- News and the British World: The Emergence of an Imperial Press System
The British Empire is currently fashionable in Victorian studies, particularly the Empire's ambiguous consequences for the metropole, a perspective traditional imperial history tended to neglect. As for imperialism's impact on subject populations, the guiding assumption of postcolonial studies remains that this was largely negative. Such assumptions are most easily sustained with reference to Britain's Asian and African empire, but that wasn't the part of the empire ordinary nineteenth-century Britons were referring to when they spoke of "the colonies." They meant those climatically temperate and economically privileged parts of the empire where ordinary Britons went in large numbers to start a new life, and to stay: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the somewhat special case of South Africa. This immigration rose sharply in the late nineteenth century to peak in the years just before the first World War. It created new sorts of imperial bonds, ties of communication and interest that were reciprocal to a far greater degree than ever before, thanks to undersea cable technology that permitted almost instant telegraphic communication, and the mass circulation press that was its heaviest user.
Simon Potter's subject is the creation of an "imperial press system" between 1876 and 1922. He calls his book "a study in imperial integration" (1), and it is a valuable corrective to many postcolonial assumptions. Students of Victorian periodicals can profit from it. Firmly grounded in extensive original archival research on four continents, [End Page 72] Potter's work shows how the periodization of "Victorian" is particularly inadequate for the history of the British Empire. The Boer War, often invoked by scholars to reinforce an "end of an era" effect for narrative purposes, emerges here as an impetus for what Potter calls "constructive imperialism," a new phase of imperialism that found considerable support in the settler colonies (now preferring to be called Dominions) and that was actively promoted in both the British and colonial press.
The high capital costs of the telegraph cables created natural monopolies, culminating in the emergence by 1873 of a single British company that handled half the world's cable traffic. The high rates consequent on such concentrated pricing power were beyond the means of most individual papers, and this in turn promoted the growth of news-gathering agencies such as Reuters, which created an international network of journalists and sold news under contract to the press throughout the British Empire. High telegraphic rates also encouraged the emergence of local news cooperatives and combines in the various colonies. Potter is a well-informed guide to the workings of this complex and often conflicted web of relationships, in which profit and patriotism danced a delicate minuet. Thus his book is not about "public opinion" concerning the Empire as "reflected" in the editorial content of the metropolitan or colonial press, nor is it about the heroic struggle of the colonial press to cast off the cultural and political shackles of the Mother Country. It is rather about reciprocities and resistances in the structure and high politics of imperial communications. As Potter usefully reminds us, today's national historiographies of the various Dominions—now fully independent nations yet members of that Cheshire Cat–like body, the Commonwealth—tend to be understandably Whiggish, distancing themselves from the cultural and political matrices out of which their nations emerged. However, until at least 1914 most of Australia's, Canada's and New Zealand's white inhabitants were arguably more British in their self-constructed identities than were the British themselves. The remarkable number of South African (or Boer) War memorials in Canadian (and presumably Australasian) small towns, commemorating the large contingents of local men who volunteered to fight and die in the distant conflict of 1899–1902, testifies to the compatibility of national and imperial identities.
Potter examines imperial press coverage of that war with a critical eye to J. A. Hobson's claim that the war was largely the product of a...