Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X: the press in a democracy - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER X: the press in a democracy - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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the press in a democracy
It is the newspaper press that has made democracy possible in large countries. The political thinkers of antiquity assumed that a community of self-governing citizens could not be larger than one voice could reach, because only by the voice could discussion be carried on: and they might have added that only where the bulk of the citizens dwell near one another can they obtain by word of mouth the knowledge of political events that is needed to make discussion intelligent and profitable. Within the last hundred years the development of the press has enabled news to be diffused and public discussion to be conducted over wide areas; and still more recently the electric telegraph has enabled news and the opinions of men regarding it to be so quickly spread over a vast and populous country that all the citizens can receive both news and comments thereon at practically the same moment, so that arguments or appeals addressed to the people work simultaneously upon their minds almost as effectively as did the voice of the orator in the popular assembly.
Even before this immense change had arrived, it had been recognized in all free countries that the function of diffusing news and arguments must be, in normal times, open to all persons, so that every man may publish what he pleases, subject to whatever liability law may impose in respect of the misuse of this power. From the days of Milton, whose Areopagitica was the first great statement of the case for unlicensed printing, the friends of popular government have treated the freedom of the press as indispensable to its proper working, so much so that it has figured in nearly all the written constitutions of modern free States. The faith in popular government rested upon the old dictum: “Let the people have the truth and freedom to discuss it, and all will go well “(Fortis semper Veritas1 ). A free press — so it was assumed — may be relied on to supply true facts because false facts will soon be discovered and discredited. Competition among those who know that the people desire the truth will enable truth to be discerned from falsehood. Free discussion will sift all statements. All arguments will be heard and canvassed. The people will know how to choose the sound and reject the unsound. They may be for a time misled, but general freedom will work out better than any kind of restraint. In free countries no one now impeaches the principle, whether or not he expects from it all it seems to promise. The liberty of the press remains an Ark of the Covenant in every democracy.
To this let it be added that the press was earning the favour it received. During many years in which one country after another was striving to extort full self-government from mon-archs or oligarchies the press was one of the strongest forces on the popular side. It exposed oppression and corruption; it arraigned an arbitrary executive, denouncing its selfish or blundering policies; it helped the friends of liberty to rouse the masses. It won popular confidence and sympathy, because it embodied and focussed the power of public opinion. Without it the victory of opinion over the armed force of governments could not have been won.
A time, however, arrived when difficulties and dangers previously unforeseen came to light. It was perceived that the power of addressing large masses of men could be used in many ways and for many purposes. Two or three of these may be mentioned as illustrations.
The old monarchies had possessed their official organs which set forth the facts — or falsehoods — to which it was desired to give currency, but these organs were generally discredited by their official character. Bismarck, if he did not invent, was the first who practised extensively and efficiently the practice of suborning newspapers not supposed to be connected with the government to propagate the statements and views he sought to foist upon the people. His so-called “Reptile Press “proved an effective engine for strengthening his position, and set an example followed in other countries. This method involved no restriction of press freedom, but the well-spring of truth was poisoned at its source.
In countries long attached to the principles of liberty such as the United States and England some violent journalists were found advocating the assassination of rulers or statesmen. Could this he permitted? Did the existence of a political motive justify incitement to murder? This question was answered in the United States by the conviction and punishment, nearly forty years ago, of Johann Most, a German anarchist. The murder, in 1901, of President Mc-Kinley, by a Polish anarchist, probably under the influence of literature suggesting the removal of the heads of States, gave further actuality to this issue. In a country which provides constitutional means for the redress of grievances, political assassination is an offence against democracy, and cannot plead the arguments used to justify tyrannicide in lands ruled by tyrants. Will democracy allow itself to be stabbed in the back?
In a different quarter another problem arose which showed how hard it is to apply, irrespective of special conditions, principles previously assumed to be of universal validity. British administrators in India were agreed, whatever their school of thought, in holding it unsafe to allow the same liberty to newspapers published in the native languages as might be allowed to all newspapers in Europe or North America. The absence of restrictions would enable unscrupulous persons not only to disturb public order by false statements, hard to track and refute, and by pernicious incitements addressed to ignorant minds, but also to extort money from individuals by methods of blackmailing, a device peculiarly hurtful in a country where women are secluded. The ordinary penal law could not be effectively used to prevent these evils. Thus a people like the English, heartily democratic in sentiment, found itself unable to apply to the vernacular Indian press its own cherished maxims. Cases like these — and others might be added — show that unlimited publicity, the life-blood of free government, may have its dangers, just as explosives, useful for mining and tunnelling, have been turned to the purposes of violent crime.
Other things have happened in our time to shake the complacent optimism which the growth of a cheap press had inspired. With the growth of population in industrial centres, with the diffusion among all classes of the habit of reading, with the need for information on many new topics of interest, newspapers began to be far more widely read, and as their circulation increased, so did the size of their daily and weekly issues, and the volume of their non-political matter. So also did the pecuniary returns which, if successful, they brought in to their proprietors. They became lucrative business undertakings. Moreover, as most of their readers now belonged to a class with less education and less curiosity for what may be called the higher kinds of knowledge, and with more curiosity for the lower kinds, such as reports of sporting contests, fatal accidents, and above all, accounts of crimes and matrimonial troubles, there appeared in some countries newspapers of a new type which throve by the support of this uninstructed, uncritical, and unfastidious mass of readers. Such papers, free from that restraint which the public opinion of the more educated class had hitherto imposed, could play down to the tastes of the crowd and inflame its passions or prejudices by invectives directed against other classes or against foreign nations, or by allegations and incitements the falsity of which few of its readers were qualified to discover. Since many in this less educated social stratum read newspapers of this type and no others, currency could be given with impunity to misrepresentations and fallacies which there was no means of exposing, however deceptive the colour they gave to the questions before the nation.
The rise of these journals, inauspicious in their moral as in their political influence, has led observers to note a change which has been passing on the press as a whole. But first let us distinguish two aspects a newspaper wears, two functions it discharges.
In one aspect it is a commercial undertaking. It sells news to those who wish to buy news. It sells space in its columns to those advertisers who desire means for bringing their wares (or offered services) to the notice of the public. So far its aims and purposes are simple, straightforward, unexceptionable. It is a trading concern, directed to the making of pecuniary profits.
Its other aspect is that of a guide and adviser, seeking to form the opinion and influence the action of the public. It comments on current events; it advocates or opposes certain views or politics, professing to be in such advocacies animated by public spirit and a disinterested wish to serve the whole community. This spirit may, and often does, prompt the, proprietor's or the editor's action. But the real though of course unavowed motive may be selfish and even sordid, perhaps the desire to make gain for the proprietor or his friends out of some undertaking which the State can help or discourage, perhaps a pecuniary inducement offered by persons needing the help of the press. It is of course impossible for the public to know in any given case what may be the motives that lie behind the action of the newspaper; and in most cases its professions of disinterested patriotism are taken at their face value. The same confiding spirit which makes the average reader believe the news which he reads in the paper makes him assume that the views and arguments which accompany the news are also, even though they may be partisan, at least honestly partisan. Thus, that commercial character which a newspaper has in its first-mentioned aspect of a seller of news and of advertising space, and which is innocuous in that aspect, because understood by everybody, may be secretly present and potent in affecting its performance of the function of commenting on events and advocating policies. Premising this significant distinction between the two aspects a newspaper wears, we may return to consider the course of recent developments in political journalism.
The leading organs of the press have been, and are still, in free countries, the one great and indispensable medium for the diffusion of information and opinion on political topics. The daily paper reports events and the views, spoken and written, of prominent men regarding events, and it does this with a perfection of machinery and a display of executive talent that are among the most conspicuous achievements of our time. As already observed, it generally adds to its accounts of events happening and words spoken its own comments, intended to influence the minds of its readers in favour of the political views which it professes and which are, presumably, those of the proprietors and the editorial staff. This is partisanship, but when, as usually happens, the partisanship is known to the reader, it can be allowed for and discounted. So long as there is no suppression or perversion of truth no harm is done. The attitude is (subject to two differences to be hereafter noted) substantially the same as that of a public speaker advocating on a platform the cause of his party. Neither from him nor from the newspaper can impartiality be expected. We are satisfied if each is fairly honest, neither distorting facts nor misrepresenting the position of opponents.
If every newspaper did its best to ascertain and to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and gave equal opportunities for the expression of all views, leaving the public to judge between those views, newspapers would be, so far as politics are concerned, an almost unmixed good. Everything that can be done would have been done to enable the formation of a sound and sober public opinion, and though the people would sometimes err they would have only themselves to blame. This virtue is not to be looked for in such a world as the present. To demand it would be what theologians call a Counsel of Perfection. The people are pretty well served when a party paper reports events and speeches with fairness to both sides. Such a paper consults its own interests in doing so, for it is respected, and is more likely to be read, by members of the other party. The paper has, moreover, a sort of responsibility to its own party, which regards it as an asset, the value of whose advocacy is reduced if it becomes intemperately reckless, or descends to personal abuse, for that may produce a reaction beneficial to the person assailed, who might relish attacks as a tribute to his importance. It is not invective that damages an antagonist but the bringing up against him of his own errors in word or deed. Sensible men, a minority no doubt, but a minority which influences the rank and file, form their own opinion from the facts little affected by newspaper praise or dispraise.
Till past the middle of last century a newspaper occupying itself with political affairs — and it is only with these that we are here concerned — was primarily a party organ, in close touch with party leaders. The editor was often an independent and forceful personality, who took his own line, perhaps trying to hold an Olympian position in which he could bestow censure or praise on one or other party at his pleasure.1 But in either case it was as an organ and leader of public opinion that the paper stood out to the world. It was, of course, also a commercial undertaking which had to pay its way and earn a profit; and the wish to earn a profit might influence its political attitude. But the advocacy of political doctrines and the function of giving the public the means of judging for itself by a copious supply of news purported to be its first aim.
Latterly, however, the newspaper has developed another side. Though it still claims to stand as the purveyor of truth and the disinterested counsellor of the people, it is now primarily a business concern, an undertaking conducted for profit like any other. The proprietor has begun to dwarf the editor. The latter has been a man of letters with a pride in his gifts, and usually with a set of opinions which he seeks to propagate. The proprietor is a man of business, and though he may desire power as well as money, profit comes before political opinions. The editor and his staff may be animated by the purest public spirit and may believe all they write, but the proprietor must make money by extending his circulation and (through the circulation) the more considerable returns from advertisements. When the function of purveying truthful news and tendering sound advice seems to conflict with that of increasing the paper's circulation, the obvious way of attaining the latter aim is by taking the line most likely to please the buyers. Noting the direction in which public opinion is moving, the paper will follow, perhaps exaggerate and intensify, the feeling of the moment, or, still more adroitly, it will anticipate the feeling it sees just arising. Another form of gainful activity occurs when the paper's help is desired by a class or a group of persons who have some private interests to promote. They may induce it to advocate legislation from which they expect some benefit, perhaps a protective duty, or a railroad project. Or they may wish to work up a boom in the stock market or to influence the action of Government in some foreign or colonial question out of which money may be made. A financial group may acquire a number of journals, and while working them for profit may also use its power to promote other business enterprises, and to further the ambitions of political leaders. In cases of this kind, where the attitude of the paper is determined not by honest conviction but by an undisclosed motive, the public, ignorant of the secret inducement, is misled. It is only in some few countries where the tone of journalism has declined with that of public life in general that these evils have become serious. But the risk is always present.
Another perversion of press power appears when a group of politicians, or perhaps a single person, works a paper, or even a number of papers, for their or his political advancement. In a country where service in the legislature, or eloquence on the stump, is not the only door open to high political office, an ambitious man may seek to win influence and votes by addressing the electorate through his journal or journals just as a politician would do by platform speeches. In such instances it may be thought that the journal's influence is lessened when the facts are known, because intelligent readers understand and discount the motives for its proprietor's action. Yet this may not happen. If the paper commands a host of readers by the attractiveness of its non-political matter, the support it gives to the political group, or to the man, still continues to tell on their minds; and it must be remembered that the great majority of these readers are neither well informed nor intelligent enough to realize the nature of the game that is being played.
Where a journal, from whatever motives, desires to influence opinion and votes in a particular direction, it has two methods available. One is that of argument. It will advocate or oppose a policy, will extol, or disparage or even calumniate, a party chief, after the manner of party speakers on the platform. Experience has shown that, where party government exists, such advocacy is inevitable and is, within reasonable limits, the best way of bringing out the issues involved and rousing the attention of the citizens. This method, if it abstains from falsification and calumny, is fair and above-board. Sensitive men may suffer more than they would if attacked by a public speaker, because to him they can reply directly, calling him to account for misrepresentation more easily than they can an anonymous journalist. Yet no great harm is done. In political warfare hard knocks must be expected.
The other method is more crafty and more effective. Since it is Facts that count for most in the formation of opinion, the newspaper which desires its views to prevail will try to make out its case by facts. Sometimes it may assume facts: i.e. it will put forward a theory of the motives or intentions of a person or a group of politicians, and presently treat that theory as an accepted reality, proceeding to ground charges upon it. Sometimes it may even invent facts — i.e. it will catch up (possibly itself set agoing) a rumour, and then proceed to refer to the rumour as a fact, give it prominence, hammer it into the public mind by repeated blows. This method needs to be prudently applied, for the alleged fact may be disproved, and if this happens frequently, the paper's credit will suffer. A safer and more telling device than either argument or misrepresentation is found in the Selection of facts. In every controversy there are plenty of facts fit to be adduced on both sides. If a paper skilfully and systematically selects for publication all the facts that point to one conclusion, and suppresses or mentions curtly and scantily all the facts that bear the other way, it cannot be charged with direct falsehood, though it practically falsifies the case by withholding from its readers the means of forming a just judgment. The suppression of the truth is more insidious than the suggestion of the false. This Negative misrepresentation is as easy and more prudent than Positive, because detection and conviction are more difficult. Partisan speakers as well as journals slip into it more or less unconsciously, but it is far more effective, and usually more deliberate, in the hands of the journal, and has been employed on a great scale, especially in matters of foreign policy. Before the outbreak of the war between the United States and Spain in 1898 the newspapers of the former country were deluged with matter putting the conduct of Spain in Cuba — conduct doubtless open to grave censure — in the worst light and letting little or nothing appear on her behalf. A more remarkable case was seen a year later, when the bulk of the British press 1 stated and exaggerated what case there was against the Transvaal Government, while ignoring the facts which made in favour of that republic, with the result that the British public never had the data necessary for forming a fair judgment.
These instances, to which others might be added, illustrate the fact that press exaggerations or misrepresentations are especially mischievous in questions arising with foreign countries. Where the controversy is domestic, the citizens know more about it, and the activity of the opposing parties may be relied on to bring out the facts and provide answers to mendacious statements and fallacious arguments. This may not happen where a foreign country is concerned, whose case no political party nor any newspaper need feel bound (except from purely conscientious motives) to state and argue. To do so is usually unpopular, and will be stigmatized as unpatriotic. Here, accordingly, the policy of suppressing or misrepresenting what may be said on behalf of the foreign case commends itself to the journal which thinks first of its own business interests. Newspapers have in all countries done much to create ill feeling and bring war nearer. In each country they say the worst they can of the other country, and these reproaches, copied by the newspapers of the other, intensify distrust and enmity. All this is done not, as sometimes alleged, because newspapers gain by wars, for that is not always the case, since their expenditure also increases, but because it is easier and more profitable to take the path of least resistance. The average man's patriotism, or at least his passion, is aroused. It is comforting to be told that the merits are all on his side; nor can there ever be too many reasons for hating the foreigner.
Arts of this nature have long been used by public speakers. The newspaper is only an orator addressing a reader instead of a hearer. It lacks the personal charm, the gift of attracting enthusiasm and inspiring attachment, which the great orator possesses. But in other respects its power is greater than his. It addresses many audiences at once. It is indispensable, because it gives a mass of non-political news which most people want for business purposes, and the rest from curiosity. For the multitude who follow public affairs with an interest not strong enough to draw them to public meetings or make them read the reports of proceedings in a legislature, it is the only source of political instruction, perhaps almost their only reading of any kind. It can go on reiterating its arguments, or setting forth the same set of facts intended to suggest or enforce those arguments, day by day and week by week.
The last fifty or sixty years have seen an evident increase in the power of the great newspapers. As the number of their readers, as well as the habit of reading, has grown, and as their range has expanded, for they supply news from all over the world and treat many new subjects, which only specialists can handle, so also their revenue and their expenditure have increased. Since they require a larger capital than formerly, the stronger papers have grown, and the weaker have withered away, while few new rivals have appeared, because to establish a daily journal is a costly and risky enterprise. Thus, in the great cities of nearly every country, the number of leading papers is now comparatively small, but each wields a greater power than formerly. This is not due to any finer quality in their articles, for the writing is no more brilliant than formerly — in some countries it seems to have declined. The “leading articles,” moreover, count for less than does the news and what may be called the “attitude” of the great journal, with the prestige it derives from the vast scale of its operation, addressing myriads at the same moment, in the same words, with the same air of confidence. The feeling that so many people read it and believe in it raises the presumption that if they do read it, it is because they believe. Seeing in it a force that cannot be ignored, each accepts its views because each thinks that others are accepting. It speaks ex cathedra with a pontifical authority which imposes deference. Goldwin Smith said fifty years ago that he remembered an article in which a great British newspaper claimed that it discharged in the modern world the functions of the mediaeval Church.
Prestige is heightened by mystery. Scarcely any of those who read what the paper tells them know who has written what they read, or what sources of information he possesses, or what intellectual weight. The voice seems to issue from a sort of superman, and has a hypnotic power of compelling assent. An elderly clubman who has been behind the scenes may remark to his friend over their coffee: “After all, these thundering articles are written by a fellow with the arrogance of inexperience, who knows much less about the matter than you and I do, a young fellow scribbling in a dingy room up three pair of stairs.” But to the tens of thousands in and all round the city the thunder seems to come from the sky above. It is like the voice of a great multitude. And in truth the paper does represent much more than the scribe in the dingy room, for a great journal has traditional authority as well as large capital behind it, and its policy may be the product of the combined action of a number of shrewd minds, watching the ebbs and flows of opinion, studying how to please the vast electorate, or how to terrify the men in office. Behind the argumentative advocacy, in itself a small matter, is the power of manipulating news, and of reporting what the proprietors wish to be known and ignoring what they wish to keep out of sight. Strange is the fascination of the printed page. Men who would give little credence to a tale told them by a neighbour, or even written to them by a friend, believe what the newspaper tells them merely because they see it in print. In one country where newspaper inaccuracy is taken as matter of course, the same man who says, “You know the papers are full of lies,” will forthwith repeat some charge against a politician on the faith of a paragraph, believing, because he saw it in the newspaper, that there must be something in it.
There are countries in which one source of a journal's power consists in its relations, real or supposed, with the ministry of the day, or with those great financial interests which are believed, not without reason, to exert an influence more permanent than that of officials, since they do not come and go with a popular vote. Ministers, and also prominent politicians not in office, have frequently used, and been helped by, newspapers, repaying them sometimes by private intelligence, sometimes, as in the United States, by the bestowal of foreign missions, sometimes, as in England, by titular honours.1 Not to speak of Germany under Bismarck, Katkoff rendered great services to the Russian Government in the'seventies, and some English politicians have owed much to the incessant efforts of their press friends, while in Australia there have been times when a powerful paper could make or unmake a Prime Minister.
A more important element in the growing ascendancy of the press may be found in the fact that in most countries it depends less than it did two generations ago on the favour of what is called “Society “and the educated classes. The political and literary sides of its action had then a significance which has declined with the increasing importance of its commercial aspects. It is less amenable to the critical judgment of what are called the “men of culture,” because it relies on the vast mass of persons who buy it merely for news or for business purposes, and who advertise in it for the latter. To the majority of such persons its political attitude is indifferent; and this makes the political news it publishes, and the interpretations of that news it supplies, a more efficient means of propaganda. Secure in its hold upon the business community and the multitude of readers who are glad to have their thinking done for them, it need not regard criticisms proceeding from the austere or fastidious few.
Those whose recollections go back half a century seem agreed that the power of journalism, as compared with that of the most eminent individual statesmen, has in nearly every free country been growing. Let us compare the opportunities of influence which were open to such men as Peel or Gladstone, Calhoun or Seward or Grover Cleveland, with those which their successors to-day enjoy, and estimate the advantages the journal possesses when engaged in a conflict with the statesman.
To-day the statesman, even if he be a brilliant speaker whose speeches are invariably reported, has a far smaller audience than the newspaper, because it is read steadily from day to day, and he only occasionally. He may have a personal charm which the paper lacks. He may be an orator on whose lips the crowd hangs. He may, like Theodore Roosevelt, be a figure throbbing with life, who becomes the hero, almost the personal friend, of a multitude who admire his force and love his breezy ways. But the aggressive quality which is indispensable to prominence makes enemies, and exposes him to a fire of criticism and misrepresentation. He cannot be always contradicting misstatements and repelling charges; nor be sure that his denials will reach those who have read the charges. He can grapple with and throw a personal foe, but in a conflict with the impersonal newspaper it will always have the last word. It can persistently take for granted statements which require proof until the reader believes they have been proved. It can incessantly repeat the same argument or the same accusation, and can do this incidentally, as well as in a set way, so as to influence that host of readers who are too listless to enquire into the truth of assertions or insinuations sandwiched in between the news about markets or sport. Tactics like these will win against all but those strongest antagonists who have already by intellectual force and moral dignity secured the confidence of the people. Iteration is like the ceaseless stream of bullets from a machine-gun. It is the deadliest engine of war in the press armoury.
The power of the newspaper, one of the most remarkable novelties of the modern world, has two peculiar features. It has no element of Compulsion and no element of Responsibility. Whoever exposes himself to its influence does so of his own free will. He need not buy the paper, nor read it, nor believe it. If he takes it for his guide, that is his own doing. The newspaper, as it has no legal duty, is subject to no responsibility, beyond that which the law affixes to indefensible attacks on private character or incitements to illegal conduct. It is an old maxim that power and responsibility should go together, and that no man is good enough to be trusted with power for the employment of which he need give no account. Here, however, we have power which can be used without anything except conscience to restrict or guide its use. A journal is not liable, civilly or criminally, for propagating untruth or suppressing truth unless damage to a particular individual or harm to the State can be proved.
This is the case with politicians also, as with all who speak in public, but they, being individuals, have something to lose by speaking untruth or perverting truth. They can be denounced, and deprived of whatever respect or influence they may have enjoyed. To penalize a newspaper for like conduct is so difficult as to be often scarcely possible. The paper is an impersonal entity. Its writers are unknown: its editor, and even its proprietors, may be known to comparatively few. Proof of a deliberate purpose to mislead will not necessarily affect its circulation or reduce its influence upon masses of men who know little and care less about such offences. Except in the most glaring cases, it can with impunity misuse its power. The proprietor, or the editor to whom his proprietor gives a free hand, may be patriotic and well-intentioned, but the power either wields is not accompanied by responsibility.
These things being what they are, it may seem surprising that the influence of the press should not, in English-speaking countries, have been more abused than has in fact been the case. How far it is now abused, either there or elsewhere, is a subject which cannot be here dealt with, for the facts, differing in different countries, are everywhere hard to ascertain. It is enough to indicate how liable to abuse power so irresponsible must be, and how salutary the traditions which have, in the countries just referred to, maintained, among the leading journals, a creditable standard of courtesy and a fair, if not perfect, standard of honour. The vigilance of public opinion, the strenuous competition which exists between the able men who fill the higher posts, and their pride in their profession, have helped to guard these traditions.
In the chapters of Part II. which deal with the six democracies there selected for description, I have attempted to estimate the authority actually exerted in each by its press. That authority seems to be stronger in Great Britain — possibly also in the British self-governing Dominions — than in the United States; but it must be remembered that in a very large country there are so many journals, each relying on the circulation it holds in its own territory, that no such general predominance can be won as a very few may possess in a small country. In England, and even in Scotland, politicians, and especially candidates for Parliament, a class prone to the habit of nervously “tapping the weather-glass,” are apt to exaggerate the political importance of the press. There have been General Elections at which the balance of journalistic strength was heavily on the side which suffered a crushing defeat at the polls. A member may hold his seat for many years against the hostility of all the local papers. If he is personally liked and trusted, their attacks produce a reaction in his favour. But in a large country, and even in a city like New York, full of ignorant voters, persistent denigration may destroy a politician. A calumny once launched cannot be overtaken. Attack is easier than defence: and the resources of misrepresentation are infinite.1
A journal which addresses itself specially to one particular section of a nation, be it a racial, or religious, or industrial section, needed as it may be for some purposes, can be dangerous if it presents to that section a purely partisan set of facts and opinions, exaggerating whatever grievances the section has, and intensifying its sense of separation from and antagonism to other parts of the nation. Those belonging to such a section who read other newspapers also will not be seriously affected, but where they see only their own class organ, and take its statements for truth, an irritable fanaticism on behalf of sectional ideas and class aims may be engendered. This is an instance of the general principle that the best remedy against whatever dangers the dominance of the press involves is to be found in the free and full competition of independent newspapers. It is the predominance in one particular area or among the members of one particular class, of a single paper, or of several controlled by the same person or group and working for the same ends, that threatens the formation of a fair and enlightened public opinion. The tyranny of monopoly is even worse in opinion than in commerce. Suppose a capitalistic combination to acquire a large number of newspapers, placing them under the direction of one capable mind and forceful will, and using their enormous resources to drive rivals out of the field. The papers would be able to supply the fullest and latest news in every department of journalism, and to purchase the service of the ablest pens. With their vast circulation, they could, by presenting facts of one colour and tendency and suppressing or discolouring all news of an opposite tendency, succeed in impressing, if not on the majority yet on a large percentage of the voters, whatever opinion they desired. The weaker kind of politician would succumb to them. Ministries would fear to offend them. Foreign countries would soon begin to recognize their supremacy. If the capital needed to finance such an enterprise and the powerful brain needed to direct it were to be united, what might not happen in a country not too large for such an enterprise? The contingency is improbable, but those who know what centralization and combination have in all branches of business been able to effect will hardly deem it impossible. How could the dictatorship of such a syndicated press be resisted? The remedy proposed for industrial monopolies is nationalization, but here nationalization would aggravate the evil, making the State itself the tyrant. Recourse might be needed to drastic legislation of a kind not yet tried.
The coincidences of opportunity with a supreme talent for using opportunity mark the turning points of history. Alexander of Macedon having received from nature extraordinary gifts, inherited a well-trained army and saw before him a divided Greece and an effete Persian empire waiting to be conquered. Had he been born earlier or later, the whole course of events might have been different. The career of Napoleon points the same moral. There have doubtless been many other men of genius who might have equally affected the fortunes of the world had like opportunities come to them.1
What has been said as to the influence the press can exert on the working of popular government through its power of forming opinion may be summed up in a few propositions.
Universal suffrage has immensely increased the proportion of electors who derive their political views chiefly or wholly from newspapers.
The causes which enable newspapers well managed, and commanding large capital, to drive weaker papers out of the field, have in all countries reduced the number of influential journals, and left power in comparatively few hands.
The influence upon opinion exercised by a great newspaper as compared with a prominent statesman or even with the debates in legislative bodies, has grown.
Newspapers have become more and more commercial undertakings, devoted primarily to their business interests.
The temptations to use the influence of a newspaper for the promotion of pecuniary interests, whether of its proprietors or of others, have also increased. Newspapers have become one of the most available instruments by which the Money Power can make itself felt in politics.
The power of the press is a practically irresponsible power, for the only thing it need fear (apart from libel suits) is the reduction of circulation, and the great majority of its readers, interested only in business and sport, know little of and care little for the political errors or tergiversations it may commit.
Press power is wielded more effectively through the manipulation and suppression of news than by the avowed advocacy of any political views. It is more dangerous in the sphere of foreign than in that of domestic policy, and is one of the chief hindrances to international goodwill.
Democratic government rests upon and requires the exercise of a well-informed and sensible opinion by the great bulk of the citizens. Where the materials for the formation of such an opinion are so artfully supplied as to prevent the citizens from judging fairly the merits of a question, opinion is artificially made instead of being let grow in a natural way, and a wrong is done to democracy.
No one will suppose that an indication of the dangers which misuse of the power of the press may bring implies any disparagement of the invaluable services it renders in modern free countries. Without it, as already observed, there could be no democracy in areas larger than were the city communities of the ancient world. The newspaper enables statesmen to reach the whole people by their words, and keeps legislatures and executive officials under the eyes of the people. Itself irresponsible, it enforces responsibility upon all who bear a part in public work. It is because the press alone can do and is doing so much salutary and necessary work that attention needs to be called to any causes which might, by shaking public confidence in it, impair its usefulness to the community.
“Truth abideth and is strong for ever: she liveth and conquereth for evermore” (I Esdras iv. 38).
As instances may be mentioned Horace Greeley (in his better moments) and Edwin L. Godkin in America, Edward Sterling and John T. Delane in England, Emile Girardin in France.
There were, however, some conspicuous exceptions In one of these an important newspaper incurred much unpopularity and lost heavily, but it held on, and when the South African War was over regained more than it had lost.
Cases have even occurred in which the Ministry (or a Minister), in one country has, in the course of a controversy with a foreign Power, endeavoured to win domestic support for itself or frighten the foreign Power by secretly directing attacks upon the latter through the press.
Among them the cartoon representing a public man in the commission of offences he has never committed is one specially difficult to deal with. When this is done at an election, the result desired may be attained before the calumny can be refuted, and there are countries in which the law of libel gives no sufficient protection.
A parallel, perhaps not too fanciful, may be drawn between such cases and those of famous thinkers whose creative gift, continuing to work long after them, was evoked, or turned into the needed channel, by the circumstances of their own time. St. Paul coming at a moment when a new religious teaching had to be diffused over the world, St. Augustine when the fall of Rome made it necessary to create a theological view of history to replace the reverence for the Empire that was breaking in pieces, Thomas of Aquinum meeting the call of the moment for a philosophic systematization of Christian doctrine, Kant stirred to his constructive work by the scepticism of Hume, may be cited as instances of this. Whenever such minds had come into the world they would probably have done memorable work, but the stimulus of the moment would have been wanting, and the state of the world might have prevented their gifts from having full effect. Conversely there are cases to be noted in which, when a great opportunity arrives, no genius appears capable of turning it to account.