It is a great honour to be invited by the Anglo Argentine Society for this special 25th Borges Lecture to talk about bits of history and the Buenos Aires Herald, which I was linked to for almost half a century.
Sometimes readers like to measure the life and power of newspapers through the great events they covered – though that may have been when newspapers were still an important part of every person’s life. I think that the history of printing a daily now turns less on the coverage of big events and more on personal experience, on the anecdotes of making a paper seven nights a week. Simply because the computer has replaced the style of coverage. The digital substitutes have provided near instant service but destroyed human relations.
For anybody who is going to say that their families remember The Standard better than the Herald, so be it. The latter was from the start a more “political” sheet than the former, which was a community and business paper.
Both papers were, perhaps, the product of a colonial policy of encouraging English-language publications as a by-product of Empire-building. An English-language paper established a presence. I don’t have the evidence ofsuch a policy, but useful it is to recall that one of the first printing presses in the River Plate was The Southern Star in 1807, installed in Montevideo during the second British landing in Montevideo, defeated as was the landing in 1806.
In the beginning editors of foreign language papers in Buenos Aires were advised that they were “guests” and could not comment on local political issues. The Herald, however, ignored the ruling from the start. The Standard did not discuss local politics, though. Its editors were the beneficiaries of substantial contracts with the government, especially during the presidency of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1868-1874).
The following is a brief account of important historical moments in the Herald’s history and for them I am indebted to Michael Soltys, a colleague and retired editor, who is now with the Buenos Aires Times. Each Herald anniversary, you see, was marked by Michael’s telegraphic chronology of the paper’s life.
A list of some Herald ‘firsts” included acting as a public negotiator in an international dispute with Chile, coverage of the “war” in Patagonia with the original inhabitants, establishing a European cable service, the use of linotype and the only English-language daily to publish uninterrupted since 1876 until October 2017, when it closed. More than 140 years after the paper was started Argentina, or Buenos Aires, is crying out for a Herald.
A BRIEF HISTORY
William Cathcart, a Scot resident in Buenos Aires for about half a century, started the Herald as a weekly single sheet in September 1876. The following year the founder sold the name to a US resident, D.W. Lowe, who tried to relaunch as a daily. This would take some time to achieve while newsprint supplies were erratic. In 1878, Lowe took the paper into political coverage as a result of an Argentine-Chilean dispute, which the paper helped to mediate in.
Just a year later, the Herald’s prestige was such that the War Minister, General Julio Argentino Roca, required the presence of a reporter to cover the Campaña del Desierto against the native Indians in southern Buenos Aires province. In 1880, Lowe again acted as mediator in a revolutionary conflict over the status of the city of Buenos Aires, what would become the Federal Capital.
In 1913, Thomas Bell, a member of a Scottish family that created the area known as City Bell near La Plata, bought the newspaper, becoming editor and proprietor for the next 30 years. Bell later stepped down as editor and was replaced as managing editor by Hugh Lancelot Lyall, under whose leadership the paper was published 360 times in the year. He became known as a strong editorial writer.
In 1916, Lyall left and the next 10 years were covered by Henry Hamilton Stuart Russell. The Bells, meanwhile, had decided in 1920 to make the Herald a public company, but their bid to find investors was unsuccessful.
In 1925, the Rugeroni family bought the paper. Junius Julius (J.J.) Rugeroni took the leading role as editor, and his brother, Claude Ronald Rugeroni was his deputy. The family was originally Italian, some say resident in Britain before moving to Gibraltar, and they arrived in Argentina as Britons. The brothers proceeded to modernise the Herald. In 1926, the aforementioned Mr Lyall returned to the paper to run the editorial side, beginning a run that lasted into the 1940s. Circulation climbed rapidly and its owners claimed to have doubled that of its rival, The Standard.
Lyall retired in late 1941 and at the start of 1942, Norman Ingrey, a professional who had worked as a foreign correspondent in China, in Chile and Peru, where he had also been an editor of a local paper, took over. Under Norman Ingrey, the Herald rapidly became a market leader and an international source of information.
Ingrey was a remarkable human being and a great editor. He was stern-looking yet with a ready smile. For years he was admired for his collection of photographs of the leadership of China, before the advent of Mao Tsedong and the Long March to Revolution. When he was in Lima and Santiago he could illustrate any article on the politics and leaders in the Far East. This was customary practice until somebody who had met Ingrey in China claimed that the face in the photo was actually a picture of his houseboy. There was no comment.
In 1949, the British-owned railways were transferred to Argentina in a sale that was called a “nationalisation.” Uruguay called their exchange “a repatriation of [Britain’s] foreign debt.”. Matters began to change. Juan Domingo Perón had been in office since 1946 and his presidency had become visibly more dictatorial and populist as time passed. The Herald’s editorials had been printed in English and Spanish since the military coup of 1943. Six years later, Perón was putting pressure on all the press.
In 1949 the Herald was ordered to sell its printing shop in the 800s of Rivadavia street to the printers. Two years later, the employees formed a cooperative, COGTAL, which is still working today. It provided the springboard for printer Raimundo Ongaro to become a national political leader, mainly in a battle against the military governments of the 1960s.
Relations with the government were strained. The Herald became known for its use of language draped with double meanings, in order to get a different one across. One example is the occasion when Eva Perón’s brother, Juan Duarte, was killed in strange and controversial circumstances, having become a nuisance to many in government. The paper reported that Juan Duarte had been “suicided.” More frequently, the paper hid a variety of items considered risky in its classified advertisement pages.
In 1965, the Herald moved out of its ancient quarters behind Café Tortoni, to the third-floor of a tower block on 25 de Mayo and Tucumán, where the old English Club had been for many years. Printing was contracted out to the Alemann family printery, where the anti-Nazi daily, the Argentinisches Tageblatt, was produced.
In 1968, Ingrey retired after leading the paper for 27 years. Robert J. Cox became editor in January, 1969 and a new stage in the life of the paper began. Cox would break new ground such as the “little paper” (el diarito) had never known.
The Rugeroni family and relatives sold the controlling stock, 60 percent of the Herald’s shares, to the Manigault family through the Evening Post Publishing Company, in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the first time the company had become a foreign-owned business.
(Robert) Basil (Hamilton) Thomson, born in Tucumán, a World War II captain in the British forces, and a cousin of one of the shareholders, joined the Herald as little above an office-boy on his return to Buenos Aires in 1946. B.T. was the long-serving author of the Mulberry Bush columns and the famous “Ramon Writes” sketches. He became the chairman of the board up to the time of his death in Greece in 1977.
In 1974, Juan Domingo Perón died, aged 77, in his third presidency (since his return to Argentina from Spanish exile in June 1973). Pressure came down on all papers to print during the four days after the death only news relevant to the life and works of Perón. Be it music, theatre, sport or politics, the information had to be about Perón. Andrew GrahamYooll, temporarily in charge of the newsroom was told by the printers to follow the line, or publication would be prevented. He decided not to print, earning criticism from the management (“A paper should not stop of its own decision,” B.T. dixit), and the printers’ union then wondered if they would be paid. (They were.)
In June 1975 the Herald moved to its own building on Azopardo street, near the port in a former parking lot, which had been bought as an investment in the late 1960s. The building had not been finished when the paper had to move to overcome the economic chaos the country was sliding into. The offices and newsroom were cold and damp, and that winter became known as the season of three pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves. There the Herald recovered its own printing press.
In October 1975, the Herald was raided by a team of combined police and a right-wing group known as Triple-A (Alianza Argentina Anticomunista), who came to kill Graham-Yooll, who was later detained briefly.
In March 1976, a military coup removed president María Estela Martínez Cartas de Perón (Isabelita, as she was known, from her stage name as a dancer), who had been vice-president to her husband and up to his death in 1974. As from March 1976 the Herald became famous for its criticism of the military dictatorship and its defence of human rights.
Later that year, in 1976, Graham-Yooll (who had quasi-secretly been the informant of Amnesty International in London since 1971), left Argentina with his wife, Micaela, and three children, forced into a British exile as a “trouble-maker” marked to “disappear.”
In 1978, the Herald was awarded the Moors-Cabot Prize, a kind of Oscar for journalism. Shortly after, it received the IAPA-Mergenthaler plaque for its stand in defence of human rights.
But in December, Robert Cox left Argentina with his family after one of his sons was threatened by an anonymous letter. He spent a few months at Harvard University, and then moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he became a foreign news editor and editorial writer with The Post and Courier.
James Neilson took on the post of editor. He became known for his trenchant editorials. Kenneth Rugeroni became president of the board.
Then came 1982. For a few months Argentina thought of nothing but the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands in the South Atlantic and the brief conflict with Britain which claimed nearly 1,000 lives. Threats from unknown sources, presumed to be wayward intelligence agents in the Army, Navy or Air Dorce, forced James Neilson to move to Uruguay for the duration of the conflict.
In Buenos Aires, some colonels spread the rumour among their services that the Herald was an intelligence HQ for the British and US. The false, if funny, statement led the leader of the newsvendors to stop all distribution. Copies of the Herald were sold from small print runs. Some readers went to buy the paper at the gate on Azopardo street. They were threatened, but went anyway. Eventually, a general ended the ban, saying it was an embarrassment.
After democracy returned, in 1984 to 1985, the courts drew the eye with the trial of Mario Firmenich, and the following year, the Trial of the Juntas.
Changes, however, were also afoot in the newsroom. In 1986, Neilson left the paper to write full-time for a number of local papers: the newspaper Rio Negro, Salta’s El Tribuno, and also for Noticias magazine.
Ronald Hansen, formerly a car and racing enthusiast, became editor, with Dan Newland as his second, and then a new transitional period began with Michael Soltys, the main editorial writer, and Nicholas Tozer, the newsroom manager, as editors. In 1994, on May 1, GrahamYooll returned and became editor with a new design. In 1995, he became president of the board, remaining editor. Kenneth Rugeroni retired from the paper. Two years later, Biddle Duke, from Charleston, and later Julia Cass, became executive editors in quick succession.
In 1998, Kenneth Rugeroni sold the remainder of his shares to the group in Charleston and bought an estancia. Graham-Yooll ceased to be president of the board and was replaced by Trey Spaulding and later Gabriel Mysler.
A landmark arrived in 2007. Charleston sold the Herald to a financial operator and a known distasteful individual, Sergio Szpolski. Graham-Yooll resigned from the paper in what he described as the “most expensive (to him) bit of door slamming in his life.”
Afterwards, Szpolski sold the shares in the Herald to the owners of La Capital, Rosario, and Ámbito Financiero in Buenos Aires, handing over the almost useless shares but keeping the building for himself. The new owners sold Ámbito and the Herald to Grupo Indalo and Cristobal López, a financier known to be close to the Kirchner presidents and family – and for making money from favours to the government.
The newspaper slipped into deeper neglect and on 26 October, 2016, it ceased publication as a daily, turning into a weekly newspaper. Finally, on July 31, 2017, it was shuttered without notice, just three days after the publication of the last issue.
The front-page editorial from its last edition as a daily was titled: “At the end of the day.”
My imagined romance with a newspaper did have a troubled start: I had a stepmother who laughed at my early attempts at writing a short story when I was aged 11. That did not stop me. That’s what stepmothers are for.
In 1966, when I was 22, after a job in the Anglo meat packing plant and after trying to teach English, I decided to go for a job at the Herald. The newspaper was the pits. Friends of my parents remarked that the English-speaking community’s failures sought jobs in the administration department of the British Hospital or the Buenos Aires Herald 's sports desk.
From that beginning at the Herald to rapid departure ten years later. Michael Soltys, in his annual chronology of the paper’s history, for 1976 wrote, “News editor Andrew Graham-Yooll was forced into a British exile as a “troublemaker” slated to “disappear.” I thought that being called a “troublemaker” was hilarious, but the idea of being “disappeared” still causes a shiver.
My own view, on the history I have lived, is that the coup was not necessary. The guerrilla chiefs had been imprisoned, killed or had fled into exile. The military needed an excuse for seizing power, to avoid the congressional elections in September, which Peronism would certainly have won, most likely leading to even more political chaos. The descent was visible, but ignorable. The awful thing, which happened widely in the 20th century, was that people had to learn to live with fear. Like getting accustomed to having a fifth person at the table at lunch.
My lasting interest, or more, my concern is how to describe fear and what we experienced.
The Herald was not made or ever thought of as a gallant rag that would take on a brutal government. But suddenly, over the course of a few years, the Herald became an instrument that had to understand fear, danger, censorship and self-censorship.
We never had to agree that killing was evil, by whatever side. Fear had to be understood. Self-censorship was cowardly. Killing is wrong, whatever side you choose to shoot at. We had to keep to that principle.
Early in the 1970s, as general Juan Carlos Ongania ended his four years as dictator I wrote a report on the rape of a young woman under police arrest. Two police had ripped off her knickers, sat her on a washbasin and raped her. A Herald reader wrote in and said that it was not the kind of article she found acceptable in her newspaper.
By mid-1972, novelist V.S. Naipaul, later a knight and Nobel winner, arrived in Buenos Aires, with a view to writing a fierce incursion into the life and times of María Eva Duarte de Perón. His article on Buenos Aires – invasive and offensive but pure gold to read – was published in the New York Review of Books in mid-August. Bob Cox paid US$100 for the right to reprint the article in the Herald, with Naipaul’s special permission.
The Montoneros guerrillas, active in the campaign for the election of Héctor Cámpora and the return of Juan Perón, described the publication as an outrage. The key sentence was where Naipaul wrote that Evita’s red lips inspired thoughts of fellatio in the Argentine male. The leadership of Montoneros decided that I was responsible, because I was the only person they knew. The chief ordered me killed, by a hand grenade in my desk. It was my first narrow escape.
The second, in October 1975, came from the Triple A. A second ride in a patrol car. This time it was to my death. Bob Cox saved my life by demanding that he be allowed to go with me to police HQ and that by this time, at 3am, every Embassy in down was aware of my peril.
The threats increased in frequency. First, they called the paper, the newsroom. More worrying as when they came home.
Bob Cox, 4 July 1976: At the Irish church, seven churchmen were murdered. There were words on the wall, police painted that over. Some authority did not want that seen. A government spokesman was furious when Bob quoted him word for word. That was bravery.
The Herald had a daily dose of bomb warnings. “VAYAN AL DIARITO INGLÉS, son tan locos que seguro que publican algo.” In the midst of that, and usually on Friday nights (weekend editorials, weekly round-up time), I brought liver paté I made at home. Bob took a bottle of Reserva San Juan, Maggie Porta took sliced bread so she could make toast in the kitchenette. And we celebrated the end of each week.
The THIRD narrow escape. Time to go. Bob said no, “I need you,” then apologised. A friend of Bob’s advised him that I was a terrorist. Charming. -
I owe this life of mine, and those of my three children, to Micaela. To Bob Cox.
And I should pay tribute to Stuart Russell, at Reuters, the “fixture” each day. He did not survive cancer.
Finally, I owe a debt of a recognition of my colleagues of those days.