Writing in the Guardian earlier this month, Roy Greenslade queried what it is about âfake newsâ that draws such widespread public attention: is it âa wilful desire to reject âboringâ reality and choose its âexcitingâ opposite?â he asks. The question of how to picture the news in a compelling way â so that it remains accurate as to the facts, while imaginatively transporting newspaper readers to the scenes and events described â goes back to the emergence of the first special correspondents and special artists who worked for the metropolitan press in the second half of the nineteenth century. Who were these newspaper pioneers and how can they help us to understand continuing debates about the media today?
Image courtesy of the British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent, www.cartoons.ac.uk
William Howard Russell is probably the only one of the first generation of special correspondents who is now widely remembered, largely as a result of his famous reports from the Crimean War for the Times. Russellâs despatches from the front were gripping, eye-witness accounts that brought the war home to British readers and galvanized public opposition to the Governmentâs mishandling of the campaign. His narratives of spectacle, heroism and suffering established him as the Timesâs leading âspecialâ.
Reporting from the seat of war was undoubtedly the assignment that most tested the special correspondentâs mettle. However, when no war was afoot, they had to turn their hand to cover all manner of events in any location at home or abroad as required by their newspaper. Their versatility was key; and at least equal in fame to Russell on this score from the 1860s onwards was George Augustus Sala: âthe chief of travelled specialsâ, as he was later described. Salaâs potential as a âtravelling correspondentâ was first demonstrated in 1856-7 when Dickens sent him to St Petersburg to obtain material for a series of papers on Russian life and manners for his weekly periodical, Household Words. Salaâs colourful, descriptive style, cultivated as a contributor to Dickensâs journal, flourished when he began work as a special for the fledgling Daily Telegraph in 1857. Although he reported on a number of wars, including the American Civil, Austro-Italian and Franco-Prussian wars, special correspondents were also required, as he wrote in 1871, to âbe Jack of all trades, and master of all â that are journalisticâ: âto âdoâ funerals as well as weddings, state-banquets, Volunteer reviews, Great Exhibitions, remarkable trials, christenings, coronations, ship-launches, agricultural shows, royal progresses, picture-shows, first-stone layings, horse-races and hangingsâ.
While not all of the journalists who worked as specials became so famous in their own day as Russell and Sala, what distinguished their correspondence was its mobility, versatility and descriptive power: an ability to observe and seize upon events wherever they happened, rendering them for the press in sufficiently graphic prose so as to transport readers through vivid eye-witness accounts. These qualities were also features of the New Journalism â a development famously criticised by Matthew Arnold in 1887 as part of a commercially driven press deploying sensational reportage to sell newspapers (a debate that remains familiar today).
But for its proponents, special correspondence was a new technology â like the railroad or the telegraph, with both of which it was closely associated â that brought the world closer, shrinking space and time and conveying readers to distant places. In fulfilling the often arduous demands of their role, these journalists sometimes became newsworthy in their own right. Indeed, speaking at an anniversary dinner of the Newspaper Press Fund in 1878, Lord Salisbury described the special correspondent as one who âseems to be forced to combine in himself the power of a first-class steeple-chaser with the power of the most brilliant writer â the most wonderful physical endurance with the most remarkable mental vigourâ.
Some of the remarkable achievements of this forgotten breed of journalists will be rediscovered as part of Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities on Thursday 23 November from 6-8 pm when Dr Ruth Brimacombe and I discuss our online exhibition, Picturing the News, in the Foyle Room of the British Library.
Booking for this free event is available here.