Tuesday, June 28, 2022

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-09-2017 00:50

An imperfect history, as told through a newspaper’s pages

After marking 140 anniversaries by writing in the future imperfect, it is now sadly time to use the past tense for the Buenos Aires Herald. Even after being turned into a weekly last November, there still would have been a 141st anniversary edition yesterday because it would have coincided with our single day of publication – Friday. But we missed that appointment by just six weeks. 

Instead of my Economic Questions column (which will return next week), I have been asked to write for yesterday’s anniversary based on my own experience, which obviously covers the last four decades rather than the newspaper’s first century. 

As a historian, I would love to have followed the great events covered during the early stages of a newspaper founded in the year (1876) of Custer’s Last Stand and Queen Victoria’s coronation as Empress of India – even if daily regularity only came with World War I when the Anglo-Argentine community needed to know the latest about its volunteers on the Western Front.  Epic news coverage then – 100 years ago today the dawn of Bolshevism was two months away, Mata Hari was awaiting execution next month while headlines were dominated by the blood and mud of Ypres. 

For pretty much the first half of the Herald’s existence, it thrived alongside the Anglo-Argentine community in a prosperous Argentina fed by European immigration – a wealth not necessarily shared by conventillo tenement dwellers or farm hands but Herald readers generally had a good life. Interwar community life was sufficiently diversified – thus for example, there was not one but six British engineering societies (civil, railway, mechanical, hydraulic, electrical, etc. each had their own) – to provide plenty of raw material for the newspaper, largely ignoring the petty sordid world of local politics while business was a private matter.

The intensely recorded rise of Juan and Eva Perón should have been a fascinating chapter but the Herald came pretty quickly under the cosh. This was when the newspaper started first writing between the lines – and not only because of political repression but also the tyranny of social conventions. Thus the example of Juan Duarte being “suicided” is famous but priestly perverts also lurked back then even if protected from today’s lavish media splashes. In those times there was apparently an Anglican curate running amok among the choirboys who had to be repatriated to England – the Herald’s oblique way of getting this story across was to report that he had been “sent home to widen the circle of his acquaintances” (as recalled by the late newspaper veteran Toby Rowland). 

Both the 1960s (a good decade at times but also carrying the seeds of the next) and the nefarious 1970s were experienced in full by Robert Cox, who must surely be the exclusive voice for that period. I have no basis for judging how I would have faced up to a military dictatorship countering a terrorist challenge with mass disappearances but at least twice in my youth I was in situations of unacceptable social violence seriously endangering others, responding with what might be considered heroism in the one and ducking out of the other (backing up a friend who had already taken a stand and having had something to drink were factors in the former case). My contention is thus that nobody knows how they are going to react in extreme situations – people are equally capable of performing well above and far below their own expectations of themselves. 

The South Atlantic conflict of 1982 (one of the very few wars in history where the death toll stayed within three digits) was a lesser dimension of horror but extremely sensitive for the Anglo-Argentine community and the newspaper with divided loyalties in both – distribution was “patriotically” interrupted (readers bought the newspaper at the Herald office) and Editor James Neilson had a brief exile in Montevideo. I joined just 10 months later.

A far cry from this year’s six-strong weekly – three fully occupied floors in Azopardo street with our own administration, printing-press and advertising and posts like librarian and office boy alongside a populous newsroom and a “cut and paste” workshop. Made money too but only around this time of the year when most advertisers used the anniversary supplement to compensate their previous absence. The feeling then was that the newspaper would last if not forever, at least another century. 

The staff was a good balance between solid reporters like the late Doug Tweedale and George Hatch maintaining the human rights heritage of the previous decade and community stalwarts like Rowland (given a gold watch in the 45th year of his Rural Society Palermo farm show coverage in the expectation that he would not make it to the 50th, which he did) and the invalid Ronald Hansen who strove to keep the Basil Thomson Ramon Writes humour tradition alive (both were gone by the end of the decade). The junta trial of 1985 and the Army mutinies of 1987-90 kept human rights issues alive.

Between the 1989 hyperinflation and the 2001-2002 meltdown were the convertibility years, which almost killed Buenos Aires as a destination for foreign correspondents because the stable exchange rate simultaneously made for a lack of news and high prices. With Carlos Menem’s privatisations increasing foreign investment almost by definition, the Herald partly filled the news vacuum with a more commercial slant for the first time in years. 

The boom was already fading in the mid-1990s but two factors kept structures almost intact (apart from an across-the-board 20-percent staff reduction in 1997) until well into the 21st century – the leadership of Andrew Graham-Yooll (after ending an 18-year British exile in 1994) and the loyalty of Charleston owner Peter Manigault (with the authority to surmount boardroom doubts about this distant and marginal venture) until his death in 2004. 

Perhaps mercifully I am running out of space to describe the final decade. The unfortunate sale into the wrong local hands was fully described by Robert Cox in the first number of the Buenos Aires Times. I cannot dodge my responsibilities as the main editorial writer throughout that period, seeking to modify the line wherever possible. In many ways I felt like the Claude Rains character in Casablanca, the Vichy French police officer caught on the wrong side of history in a machine alien to his own background and trying to make the best of a bad job. But I would also argue that being part of an artificially sustained pro-government media group prolonged our life beyond what market laws would have allowed. 

The Herald’s anniversary was yesterday – the future, perfect or imperfect, begins today.   

* Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.


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