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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 4

Pressmen in Politics

page 30

Pressmen in Politics.

With politicians and political questions, save so far as they concern the press, we do not deal in these pages. When a press man enters into politics or literature, and achieves a success, his old associates rejoice and do him honor. When he proves a failure, and especially when he forgets all the courtesies of journalism, they have good cause to feel ashamed of him. Sometimes he keeps up his connexion with journalism, when there is all the more need, for the honor of the Craft, that he should be careful to maintain the dignity and self-respect which should properly attach to him in both capacities. If he does otherwise, it is certainly not « meddling in politics » to point out the fact. Unfortunately, the political atmosphere is so impure, that it is difficult to exist in the midst of it without contamination. Not long since a journalist with a record of some twenty-five years' service, addressing a meeting, in a responsible public capacity, so far forgot the journalist in the politician as to tell his hearers not to believe anything they read in any of the papers belonging to the opposite party, inasmuch as they were « Tory » (or let us say « Liberal » —it is quite immaterial)—it was only the papers representing his side that ever published facts. For remarking that political clap-trap of this kind was unworthy of a journalist, Typo was accused of « meddling with politics. » Nothing of the kind. A journalist should never forget that by virtue of his profession he should be a gentleman, and should treat his colleagues as such, and in attempting to brand them wholesale with mendacity, he degrades both himself and his profession.

But the leader of the opposition, whose ill-advised remark was made in the heat of an extempore speech, and who has doubtless regretted it since, has been outdone by Mr George Fisher, M.H.R., whose conduct it is difficult to characterize. We are only thankful that his connexion with the Craft is a thing of the past. When Mr Fisher exchanged the reporters' chair for a seat in the House of Representatives, he took with him the goodwill of the press; when he advanced to a seat in the Ministry, he received their warmest congratulations. It was only when he revealed an utter lack of fitness for his exalted position that the shafts of press criticism assailed him. Even while in the Ministry, more than eighteen mouths ago, he sent to the Australasian a letter, attacking by name the gentleman he supposed to be its New Zealand correspondent. Failing to get this production accepted either there or in New Zealand as literary matter, he paid for it as an advertisement, and by its publication, ruined himself as a public man beyond redemption. When at last—very unwillingly—he left the Ministry, he lost no opportunity of declaring that he had differed from his colleagues all along on every essential point of policy—thus acknowledging a complete lack of political principle. And he did not respect the privacy of cabinet matters generally considered confidential, but made them the common property of the opposition—who, on their part, while they made full use of Mr Fisher, have prudently refrained from trusting him.

No doubt Mr Fisher, having gone up like the proverbial rocket— very suddenly, with a grand rush and roar, finds it very disagreeable to have come down like the stick. He is immoderately sensitive to press criticism, and finds, moreover, that he has alienated personal friends. But for this he has no one but himself to blame; in fact it is a wonder if a man who could be capable of so unworthy an act as Mr Fisher has committed during the past month could retain any personal friends at all.

The Evening Press—one of the ablest and most independent journals in the colony—has published some slashing criticisms on Mr Fisher's want of political consistency. Mr Fisher calls the articles « villainous, » but as they did not touch his private character, referring solely to his public conduct, and were in every instance couched in proper language, the term is quite unwarranted. One of these articles, it appears, was written by Mr R. S. Hawkins, editor of the Press, who had long been on terms of private friendship with Mr Fisher. Mr Hawkins is a scholar and a gentleman, and is moreover, sensitive in a different way to Mr Fisher. After seeing one of his own articles in print, he felt compunctions of conscience at the thought of past friendship, and Fisher the turncoat politician was forgotten in Fisher the old friend. So he wrote privately to the subject of his article, stating that he was the writer of the article in that day's paper, and concluding in these terms:

« I felt, on re-reading the article at home last night that I had written more strongly, harshly, and unkindly than I ought. If there is any reparation, private or public, which it is in my power to make, or any sacrifice to convince you of the reality of my regret, I shall not hesitate to make it. Only I do ask you to believe that I have not been acting a double part, and playing the friend to your face and the foe behind your back. »

The delicacy and good feeling of this letter were quite lost upon Mr Fisher. Mr Hawkins had really nothing to apologize for. In his editorial capacity he had done no more than his duty, and deserved the more credit that he had acted against his private inclinations. Had he lent the support of the paper to an untrustworthy politician on the grounds of personal friendship, he would have been betraying both the public and the proprietors of the paper. To reveal the authorship of the article to so incontinent an adversary, was, however, a mistake. Mr Fisher bided his time, and then published the letter! The apologetic sentences he underscored. To the credit of the Wellington press, he did not find a newspaper there to insert it —possibly he did not try; but he knew where he could find one that would give it publicity. And he published it with comments of his own, which contrast forcibly with Mr Hawkins's letter. Observe the vulgar abuse, the unworthy taunt of alleged poverty, and the pompous self-conceit in the following extract:

« This man Hawkins was, and still is, the editor of the Evening Press… One would have theught, after this voluntary and spontaneous acknowledgment of my past goodness to him, this man would in some form have made atonement for his own acknowledged ingratitude, for I did not deign to ask him to make any 'public or private reparation' or any 'sacrifice' to convince me of the reality of his regret… His paper is the recognized hack of a political party, and it is bound to go and follow wherever directed. The complaint from which it suffers is the complaint of Romeo's apothecary. But that is not a sufficient reason for the base ingratitude of this man. I said above that I had not taken any notice of the article or of the writer. The time has yet to come—I always select my own time for these things—to deal with him; but when the time does come I will give this man Hawkins the literary drubbing he so well merits. »

Mr Fisher is quite capable, no doubt, of returning to the attack should he do so, it can only sink him deeper—if such a thing be possible—in the mire of contempt. He is a member of a Parliament drawing to its close, and is ambitious to be re-elected. Every step he has taken so far has reduced his chance. He has made himself the laughing-stock of his Wellington constituency by a personal quarrel with some disreputable folk who turn his public meetings into a screaming farce and have dragged him into the police court on a charge of using abusive langnage. Wellington, he is beginning to suspect, will have none of him (as expressed more picturesquely than classically, in a resolution lately proposed at one of his meetings, it « reprobates with abhorrence his wriggling and wobbling ways » ); and he is casting about for a seat. The first quality required in a representative is fidelity. Mr Fisher was not faithful to his election pledges; he was not faithful to his colleagues; he is not faithful to old friendships; he is not faithful in regarding the sanctity of private page 31correspondence. Can he expect any constituency to trust him? And we grieve to have to write it—Mr Fisher was once—actually— « connected with the press »!

For giving decisions in libel cases on purely abstract grounds, altogether apart from the evidence, Wellington juries are unequalled in the colonies. Last year they coolly gave Mr Larnach £500 damages against the Auckland Herald. Mr Larnach had not been libelled, and had not been damaged; but the Herald, the leading newspaper of a rival city, had been in the habit of making unkind, unjust, and sarcastic remarks about the Empire City, and Mr Larnach's action, judiciously heard in Wellington, afforded twelve good men and true an excellent opportunity to wipe off an old score. The late libel case against the Wairarapa Star was decided on abstract grounds, equally foreign to the case. In many parts of the colony, the community is divided into two political factions, and the first question that arises when a candidate appears—whether he is ambitious to become Mayor or to obtain a stonebreaking contract— is not, Is he fit for the duties? but For whom did he vote at the last general election? The trouble in the Wairarapa arose out of a Mayoral election last November. The Star's man was defeated, and the newspaper next day published an angry article accusing the plaintiffs of bringing about that defeat by maligning the candidate, and by « misrepresentation and falsehood » securing his opponent's return. On this the charge of libel was based. Defendants pleaded truth and justification, but their counsel, Sir Robert Stout, practically abandoned those lines of defence, the alleged false statements of the plaintiffs having been proved to be true, and the falsehood fixed upon the Star. The able counsel for the defence took the painfully weak grounds (1) that « it was ridiculous to formulate a libel case out of the fact that a man had accused another of lying at election time, » and (2) that plaintiffs « were probed on » by a rival paper « who wanted to crush the Star out of existence. » For this latter assertion he could adduce no proof. Never was there a clearer case of « No case—abuse plaintiff. » The issue as put to the jury was simply this: The Star has accused plaintiffs of « misrepresentation and falsehood »: the charge is found to be entirely unfounded: the plaintiffs claim £1000. The jury found a verdict for the plaintiffs—they could not do otherwise—but gave damages one farthing! A more inconsequent verdict was never recorded. It meant either one of two things: that a character for truthfulness is worth no more than the amount awarded; or that the utmost power of the Star for mischief is represented by the smallest coin of the realm. Really, however, the jurymen meant neither one nor the other. Their feeling (or that of the majority of the twelve) was well expressed by a contemporary that rejoiced in the result inasmuch as the Star was « a determined enemy to land-grabbers. » That is to say, party sympathies alone decided the verdict. The damages claimed were unreasonable—probably much more than the value of the entire Star; but in a gross libel like this, by a paper which endeavors to make up for its insignificance by its scurrility, the verdict should at least have carried costs. Jurymen sometimes forget that their oath binds them to give verdict according to evidence. If political verdicts are tolerated, juries may at length descend to such burlesques of justice as are the fashion in Ireland, and when an ex-prisoner dies from the effects of whisky, return a verdict of wilful murder against an unpopular Minister of Justice.