Agencies of disruption

“Heidi Tworek’s shrewd, erudite and timely News from Germany is a work of historical analysis that can also be read as a corrective to the dangerous hysteria over the information games—fake news and all the rest—currently being played over the internet.”

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The Reuters building, New York (Eternalsleeper CC BY-SA 3.0)

Heidi Tworek’s shrewd, erudite and timely News from Germany is a work of historical analysis that can also be read as a corrective to the dangerous hysteria over the information games—fake news and all the rest—currently being played over the internet.

The tale she tells is, in no small part, an account of how a nation that understood more clearly than most how the dissemination of news could be used as a device to project power beyond its borders tried to break its rivals’ (accidental) dominance in this area. For more than half a century, this was, argues Tworek, an assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia, an obsession for “an astonishing array of German politicians, industrialists, military leaders and journalists”.

This book is also the story of innovative technologies disrupting an information order that had itself only been established not so many decades before. And it is a
persuasive demonstration of the value of discovering where “news” comes from (and how it is selected), something as essential during the Google and Facebook ascendancy as it was at the end of the 19th century when the news agencies, notably Britain’s Reuters, France’s Havas and, some way behind, Germany’s Wolff were ruling the wires. Taking advantage, Tworek explains, of

. . . the swift spread of submarine telegraphy . . . news agencies built extensive systems of news collection and became the main bottleneck for creating news from events. They used the telegraph to deliver short messages to as many newspapers as possible.

They were “wholesalers” of news, their clout enhanced by their customers’ weakness. Most newspapers couldn’t afford foreign correspondents. “News agencies,” notes Tworek, “were the easiest way to influence hundreds, or even thousands, of newspapers around the world.” The parallels (which she doesn’t overlook) with a world in which immensely wealthy internet giants compete with resource-starved traditional media are obvious.

“Because historians so often use newspapers as evidence,” Tworek warns, “they have missed how the networks behind the news molded what newspapers reported . . . Understanding news just by looking at newspapers is like trying to understand cotton just by looking at clothes.” Those networks will shape how events are reported (or not) and how they come to be perceived, an opportunity for the unscrupulous that, then as now, could be reinforced by opacity. “Newspapers,” writes Tworek, “often did not list the origins of news items and many readers were more interested in content than source.” As the ability to circulate news grew, so did the ability to hide its origins. “It was often disseminated through businesses or technological networks that disguised their German connections. Sometimes, even newspaper editors did not know” where the news they were printing came from.

Reuters’ early preeminence gave Britain an early, if unplanned, lead in a global contest over the distribution of news, a contest with strategic implications of which it may not even have been fully aware. With stereotypical meticulousness, Germany’s elites analysed what needed doing to close this gap. They concluded, Tworek relates, that “it was more important to control news supply than the daily news cycle”—and then did their best to see that their country caught up.

Wireless telegraphy and then radio allowed Germany to go a long way to achieving just that. Despite something of a cable race, in 1913 more than half the world’s installed base was still in British hands. But wireless bypassed cable and, unlike cable, could not be cut, although wireless towers could be (and were) destroyed. During the First World War, Berlin’s Transocean news agency transmitted “German” news across the world, its effectiveness increased by the way it was relabelled (sometimes simply as “Overseas News Agency”) and thus masked before it was reprinted. In a reminder of the continuity of German communications policy from regime to regime, Transocean continued to be a formidable presence under both Weimar and, even more so, the Third Reich. It was also, ironically, the agency that broke the news of the D-Day landings.

When radio was added to the palette, it both appealed to and alarmed Weimar’s authorities. It was used to promote Germany’s interests internationally, initially through Eildienst. Eildienst was a state-controlled news agency with origins in the era of wireless telegraphy, which began distributing economic news to subscribers with radio receivers specially adapted to receive it. In terms of domestic policy, this was seen, a little optimistically, as something that could help to restore much-needed economic stability. Looking further afield, Eildienst’s Europradio was regarded as an adjunct, Tworek explains, to efforts to reintegrate Mitteleuropa “into German economic circles and create a Central European economic information realm”.

So far so good, but Germany’s leaders knew that radio could not be confined to a subscription-only economic data service and worried what this seductive new medium might mean for their fragile new democracy. Conveniently, Eildienst paved the way for more general broadcasting while its legal, technical and bureaucratic infrastructure provided the mechanisms by which radio could be kept on a leash. It was to be regional, politically neutral, and focused on education and entertainment. The only news was to be supplied by news agencies, through a system intended to ensure impartiality.

This book is, naturally enough, concerned with the manner in which the information wars were fought not only by Germany, but within Germany. No less naturally, the industrialist Alfred Hugenberg is one of its dark stars. He used his media empire (including the increasingly influential Telegraph Union news agency) to push a nationalist agenda, which although unaffiliated to any particular party, helped foster an intellectual climate in which the Nazis could flourish.

Weimar’s disintegration was driven by factors more potent than anything that could have been conjured up over the airwaves. Indeed, its elites may well, Tworek suggests, have overestimated the extent to which the manipulation of news moves public opinion, a subversive idea that, in a more general context, she repeats elsewhere in this book. But overestimated or not, this fear of the uses to which “news” could be put, meant that the machinery that Berlin installed to control its distribution—all in the name of preserving democracy—was ready for Nazi Germany to use to very different ends, which, as Tworek illustrates, it did. 

Weimar’s own goal is worth remembering. We too live in a time when legislation to muzzle free expression on a revolutionary new media is being introduced in order, allegedly, to protect liberal democracy. A Corbyn or a Le Pen could not, if their moment came, be trusted with the power that such laws bestow. But nor, for that matter, can the supposedly respectable governments now running much of Western Europe. With the wrong sort of posted or tweeted opinion already a matter for the police they have long since forgotten what free speech is meant to be.

 

News from Germany: The Competition to Control World Communications, 1900–1945
By Heidi J.S. Tworek
Harvard, 344pp, £21.95