« PreviousContinue »
an ale-and-beef-fed country squire : who can put before us a prize-fight or make us hear the guns in a brown October copse as he can ? For, even as the “weird chameleon of the past world” reflects colours that are or have been in his surroundings, so do those men of a past age reflect the colours of a past race or a time that seem good to them. Yet the chameleon remains the chameleon—and the artist himself.
FORD Madox HUEFFER.
THE ART OF BLACKMAIL.
NHE air of London has, for some little time past, been filled with
talk of blackmail in connection with the failure of a certain company promoter whose operations were distinguished for their magnitude, and there have been loud promises as to revelations bearing upon the prevalence of this system in the City-revelations which, we were assured, should not only concern the gutter press that can find and desires nothing better to sustain it, but should also involve some of the higher-class papers, which are not generally supposed to betray a liking for such garbage. To those who have made personal acquaintance with the devious ways of the average company-monger, and are able to appraise that gentleman's own degree of culpability in what amounts to a conspiracy to stifle criticism and to gull the investing public, there is something decidedly curious—even funny—in threats of the sort which have been so freely launched by the latest of the long list of fallen financiers. Bat if the threatened exposure is actually made, and the final outcome should be the throwing of a flood of light upon the methods by which company flotations are made to the ruin of many worthy fools, then the world will be under at least one obligation to Mr. Hooley. One is even hopeful that the revelations will be of so startling & character as to compel the Legislature to take up the question of company law reform, and, by imitating the excellent examples of Germany, France, and more than one other Continental nation, make it impossible for the future for any financial Barnum to fool the British people to the extent of a dozen millions sterling in two or three years' space of time. At the time of writing this paper the promised list had not been published, and indications pointed to a slight cooling of the philanthropist's beneficent intentior consequent, possibly, upon & more
complete realisation of the two-sidedness of the whole business. We have all heard before of these threats of exposure, but they have seldom come to anything. When published at all, the list has comprised a mere handful of dirty City weeklies, with no bona fide circalation, whose opinion any way would not be regarded seriously by even the most innocent curate or the most gullible maiden lady in all the land. This is not what is wanted. The existence of this reptile section of the Press is admitted, and the harm it works is small and can readily be estimated. What would be welcomed would be a catalogue of the high-class periodicals, daily and weekly, which are corrupt, either through their proprietors or their City staffs or both; and if Mr. Hooley were to give the world this catalogue, he would be doing it a greater service than he has done it hitherto, and would lay as all under an immeasurably deep debt of gratitude.
Meanwhile, as blackmail so-called is in the air, it may be doing & timely service if one who is a financial journalist occupies a few pages of this REVIEW in discussing the question in some of its various bearings, and endeavours to estimate its actual character and prevalence. First of all, it is necessary to understand that the term “ blackmail,” as applied to the “palm oil” processes of the company promoter, is largely a misnomer. To levy blackmail, according to Marray's Dictionary, is “ to extort money ... by intimidation," and it would argue gross ignorance of the diverse forces working within half a mile radius of Capel Court if one were to suppose that the endeavour to extort money by intimidation was never made in that locality. As a fact, we know it is. There are a handful of journals which are more assiduous in their attentions to the company promoter than a good woman is to her blackguard husband, though without the same purity of motives—which leave him alone neither day nor night, so long as he has an undertaking, be it good or bad (they are mostly bad) or merely indifferent, that he would sell to the public at a profit, and which exact their share of such profit either as the reward of their advocacy or as the price of their abstention from adverse criticism. But these are not the dangerous men. It is doubtful whether their advocacy or their open hostility is the preferable certainly neither makes much impression opon the community because their venality is too notorious in business circles, and they seldom get anywhere else. Nor can it be supposed that the promoter is deceived by these gentry. But, almost innocuous though they are, he would rather purchase their silence, which is not dear anyway at the cost of a fifty-pound note, and he recognises them as part of the Press which he sets out to "square" preparatory to making one of his big strokes of business. If he possessed no better advocates than the seedy gentlemen of the gutter press, his schemes would very often miscarry. The journals he sets out to catch are the respectable ones, that are read, some of them only by basiness men anxious to be well informed on matters of trade and finance, some of them in home circles, homely and aristocratic, middle-class and wealthy, throughout the country. To papers of this class he can afford to pay much more handsomely than he would dream of paying to the City weekly. They are conducted for honest men and women, who accept the opinions and recommendations which they read as valuable, and as given with a disinterested view to their advantage, if they have a little superfluous money, and who act in accordance with that belief. It may be said that investors should exercise discretion on their own account; but few of them possess the requisite qualifications for a right appreciation of any security other than Consols or the Preference issue of a big railway company, and if they cannot trust the expert who writes the City article of the paper they take in, whom on earth can they trust, and who is to advise them ? And here let me state that the City Editor is usually an autocrat, who is allowed much latitude, and whose
copy ” is seldom blue-pencilled, because those responsible for the actual make-up of a paper are not often competent to writicise his facts, and being honest themselves, it does not occur to them to doubt the genuineness of his advice until his delinquencies become glaring and his dishonesty is put beyond all doubt. It should be clearly understood, therefore, that a charge of corruptness levied against any given paper does not of necessity embrace the proprietary and the whole of the editorial staff. The great financial dailies may or may not be beyond the reach of a bribe I say nothing about them save that their position and their profitableness should carry them a long way beyond such an influence. Of the leading financial weeklies the same may be said they are so well off and their reputation for probity among the banking and mercantile classes is so high, that any long-continued and manifest corruption would make existence on their present high plane impossible to them. There are other financial journals, daily and weekly, whose honesty is matter of doubt to the acute observer; but seeing that they are little accredited in business circles and seldom read elsewhere, it cannot be said that they exercise much influence either for or against a particular project. The danger lies in the social papers, especially the weeklies, and it would be possible to name half a dozen which are corrupt by the direct connivance of the proprietors, or (as is much more frequently the case) through the venality of the individual who runs the City article.
The reader will by this time, I think, realise what is meant when it is said that the word blackmail, to denote the relations between a promoter and the corrupt section of the Press, is not the proper one. There is a difference between paying an acknowledged journalistic blackguard to bay off his hostility, and bribing another man to purchase his good will. It is the difference between blackmail and bribery, and, from the point of view of the investor, the latter is by a long way the greater vice, because it comes along under a cloak of virtue which the blackmailer has the honesty to scorn. The latter goes straight to the company promoter, gives him to understand that his price for silence or approval is so much, which the promoter is hereby invited to pay over. It is generally supposed that the promoter is to take his choice between two articles, proofs of which the other party brings along with him—one article full of such scurrility as might make the English language blush for itself, which will cost the promoter nothing; the other, full of warm commendation and plausible reasoning, which will cost as much or as little as the two agree upon. I cannot, however, speak with authority as to the two alternative articies, though it is probably true in nine out of ten cases of unquestioned blackmailing. If it be asked why does not the promoter give the blackmailer into the custody of the police and prosecute him for attempting to extort money by menaces, the answer is ready -the blackmailer is probably accurate enough in all he says, even if his way of saying it be not entirely beyond reproach; and the promoter cannot afford to give undue publicity to his own antecedents and incidentally to the weak points of his flotations. For it may be accepted as an axiom that hardly any big promoter has a record that will bear the strict investigation to which the character of a clerk at thirty shillings a week is subjected, and that very few companies are ever put upon the market about which nothing derogatory can be said. The curious thing, which is quite natural when you come to reflect a moment, is that the company promoter almost invariably takes the initiative in the matter of bribery—that is, he runs after the man he would “square,” instead of waiting for the man to run after him. And his methods of laying his net are manifold, and many of them are exceedingly clever— 50 much so that the financial journalist who would not have his reputation smirched and himself pointed out as one who is “all right,” has to beware of every step he takes, and must be careful to do nothing that can in any way be misinterpreted by the most suspicious. This means that he cannot afford to make friends in the City—or at any rate he cannot afford to do the friendly thing by the best of them. He never knows whether his friends (I use the word, to my sorrow, for want of a better) are interested or disinterested in the special information they have to impart, and there is always the suspicion that, behind the show of good fellowship and good will, the friend may be acting in the interests of some group whose aim it is to “ rope in ” the journalist, and, having done this, to remind him periodically of his obligations and to apply the screw as often as is necessary. Let me give an example of what I mean. A stockbroker, who has it in his power