The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review October, 1920
A Journalistic Incursion
A Journalistic Incursion
"For the cause that needs assistance,
For the wrong that needs resistance,
For the future in the distance,
And the good that we can do."
—The motto of the Auckland "Star."
If the motto of the Auckland "Star" were the motto of all newspapers; if all the causes which lack their assistance were given actions for default; if all the wrongs which need resistance and do not get it were given remedy in damages; if the future in the distance could be given a satisfactory hold on ail those immediate dividends and present interests which could be shown to have clashed successfully with that future, then I think it would not be long before all the newspapers had reduced to half-mast a legend which could possibly mean so much. It seems a pity that such a motto should be handed over to the cynic, and I write this article in the hope that a suggestion I wish to make may save the young and ardent journalist from the tragedy which comes when page 17 the ideals of youth sink into the disillusionment of age. At the worst, however, it is better for our souls that we should face reality, even if we have to admit that our emblem is a loaded dice and that our scroll proclaims that it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion. I am reminded that, over the main entrance to the offices of the Christchurch "Press" the words "Nihil utile quod non honestum" are graven in stone. Such a motto is a pious protestation, not a promise of action. It may, perhaps, share with the texts of many sermons the inscription—and condemnation—"Do as I say, not as I do." How much more glorious the noble promise of the "Star."
As a matter of fact, lamentable though it is, no one is innocent enough to take seriously any of these virtuous and high-sounding professions. It would, obviously, be impossible to bind the newspapers to such broad and far-reaching ideals. Neither they nor the public imagine that such things mean business, except stage business. The mottoes may therefore, for practical purposes, be counted out of the contract. Is there, nevertheless, any offer which the newspaper makes to the public, and any acceptance on behalf of the public, which may be construed into an express or a tacit agreement between them. If there is, I propose to ask the further question. "Is it possible that the newspaper may be bound in law, as it is in morals, to stand to its professions and to fulfil its engagements.
I submit that there is one column in every newspaper concerning which there is, quite definitely, an undertaking to give fair play. I do not, of course, refer to leading articles. I submit that there is an undertaking to publish, within certain limits, the comment of the general public on matters of interest, and to do it without charge. The ordinary peaceful citizen, watching by his fireside for instruction or amusement, believes that any and every citizen who has anything to say and the power of saying it, will have his ideas published. In particular, he has the belief that if he should write a letter, intelligently expressed, not scandalous in any way, not defamatory nor of subject matter unduly canvassed, that such letter will get its fair run in the space allotted for correspondence. If this is not so, I have nothing further to add. If it is so, do the newspapers live up to their professions and fulfil their engagements?
I could give quite a lot of evidence as to the manner in which newspapers deal with correspondents. I wish to give one instance only. I believe it to be quite a typical case, its distinction lying rather in its cleanness of outline and in its almost cynical lack of disguise than in its extraordinary abuse of power and in its violation of journalistic professions. There should be a limit to such proceedings, I submit, if it is possible to impose one. I specially keep the name of the gentleman who dealt with me in this matter because the word "Editor" has an impersonal touch which the public is apt to dissociate from personal prejudice and individual bias. As a matter of fact, the Editor is apt at definite points to be a frail mortal like unto ourselves, and to be bound, further, by the interests, financial and intellectual, of the owners.
It will be remembered that local bodies in various parts of New Zealand recently began to pass resolutions concerning Professor von Zedlitz, and the resolutions were being passed in the name of returned soldiers. The thing was becoming epidemic; and even page 18 penetrated the Borough Councils of Birkenhead and Newmarket. Professor Kirk was in the district at the time, but I think he was unsuccessful in isolating the mosquito responsible. It was charitable to believe, as well as plainly the fact, that the men responsible for such resolutions were merely following a beaten trail and that they did not, all of them, know the nature and quality of their act. I therefore wrote a very moderately worded letter—I send a copy for your information—in which I pointed out that the Borough Councils in question were dealing with matters concerning the facts of which they could not, in the nature of things, be fully advised, and that resolutions based on imperfect knowledge were futile. I stated a few of the circumstances which seemed to be most likely to be overlooked and most likely to be understood. I did more. The resolution had been passed in the name of the returned soldiers. As a returned soldier I asked to be dissociated from a resolution passed in my name.
Of course I took the letter to the "Star." It had published the resolution. It stood for the downtrodden who lack assistance; it stood, with all its wealth, with its manifold resources, with its Editor waiting on the mark with pencil sharpened, ready to pounce upon the wrong which needed resistance. So I walked through its portals and handed my letter to the assistant editor. He read it, shook his head, and said he would have to take it to the Editor. In a moment he returned and again shook his head. "I shall see Mr. Leys myself," I said, and I sought the lion's den.
I understand that the gentleman I saw was Mr. Cecil Leys, the acting Editor and one of the controllers of the "Star." I remarked that I had handed in a letter concerning Professor von Zedlitz, and that I understood there was doubt of its publication. He assented. I enquired if there was anything scandalous about the letter. He said, "No." He added, quite curtly, that it was not an Auckland matter, and he would not publish it. I pointed out that however little it had to do with Auckland some Auckland local bodies had thought it of sufficient interest to pass resolutions in the matter. He replied that he was not going to publish it. I admitted that the decision in the matter lay with him, and that all I could ask was a definite acceptance or refusal. I was handed my letter with the refusal. I may add that I took the letter to the "Herald" and it was published next morning without alteration or demur.
It will be observed that Mr. Cecil Leys had published an attack on Professor von Zedlitz, an attack which, if successful, would prevent the Professor from earning his living in the profession he had chosen for his life's work. The attack went into the homes of all subscribers. There is no rule of fair play more clear than that the defence should be published to the same people who read the attack. Mr. Leys refused to publish the defence.
There is only one explanation. Mr. Leys has views on the von Zedlitz question. From his manner towards me I should say they were strong views. The one reason advanced, that the matter was not a local one, is clearly absurd. The "Star's" motto itself does not refer to the "local" wrong which needs resistance nor to the future in the "local" distance.
I do not think I need add anything to a University audience as to the iniquity of this thing. It is not necessary to point out that the Editor has a perfect right to his own views, nor is it necessary in this particular case to mention at Victoria University page 19 College that there is a side concerning which the Birkenhead and Newmarket Borough Councils are, to say the least, imperfectly informed. The question which may be asked is this; "Must the matter not, in the last resort, be left to the sense of fairness of the Editor?" It is at this point that I wish to make my suggestion. If a correspondent submits a letter to an Editor, and it is rejected, I suggest that he should be entitled to appeal to a referee, a specially appointed Government officer, who should have power to instruct the paper to publish the letter. I would further suggest that the referee should be empowered to decide who should pay the cost of submission, on the general principle that the side losing the appeal should pay, the cost not to exceed the amount chargeable if the letter were published as an advertisement.
If anyone should protest that this is an interference with a right of property, I reply that I am especially interested in interfering with such rights as they are exercised by certain newspapers. I do not believe in right without duties. There is no monopoly more fraught with danger than that exercised by the newspapers. Competition is practically out of the question. Power of leading the public carries a considerable power of misleading. It cannot be denied the despatch of business is facilitated by the Prussian method, and it requires a very high sense of duty and a very judicial attitude of mind to give a newspaper that high moral standing which we are wont to acclaim when the orator lifts his glass and acclaims the toast, "Gentlemen, the Press." The limit I now propose is merely one which would bind newspapers to something which corresponds, as I believe, to their own professions. It would have been a consolation to me to compel the Editor of the "Star" to do one tiny act of justice.
It may be remarked incidentally, that the action of Mr. Cecil Leys has vitiated the whole propaganda against Professor von Zedlitz. What can be said for a public discussion fostered by such methods. I might hope that the whole Press of New Zealand would cry with one voice, "The ways of this 'Star' are not our ways," but I have my doubts.
As I write the "Star" is publishing its Jubilee number. I observe that many claims are made which tell of wealth and influence. Under one heading I see that the "Star" fathered a town clock. I see no headings, "Suppressions for the Public Weal," "Innocents we Have Slaughtered," or "Interests we Have Served." Even the sporting columns do not flaunt "Winners we Did Not Pick," nor "Why we Backed the Loser." Perhaps, however, I am not fair. There is a picture of an "Editorial Conference." I see my friend the acting Editor, and I reflect that an Editorial Conference may explain many important omissions. It explains the omission of all reference to an humble and a contrite heart. It is not unnatural, at any rate, which at the moment the "Star" is flaunting its successes I should be brooding over its failures.
I am sure that a higher sense of poetic justice would be developed in the community—I say nothing of its sense of humour— if the people realised that their newspapers could be compelled in some minor way to live up to their mottoes. I do not believe that we should make them moral, even by Act of Parliament, though our old friends the Solicitor-General and James Christie would do their best. I think, however, it would do the general public good page 20 if they found that, even under duress, the Press proclaimed, though in a minor treble, and put into action, though in smallest measure, the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote, "We have, on the other hand, some odd and magnanimous sayings common to high races and natures, which set forth the advantage of the losing side, and proclaim it better to be a dead lion than a living dog."
F. A. de la Mare.
10th January, 1919.
[Copy of letter published in "New Zealand Herald," rejected by the "Star," Auckland.]