Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of False Political Reports.

“A false report, if believed during three days, may be of great service to a government.” This political maxim has been ascribed to Catharine de’ Medici, an adept in coups d’état, the arcana imperii! Between solid lying and disguised truth there is a difference known to writers skilled in “the art of governing mankind by deceiving them;” as politics, ill-understood, have been defined, and as, indeed, all party-politics are. These forgers prefer to use the truth disguised to the gross fiction. When the real truth can no longer be concealed, then they can confidently refer to it; for they can still explain and obscure, while they secure on their side the party whose cause they have advocated. A curious reader of history may discover the temporary and sometimes the lasting advantages of spreading rumours designed to disguise, or to counteract the real state of things. Such reports, set a going, serve to break down the sharp and fatal point of a panic, which might instantly occur; in this way the public is saved from the horrors of consternation, and the stupefaction of despair. These rumours give a breathing time to prepare for the disaster, which is doled out cautiously; and, as might be shown, in some cases these first reports have left an event in so ambiguous a state, that a doubt may still arise whether these reports were really destitute of truth! Such reports, once printed, enter into history, and sadly perplex the honest historian. Of a battle fought in a remote situation, both parties for a long time, at home, may dispute the victory after the event, and the pen may prolong what the sword had long decided. This has been no unusual circumstance; of several of the most important battles on which the fate of Europe has hung, were we to rely on some reports of the time, we might still doubt of the manner of the transaction. A skirmish has been often raised into an arranged battle, and a defeat concealed in an account of the killed and wounded, while victory has been claimed by both parties! Villeroy, in all his encounters with Marlborough, always sent home despatches by which no one could suspect that he was discomfited. Pompey, after his fatal battle with Cæsar, sent letters to all the provinces and cities of the Romans, describing with greater courage than he had fought, so that a report generally prevailed that Caesar had lost the battle: Plutarch informs us, that three hundred writers had described the battle of Marathon. Many doubtless had copied their predecessors; but it would perhaps have surprised us to have observed how materially some differed in their narratives.

In looking over a collection of manuscript letters of the times of James the First, I was struck by the contradictory reports of the result of the famous battle of Lutzen, so glorious and so fatal to Gustavus Adolphus; the victory was sometimes reported to have been obtained by the Swedes; but a general uncertainty, a sort of mystery, agitated the majority of the nation, who were staunch to the protestant cause. This state of anxious suspense lasted a considerable time. The fatal truth gradually came out in reports changing in their progress; if the victory was allowed, the death of the Protestant Hero closed all hope! The historian of Gustavus Adolphus observes on this occasion, that “Few couriers were better received than those who conveyed the accounts of the king’s death to declared enemies or concealed ill-wishers; nor did the report greatly displease the court of Whitehall, where the ministry, as it usually happens in cases of timidity, had its degree of apprehensions for fear the event should not be true; and, as I have learnt from good authority, imposed silence on the news-writers, and intimated the same to the pulpit in case any funeral encomium might proceed from that quarter.” Although the motive assigned by the writer, that of the secret indisposition of the cabinet of James the First towards the fortunes of Gustavus, is to me by no means certain, unquestionably the knowledge of this disastrous event was long kept back by “a timid ministry,” and the fluctuating reports probably regulated by their designs.

The same circumstance occurred on another important event in modern history, where we may observe the artifice of party writers in disguising or suppressing the real fact. This was the famous battle of the Boyne. The French catholic party long reported that Count Lauzun had won the battle, and that William the Third was killed. Bussy Rabutin in some memoirs, in which he appears to have registered public events without scrutinising their truth, says, “I chronicled this account according as the first reports gave out; when at length the real fact reached them, the party did not like to lose their pretended victory.” Père Londel, who published a register of the times, which is favourably noticed in the “Nouvelles de la République des Lettres,” for 1699, has recorded the event in this deceptive manner: “The Battle of the Boyne in Ireland; Schomberg is killed there at the head of the English.” This is “an equivocator!” The writer resolved to conceal the defeat of James’s party, and cautiously suppresses any mention of a victory, but very carefully gives a real fact, by which his readers would hardly doubt of the defeat of the English! We are so accustomed to this traffic of false reports, that we are scarcely aware that many important events recorded in history were in their day strangely disguised by such mystifying accounts. This we can only discover by reading private letters written at the moment. Bayle has collected several remarkable absurdities of this kind, which were spread abroad to answer a temporary purpose, but which had never been known to us had these contemporary letters not been published. A report was prevalent in Holland in 1580, that the kings of France and Spain and the Duke of Alva were dead; a felicity which for a time sustained the exhausted spirits of the revolutionists. At the invasion of the Spanish Armada, Burleigh spread reports of the thumb-screws, and other instruments of torture, which the Spaniards had brought with them, and thus inflamed the hatred of the nation. The horrid story of the bloody Colonel Kirk is considered as one of those political forgeries to serve the purpose of blackening a zealous partisan.

False reports are sometimes stratagems of war. When the chiefs of the League had lost the battle at Ivry, with an army broken and discomfited they still kept possession of Paris merely by imposing on the inhabitants all sorts of false reports, such as the death of the king of Navarre at the fortunate moment when victory, undetermined on which side to incline, turned for the Leaguers; and they gave out false reports of a number of victories they had elsewhere obtained. Such tales, distributed in pamphlets and ballads among a people agitated by doubts and fears, are gladly believed; flattering their wishes or soothing their alarms, they contribute to their ease, and are too agreeable to allow time for reflection.

The history of a report creating a panic may be traced in the Irish insurrection, in the curious memoirs of James the Second. A forged proclamation of the Prince of Orange was set forth by one Speke, and a rumour spread that the Irish troops were killing and burning in all parts of the kingdom! A magic-like panic instantly ran through the people, so that in one quarter of the town of Drogheda they imagined that the other was filled with blood and ruin. During this panic pregnant women miscarried, aged persons died with terror, while the truth was, that the Irish themselves were disarmed and dispersed, in utter want of a meal or a lodging!

In the unhappy times of our civil wars under Charles the First, the newspapers and the private letters afford specimens of this political contrivance of false reports of every species. No extravagance of invention to spread a terror against a party was too gross, and the city of London was one day alarmed that the royalists were occupied by a plan of blowing up the river Thames, by an immense quantity of powder warehoused at the river-side; and that there existed an organised though invisible brotherhood of many thousands with consecrated knives; and those who hesitated to give credit to such rumours were branded as malignants, who took not the danger of the parliament to heart. Forged conspiracies and reports of great but distant victories were inventions to keep up the spirit of a party, but oftener prognosticated some intended change in the government. When they were desirous of augmenting the army, or introducing new garrisons, or using an extreme measure with the city, or the royalists, there was always a new conspiracy set afloat; or when any great affair was to be carried in parliament, letters of great victories were published to dishearten the opposition, and infuse additional boldness in their own party. If the report lasted only a few days, it obtained its purpose, and verified the observation of Catharine de’ Medici. Those politicians who raise such false reports obtain their end: like the architect who, in building an arch, supports it with circular props and pieces of timber, or any temporary rubbish, till he closes the arch; and when it can support itself, he throws away the props! There is no class of political lying which can want for illustration if we consult the records of our civil wars; there we may trace the whole art in all the nice management of its shades, its qualities, and its more complicated parts, from invective to puff, and from inuendo to prevarication! we may admire the scrupulous correction of a lie which they had told, by another which they are telling! and triple lying to overreach their opponents. Royalists and Parliamentarians were alike; for, to tell one great truth, “the father of lies” is of no party!1

As “nothing is new under the sun,” so this art of deceiving the public was unquestionably practised among the ancients. Syphax sent Scipio word that he could not unite with the Romans, but, on the contrary, had declared for the Carthaginians. The Roman army were then anxiously waiting for his expected succours: Scipio was careful to show the utmost civility to these ambassadors, and ostentatiously treated them with presents, that his soldiers might believe they were only returning to hasten the army of Syphax to join the Romans. Livy censures the Roman consul, who, after the defeat at Cannæ, told the deputies of the allies the whole loss they had sustained: “This consul,” says Livy, “by giving too faithful and open an account of his defeat, made both himself and his army appear still more contemptible.” The result of the simplicity of the consul was, that the allies, despairing that the Romans would ever recover their losses, deemed it prudent to make terms with Hannibal. Plutarch tells an amusing story, in his way, of the natural progress of a report which was contrary to the wishes of the government; the unhappy reporter suffered punishment as long as the rumour prevailed, though at last it proved true. A stranger landing from Sicily, at a barber’s shop, delivered all the particulars of the defeat of the Athenians; of which, however, the people were yet uninformed. The barber leaves untrimmed the reporter’s beard, and flies away to vent the news in the city, where he told the Archons what he had heard. The whole city was thrown into a ferment. The Archons called an assembly of the people, and produced the luckless barber, who in confusion could not give any satisfactory account of the first reporter. He was condemned as a spreader of false news, and a disturber of the public quiet; for the Athenians could not imagine but that they were invincible! The barber was dragged to the wheel and tortured, till the disaster was more than confirmed. Bayle, referring to this story, observes, that had the barber reported a victory, though it had proved to be false, he would not have been punished; a shrewd observation, which occurred to him from his recollection of the fate of Stratocles. This person persuaded the Athenians to perform a public sacrifice and thanksgiving for a victory obtained at sea, though he well knew at the time that the Athenian fleet had been totally defeated. When the calamity could no longer be concealed, the people charged him with being an impostor: but Stratocles saved his life and mollified their anger by the pleasant turn he gave the whole affair. “Have I done you any injury?” said he. “Is it not owing to me that you have spent three days in the pleasures of victory?” I think that this spreader of good, but fictitious news, should have occupied the wheel of the luckless barber, who had spread bad but true news; for the barber had no intention of deception, but Stratocles had; and the question here to be tried, was not the truth or the falsity of the reports, but whether the reporters intended to deceive their fellow-citizens? The “Chronicle” and the “Post” must be challenged on such a jury, and all the race of news-scribes, whom Patin characterises as hominum genus audacissimum mendacissimum avidissimum. Latin superlatives are too rich to suffer a translation. But what Patin says in his Letter 356 may be applied: “These writers insert in their papers things they do not know, and ought not to write. It is the same trick that is playing which was formerly played; it is the very same farce, only it is exhibited by new actors. The worst circumstance, I think, in this is, that this trick will continue playing a long course of years, and that the public suffer a great deal too much by it.”

1 One of the most absurd reports that ever frightened private society was that which prevailed in Paris at the end of the seventeenth century. It was, that the Jesuits used a poisoned snuff which they gave to their opponents, with the fashionable politeness of the day in “offering a pinch;” and which for a time deterred the custom.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37