To what extent does a journalist produce a ‘first draft’ of history as it happens? What are the similarities and differences in the research techniques and working methods of journalists and historians? A fascinating dialogue took place on the relationship between journalism and history-writing at Kingston University on Thursday, 26th November, 2015.
The History Department at Kingston was host to two special guests, both former highly successful and award-winning journalists who now hold University positions and teach their skills to a new generation of students: Dr. Maurice Walsh and Professor Brian Cathcart, both of Kingston University. The event, titled ‘The Past Bleeds into the Present: News, Journalism and History-Writing’, was chaired by Dr. John Stuart, Head of the History Department at Kingston.
Dr. Walsh’s contribution to the seminar concentrated mainly on his recent highly-acclaimed book The News From Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution, which was made the ‘Book of the Year’ by the Times Literary Supplement in 2008. The book sought to place the Irish revolution of 1916 in a wider ‘international’ or global context. He pointed out that, in contrast to some previous studies of the 1916 revolution, he felt that it was important to remind people that so much more was going on in the wider world at the time, and to explore the extent to which such larger international patterns impacted upon the events in Ireland itself.
Professor Cathcart, in his contribution to the seminar, described the enormous research challenges he faced when writing his recent best-selling book The News From Waterloo: The Race to Tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory, which reconstructs the ways in which the news about the British victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in Belgium arrived in Britain, and how it was received and treated. Interestingly, he said he had become aware of how ‘news’ could still spread without the presence of journalists, and this was a fascinating trend in itself. He said that, as a former professional journalist himself, this came as something of a surprise but, nevertheless, it gave him an even greater desire to reconstruct the precise circumstances concerning the ways in which the media had been involved in the story of Waterloo.
All three participants – Dr. Walsh, Prof. Cathcart and Dr. Stuart – gave their views on the methods, processes and challenges faced by all researchers when trying to reconstruct the past, but especially the problems faced by scholars who seek to do so by using newspapers and the media generally as key resources. The strengths and weaknesses of increased ‘digitisation’ of newspapers was also touched upon, with some notably strong questions voiced about the seemingly random decisions being made over which newspapers are being selected for digitisation.
Dr. Walsh pointed out that his study on the Irish revolution also sought to find vivid descriptions from eye-witness accounts of what it was actually like to live through the revolution. At the same time, he was keen to equip his book with awareness of the social and cultural changes and developments that were going on at the time: the clothing fashions, the increased use of cars, the role of the cinema, and so on. Dr. Walsh also read aloud to the seminar audience some key passages from his work to convey how such social changes during the period played a major role in the ‘politics’ of the time.
Professor Cathcart said his own study of Waterloo came about because he had become increasingly aware that, in a number of the other works he had produced, he had provided substantial passages about how ‘news’ spreads. He had thus decided to devote a whole monograph to this important dissemination process in relation to a key historical event. He also pointed out that in 1815 – surprisingly – despite the fact that there were 56 possible newspapers that could do so, not one of those newspapers had sent a journalist to Belgium to cover the campaign. He had therefore decided to explore how the dramatic news of Britain’s victory over the French had actually arrived back in London and then been disseminated across the nation. Cathcart said he was also struck by the way that news back then in the early 19th century was ‘controlled’ – the Duke of Wellington, for example, had gone to great lengths to ensure that his version of the news about Waterloo had got back to London first.
This then led to some very interesting reflections from both Dr. Walsh and Professor Cathcart on the experiences of journalists generally in history, and on how there have been numerous examples of attempts by the state in various periods and countries across the globe to ‘control’ and manipulate news.
Both of the presenters also offered some nicely revealing insights into their working methods, and on how they have drawn upon their personal experiences as active journalists to help them reconstruct the past and produce accurate, but still very entertaining, histories of key events and trends. It was also very clear to the audience that both men have not lost their journalistic eye for detail, especially for pieces of information which can add a real ‘bite’ to their work and make history very much come alive for the current-day reading public.
The History Department at Kingston, and Dr. John Stuart especially, would like to express their strong appreciation and thanks to both Dr. Walsh and Professor Cathcart for participating in what proved to be a very entertaining and informative discussion.