Cables and the press
The critique of cable cartels and of the role that high rates had in reinforcing the market power of large users also became closely tied to issues of news flow, although the matter of limited access for personal correspondence also played a part. We now review some of these issues, focusing, first, on British dominance over news; and, second, on press use of the cables and the nature of links between cable companies and news agencies.
(i) British dominance. American commentator Eugene Sharp (1927: 1) observed that ‘London has long been regarded as the news capital of the world due to its importance as an empire center and to its fine system of cable communications reaching out in every direction.’ Not surprisingly, the main British news agency, Reuters, was ideally situated to gather and disseminate news, its offices spreading out from Europe to India, the Far East and Australasia by the 1870s. Indeed, the extent to which Britishcontrolled news followed the cables is evidenced by the fact that the main American possession in the Far East after 1898, the Philippines, received American news via Reuters and that Reuters also had a stranglehold over
international news dissemination in China and Japan at the time (Cooper, 1942: 50; Lawrenson and Barber, 1985: 51). Furthermore, in 1869, Reuters combined with the French news agency Havas and the German news agency Wolff, to divide up global news-gathering and, in 1893, they were joined by Associated Press. As part of the deal, all AP-gathered domestic news intended for international consumption went through Reuters, and all foreign news destined for AP went through Reuters as well (Coates and Finn, 1979: 81). By 1912, however, AP began rethinking its position in the combine out of concerns about getting ‘objective’ US news into Latin America. Yet, had the news cartel been broken at that point, AP’s ambitions to deliver a news service in all of Latin America would still have been compromised by British cable dominance in the region (Lawrenson and Barber, 1985: 47). In short, whoever controlled the cables controlled the news.
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(ii) Press tariffs, cable usage and press–cable linkages. Press agencies paid huge amounts to be first with the international news. During some of the factional fighting between the western US newspapers and AP in the late 1860s, when cable tolls were running at $5 a word, for example, the factions each paid cable bills of around $2000 weekly and almost bankrupted themselves (Gramling, 1940: 74–5). According to one AP historian, cable rates ‘remained the most costly convenience in newsdom’; and even after rate reductions by the 1880s, expanded news flow meant that AP’s cable tolls were rarely less than $300 a day, and frequently
$2000 (Gramling, 1940: 74, 88).
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The Imperial Press Conference gave international publicity to issues of high press cable charges and the constraints they imposed on news flows, and the apparent complicity between the British government and cable companies. The conference passed a resolution in support of state-owned cables, and a Canadian delegate tabled an even broader resolution covering ‘state-owned communication across the Atlantic’, a formulation designed to bring wireless telegraphy into the m´elange of concerns being raised (Donald, 1921: ch. 17; The Times, 1909a, 1909b). The resolution was shelved, but it highlighted the fact that Marconi was offering the only alternative to cables between Canada and Britain. Even more significantly, the conference led to the creation of an Empire Press Union, which acted as an effective lobby group on press rates, and also breached the opposition of the British Foreign and Colonial Offices to any entity that formally united the press (Donald, 1921: 162). Whilst the US press does not appear to have given the conference much attention, Henniker Heaton’s criticisms of the Atlantic rates had been featured approvingly in the New York Times (NYT) as far back as 1900 and gained even more attention as time passed (see e.g. NYT, 1908a, 1908b). His proposal for a penny-a-word international rate also captured the imagination of that newspaper. As one editorial noted:
. . . to the American patrons of the cable companies, the monopolistic control of
the transatlantic lines . . . is the feature of the rate reform movement which
appeals with greatest force. . . . [I]t is a severe arraignment of the cable
companies which the leader of the rate reform movement has made. . . . [T]heir
ownership, he holds, is in the hands of combinations, and their utilization is
amongst millionaires rather than amongst the millions. (NYT, 1908b: 3)
The New York Times was even more disturbed by Henniker Heaton’s charge that the cables were being kept idle for long periods of time in order to maintain high rates, concluding with the acerbic comment that ‘So far as American cables are concerned, commerce is practically throttled’ (1909). If this doyen of the press was any indication, the US was becoming drawn into the politics of global media reform in a far more direct fashion.
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The revival of proposals for a state-owned Atlantic cable faced severe opposition from the British Post Office. In a Cabinet memorandum, it argued that a state cable offering service at cost would be swamped with business; that two cables would be needed, in case one failed; and that the Post Office had a firm agreement with the Anglo-American Cable Company to give the latter all messages not marked for a particular route (NAC, 1908).14 It was further argued that backing a state cable was inappropriate at a time when wireless telegraphy was emerging as a longdistance rival (see NAC, 1910).
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