Historians know each newspaper has its own editorial stance, reflecting the owner’s bias or even the courage of its writers. Veloo Saminathan writes.
Old newspapers are nostalgic sources of information of past events, offering many lessons and anecdotes.
George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This terse observation has found its own niche and is often quoted even by political stalwarts in their speeches.
Old newspapers, many in their musty state, contain a record of past events. Researchers turn to them for an understanding of what they are researching about. The puritans among them might regard these as “secondary” sources and therefore requiring corroboration from what they deem to be “primary sources”.
Journalists are not historians – nor even offered an opportunity to become historians, even if they wanted to – for they write or report in the heat of the moment, often to meet a deadline. They do not have the luxury of long hours of deep contemplation on a specific topic. Some experts believe journalists shine best when they have to write under extreme stress brought upon them by a tough deadline.
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The Pulitzer Prize, the highest award in US journalism, is not merely for the quality of reportage but for accuracy, originality, and investigative daring, timing and prowess. In this respect, some journalists have become iconic figures and remain so on record. War correspondents face the added risk to life and limb on the battlefront.
Modern historians do not entirely ignore or shun the contents of old newspapers. While facts from primary sources continue to be the anchor points, newsprint material also gets woven selectively into the narrative, forming a basic component of the fabric.
Scholars use footnotes or endnotes to reveal the sources of their information, rendering their narrative verifiable. Thus, information gathered from primary sources (basic documents) and secondary sources (mostly newspapers) form a blend. Newspapers therefore can play an invaluable role in rendering context and relevance to the narrative.
Postings of old newspaper excerpts used in certain WhatsApp chat groups may be useful so long as they are done selectively and to provide the context for any specific event.
But remember, news reportage cannot exist without a certain bias, which is what gives it its importance. This has to be recognised in reading any excerpt of a news report. For instance, newspapers of the colonial era cannot escape a certain bias in favour of the colonial regime. In the case of Tamil newspapers, they had a certain bias in favour of the nationalist cause of India’s freedom fighters before India achieved independence.
In one infamous episode, now largely forgotten, the colonial British High Commissioner to Malaya General Gerald Templer gave Utusan Melayu journalist Abdul Aziz Ishak a tongue-lashing for stepping out of the fawning line. (Aziz was the younger brother of Utusan Melayu founder Yusoff Ishak, who would become President of independent Singapore.)
Aziz had been invited to cover the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London in 1953, but then made some unflattering observations about various aspects of the ceremony in his reporting.
Templer summoned Aziz to his official residence at King’s House (now part of Carcosa Seri Negara), where he lambasted him as a “rat, and a rotten journalist whose name stinks in Southeast Asia“, and a few other choice words.
When Aziz protested at this outburst and stood up to walk out of the room, Templer dared him to report what had transpired between them. This the Utusan writer duly and courageously did.*
There will always be bias inherent in editorial policy. For instance, the Singapore Tiger Standard (the then-sister newspaper of Sin Chew Jit Po) in the 1950s would reflect the bias of its owner, Aw Boon Haw, the tycoon famous for his Tiger Balm.
One person involved in the paper was S Rajaratnam (later Foreign Minister in independent Singapore). As features editor and leader writer, he contributed a weekly column “I write as I please” (1953-54), decidedly of anti-colonial bias. This too incurred, at least in one instance, the ire of Templer.
*Aziz went on to serve as Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister in Tunku Abdul Rahman’s cabinet from 1955 to 1963, when he resigned due to differences. He was later detained under the harsh Internal Security Act from 1965 to 1966.
Veloo Saminathan is a former senior civil servant with a passion for writing