An important person—The mayor-maker—Two systems—The puff and the huff—“Oh that mine enemy were reported verbatim!”—Errors of omission—Summary justice—An example—The abatement of a nuisance—The testimony of the warm-hearted—The fixed rate—A possible placard—A gross insult—Not so bad as it might have been—The subdivision of an insult—An inadequate assessment—The Town Councillor’s bribe—Birds of a feather—A handbook needed—An outburst of hospitality—Never again—The reporters “gloom”—The March lion—The popularity of the coroner.

THE chief of the reporting staff is usually the most important person connected with a provincial newspaper. It is not too much to say that it is in his power to make or to annihilate the reputation of a Town Councillor, or even a Poor Law Guardian. He may do so by the adoption of either of two systems: the first is persistent attention, the second is persistent neglect. He may either puff a man into a reputation, or puff him out of it. There are some men who become universally abhorred through being constantly alluded to as “our respected townsman”; such a distinction seems an invidious one to the twenty thousand townsmen who have never been so referred to. If a reporter persists in alluding to a certain person as “our respected townsman,” he will eventually succeed in making him the most highly disrespected burgess in the municipality, if he was not so before.’ On the other hand a reporter may, by judicious neglect of a burgess who burns for distinction, destroy his chances of becoming a Town Councillor; and, perhaps, before he dies, Mayor. But my experience leads me to believe that if a reporter has a grudge against a Town Councillor, a Poor Law Guardian, or a Borough Magistrate, and if he is really vindictive, the most effective course of vengeance that he can adopt is to record verbatim all that his enemy utters in public. The man who exclaimed, at a period of the world’s history when the publishing business had not attained its present proportions, “Oh that mine enemy had written a book!” knew what he was talking about. “Oh that mine enemy were reported verbatim!” would assuredly be the modern equivalent of the bitter cry of the patriarch. The stutterings, the vain repetitions, and the impossible grammar which accompany the public utterances—imbecile only when they are not commonplace—of the average Town Councillor or Poor Law Guardian, would require the aid of the phonograph to admit of their being anly when they are not commonplace—of the average Town Councillor or Poor Law Guardian, would require the aid of the phonograph to admit of their being adequately depreciated by the public.

The worst offenders are those men who are loudest in their complaints against the reporters, and who are constantly writing to correct what they call “errors” in the summary of their speeches. A reporter puts in a grammatical and a moderately reasonable sentence or two the ridiculous maunderings and wanderings of one of these “public men,” and the only recognition he obtains assumes the form of a letter to the editor, pointing out the “omissions” made in the summary. Omissions! I should rather think there were omissions.

I have no hesitation in affirming that the verbatim reporting of their speeches would mean the annihilation of ninety-nine out of every hundred of these municipal orators.

Only once, on a paper with which I was connected, had a reporter the courage to try the effect of a literal report of the speech of a man who was greatly given to complaining of the injustice done to him in the published accounts of his deliverances. Every “haw,” “hum,” “ah,” “eh—eh;” every repetition, every reduplication of a repetition, every unfinished sentence, every singular nominative to a plural verb, every artificial cough to cover a retreat from an imbecile statement, was reported. The result was the complete abatement of this nuisance. A considerable time elapsed before another complaint as to omissions in municipal speeches was made.

To my mind, the ability and the judgment shown by the members of the reporting staff cannot be too warmly commended. It is not surprising that occasionally attempts should be made by warm-hearted persons to express in a substantial way their recognition of the talents of this department of a newspaper. I have several times known of sums of money being offered to reporters in the country, with a view of obtaining the insertion of certain paragraphs or the omission of others. Half-a-crown was invariably the figure at which the value of such services was assessed. I am still of the opinion that this was not an extravagant sum to offer a presumably educated man for running the risk of losing his situation. Curiously enough, the majority of these offers of money came from competitors at ploughing matches, at exhibitions of oxen and swine, and at flower shows. Why agriculturalists should be more zealous to show their appreciation of literary work than the rest of the population it would be difficult to say; but at one time—a good many years ago—I heard so much about the attempted distribution of half-crowns in agricultural districts, I began to fear that at the various shows it would be necessary to have a placard posted, bearing the words: “GRATUITIES TO REPORTERS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.”

Many years ago I was somewhat tired of hearing about the numerous insults offered to reporters in this way. A head-reporter once told me that a junior member of his staff had come to him after a day in the country, complaining bitterly that he had been grossly insulted by an offer of money.

“And what did you say to him?” I inquired.

“I asked him how much he had been offered,” replied the head-reporter, “and when he said, ‘Half-a-crown,’ I said, ‘Pooh! half-a-crown! that wasn’t much of an insult. How would you like to be offered a sovereign, as I was one day in the same neighbourhood? You might talk of your insults then.’ That shut him up.”

I did not doubt it.

“You think the juniors protest too much?” said I.

The reporter laughed shrewdly.

“You remember Punch’s picture of the man lying drunk on the pavement, and the compassionate lady in the crowd who asked if the poor fellow was ill, at which a man says, ‘Ill? ‘im ill? I only wish I’d alf his complaint’?”

I admitted that I had a vivid recollection of the picture; but I added that I could not see what it had to say to the subject we were discussing.

Again the reporter smiled.

“If you had seen the chap’s face to-day when I talked of the sovereign you would know what I meant; his face said quite plainly, ‘I wish I had half of that insult.’”

That view was quite intelligible to me some time after, when a reporter, whose failings were notorious, came to me with the old story. He had been offered half-a-crown by a man in a good social position who had been fined at the police court that day for being drunk and assaulting a constable, and who was anxious that no record of the transaction should appear in the newspaper.

“Great heavens!” said I, “he had the face to offer you half-a-crown?”

“He had,” said the reporter, indignantly. “Half-a-crown! The low hound! He knew that if I included his case in to-morrow’s police news he would lose his situation, and yet he had the face to offer me half-a-crown. What hounds there are in the world! Two pounds would have been little enough.”

I never heard of a Town Councillor offering a bribe to a reporter; but I have heard of something more phenomenal—a Town Councillor indignantly rejecting what he conceived to be a bribe. He took good care to boast of it afterwards to his constituents. It happened that this Councillor was the leader of a select faction of three on the Corporation, whose métier consisted in opposing every scheme that was brought forward by the Town Clerk, and supported by the other members of the Corporation. Now the Town Clerk had hired a shooting one autumn, and as the birds were plentiful, he thought that it would be a graceful act on his part to send a brace of grouse to every Alderman and every Councillor. He did so, and all the members of the Board accepted the transaction in a right spirit—all, except the leader of the opposition faction. He explained his attitude to his constituents as follows:

“Gentlemen, you’ll all be glad to hear that I’ve made myself formidable to our enemies. I’ve brought the so-called Town Clerk down on his knees to me. An attempt was made to bribe me last week, which I am determined to expose. One night when I came home from my work, I found waiting for me a queer pasteboard box with holes in it. I opened it, and inside I found a couple of fat brown pigeons, and on their legs a card printed ‘With Mr. Samuel White’s compliments.’ ‘Mr. Samuel White! That’s the Town Clerk,’ says I, ‘and if Mr. Samuel White thinks to buy my silence by sending me a pair of brown pigeons with Mr. Samuel White’s compliments, Mr. Samuel White is a bit mistaken;’ so I just put the pigeons back into their box, and redirected them to Mr. Samuel White, and wrote him a polite note to let him know that if I wanted a pair of pigeons I could buy them for myself. That’s what I did.” (Loud cheers.)

When it was explained to him some time after that the birds were grouse, and not pigeons, he asked where was the difference. The principle would be precisely the same, he declared, if the birds were eagles or ostriches.

It has often occurred to me that for the benefit of such men, a complete list should be made out of such presents as may be legitimately received from one’s friends, and of those that should be regarded as insultive in their tendency. It must puzzle a good many people to know where the line should be drawn. Why should a brace of grouse be looked on as a graceful gift, while a pair of fowl—a “yoke,” they are called in the West of Ireland—can only be construed as an affront? Why should a haunch of venison (when not over “ripe”) constitute an acceptable gift, while a sirloin of prime beef could only be regarded as having an eleemosynary signification? Why may a lover be permitted to offer the object of his attachment a fan, but not a hat? a dozen of gloves, but not a pair of boots? These problems would tax a much higher intelligence—if it would be possible to imagine such—than that at the command of the average Town Councillor.

It was the same member of the Corporation who, one day, having succeeded—greatly to his astonishment—in carrying a resolution which he had proposed at a meeting, found that custom and courtesy necessitated his providing refreshment for the dozen of gentlemen who had supported him. His ideas of refreshment revolved round a public-house as a centre; but when it was explained to him that the occasion was one that demanded a demonstration on a higher level, and with a wider horizon, he declared, in the excitement of the moment, that he was as ready as any of his colleagues to discharge the duties of host in the best style. He took his friends to a first-class restaurant, and at a hint from one of them, promptly ordered a couple of bottles of champagne. When these had been emptied, the host gave the waiter a shilling, telling him in a lordly way to keep the change. The waiter was, of course, a German, and, with a smile and a bow, he put the coin into his pocket, and hastened to help the gentlemen on with their overcoats. When they were trooping out, he ventured to enquire whom the champagne was to be charged to.

The hospitable Councillor stared at the man, and then expressed the opinion that all Frenchmen, and perhaps Italians, were the greatest rogues unhung.

“You savey!” he shouted at the waiter—for like many persons on the social level of Town Councillors, he assumed that all foreigners are a little deaf,—“You savey, I give you one shilling—one bob—you savey!”

The waiter said he was “much oblige,” but who was to pay for the champagne?

The gentlemen who had partaken of the champagne nudged one another, but one of them was compassionate, and explained to the Councillor that the two bottles involved the expenditure of twenty-four shillings.

“Twenty-eight shillings,” the waiter murmured in a submissive, subject-to-the-correction-of-the-Court tone. The wine was Heidsieck of ‘74, he explained.

The Councillor gasped, and then smiled weakly. He had been made the subject of a jest more than once before, and he fancied he saw in the winks of the men around him, a loophole of escape from an untenable position.

“Come, come,” said he, “I’ve no more time to waste. Don’t you flatter yourselves that I can’t see this is a put-up job between you all and the waiter.”

“Pay the man the money and be hanged to you!” said an impetuous member of the party.

Just then the manager of the restaurant strolled up, and received with a polite smile the statement of the hospitable. Councillor regarding what he termed the barefaced attempt to swindle on the part of the German waiter.

“Sir,” said the manager, “the price of the wine is on the card. Here it is,”—he whipped a card out of his pocket. “‘Heidsieck—1874—14s.’”

The generous host fell back on a chair speechless.

Had any of his friends ever read Hamlet they would certainly not have missed quoting the lines:

“Indeed this (Town) Councillor

Is now most still, most secret, and most grave,

Who was in life—”

Well—otherwise. However, Hamlet remained unquoted.

After a long pause he recovered his powers of speech.

“And that’s champagne—that’s champagne!” he said in a weak voice, “Champagne! By the Lord Harry, I’ve tasted better ginger-beer!”

He has lately been very cautious in bringing forward any resolutions at the Corporation. He is afraid that another of them may chance to be carried.

The reporter who told me the story which I have just recorded, was an excellent specimen of the class—shrewd, a capital judge of character, and a good organiser. He had, however, never got beyond the stereotyped phrases which appear in every newspaper—indeed, there was no need for him to get beyond them. Every death “cast a gloom” over the locality where it occurred; and a chronicle of the weather at any time during the month of March caused him to let loose the journalist’s lion upon an unsuspecting public.

Once it occurred to me that he went a little too far with the gloom that he kept, as Captain Mayne Reid’s Mexicans kept their lassoes, ready to cast at a moment’s notice.

He wrote an account of a fire which had caused the death of two persons, and concluded as follows:—

“The conflagration, which was visible at a distance of four miles, and was not completely subjugated until a late hour, cast a gloom over the entire quarter of the town, that will be felt for long, more especially as the premises were wholly uninsured.”

Yes, I thought that this was carrying the gloom a little too far.

I will say this for him, however: it was not he who wrote: “A tall but well-dressed man was yesterday arrested on suspicion of being concerned in a recent robbery.”

Nor was it he who headed a paragraph, “Fatal Death by Drowning.”

In a town in which I once resided the coroner died, and there was quite a brisk competition for the vacant office. The successful candidate was a gentleman whose claims had been supported by a newspaper with which I was connected. Three months afterwards the proofreader brought under the notice of the sub-editor in my presence a paragraph which had come from the reporter’s room, and which had already been “set up.” So nearly as I can remember, it was something like this:—“Yesterday, no fewer than three inquests were held in various parts of this town by our highly respected coroner. Indeed, any doubts that may possibly have existed as to the qualification of this gentleman for the coronership, among those narrowminded persons who opposed his selection, must surely be dispelled by reference to the statistics of inquests held during the three months that he has been in office. The increase upon the corresponding quarter last year is thirteen, or no less than 9.46 per cent. Compared with the immediately preceding quarter the figures are no less significant, showing, as they do, an increase of seventeen, or 12.18 per cent. In other words, the business of the coroner has been augmented by one-eighth since he came into office. This fact speaks volumes for the enterprise and ability of the gentleman whose candidature it was our privilege to support.”

Of course this paragraph was suppressed. The sub-editor told me the next day that it had been written by a junior reporter, who had misunderstood the instructions of his chief. The fact was that the coroner wanted an increase of remuneration,—he was paid by a fixed salary, not by “piece work,” so to speak,—and he had suggested to the chief reporter that a paragraph calling attention to the increase of inquests in the town might have a good effect. The chief reporter had given the figures to a junior, with a few hasty instructions, which he had somehow misinterpreted.

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