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Of False Political Reports
by [?]

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 Cannae, 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.”

[Footnote 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. ]