A remarkable row broke out in April 1845 between the organisers of a grand banquet to honour Sir Henry Pottinger, the first governor of Hong Kong, who had returned to his native town after returning from his time in the Far East.
The row between the organisers of the banquet and the press evolved from the organisers “very singular attempt” to exclude reporters from the dinner.
When the News Letter had challenged the exclusion the editor was informed “of this most strange and unusual determination” of the committee to allow reporters only from the Northern Whig and the Commercial Chronicle and that “none should be granted to the other town journals”.
Reflecting on the decision the News Letter commented: “We felt certainly no little astonished and indignant at this intelligence. The slight cast upon the News Letter, the oldest newspaper in Belfast, and so associated with the history of the town, and its many time honoured and prosperous families, was alone sufficient to excite our indignation; but the attempt to exclude not ourselves only, but the whole of our town contemporaries, except the two mentioned, we felt to be not only insulting, but a wanton act of injustice to the press of Belfast.”
Accordingly a meeting of the editors of the Belfast newspapers was immediately called and the News Letter “rejoiced” that its “contemporaries” were of “the same mind with us in this matter”.
The meeting was held in the News Letter office, it was attended by James Alexander Henderson of the News Letter, James Simms of the Northern Whig, John C Anderson of the Belfast Chronicle, George Troup of the Banner Of Ulster, Neal McDevitt of the Vindicator, James Withers of the Ulster Conservative and Robert George Harper of the Protestant Journal.
Of this meeting the News Letter noted: “While all strongly condemned the resolution of the committee, we feel bound to state, and to their honour be it recorded, that none more promptly and warmly protested against the resolution, than the editors of the Chronicle and the Whig.”
At the meeting the following resolution was unanimously adopted: “That we owe it to our dignity, and to the independence of the press, to express our unqualified disapproval of the conduct of the committee managing the dinner to Sir Henry Pottinger, in invidiously excluding the large proportion of the reporters of the press; and that we feel called upon to declare our determination not to report the proceedings, unless admittance be given to reporters from all of the Belfast newspaper press.”
It was also resolved: “That Messrs Simms, Anderson, and Troup, be requested to wait on the committee of management of the Pottinger dinner, with the above resolution, in order to learn the final decision of that committee on this subject.”
The resolutions were conjointly signed James Simms, editor of the Northern Whig, and James A Henderson, editor of the Belfast News Letter.
The resolutions from the Belfast press prompted a speedy reply and a climb down from the committee which was received on the same day as the press resolutions had been agreed.
Despatched by Mr S Thomson it stated: “I have been requested by the committee for managing the dinner to Sir Henry Pottinger, to inform you, that, previous to receiving your communication relative to admitting the press, arrangement had been made for accommodating one reporter from each of the following papers: Northern Whig, Vindicator, Commercial Chronicle, News Letter, Banner of Ulster and the two weekly papers; and further to say, that tickets of admission for those of the above, not already supplied, may be had by applying to Mr Johnston, at the entrance to the music hall.”
That should have been the end of the matter and indeed the News Letter stated that it had been hoped that “the unpleasant affair” had ended and accordingly the newspaper resolved “for the sake of the distinguished guest, we determined to make no public allusion to it”.
But, added the News Letter, the “strange an unaccountable” treatment of reporters at the dinner rendered the silence of the press impossible.
When the reporters reached the music hall to attend the banquet they were “thrust apart from the company” into a place “most inconvenient for them to take notes”.
The News Letter noted: “The tables set before them were narrow and exceedingly ill-placed.”
For about half an hour after the dinner had commenced, “and not until the second course had been introduced”, were any “eatables” offered to the reporters.
The News Letter commented: “[And] then, two haisins of cold soup, considered not the more tempting from the fact, that into them had been cast the refuse soup of the already satisfied guests, were placed before the gentlemen of the press. We need scarcely say, that the soup was at once rejected, and ordered away. Two pieces of cold meat – it was determined the reporters should not want for coldness at least – were, after some delay, next produced; and they, also, were very properly discarded. Half an hour succeeded and then two bottles of wine, it was supposed, were laid on the table, but these lay untouched during the evening.”
A further report of the disgraceful treatment of the reporters was provided by he Northern Whig.
It recounted: “And this was the entertainment furnished, by the conductors and providers of the Pottinger dinner, to the reporters for the Belfast press! Some came away to consult if they should not all withdraw. They were induced, upon public grounds, to return; though we certainly could not have complained, if they had refused.
“These simple statements of facts we own we make with feelings of humiliation. It is most unpleasant to know that such conduct could take place in Belfast; and it is to us very galling to find a number of intelligent and respectable men, having an arduous duty to perform, and without whose aid all the business of the night would have been nearly as a blank, so treated.
“In no other place in the United Kingdom could such a thing have occurred; our contemporaries and ourselves will be to blame, if anything of the sort be ever again submitted to. One reason assigned to us for the original intention to exclude a part of the reporters, was economy; as matters have turned out, we think the cost of their entertainment cannot be much.”
The News Letter justified its stance in the matter by stating: “We have referred to this matter at such length, because we deem it to be of great, importance. It concerns the interests of the public; and, we have no doubt, but that it will much engage their attention.
“It is well known, that if, in any way, the press is shackled, the community suffers. Reports of public occurrences are neither to be one sided nor cramped; and it is only by the fair and honourable emulation of’ competing journals that these evils are to be avoided. This emulation should ever be encouraged by all who would uphold an independent and honest press.”