Earliest champion of press freedom

By admonishing Governors, warning them furiously of their faults and telling them disagreeable truths, James Skill Buckingham set the gold standard for journalism.

By Author Dr CV Narasimha Reddi   |   Published: 5th Jan 2017   1:21 am Updated: 5th Jan 2017   8:09 pm

Two dominating personalities of great vision – James Silk Buckingham and Raja Rammohan Roy – appeared in the Indian press in the early 19th century. They together not only fought for the liberal press in India but also for the abolition of Sati. Jawaharlal Nehru described Buckingham as, “among the earliest champions of the freedom of the press in India”. He is now a forgotten hero in Indian journalism without any memorial.

Born on August 25, 1786, Buckingham was basically a mariner. In June 1818, he was commanding the ship Humayoon Sha, when he was ordered to proceed to the coast of Madagascar carrying slaves. Rather than embark on such obnoxious quest, a liberal Buckingham surrendered his command in protest. Due to this gesture, he was held in high esteem by citizens of then Calcutta. His two volumes — ‘Travels in Palestine’ and ‘Travels Among the Arab Tribes’ — and his travel impressions published in Calcutta journals attracted the attention of John Palmer, head of a well-known mercantile house who felt the need for a journal to voice the problems of merchants.

Editor’s Functions
About two centuries ago, on Friday, October 2, 1818, Calcutta Journal with James Silk Buckingham as the editor made its first appearance as a bi-weekly. Later, it became the first daily from Calcutta. He described the functions of the editor as “to admonish Governors of their duties, to warn them furiously of their faults and to tell disagreeable truths”. It would be a chronicle of political, commercial and literary news and views declared, Buckingham.

Buckingham laid emphasis on news of local conditions, the life of the people and constructive criticism. He published the extracts from the home newspapers, and being a Whig, the extracts, however, reflected Whig views. The carelessness of the police and the fact that certain Europeans were a constant nuisance in the streets of Calcutta during nights were fearlessly pointed out.

Letters to the Editor column was a notable feature of Calcutta Journal and they were in strange contrast to what used to appear in the earlier newspapers, especially in Hicky’s Gazette. He had thrown open this column to anyone who had grievances to ventilate. In one of the letters to Editor, Calcutta Journal published a letter from a military correspondent who not only praised Buckingham’s service for the good cause of India but also criticised the question of promotions in the Army. At this letter, the government was furious and having found the writer’s name as Lt Col Robinson of His Majesty 24th Regiment of Nagpur, he was ordered to quit India. That was how the press was suppressed.

In another encounter, Buckingham criticised the appointment of Dr Jameson in four positions, as superintendent of Medical School, Secretary of the Medical Board, Surgeon of the Free School and clerk for controlling the expenditure of stationery. Lord Hastings, who was liberal Governor-General, took no action on Buckingham.

The editorials in Calcutta Journal concentrated on the omissions and commissions of the government policies in regard to military and public affairs. Buckingham gave prominence to news and views in Bengali and Persian journals and published a summary of such news in his own journal. He did not spare in his attacks even the Chief Justice, the Governor of Madras and Lord Bishop of Calcutta. In 1819, the editor was warned for attacking the Governor of Madras. The paper was described as well-conducted, independent and a clever one to mirror the voice of the people.

Rival Papers
When Calcutta Journal became popular with a circulation of 1,000 copies, then existing papers in Calcutta — Calcutta Gazette, India Gazette, Bengal Hurkaru and Asiatic Mirror — received Calcutta Journal not only with dismay but also launched violent opposition. Unfortunately for Buckingham, the liberal Lord Hastings regime came to an end. John Adam, known as an adamant Adam towards the press, became the officiating Governor-General in 1823.

The tide had turned against Buckingham. Adam appointed former editor of Asiatic Mirror Rev Samuel James Bryce as a clerk of the stationery. Buckingham not only criticised the appointment but also made a sarcastic remark that the knowledge of the clerk of the stationery may be incompatible to the job. Fortified by the support of the Governor-General in Council of East India Company, Adam revoked Buckingham’s licence and deported him to England in 1823. His journal, however, continued to function under the editorship of Sandys, who having been born in India, could not be deported.

In England
While leaving India Buckingham said, “I would lose no time in directing all my personal exertions in another and higher quarter to obtain for my countrymen in India the freedom and independence of mind”. True to his promise, Buckingham started a journal – Oriental Herald and Colonial Review — in London (1824 – 29) and it reproduced articles from Calcutta Journal in the fight for freedom of the press and other problems in India.

Buckingham became an MP of British Parliament in 1832. He not only opposed the renewal of East India Company’s charter but also urged for an elected legislature and advocated for Indian rule for Indians.

In fact, Buckingham was truly the father of Indian journalism just as AO Hume was the founder of the Indian National Congress and the father of Indian nationalism. At the time of his death in London (June 30, 1855), Buckingham was at work on his autobiography.

(The author is Editor, Public Relations Voice, and former director – I&PR Department. He can be contacted at [email protected])