Chapter XXI. – Newspaper Reports, pp.83-89.

[Book of Blunders Contents]

THE demand made in these days upon our newspapers to supply us with reports of all important speeches within an hour or two of their delivery, and the consequent anxiety there is on an editor’s art to secure the manuscripts of such speeches, and have them ready in type beforehand, has led to some absurd blunders. Professor Blackie, at an Edinburgh banquet some time since, said he had never prepared a speech beforehand except once, and he thought the result would prevent his ever doing it again. He said – 

   “It was on the occasion of the Burn’s centenary. They came to me and said, ‘Blackie, we have you down for a speech.’ I looked at the programme, and saw I was down at the bottom as I am here. I said, ‘There is no use writing a speech. You have put my name at the bottom of the list, and by that time nobody will listen.’ ‘Nonsense,’ they said, ‘you must do it. It is a grand occasion, and you must make a grand speech; you must build it up architecturally like Cicero, Demosthenes, and the orators of old.’ (Laughter.) Like a good-natured fellow as I was – (renewed laughter) – I wrote out a long speech. Well, at the dinner, people soon got tired, and the most eloquent men were not listened to. When it came to my turn, I saw there was no chance; so I merely said, ‘I propose so and so; good bye,’ and sat down. But next day, there in all the papers was the great speech that I had never delivered a word of, – not only a whole column of type, but sprinkled with ‘hear, hears,’ ‘cheers,’ ‘hurrahs’ – (loud laughter) – and all that sort of thing. It was the greatest lie that ever was printed – (laughter) – and you will find it there, making me immortal to the end of the world, wherever the name of Burns is known.”*

In Glasgow, some years ago, a case occurred even more ridiculous. There was to be a great exhibition of fireworks at Gilmore Hill, but, owing to the state of the weather, it was, after one or two abortive attempts to begin, postponed. One of the papers, however, had prepared a report beforehand based on the programme, and next day the public were entertained with a long and glowing account of pyrotechnic displays which had never taken place at all. 

Mr Grant, in his “History of the Newspaper Press,” describes an absurd mistake which originated in a practical joke played by one reporter upon another in the House of Commons. A debate took place in the House at the beginning of the present century, on the question of the employment of English labourers, and being unusually dull, a reporter of the name of Morgan O’Sullivan, who had a short time before been imported from Tipperary, said to the only other reporter in the gallery at the time that he felt very drowsy, and would be after taking a little bit of a nap if his coadjutor would be sure to tell him afterwards if anything important took place. The other, whose name was Peter Finnerty, promised, and Morgan was soon asleep. After an hour had elapsed, Morgan opened his eyes, and, looking about, asked his friend if anything had happened? 

   “To be sure there has,” 

said the other; 

   “and something very important, too.” 

   “What about it?” 

asked Morgan, eagerly. 

   “About the virtues of the Irish potato, Morgan.” 

   “Was it the Irish potato you said, Peter?” 

   “The Irish potato; and a most eloquent speech it was.” 

   “Thunder and lightning, and me aslape! Why didn’t you stir me up?” 

   “It’s all the same. I’ll read it from my note-book, and you can take it down as I go on,” 

said Peter. 

   “That I will,” 

said Morgan, with an energy which strangely contrasted with the previous languor of his manner – 

   “now then, Peter, my boy.” 

Peter, affecting to read from his note-book, commenced thus:- 

   “The honourable member said that if -” 

   “Och, be aisy a little bit,”

interrupted Morgan;

   “who was the honourable mimber?” 

Peter, hesitating for a moment – 

   “Was it his name you asked? Sure, it was Mr Wilberforce.” 

   “Mr Wilberforce! Bedad! and me aslape!” 

Peter resumed. 

   “Mr Wilberforce said, that it always appeared to him beyond all question, that the great cause why the Irish labourers were, as a body, so much stronger and capable of enduring so much greater physical fatigue, than the English, was the surpassing virtues of their potato. And he -” 

   “Peter, my dear fellow,” 

exclaimed Morgan at the mention of the Irish potato, his countenance lighting with ecstacy as he spoke; 

   “Peter, my dear fellow, this is so important that we must give in the first person.” 

   “Do you think so?” 

said Peter. 

   “Throth and I do,” 

answered Morgan. 

   “Very well,” said the other. 

Peter then resumed. 

   “And I have no doubt,” 

continued Mr Wilberforce, 

   “that had it been my lot to be born and reared in -” 

   “Did the mimber say reared?” 

interrupted Morgan, exultingly, evidently associating the word with the growth of potatoes in his “own blessed country.” 

   “Faith, and he did say reared,” 

observed the other, who then resumed – 

   “Had it been my lot to be born and reared in Ireland, where my food would have principally consisted of the potato – that most nutritious and salubrious root – instead of being the poor infirm, shrivelled, stunted creature you, Sir, and honourable gentlemen, now behold me, I would have been a tall, stout, athletic man, and able to carry an enormous weight.” 

Morgan O’Sullivan took it down eagerly and with uncontrollable delight. 

   “Faith, Peter,” 

he cried, 

   “that’s what I call thrue eloquence! Go on.” 

   “I hold,” 

continued Mr Wilberforce, 

   “that root to be invaluable; and the man who first cultivated it in Ireland, I regard as a benefactor of the first magnitude to his country. And more than that, my decided opinion is, that never until we grow potatoes in England in sufficient quantities to feed all our labourers, will those labourers be so able-bodied a class as the Irish (‘Hear, hear!’ from both sides of the House).” 

   “Well, by St Patrick, but that bates everything,” 

observed Morgan, on finishing his notes. 

   “That’s rale philosophy. And the other mimbers cried ‘hear, hear!’ did they?” 

   “The other members cried ‘Hear, hear,’ 

answered Peter. 

In a quarter of an hour afterwards the House rose. 

Peter went away direct to the office of the paper, the Morning Chronicle, for which he was employed, while Morgan, in perfect ecstasies at the eulogium which had been pronounced on the virtues of the potatoes of “ould Ireland,” ran in breathless haste to a public-house, where the reporters who should have been on duty for the other morning papers were assembled, and having communicated to them the important speech which they had by their absence missed, they asked him to read over his notes to them, which, of course, Morgan readily did. They copied them verbatim, and not being at the time in the best possible condition for judging of the probability of Mr Wilberforce delivering such a speech, they repaired to their respective offices, and actually gave a copy of it into the hands of the printer. Next morning it appeared in all the papers, except the one with which Peter Finnerty was connected. The sensation and surprise it created in town exceeded everything. Had it only appeared in one or two of the papers, persons of ordinary intelligence must at once have concluded that there was some mistake about the matter. But its appearing in all of the journals except one, and that one at the time not so well known as at other periods of its history, the fact forced, as it were, people to the conclusion that it must have been actually spoken. 

In the evening the House met as usual, and Mr Wilberforce, on the Speaker taking the chair, rose and begged the indulgence of the House for a few moments to a matter which concerned it, as well as himself personally. 

   “Every honourable member,” 

he observed, 

   “has doubtless read the speech which I am represented as having made on the previous night. With the permission of the House I will read it.” 

(Here the honourable member read the speech amid defeaning roars of laughter.) 

   “I can assure honourable members that no one could have read this speech with more surprise than I myself did this morning when I found the papers on my breakfast-table. For myself, personally, I care but little about it, though if I were capable of uttering such nonsense as is here put into my moluth, it is high time that, instead of being a member of this House, I were an inmate of some lunatic asylum. It is for the dignity of this House that I feel concerned; for if honourable members were capable of listening to such nonsense, supposing me capable of giving expression to it, it were much more appropriate to call this a theatre for the performance of farces, than a place for the legislative deliberations of the representatives of the nation.” 

It was proposed by some members to call the printers of the different papers in which the speech appeared to the bar of the House, for a breach of privilege, but the matter was eventually allowed to drop. Mr Wilberforce himself was in favour of this course. He treated the matter in a playful manner, to the great gratification of the House. 

It would be impossible to describe the effect produced by the report of such a speech from such a man as Mr Wilberforce. He had the reputation of being one of the most sedate and judicious men sitting in the House of Commons, and consequently the public were wholly at a loss to account for so strange an effusion. Appearing, as it did, in all the papers but one, and with scarcely the variation of a word, they were, as had been remarked, driven to believe that there could be no mistake as to the speech having been spoken by Mr Wilberforce. And such being the conclusion to which the public came, there was another which was undoubtedly quite logical, – that he had ceased to be himself when he delivered so extraordinary a speech, and that the first thing which his friends ought to do would be to provide him with a keeper until some arrangement could be made for due care being taken of him.

*  This could be the article Prof. Blackie was referring to, from the ‘Falkirk Herald,’ 30th January, 1886.

Blackie-Burns

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