspapers went on the principle that helpful criticism of governmental and military blunders was not an aid or a comfort to the enemy and they spoke up accordingly.
But did any such candid heresies appear in the Canadian press? Not on your life! It has been a very tractable little press indeed and it has always said to the intelligent reader: “If you want to know what you really feel and think about the conduct of this war you will have to go to the United States newspapers for it.” And the intelligent reader took them at their word, went to the United States newspapers for a clear-eyed view of the war and is still going there for an expert understanding of tactics at the front, movements behind the lines, and war politics the world over. On the whole these United States versions compiled by specialists are more reliable than the war summaries prepared for the Canadian newspapers by their city hall reporters.
IN the beginning, the Canadian Government had a bright idea in regard to a war service for the Canadian press. They would send over some prose Homer, whose object would be not news so much as local color, human interest, and a fellow-feeling with the Canadian soldier. They expected to get out of it a sympathetic and intimate account of Canadian valor sych as Brigadier General Morrison wrote from the Boer War and they would pay the shot if the Canadian publishers could agree on
the man. Well, the executive committee of the publishers met and a name was suggested which commanded the suffrages of half the committee but the other two objected on the ground that he would be distasteful to the Ontario press—meaning two newspapers with which he had quarrelled. Deadlock ensued, the unprejudiced half of the committee would not make shift with secondbests and the scheme was dropped right there. The Government said, “Since you can’t agree we will appoint a man of our o w n,” and handed the job over to Sir Max Aitken, who acted as Iwitness for two years to the great dissatisfaction o f everybody except Sir Max whb got a book out of it— “Canada in Flanders,” written by Mr. Beckles Wilson -—which certainly does not underestimate Sir M a x’s qualities of head and heart.
Sir Max did his I-witnessing by proxy of the Morning Post man who, truth to tell, ladled out praise to the Canadian soldiers but did it with such a superior scorn for names and places—the casual
sniff, so to speak—that the Canadian
newspapers decided to send one of the natives over later on. Lord Beaverbrook is now finishing what Sir Max Aitken began. As Director of Public Information for the British Empire he has invited the proprietors of twenty Canadian daily newspapers to confer with him in London, and make a personally conducted tour of the training camps, the Grand Fleet and the fighting front. Lord Beaverbrook is determined that the Canadian newspaper situation shall not get out of hand. He has noticed that these visits by Canadian journalists and statesmen, whether detached or in groups, have invariably had a good effect in renewing the allegiance of our newspapers to the bread-and-milk stuff they send us by cable from England. As a matter of fact our food of opinion is so carefuliy prepared that, when the Germans give us something hard to swallow, it leaves us sick at the stomach. This is not a healthy state of mind for any people at war or otherwise.
When Beaverbrook laid his I-Witness honors down—presumably on the hint or at the request of the Canadian press—the publishers got together, took the matter in their own hands, and sent Mr. Stewart Lyon of the Toronto Globe to the front to show how it should be done. Mr. Lyon has a statistical mind which stored up many interesting facts highly usable in his war summaries—which are easily the best in Canada—but his flow of copy from the fighting front was, to say the least of
it, exiguous and showed over much respect for the censor who certainly would have given Mr. Lyon’s elbow more room if he had exercised it more freely. Mr. Lyon’s high regard for facts—which he did not feel himself at liberty to cable—naturally crowded the local color and the human interest out of the story so that the Canadian soldier is still waiting for the prose Homer that the Government was going to send him at the beginning of the war. In short, prose Homers are not favored by the Canadian Press Limited and, when Mr. Lyon resigned his task, his place was immediately filled by Mr. Walter Willison who is quite as careful as Mr. Lyon had to be about telling the Canadians anything in the way of real news. At a distance of some twenty miles from the front, Mr. Willison is now busily engaged in gathering the cold hash of second-hand narrative which is the best our Canadian war correspondents are permitted to do in the matter of graphic description. Mr. Willison writes very much like father. He telegraphs us a bass-wood ham perhaps three times a week and we are expected to find it nourishing.
ALTHOUGH the war is now in its fourth year we can safely say that no Canadian war correspondent at the front—or the near-front—has so far forgotten himself as to cable a fact or a series of facts that would give us any idea of what our boys are doing. It isn’t done, you know—at least by Canadian correspondents. The uplift must be preserved and the best way to do it is to say nothing with enough circumlocution to make it look official. No news, as everybody is aware, is good news. What does the Psalmist say? Increase of knowledge is increase of sorrow. Very well—the Canadian newspapers are not going to pay five cents a word for cabled sorrow. At no stage of the game have the Canadian newspapers either in their news columns or in their editorial pages, printed anything that would bring the Canadian people face to face with a harsh fact. If there is any jolting to do, let the Germans do it—that has been their motto. But it leaves us open to unpleasant surprises.
At the outset of the war the Government established a censorship bureau which was placed under a former newspaper man, Colonel Ernest Chambers, who knew his book very well indeed and accomplished his prodigious task with a minimum of interference with the newspapers. What I mean to say is, that Colonel Chambers handled the outgoing news with excellent judgment but when it came to bridling opinion—well, that was another story. Right now the Colonel is having his troubles with people who want to write ginger instead of the rose-water prescribed by a fatherly Government as the medicine for fears, doubts and tremblings that good Canadians are not supposed to have. Perhaps it would be better for Colonel Chambers to confine himself to the news censorship and let articles of opinion fend for themselves. Perhaps, also, it would be better for persons who insist on writing opinions not to take the ordersin-council too seriously and refer their articles to Colonel Chambers who is in the awkward position of hav-
ing to carry out the law when the thing is put up to him. Uplift is all right but there are more ways than one of doing it. For example a good kick planted in the right spot will often accomplish more in the way of uplift than all the salve and soft soap in the world.
THE news is pretty well guarded but it’s the views of intelligent editors and readers that need the most attention. Views have a habit of breaking out from time to time and it’s the part of the new Government to head these off—not only views on the war but views touching the Government and its methods of handling the crisis. The Canadian newspapers, as I said before, have been particularly docile. Their views would never keep anybody awake at night at any time and it looks like a work of supererogation to thunder at a flock of sheep. Why then the horrid penalties of the Military Service Act? Why last session’s order-incouncil which threatens the loyal press of Canada >vith imprisonment, confiscation of property, every dire thing in fact, except a blank wall and a firing party at sunrise? As the edict stands the Government can take everything an editor has— if he opens his trap—away from him, even to his adenoids and his hope of the hereafter. But he hasn’t opened his trap and he never will. What he says is “Spit in my face. I like it.” Why then, all this rough language?
For the simple reason that the Government wanted to shut up Mr. Bourassa who has been flirting with sedition for the last four years. To get at Heinous Henri and his Diabolical Devoir the Government has not hesitated to punch every other newspaper in Canada straight in the mouth. When uplift goes so far as to assault the innocent bystander in order to warn the guilty party that he will get his next I submit that uplift ought at least to explain to the public why it follows these indirect methods. The other day this order-in-council—which falls like the rain
on just and unjust alike—closed up a Mr. Pigeon in Montreal whose paper was presumably roaring like a sucking dove, but it has never done anything to Mr. Bourassa who goes on laughing in a way to make the hyena jealous. Let me correct myself. Mr. Bourassa took that last robust hint from Ottawa. He swears now under his breath but to reduce him to this state of grace it was necessary that an order-in-council should shame every other newspaper in Canada.
However, all goes merry as marriage bells, both for news and views, the latter being so carefully keyed by the latest order-in-council that an opinion adverse to the political manoeuvres of a two-party Government may be construed as an opinion adverse to winning the war, an aid and comfort to the enemy, a potential treason, and punishable as such. The voice of the press is muffled, its pen is tied up like a sore thumb—but no doubt it is for the good of the country and the war will be won sooner if there are no groans to annoy a Government that is doing the best it can. Free speech survives still in Parliament which absolutely refused to allow Mr. Speaker to edit the independence out of Hansard. It is true that there is not much independence to blue pencil but such as it is let no man lay hands on it. A poor thing but our own—this last remnant of free speech which the orders-in-council have left us—so let us cherish it.
VI THEN Union Government landed safeVV ly last December there were two party press bureaus, which of course, had to be scotched if the fifty-fifty spirit of brotherly love was to be a continued success. Presumably the Federal Press Bureau would do as little to win war by calling Sir Wilfred Laurier a traitor as the Liberal Information Bureau, would by calling Sir Robert Borden a jelly fish and a dough head. The Federal Press Bureau, as being more immediately under the jurisdiction of the Government in power, was promptly put out of business, while the Liberal Information Bureau—with the next election five years away— was allowed to languish by its discouraged supporters. Besides H. F. Gadsby, its strong writer, had seen the error of his ways some
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months before and had shifted his sparkling pen in the direction of his new convictions. The latest news is that the Liberal Monthly goes out of existence and that its place will be taken by a new weekly, The Statesman, edited by Lindsay Crawford, late of the Toronto Globe. At all events the Die Hards in both the old parties are no longer in receipt of their raw meat rations from their favorite press bureaus, the policy of Union Government being to dulcify public opinion and permit nothing to enter that maketh a lie.
Of course, something had to take the place of the slaughtered press bureaus and the first attempt was the happy little conferences referred to at the start of this discourse.
The latest uplift scheme is the Department of Public Information whose as-
signed duty is to sustain the spirits of the people. At first it tried to sustain the spirits of the people by handing out prepared reports of the Government conversations with the labor delegates and the woman’s suffrage crowd, but the Ottawa correspondents preferred to dig up their own news on these subjects so that fox didn’t run.
The Department of Public Information is in charge of Mr. E. M. Nichols, a newspaper man, but it is in Dutch with the Ottawa correspondents who naturally suspect these attempts to “standardize” the news and put them out of their jobs. The Department of Public Information issues a weekly bulletin which helps to win the war with items like this:
“Mr. John Smith, of Sebringville, Ont., was a visitor at Auckland, New Zealand, last month. Mr. Smith is optimistic about
the war. He says he will return to Canada as soon as it is over.”
The Department also sends out helpful tracts from time to time showing how Napoleon won the battle of Austerlitz and how Leonidas kept the pass at Thermopylae. As a pass keeper, however, Leonidas is not to be 'compared with the humblest member of Parliament who has been known to keep passes on all the Canadian railways for five years at a stretch. The department has added to its other activities a lantern lecture bureau headed by Mr. -Frank Yeigh who has intermitted his annual Five Thousand Facts About Canada to collate Five Thousand Reasons Why Union Government Is Going to Win This War Without Turning a Hair. Professor Wrong has also been engaged to give the right slant to people’s thoughts, likewise a numerous corps of short-story tellers whose duty is to give five minute talks in factories and theatres or any other place they can break into. Five minute guns at sea—some people call them—meaning that they leave everybody as much at sea as they are themselves. These vagrant sunbeams back fire as often as not. The other night one of them seeped into a moving picture show and uplifted us for five minutes. He had a great effect on our spirits. He not only killed the Hun, but he killed the show and after he was through the audience was quite prepared to kill him.