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Historical perspectives

When Reuters almost got it wrong

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

Sarajevo – June 28, 1914

100 years have now passed since those two fateful pistol shots rang out in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. Of the events at Sarajevo that day it could certainly be said that “the rest is history.”

To begin with, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife Sophie by “Young Bosnia” activist Gavrilo Princip, age 20, seemed of importance solely to the countries and states directly involved. The objective of Princip and his group was to separate off Austro-Hungary’s southern Slav provinces so that they could be combined into a Greater Serbia or Yugoslavia. But – like a collapsing house of cards –this set off a series of events and alliances which, once begun, was unstoppable. Little more than a month later, Europe was embroiled in the Great War.

Assassination or Grand Prix results?

Grand Prix Racegoers at Longchamp, Paris
Racegoers at Longchamp, Paris

I am sad to recount that, on Sunday June 28, 1914, the assassination almost caught Reuters on the hop. Reuters correspondents had been covering the growing international tensions for some years and should have been prepared. But the Reuters sub-editor who took down the call was geared up to expect something quite different; the result of that afternoon’s Grand Prix horse-race at Longchamp near Paris which was run on a Sunday.

Thus, when news of the assassination was telephoned to London as received by Reuters in Paris from the French agency, Havas, the sub-editor too readily assumed it to be the result of the race. Luck was on Reuters side. In the nick of time a more senior editor glanced at the message about to be transmitted to subscribers:

The result of the Grand Prix at Paris this afternoon was 1. Sarajevo; 2. Ferdinand; 3. Assassine.

Acting quickly, he stopped its publication on the wire. A correct version of the assassination report was then issued.

The initial message as issued by Reuters seems to have vanished. It seems never to have appeared in any daily newspapers. This is probably because the Archduke and his wife were declared dead at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning (UK time). Had this happened on any other day of the week the Reuters telegram would have been published verbatim in the evening papers. But on a Sunday, no evening papers were published. By the following day (Monday, June 29), torrents of further information had been received, much of it also coming from Reuters. The initial snap was now old news.

The speed of news

The story begs a further (rather-curious) question: By 1914, was important news really taking three hours to travel between Sarajevo and London?

The Paris Grand Prix was run at 14.00 ( Paris time); 13.00 ( London time). Thus it would be reasonable to guess that the Reuters sub-editor was standing-by for the result at c.13.30 (London time).  I understand that Belgrade, the Serbian capital, did not learn of the assassination until the evening. Perhaps one of my readers will know more (let us know @ThomsonReuters if you do).

On June 28th, 1914 – by the skin of its teeth – Reuters avoided becoming famous for a ludicrous mistake. By the skin of its teeth also, it survived the Great War and was still busily reporting on November 11, 1918.

But that will have to be the subject of another blog (or blogs).

Oh yes. The result of the 1914 Grand Prix de Paris was: 1. Sarandapale; 2. La Farina; 3. Durbar

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