If we want to know what to think of a fire which has taken place many miles away, but which affects property of our own, we listen to the accounts of dozens of men. We rapidly and instinctively differentiate between these accounts according to the characters of the witnesses. Equally instinctively, we counter-test these accounts by the inherent probabilities of the situation. An honest and sober man tells us that the roof of the house fell in. An imaginative fool, who is also a swindler, assures us that he later saw the roof standing. We remember that the roof was of iron girders covered with wood, and draw this conclusion: That the framework still stands, but that the healing fell through in a mass of blazing rubbish. Our common sense and our knowledge of the situation incline us rather to the bad than to the good witness, and we are right. A man has seen a thing; many men have seen a thing. They testify to that thing, and others who have heard them repeat their testimony.
When people talked of the newspaper owners as "representing public opinion" there was a shadow of reality in such talk, absurd as it seems to us to-day. Though the doctrine that newspapers are "organs of public opinion" was (like most nineteenth century so-called "Liberal" doctrines) falsely stated and hypocritical, it had that element of truth about it—at least, in the earlier phase of newspaper development. There is even a certain savor of truth hanging about it to this day.
There was (and is) a further check upon the artificiality of the news side of the Press; which is that Reality always comes into its own at last. You cannot, beyond a certain limit of time, burke reality. In a word, the Press must always largely deal with what are called "living issues." It can boycott very successfully, and does so, with complete power. But it cannot artificially create unlimitedly the objects of "news."
The idea of the Press as "an organ of public opinion," that is, "an expression of the general thought and will," is not only hypocritical, though it is mainly so. There is still something in the claim. A generation ago there was more, and a couple of generations ago there was more still.
The Free Press gives you the truth; but only in disjointed sections, for it is disparate and it is particularist: it is marked with isolation—and it is so marked because its origin lay in various and most diverse propaganda.
For long the owner of a newspaper had for the most part been content to regard it as a revenue-producing thing. The editor was supreme in matters of culture and opinion. True, the editor, being revocable and poor, could not pretend to full political power. But it was a sort of dual arrangement which yet modified the power of the vulgar owner. The editor became (and now is) a mere mouthpiece of the proprietor. Editors succeed each other rapidly. Of great papers to-day the editor's name of the moment is hardly known—but not a Cabinet Minister that could not pass an examination in the life, vices, vulnerability, fortune, investments and favors of the owner.
Men owning the chief newspapers could be heard boasting of their power in public, as an admitted thing; and as this power was recognized, and as it grew with time and experiment, it bred a reaction. The sheer necessity of getting certain truths told, which these powerful but hidden fellows refused to tell, was a force working at high potential and almost compelling the production of Free Papers side by side with the big Official ones. That is why you nearly always find the Free Press directed by men of intelligence and cultivation—of exceptional intelligence and cultivation. And that is where it contrasts most with its opponents.
It is humiliating enough to be thus governed through a sort of play-acting instead of enjoying the self-government of free men. It is worse far to be governed by a clique of Professional Politicians bamboozling the multitude with pretence of "Democracy." Men had for some time made it a normal thing to read their daily paper; to believe what it told them to be facts, and even in a great measure to accept its opinion. A new voice criticizing by implication, or directly blaming or ridiculing a habit so formed, was necessarily an unpopular voice with the mass of readers, or, if it was not unpopular, that was only because it was negligible.
There are some men who will read anything, however much they differ from its tone and standpoint, in order to obtain more knowledge. The Free Press is rigorously boycotted by the great advertisers, partly, perhaps, because its small circulation renders them contemptuous (because nearly all of them are of the true wooden-headed "business" type that go in herds and never see for themselves where their goods will find the best market); but much more from frank enmity against the existence of any Free Press at all. We must remember that the professional politicians all stand in together when a financial swindle is being carried out. There is no "opposition" in these things. Since it is the very business of the Free Press to expose the falsehood or inanity of the Official Press, one may truly say that a great part of the energies of the Free Press is wasted in this "groping in the dark" to which it is condemned. At the same time, the Economic difficulty prevents the Free Press from paying for information difficult to be obtained, and under these twin disabilities it remains heavily handicapped.
So long as the lawyers support the politicians you have no redress, and only in case of independent action by the lawyers against the politicians, with whom they have come to be so closely identified, have you any opportunity for discussion and free trial. The old idea of the lawyer on the Bench protecting the subject against the arbitrary power of the executive, of the judge independent of the government, has nearly disappeared. You may, of course, commit any crime with impunity if the professional politicians among the lawyers refuse to prosecute. But that is only a negative evil. More serious is the positive side of the affair: that you may conversely be put at the risk of any penalty if they desire to put you at that risk; for the modern secret police being ubiquitous and privileged, their opponent can be decoyed into peril at the will of those who govern, even where the politicians dare not prosecute him for exposing corruption. Once the citizen has been put at this peril—that is, brought into court before the lawyers—whether it shall lead to his actual ruin or no is again in the hands of members of the legal guild; the judge may (it has happened), withstand the politicians (by whom he was made, to whom he often belongs, and upon whom his general position to-day depends). He may stand out or— as nearly always now—he will identify himself with the political system and act as its mouthpiece. It is the prevalence of this last attitude which so powerfully affects the position of the Free Press.
Now, it is evident that, of all forms of civic activity, writing upon the Free Press most directly challenges this arbitrary power. There is not an editor responsible for the management of any Free Paper who will not tell you that a thousand times he has had to consider whether it were possible to tell a particular truth, however important that truth might be. And the fear which restrains him is the fear of destruction which the combination of the professional politician and lawyer holds in its hand. There is not one such editor who could not bear witness to the numerous occasions on which he had, however courageous he might be, to forgo the telling of a truth which was of vital value, because its publication would involve the destruction of the paper he precariously controlled. There is no need to labor all this. The loss of freedom we have gradually suffered is quite familiar to all of us, and it is among the worst of all the mortal symptoms with which our society is affected.
The first thing to note is that the Free Press is not read perfunctorily, but with close attention. The audience it has, if small, is an audience which never misses its pronouncements whether it agrees or disagrees with them, and which is absorbed in its opinions, its statement of fact and its arguments. Look narrowly at History and you will find that all great reforms have started thus: not through a widespread control acting downwards, but through spontaneous energy, local and intensive, acting upwards. You cannot say this of the Official Press, for the simple reason that the Official Press is only of real political interest on rare and brief occasions. It is read of course, by a thousand times more people than those who read the Free Press. But its readers are not gripped by it. They are not, save upon the rare occasions of a particular "scoop" or "boom," informed by it, in the old sense of that pregnant word, informed:—they are not possessed, filled, changed, molded to new action. One of the proofs of this—a curious, a comic, but a most conclusive proof—is the dependence of the great daily papers on the headline. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred retain this and nothing more, because the matter below is but a flaccid expansion of the headline. Now the Headline suggests, of course, a fact (or falsehood) with momentary power. So does the Poster. But the mere fact of dependence on such methods is a proof of the inherent weakness underlying it.
You have, then, at the outset a difference of quality in the reading and in the effect of the reading. The Free Press is really read and digested. The Official Press is not. Its scream is heard, but it provides no food for the mind. One does not contrast the exiguity of a pint of nitric acid in an engraver's studio with the hundreds of gallons of water in the cisterns of his house. No amount of water would bite into the copper. Only the acid does that: and a little of the acid is enough.
The man who tells the truth when his colleagues around him are lying, always enjoys a certain restricted power of prophecy. If there were a general conspiracy to maintain the falsehood that all peers were over six foot high, a man desiring to correct this falsehood would be perfectly safe if he were to say: "I do not know whether the next peer you meet will be over six foot or not, but I am pretty safe in prophesying that you will find, among the next dozen three or four peers less than six foot high." If there were a general conspiracy to pretend that people with incomes above the income-tax level never cheated one in a bargain, one could not say "on such-and-such a day you will be cheated in a bargain by such-and-such a person, whose income will be above the income-tax level," but one could say; "Note the people who swindle you in the next five years, and I will prophesy that some of the number will be people paying income-tax."
This power of prophecy, which is an adjunct of truth telling, affects people very profoundly. It will succeed at last in getting the truth told pretty openly and pretty thoroughly. It will break down the barrier between the little governing clique in which the truth is cynically admitted and the bulk of educated men and women who cannot get the truth by word of mouth but depend upon the printed word.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Free Press, by Hilaire Belloc)