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Response to Review no. 427

I would like to thank Dr Kaul for her kind review of my book, and particularly for providing a very thorough summary of some of my material and arguments. I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to the review, and to discuss in a little more depth some of the issues that it has raised.

Historical writing is inevitably a distillation of a much larger body of research. In extracting the essence from the primary evidence, a sense of what that source material once resembled can be lost. After having written News and the British World, I became conscious of the fact that I had not perhaps drawn sufficient attention to the nature of the primary material that I had used as the basis for the book, and what the implications of this were for my study. Returning to this issue offers a way of discussing many of Dr Kaul’s points.

As I approached the task of writing an imperial history of the late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century press in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, I was struck by the limitations of previous work that had relied on the evidence provided by printed copies of newspapers. This seemed to me a little like trying to understand agriculture by looking only at a selection of marrows, turnips and swedes. As the work of historians like Lucy Brown, Donald Read and Minko Sotiron had already shown, by the late nineteenth century newspapers were being produced by industrialised, commercial concerns. Examining the various pressures operating in this industry seemed to me to be the best way to locate the press in its imperial context.

In order to do this, it was necessary to examine a wide range of manuscript and archival material from repositories in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Much of this body of evidence (for example, that held in the Reuters Archive, London, or the New Zealand Press Association Archive, Wellington) concerned the behind-the-scenes operation of newspapers and news agencies. Other sources shed light upon the lobbying activities of particular groups, including constructive imperialists like Richard Jebb (whose papers are held at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London) and Sandford Fleming (who left a large archive, now housed at Library and Archives Canada). Governments around the empire had to deal with these interests, mediate between them, and formulate policies reflecting pressure placed on them from many other different points of origin. It was thus also necessary to examine the public records generated by state bodies in Britain and the Dominions.

Much of this material had never been consulted by historians with this aim in mind, and some of it had been looked at seldom, if ever, before. As a result, I believe that my approach to the topic allowed me to move beyond previous work, and to draw out a range of new conclusions. At points in her review, Dr Kaul suggests that my work attempts to replace that of historians like Read and Koss. This is not at all what I intended, and I hope that it is not what I implied in my book. Rather, I sought to build on the excellent groundwork provided by such studies, and to follow up areas of research that they had hinted at, but had not been able to explore fully.

For example, my work on Reuters confirms the general picture presented by Read, but also provides a new depth to our understanding of why the news agency had more success in preserving its commercial interests in some Dominions than in others. Furthermore, News and the British World shows how, in seeking to resist the growing imperial reach of Reuters, press enterprises in Canada and South Africa deployed ideas about nation and empire to protect their own commercial interests. The result is a more complex understanding of how newspapers in the Dominions drew on ideas about imperial identity, something missing from existing histories of the press.

Similarly, looking at a wide range of previously neglected manuscript and archival material from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States allowed me to re-examine the significance of the Imperial Press Conference of 1909. Unearthing new source material revealed a dimension of behind-the-scenes debate and conflict that was not acknowledged by earlier, limited accounts of the event. Without understanding the commercial interests of the different groups who attended the conference, and how they related to each other, it is impossible to see why attempts to use the conference as an opportunity to lobby for reduced press cable rates, unobjectionable on the face of it, in fact met with strong resistance from powerful groups of newspapers in New Zealand and, especially, Australia.

In the same way, I sought to build on (rather than replace) Koss’s magisterial survey of connections between the realms of press and politics. Koss, along with historians like Keith Wilson and J. D. Startt, was well aware of the role of the press in the imperial debates of the early twentieth century. However, there was an important aspect of these debates that was not picked up on by Koss, Wilson or Startt. Many of the articles dealing with imperial affairs that appeared in the Edwardian press were written by journalists and politicians from the Dominions. This is clearly significant not just for the light it sheds upon the nature of British press debate (and of Edwardian political controversy more generally), but also because it suggests that the Dominions made a previously unacknowledged set of contributions to the formation of British imperial policy. This is a theme that I have explored in greater depth elsewhere. (1)

Methodological considerations also influenced other aspects of my writing, including my choice of newspapers to study in the chapter on the British press. Here, rather than survey printed news and opinion regarding empire, I wanted to look at underlying editorial policies. However, rich archival holdings have survived for relatively few British newspapers, and I was only able to provide a detailed examination of the policies of The Times, The Standard, and the Morning Post. As Dr Kaul points out in her review, these papers were all on the right in British politics, and all supported the overarching idea of imperial integration. I acknowledge that we cannot generalise too broadly from these limited examples, and I have tried to look at a wider cross section of newspapers in a chapter on ‘Empire and the English Press’ in a recent edited collection. (2) However, an in-depth analysis of the editorial policy of The Times, the Morning Post, and The Standard does allow us to draw some important conclusions. For example, it is possible to see how constructive imperialists attempted to capture this section of the press and bend it to their purposes, with varying degrees of success. This influenced the type and amount of information about the Dominions available in Britain (having a less easily discernible impact on flows of migration and investment), and also the nature of press debate about imperial issues.

These findings represent an attempt to restore empire to its rightful place in stories from which it has been excised. I wanted to show how empire influenced the development of the press in Britain and the Dominions, something which I hoped came out clearly, for example, from my chapter on the First World War. Histories of the wartime press in Britain and the former Dominions have paid remarkably little attention to the imperial side of the story, and I tried to begin to remedy this by showing how the imperial press system that I had outlined in the earlier sections of the book was mobilised for war. Adopting an imperial perspective can add a new richness and complexity to some familiar stories, and it is here that I hope that I have made a significant revisionist contribution to historical debate.

 

Notes

1. See S. J. Potter, ‘The imperial significance of the Canadian-American reciprocity proposals of 1911’, Historical Journal, 47:1 (2004) and S. J. Potter, ‘Richard Jebb, John S. Ewart, and the Round Table, 1898-1926’, English Historical Review (forthcoming 2006).

2. Newspapers and Empire in Ireland and Britain: Reporting the British Empire c.1857–1921, ed. S. J. Potter (Dublin, 2004).