Skulduggery in the National Interest - the Ministry and Reuters
In this post project fellow Marc Wiggam looks at the Ministry's involvement in the resignation of the Reuters chairman in 1941.
In 1939 the Foreign Office valued two institutions above others for their ability to project the image of Britain abroad. The first was the BBC, and its channels of international and foreign language broadcasting. The second was the British news agency Reuters. Reuters specialized in supplying international news to the national and foreign press, and had developed a reputation for independence and truth that set it apart in a market of state sponsored foreign news agencies. By 1941, the Ministry of Information had conspired with members of the agency’s board to remove its chief and figurehead Roderick Jones. Its intervention in the operation of what was technically an independent company shows how strongly the Ministry felt Reuters was tied to the British national interest, and gave grounds for the fear that the priorities of war could compromise independent journalism.
Reuters was established in London in 1851 by Julius Reuter, a German who had gradually made his way to England after stints in banking, publishing and briefly working for the French news agency Havas in Paris. By the turn of the century Reuters had become thoroughly woven into the fabric of imperial Britain, using an expanding network of global telegraph cables that had made the transmission of news to and from the Empire’s distant stations much faster.
Reuters had always claimed independence from the state, selling itself as sympathetic to but independent from the interests of the British government. The truth was perhaps a little murkier. In many territories, Reuters depended on official payments to sustain business – The Indian and Egyptian governments both paid for Reuters’ services, which distributed global news to a local press that couldn’t otherwise afford it. During the first world war Roderick Jones, who was by this point already General Manager of Reuters, arranged for an additional Imperial news service coloured by the Allied viewpoint. These fuller, and therefore more expensive dispatches, were covered by Government subsidy. Jones later characterized the relationship as working with but not for the British government. But to foreign observers the agency was, if not an arm of the state, then at least semi-official.
Roderick Jones, c.1920
One of Jones’ key aims on becoming general
manager in 1915 was to deliver the company into the hands of the British press,
and thereby secure its long term future. Reuters was a private company, and
there was always a danger that its independence could be compromised through
its shareholders. The war had made this a key concern. A restructuring in 1916,
arranged with the help of a government backed bank guarantee, left the agency
secure from foreign influence, but with a Foreign Office veto on company
matters that might affect the national interest. These vetoes were not used,
and were given up in 1919 once the bank guarantee was no longer needed. But it
demonstrated Jones’ willingness to work with the government for the sake of the
company and the national interest.
Reuters was eventually sold to the Press Association in 1930, completing one of
Jones’ aims and making him a wealthy man.
The degree of mutual understanding and goodwill between the British government and Reuters had prevented the need for any direct control. So why did the Ministry of Information intervene in 1941? The answer to this lies in Roderick Jones’ autocratic administration of the company. The fortunes of Reuters mirrored those of the Empire, whose position in the global order was gradually beginning to shrink. Competition from American agencies and heavily subsidized continental ones had begun to eat into Reuters’ market share. Coupled to a style of management that was stifling, capricious and took little heed of the Reuters board, Jones’ position started to weaken. Though he had ensured the company’s immediate future by restructuring some of its operations and selling the agency to the PA, it was not enough. Elements of the board and the Foreign Office began to look for ways to push him out.
Before the war, Jones had started negotiating with the Foreign Office for assistance in improving its services. The Foreign Office had pointed out that increasing mistakes made by Reuters in its reports compromised the British government, since both were so closely associated by foreign observers. Jones argued that foreign agencies were so heavily subsidized that Reuters’ product was expensive in comparison. These discussions led to a suggestion for what was in effect an indirect subsidy - lower rates for wireless transmission and support for increasing wordage to the continent and elsewhere. By September 1939, Jones was able to present to the Reuters board a contract with the government that would generate enough income to secure the company’s finances whilst retaining its independence. The board accepted the contract.
But what Jones hadn’t told the board was of a letter from the fledgling Ministry of Information that compromised Reuters. A letter from the Ministry’s Director General designate Lord Perth specified several clauses to the contract. Two are important. The first was that the government should have some ability to suggest to Reuters how it service might develop, and what news topics might be covered. This Jones did reveal to the board and, despite some misgivings, assured them that it was no different to arrangements in the last war. The aims of Reuters and the British state were naturally aligned, so there would be no direct control. However, Jones failed to mention another clause – a stipulation that a general manger be appointed that superseded other managers, with a clear intention of them eventually taking over from Jones. This implied that the government might have a say in who was appointed – in effect, choosing the head of Reuters. Failure to mention this to the board led to Jones’ downfall.
Jones claimed that he had never considered the letter as an agreement. He had never responded to it and the clauses it contained, which left their status ambiguous. It is unclear if, when the letter’s clauses were raised by the Ministry during discussions with Reuters in 1941, they were genuinely considered by the Ministry as part of the final contract. But the effect in doing so was entirely deliberate. The board lost all trust in Jones, and his position was made untenable. He resigned on 4 February 1941.
The Ministry and the Foreign Office had
their wish, and the board was now free to enact the reforms that hadn’t been
forthcoming under Jones. Reuters’ relationship with the government remained
close after 1941, though the company began discussions in 1943 to rid itself of
the reliance on government money. This was something that could only really
occur after the war had been won, and even then government subscriptions for
Reuters’ services remained generous – again, an indirect subsidy.
Was Reuters truly independent of the
British government? Its long history in the service of Empire had left its
operations reliant on government money in one form or another – less so perhaps
than some other foreign agencies, but certainly enough to tie its work firmly to the
national interest. Claims of editorial independence ring true, but they underestimate the extent to which opinion on major questions of policy were
shared between Reuters and the government. Intervention was not necessary on
these grounds. Instead, the Ministry’s involvement in Roderick Jones’
resignation took place on the pretext that only by removing him could Reuters
improve, and so secure better representation of the British viewpoint in the foreign
press. Skulduggery perhaps, but in service of the national interest.
 Donald Read, The Power of News, 2nd ed., (1999), Oxford University Press, pp.65-68.
 Peter Putnis & Kerry McCallum, ‘Reuters, Propaganda-inspired News, and the Australian Press During the First World War’, Media History, (2013), 19/3, pp.284-304.
 Read, p.67 & p.158. See also Phillip Taylor, The Projection of Britain, (1981) Cambridge University Press, pp.11-80.
 Read, pp.129-133. See also Peter Putnis, ‘SHARE 999: British government control of Reuters during World War I’, Media History, (2008), 14/2, pp.141-165.
 See also Political and Economic Planning, The British Press, (1938), pp.110-111.