Presenting a 100 year old trend!
By Dilip Chaware
The public would like to believe that that no self-respecting journalist becomes a tool for some political, business or commercial interest. Media persons, too, like to flaunt their ‘impartial’ and ‘incorruptible’ credentials. Still, clandestinely, many serve the interests of certain individuals, corporates or groups. Those within the media are aware of such operators but keep mum.
Similarly, the ones actually lobbying never admit that she or he is working for a particular interest. Against the backdrop of the present media-related expose and the subsequent outrage in India, it will be interesting to read about the lobbying done by an American editor about a century ago, though for an altogether different motive. Thus, if some journalists are doing lobbying today, albeit surreptitiously, one can only console oneself by saying that the profession has come a full circle, indeed.
‘Editor as Lobbyist’ is a chapter in the book, “My Twenty-Five Years in China” written by famous journalist John B. Powell. The book was published in 1945 by the Macmillan Company of New York after Powell returned to the US for good in 1942. Powell first went to China in 1917. This is the story of those 25 years, during which he edited and published the China Weekly Review, became managing director of the China Press and was the Far Eastern correspondent for several American and British newspapers. He covered the civil wars in China, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the early years of Second World War. His vivid description of the events before and after Pearl Harbour based on first-hand information earned him all-round plaudits. Powell was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese at that time. The book is full of interesting events and anecdotes. One of them relates to Powell’s performance as a ‘lobbyist’ for the US. But he was not condemned for doing this. On the other hand, his contribution gave a great boost to the American industry. Powell has described his ‘lobbying’ effort with utmost transparency since he had nothing to hide. In fact, he was proud doing it for his country.
After the Review became self-sufficient, Powell decided to undertake a trip to the US for ‘establishing advertising contacts’ in 1920. Before his departure, he was invited by the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce for a farewell dinner. Many prominent Americans turned up for the dinner at which a strange request was made to Powell. He was asked to “go to Washington and put through a China Trade Act, providing federal incorporation for American concerns doing business in the Far East.” He was assured that his hotel expenses in Washington would be defrayed by the Chamber. From the tone of the book, it is obvious that neither Powell nor the Chamber felt that anything improper was happening in asking him to ‘lobby’ for them.
In the US, Powell arranged to meet the President-elect, Warren Harding. When he explained the purpose of the call, Harding promised to help him and lived up to his word. The object of the meeting was to pass a bill through Congress for adopting the China Trade Act. Powell broached the subject at the Press Club in Washington since he had no firsthand experience of the Capitol. The journalists laughed at him and some veterans explained that Washington was full of people who had come there ‘to get a bill through Congress.’ They (the lobbyists) expected it to happen in a few weeks. However, they had stayed on and on and in many cases, the lobbying job became their sole source of support.
Powell persevered and a ‘hearing’ was held for the bill since Herbert Hoover, who was then secretary of commerce, understood its importance. The proceedings were printed in a special edition of the Congressional Record and its copies were sent to chambers of commerce by Powell to arouse their interest. He was successful in achieving this but unwittingly, he was instrumental in sparking off a war between the State and Commerce departments since both wanted credit for the legislation. However, the bill again was held up due to Washington’s typical style of functioning. Powell then had a brilliant idea. He went to Boston, used his business contacts. As a result, Congress received many representations from Boston area, urging it to pass the bill early. Eventually, the bill was passed since many Congressmen had received communications from influential bankers and industrialists about it.
The China Trade Act became of great assistance to small business enterprises. Moreover, it fitted neatly with Hoover’s plans of expansion of American business in China. Powell proudly stated that this was the first federal Act ever passed for the incorporation of commercial companies directly under the government. In later years, practically all important American firms doing business in the Far East were incorporated under this Act. One beneficiary of the Act was the shipping industry. Thanks to the Act, it could compete with British or Japanese shipping lines on an equal footing.
Powell, the accomplished professional, lucidly describes working of the Capitol in those days, the rivalries and jealousies between and within various departments of the administration, the shortcuts to get something done by Congress and the post WW I atmosphere, in general. He has not flinched at all while writing about his lobbying initiative since his conscience was clear. He knew that what he was trying was not for any personal or corporate gain but was for his country. So, nobody challenged him to prove his credentials neither did he pursue the lobbying activity thereafter. As soon as the Act was passed, he was back in China where he stated till 1942. (The author is a veteran journalist)