‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war’

13 June 2013

Modern journalists not used to the thrills and travails of sending despatches on the telegram and the teleprinter and the telex machine from the back of beyond will not understand the hoo dash ha in today’s papers on the decision of the Bharat sanchar nigam limited bracket open BSNL bracket close to wind up the telegraphic service stop Our sympathies stop para The innocent little tykes probably do not even remember William Randolph Hearst‘s famous telegram to his correspondent that features in the greatest film ever made comma Citizen Kane stop para 

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In The Pioneer, the paper’s editor and member of Parliament Chandan Mitra goes down memory lane:

“When I became a journalist, working with The Statesman in Kolkata, I had to sometimes send my reports that way. Press persons were issued P&T cards which enabled us to file copies by telegram and telex (a relatively new innovation) and even make trunk calls to the headquarters without paying cash as the cards were postpaid by the organisation.

“Reporting on terrorism in Punjab in 1984, one evening I reached Ludhiana to find the telex machine at the GPO out of order. Given the urgency of the report, I was left with no option but dictate my entire story to the grumpy telegraph operator whose machine went tappity-tap to the Morse code.

“Later, the News Editor said my story had run into an extravagant 22 sheets with many undecipherable words (the reluctant babu’s faulty English to blame!) and took over three hours to retype!

“District correspondents too often filed this way. As Chief of the Times of India News Service in the late 1980s, it was my lot to sort out telegram sheets, each line pasted on the form, and punctuation marks spelt out.

“A joke of telegram’s nascent years was that in Britain stingy businessmen found a way to beat the cost by sending only punctuation marks, which were free (that is, not counted as a word). So, one shipper from London sent a telegram to his shipping agent thus (;).

“Spelt out, it reached the agent as semicolon.

“The agent replied next day, saying (:).

In case you haven’t figured this out, the message was “see my coal on” and the reply “coal on”!

There is also the delightful but possibly apocryphal story of a foreign correspondent based in the far-east who, when laid off by his paper, got the operator to punch and send the entire Hong Kong telephone directory by telegram so that the “bastards back home”—the accountants—would learn a lesson.

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Read the full article: 160 years on, the telegram retires

Also read: An urgent telegram to Shri Rupert Murdoch

How Chandan Mitra has his halwa and hogs it too

The best editor The Pioneer never had?

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