In these days when journalism is in so much disrepute and disrespect, it is useful to remember an earlier time when journalists might behave well. From Chambers’ Book of Days:
A remarkable instance was afforded, a few years ago, of the power of an English newspaper, and its appreciation by the commercial men of Europe. It is known to most readers at the present day, that the proprietors and editors of the daily papers make strenuous exertions to obtain the earliest possible information of events likely to interest the public, and take pride in insuring for this information all available accuracy and fulness; but it is not equally well known how large is the cost incurred by so doing. None but wealthy proprietors could venture so much, for an object, whose importance and interest may be limited to a single day’s issue of the paper.
In 1841, Mr. O’Reilly, the Times correspondent at Paris, received secret information of an enormous fraud that was said to be in course of perpetration on the continent. There were fourteen persons—English, French, and Italian—concerned, headed by a French baron, who possessed great talent, great knowledge of the continental world, and a most polished exterior. His plan was one by which European bankers would have been robbed of at least a million sterling; the conspirators having reaped about £10,000, when they were discovered. The grand coup was to have been this—to prepare a number of forged letters of credit, to present them simultaneously at the houses of all the chief bankers in Europe, and to divide the plunder at once. How Mr. O’Reilly obtained his information, is one of the secrets of newspaper management; but as he knew that the chief conspirator was a man who would not scruple to send a pistol-shot into any one who frustrated him, he wisely determined to date his letter to the Times from Brussels instead of Paris, to give a false scent. This precaution, it is believed, saved his life. The letter appeared in the Times on 26th May. It produced a profound sensation, for it revealed to the commercial world a conspiracy of startling magnitude.
One of the parties implicated, a partner in an English house at Florence, applied to the Times for the name of its informant; but the proprietors resolved to bear all the consequences. Hence the famous action, Bogle v. Lawson, brought against the printer of the Times for libel, the proprietors, of course, being the parties who bore the brunt of the matter. As the article appeared on 26th May, and as the trial did not come on till 16thAugust, there was ample time to collect evidence. The Times made immense exertions, and spent a large sum of money, in unravelling the conspiracy throughout. The verdict was virtually an acquittal, but under such circumstances that each party had to pay his own costs.
The signal service thus rendered to the commercial world, the undaunted manner in which the Times had carried through the whole matter from beginning to end, and the liberal way in which many thousands of pounds had been spent in so doing, attracted much public attention. A meeting was called, and a subscription commenced, to defray the cost of the trial, as a testimonial to the proprietors. This money was nobly declined in a few dignified and grateful words; and then the committee determined to perpetuate the memory of the transaction in another way. They had in their hands £2700, which had been subscribed by 38 public companies, 64 members of the city corporation, 58 London bankers, 120 London merchants and manufacturers, 116 county bankers and merchants, and 21 foreign bankers and merchants. In November, the committee made public their mode of appropriating this sum: namely, £1000 for a ‘Times Scholarship’ at Oxford, for boys in Christ’s Hospital; £1000 for a similar scholarship at Cambridge, for boys of the city of London School; and the remainder of the money for four tablets, to bear suitable inscriptions—one to be put up at the Royal Exchange, one at Christ’s Hospital, one at the City of London School, and one at the Times printing-office.