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19 Mar, 2009 12:12

The Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War

The Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War

How a hundred years ago, the media began to matter.

Globalization by Cable

There was a short period in history when wars were already reported globally in real-time, unaffected by time, space and primitive transport; when reports were still free of censorship or the government-induced spin of later ages.

The telegraph, introduced in the last quarter of the 19th century, made the world smaller. First, stock market quotations delivered in real time from New York to London and back. Then news dispatches sent in just a few moments from where the events happened to where the news would be published. It changed the world forever.

Telegraphy gave birth to a new type of journalism: the newswire report. And even though the first specialised newswire agencies didn’t appear until decades later, telegrams from correspondents published in the leading newspapers, many of which had both morning and evening editions, were enough to make a difference.

Government censorship existed in all the powerful countries of the day, but it ranged from very strict (at times severe) to mild and forgiving, depending on the traditions and fluctuations of domestic politics in every nation. But it somehow ignored articles and reports concerning foreign policy and warfare.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the strictest censorship existed in Russia and Japan, but in the Japanese Empire newspapers were not yet playing as a significant role in society as in most Western countries. Meanwhile in the Russian Empire, the struggle for press freedom had begun much earlier than anywhere else in the world and, by 1904, had achieved some success.

The Boer War as a Laboratory for the Global Media

The world’s press had its first experience of censorship-free reporting on a big armed conflict with the turn-of-the-century Anglo-Boer war, also known as the Transvaal war, in South Africa. There were certain restrictions on war-related information in Britain, but the rest of the world enjoyed access to day-to-day reports by war correspondents. In Russia such newspaper reports, many of them written from the scene by retired Russian army lieutenant-colonel Evgeny Maximov, stirred a large number of reserve and active duty officers to volunteer to fight on the side of the Boers.

It is known that over thirty Russian officers made it to the war and at least six died in it. Hundreds of requests for temporary transfer to reserve in order to take part were turned down by Russian Generals between 1899 and 1901. Even Colonel Maximov who, being retired, didn’t need permission to fight in Africa, took up arms and made General in the Boer army by the end of the war. At the same time, not filed daily dispatches for three Russian newspapers. His reports were considered accurate and relayed a picture, thoroughly detailed and virtually ‘coming alive in the newspaper pages.’

In Britain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned his classic and absolutely unbiased history of the war which relied in its description of events almost exclusively on the accurate and uncensored reports published by the British press.

In continental Europe and in America, newspapers also printed numerous dispatches by war correspondents cabled straight from the theatre of war. In a sense, the Anglo-Boer war was the first major conflict massively reported by the world’s fledgling media.

The Russo-Japanese War through the Eyes of the Russian Media

The Russo-Japanese war was the second opportunity. In Russia, public opinion changed during the war from ‘hat throwing’ in the very beginning (not throwing hats up in the air in celebration but, along the lines of a Russian saying, throwing hats at a weak enemy force as a sufficient means of defeating it) to bitterness and staunch opposition after the first defeats of the Russian army and Navy. This change in people’s views of the war can be very much attributed to the accurate real-time reports of Russian correspondents who moved with the troops and had virtually unlimited access to everything happening in the battlefields and encampments.

The Russian press, including both liberal and usually pro-government publications, refused to accept government censorship in the very early stages of the conflict. The government, in an attempt to gain public support, ‘forgot’ about censorship for several months, until a certain period in 1905 when large popular protests transformed into a revolution and newspapers became, as Vladimir Lenin put it, ‘not only sources of information for the masses but organisers of the masses as well.’

The worst defeats of the war fell exactly during the period of the government’s self-imposed media blindness. At that time, reports from the front turned popular sadness into popular outrage and, in turn, into unrest. It was all through a mere dozen war correspondents, Russian and foreigners, who moved, camped and in some cases fought alongside the soldiers and officers of the Russian Army and Navy. There is no doubt that in people’s hearts and minds the soil was ready; it required only the seeds to fall upon it. And they fell – first and foremost in the form of newspaper reports, then in leaflets and speeches by ‘agitators’ from different revolutionary parties and groups.

Censorship was so non-existent that, throughout the war, the army veterans’ newspaper Russkiy Invalid, one of the oldest publications in the country, printed mobilisation plans, deployment charts and other documents from the Imperial General Staff and War ministry which allowed Japanese intelligence to economise on agents. The Russian newspapers were providing them with all the information they wanted and more…

The Russo-Japanese War through the Eyes of the U.S. Media

While in Russia the war was covered by Russian and foreign journalists following the army, the main role in describing the conflict from the Japanese perspective was played by a group of American and British correspondents who sailed from the West Coast of the U.S. to Japan and traveled further to Korea and Manchuria. Among them was an American author, internationally acclaimed and famous in his day, by the name of Jack London.

While his colleagues were stuck in Tokyo, tied up in Japanese bureaucracy, London insistently tried to get to the front line, and finally succeeded in making it to Korea before anyone else. On the way he was arrested a couple of times, and only interference from President Theodore Roosevelt, an enthusiastic reader of Jack London’s novels, got him back his confiscated camera and maybe even saved his life. By the way, Roosevelt was not the only 20th century leader to love Jack London’s stories and novels. It is well-known in Russia that Vladimir Lenin read Jack London’s prose on his deathbed.

London single-handedly raised the standard of English-language war reporting by bringing the war into the living room, study or porch of every American home where newspapers were read. It turned out that he was the only one of his group who managed to spend most of his 6-month tour on various battlefields, and by doing that, he became the eye with which America watched the war. Others wrote of diplomatic games played out in palaces and hinted at secret decisions of the Japanese or Russian supreme command. Jack London reported the action as it was and when it was.

His third and final arrest by the Japanese military police and eventual deportation to the U.S. prevented London from crossing the front line to report from the Russian side of the war. But his work was complete, in spite of a lack of impressions from the Russian side.

I will certainly not deny the fact that diplomatic and political reasons were the primary vehicle for launching the USA, for the first time in history, into the position of international peacemaker in a conflict that had a strong global impact. But the emotional readiness of President Theodore Roosevelt to play that role may have been powered by Jack London’s reports from the front.

Global Media as an Active Player

Spin or no spin the press, for the first time in human history in a conflict of such international importance, played a significant role in the way the war was fought, and even more in the way it started and ended.

Prior to the opening of the hostilities, the British media were quietly entrusted to say things that the British government could not afford to say, being as it was caught in between its obligations to a treaty with Japan which made Britain Japan’s ally, and the signing of the Entente Cordiale with France, with a perspective of Russia’s participation in the near future. So for months British newspapers encouraged the Japanese criticism of Russia’s ‘encroachments’ in Manchuria.

During the war the Russian press portrayed the conflict as a totally unnecessary and ruinous exercise of the Imperial government and became instrumental in stirring up the first Russian revolution (unsuccessful in its main goal of toppling the Russian monarchy, but a success in terms of some of the freedoms and rights introduced after it).

The American press had the best access to the Japanese side of the conflict and provided the U.S. government and the world with timely information on the state of affairs in Japan which, by the end of the war, was balancing on the brink of bankruptcy. That information played a decisive role in forming the peace terms in the Portsmouth Treaty.

Apart from that, by reporting on the war and the diplomatic struggle surrounding it, the U.S. press effectively promoted America’s new role as a world player and a great power which could no longer afford to be pre-occupied with its own domestic affairs, but which needed to reach into the outer world and right its accumulated wrongs. In a sense the U.S. media are still riding that high horse today, a hundred years later.

The Russo-Japanese war was also the last conflict in which the media had a totally free hand. WWI followed nine years later and brought with it strict government censorship in every warring nation, creating the conflict between press freedom and national interest which is still unresolved today.

Evgeny Belenkiy, RT.