"A PRESS PILGRIM'S PROGRESS"
An Address By ALAN PITT ROBBINS News Editor of "The Times"
Thursday, June 22nd, 1950
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. Sydney Hermant.
MR. HERMANT: Members and Guests of The Empire Club of Canada. This is a Special Meeting of our Club to hear an address by Mr. Alan Pitt Robbins, the News Editor of The Times (London, England). Mr. Robbins has been associated with his great Newspaper for the past 41 years, having served as Parliamentary Correspondent for 15. He has been President of the Institute of Journalists, and Vice-President of the Newspaper Press Fund, and a Member of the Council of the Empire Press Union. He is in Canada with many of his distinguished Colleagues to attend the Imperial Press Conference, and we take this opportunity of extending a very special welcome to those Delegates who are with us today. We are particularly happy to welcome to this meeting Capt. J. F. L. Woodcock, President of the Sir Arthur Pearson Association of War Blinded, and his Associates.
In welcoming Mr. Alan Pitt Robbins I would take this opportunity of expressing the appreciation of this Club, and I am sure of Canadians everywhere, for the great contribution made to our way of Life by the Fourth Estate which has always symbolized and zealously guarded our heritage of Freedom. Every Englishman knows that he may write a letter to The Times as an effective Court of Appeal, an appeal to the conscience of the Empire. We pay tribute, therefore, to a free press, to a great newspaper, and to one whose lifetime has been devoted to it. Mr. Alan Pitt Robbins, News Editor of The Times (London, England) will now address us on the subject, "A Press Pilgrim's Progress".
MR. ROBBINS: Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: I have got many things I want to say to you in the very limited time available and I want to make certain at the start that I won't forget one of them, that is to say how delighted I am to see Captain Woodcock and his friends here from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. I am very happy that one of my spare time jobs in London is to be a Governor of St. Dunstan's. I suppose some of you lads know St. Dunstan's. You know Sir Ian Fraser and Lady Fraser, whom we all know as "Chips", they asked me before I left England if I met any of their friends in Canada to convey their greetings. I would like, if I may, at the end of the proceedings, to have just a word or two with you, if you will be so good.
Now, to get to this rather formidable task which has not been made easier by the shocking build-up which has been circulated to members of the Club. Unfortunately, this has fallen into the hands of other delegates to the Imperial Press Conference and I now have a lot to live down. I am told for the first time that in Fleet Street Mr. Robbins is regarded as "The Times". Well, my chief, Colonel Astor, is with me in Canada and I have no doubt that Colonel Astor thinks he is "The Times". I have assured him that I am not in any way trying to poach upon his preserves. But I certainly have been associated with "The Times" longer than he has, but . . . shall we say? ... not quite as profitably, perhaps.
I am going to be serious in a moment, but I do want, before I go on, to say what a great joy it is to me to come back to Toronto. I was here a fortnight ago, at the Press Club, distributing awards for good Journalistic work, but I have also been here before. I was here in 1945, when I was doing a special tour, not on behalf of the British Government, but with the co-operation of the British Government, when I travelled from Halifax to Victoria, and I claim to have at any rate a superficial knowledge of Canada which is probably as great as that of most of the members of this Club. I say very carefully, "superficial", and, of course, it is very superficial.
I have always remembered Toronto for one particular reason. I addressed the Canadian Club here, and when I arrived at the luncheon the Committee really dropped an Atom Bomb on me. It was a day or two after Mr. Roosevelt's death. They explained that on that particular day President Truman was to pay tribute to his predecessor ... it was going on the air and they were going to relay it to the Luncheon, so would I please cut my speech by half and follow on after the President. For the first and probably the last time in my life I was associated in public speaking with the President of the United States. I must say his speech was better than mine because mine was prepared and his was prepared . . . and then they cut mine in half.
It is a great joy to come back again. As you know, I am here as a delegate to the Seventh Imperial Press Conference, which consists of delegates from all parts of the Empire . . . . and I am still calling it "the Empire" . . . I hope I do not cause any offence by calling it "the Empire," even though we have decided to change the name of our organization to the Commonwealth Press Conference.
I think one of the real features of a great gathering like that is not so much our set discussions but the way we are able to meet our colleagues from all parts of the globe, and also the way we are enabled to meet our good friends in Canada . . . not merely newspaper men but men and women from all sections of the community. I should like in Toronto to say how much we appreciate the fact that tonight we are being entertained in the private homes of citizens of Toronto. On a tour like this one does get rather tired of hotels and hotel meals . . . and I am not referring to today's luncheon. I suppose maybe we have lost some originality in our country. We are so used to having nothing for breakfast, we take the first thing that comes to us, but in the hotels most meals are the same and the surroundings are the same. To get for a few hours into private homes is a joy for us and I assure you all, we do appreciate it immensely.
The main subject, of course, of discussion at our conference has been the freedom of the press, which is a wide subject and is sometimes open to a certain amount of misunderstanding. We do not claim for the press any more freedom than we claim for the ordinary citizen, but we do insist that the freedom of the press is so vital to every citizen that we must safeguard it on every possible occasion. We have had occasions in recent years for considerable anxiety on that subject. We were even told during our conference that in one part of our colonial Empire there is a press law in existence by which a publisher may not make more than a certain number of changes on his front page without the permission of the authorities.
Well, if we are getting to that stage, one is really getting nervous as to the future. We will do all we can to preserve freedom, and we will of course recognize that freedom carries with it great responsibilities. If the Press begins to abuse freedom, then I think one can fairly say we shall have only ourselves to blame for anything that may happen.
We have had, as you know, recently in England a Royal Commission to investigate the finances, the control, in fact almost the daily life and the general behaviour of the Press. I was fortunate enough to give evidence before that Royal Commission. The commissioners were a very striking collection of men and women who did their work, I think, extremely well. They sat for well over a year and they produced at the end a very complete and exhaustive report which is well worthy of examination.
I am afraid that some of us at home are inclined to think that the Royal Commission gave the Press a complete, one hundred per cent bill of good health. I don't agree with that at all. They did give us very high praise but they did point to certain things which might be improved in the body politic of the press.
One of the most striking speeches at our conferences was by Mr. L. P. Scott of "The Manchester Guardian"... the grandson of one of the greatest journalists that ever lived ... Mr. C. P. Scott of "The Manchester Guardian". He said he thought it would be a very good thing if occasionally newspaper publishers would turn the mirror on themselves and see whether everything was all right. I agree with him, whole-heartedly. There are things in the Press which it is difficult to explain or to stand up for, but I say that on the whole the Press of the United Kingdom is doing a good job. I am not, of course, in any way referring to any newspapers outside my own country. You may have a Royal Commission in time and I should like to see some of my friends . . . Mr. Bassett, Mr. Farquharson and others, appearing before it and going through the grill like we did. I am perfectly sure they would be acquitted with great credit at the bar of public opinion.
I don't want to go into detail about our conference because that is, I think, largely a matter for the profession. Therefore, I want, if I may, to talk generally on my subject of the work of a newspaper man. I have been rather cruelly reminded this morning that I have been on "The Times" forty-one years, and I did five years in Yorkshire before that, so you may guess I did not go to the University. I left school as a rather complete failure at my studies, at the age of sixteen, and went straight into a newspaper and I must say I have never regretted it.
We had at the conference a discussion on the training of journalists. I, personally, am convinced that the best training is in the newspaper office, where the man is liable to be called on to do anything at any time, and I am always rather pleased to quote a day in my life as a cub reporter of sixteen, when I was working in Leeds.
In the morning I had to report at the local Assizes the trial of a wife who had thrown vitriol over the other lady. That kept me busy until lunch time. In the afternoon I went to a local football match of some importance and in the evening I turned dramatic critic. Just as I finished work at midnight, thinking I had done a fairly good day's work, news came into the office that a local ratepayer had decided that he would no longer pay rates, so he solved the problem by murdering his wife, his three children and himself. That kept me going until three o'clock in the morning. At the end I felt I had really earned my very meagre salary. But I am quite convinced that kind of training is the best one can ask for. My ideal would be that the young man should go into a newspaper office and at the same time receive a general education course at the University. If you can get some system by which the two can run side by side I think that will be the real hope for efficient training in journalism in the future.
In my varied career I think I have done most things that a Journalist is expected to do. I reported the trial of a gentleman whom some of you may remember . . . I don't think he was a personal friend of any of you ... called Dr. Crippen. That trial at the Old Bailey was one of the most remarkable things I have ever been through. "The Times" gave two pages a day and now we are told that papers which devote a few columns to crime are too sensational. I can never forget the way Crippen stood up to cross-examination. He never batted an eyelid, and I think at the end of that trial there were a good many people who had a great deal of sympathy for Dr. Crippen. If there weren't ladies present I would say what people thought of Mrs. Crippen.
Many years after that I came to Canada with Ramsay MacDonald, and as we took the pilot on board at Father Point Ramsay MacDonald's detective was watching very closely. I said to him, "Why are you so interested? He said, "Well, Sir, it was at this point that my father arrested Dr. Crippen." He was a son of the great Inspector Dew, who you may remember pursued Crippen across the Atlantic, and Crippen, all unconscious of his fate played like the innocent lamb he pretended to be. But the son was very thrilled and I thought it was an extraordinary chance he should be gazing at the spot where his father had helped make journalistic history.
That was one of my visits to Canada which I remember with great pleasure. But my most thrilling visit was in 1945 when I was invited by the British Government to come over to Canada. I will let you into a little history about that. The British Cabinet during the war thought somebody should be sent here to speak about the British Press in war time and they thought somebody should be selected who would provide visible evidence that Britain was starving and the choice fell upon me. I may say that that made a very good talking point five years ago. That tour was a wonderful experience but there is one thing I would caution anybody against and that is making I think forty-five speeches in five weeks . . . most of them an hour in length and all on practically the same subject. By the end of the time one could scream at hearing one's voice saying the same thing over and over again.
I remember when I got to Victoria they explained to me at the lunch table that my speech was being broadcast but it could not be put on the air until later in the evening, owing to their commitments. I was just leaving the Empress Hotel at night to catch the boat back to Vancouver when I heard the loud speakers in the lounge and a strange voice that I didn't recognize, talking on the British Press in Wartime. I suddenly realized it was my own effort and I did the journey to the boat in record time. I could not go through it again.
I am just wandering around and I hope you don't mind. I have no set speech. But there is one point I want to touch on. This is a rather delicate one . . . if I tread on anybody's toes, I apologize in advance.
For fifteen years I was the Parliamentary Correspondent of "The Times" and that period included the Abdication. I was very close to Mr. Baldwin, as he then was during that time. I may be prejudiced because he was a very dear friend and very helpful to me always, but I would like to say how delighted I was to see the editorial in "The Globe and Mail" this morning about the "Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor".
It is a very difficult matter to deal with . . . Baldwin, Archbishop Lang are both dead. They cannot speak for themselves. There are very few who can speak for Mr. Baldwin now. I say, with all sincerity, that I am one of the few outside official circles, who was close to him during that period, and I have no hesitation in saying that the account given in the Memoirs is not a true picture of what happened during that time.
It is an unwritten law that a Parliamentary Correspondent does not reveal private conversations . . . at any rate during the life time of those concerned ... but I do want to make it perfectly plain that Mr. Baldwin had a real affection for the Monarch, as he called him, in those days. He hoped, and believed, that he could persuade the King to change his mind. He fought a tremendous battle. Each of them acted according to what he thought was the right line to adopt, and according to his own conscience. But Baldwin for weeks carried on that battle almost unaided, before he even consulted his Cabinet, because he was quite prepared to take the responsibility and, if necessary, to crash, as at one time he thought he might do. It was very difficult to gauge public opinion on a matter which had not been discussed in public.
Mr. Baldwin told me that he had the greatest admiration for the Monarch's ability. He told me once that there was a time when he loved him almost like his own son, which doesn't sound like the man described in the book which is now issued.
As I said, there was a tremendous sincerity. There was a great occasion toward the end when the two men virtually wrestled for hours and Baldwin told me that at the end of that conversation they parted. They couldn't agree so they agreed to differ, but as he left the Monarch he said, "Well, anyway, we have both done what we think is our duty and we leave no bitterness behind."
I am rather glad that Mr. Baldwin has not lived to read these Memoirs. He obviously couldn't reply to them but I do feel that one in a very humble position would like to say something in defence of a great Englishman.
Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have got nothing more to say. My only regret is that Canadian kindness has been so overwhelming that it really is not possible to prepare a speech beforehand for occasions like this. We have had a wonderful time in this country but it has been a tax on our physical strength. Our mental calibre is much weaker than it was but I suppose that is the normal process of disintegration.
I just want to say in conclusion that I have spent all my life in Journalism and if I had a second chance on earth I should go in for Journalism again. It is a great life if you don't weaken. It is one profession which I think only strong men can undertake but if they like it they will love it.
It was Disraeli, I think, who said, "I am a gentleman of the Press . . . I bear no other escutcheon", and I am very proud to be a follower of Disraeli.
Thank you, so much.
VOTE OF THANKS, moved by Mr. Harold Hale, Editor Orillia Packet and Times.