Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION VI. On the Venality of the Press under the Influence of the despotic Spirit, and its Effects in diffusing that Spirit. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION VI. On the Venality of the Press under the Influence of the despotic Spirit, and its Effects in diffusing that Spirit. - Vicesimus Knox, The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5 
The Works of Vicesimus Knox, D.D. with a Biographical Preface. In Seven Volumes (London: J. Mawman, 1824). Vol. 5.
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On the Venality of the Press under the Influence of the despotic Spirit, and its Effects in diffusing that Spirit.
The most successful, as well as the most insidious mode of abolishing an institution which favours liberty, and, for that reason, alarms the jealousy of encroaching power, is to leave the form untouched, and gradually to annihilate the essence. The voracious worm eats out the kernel completely, while the husk continues fair to the eye, and apparently entire. The gardener would crush the insect, if it commenced the attack on the external tegument; but it carries on the work of destruction with efficacy and safety, while it corrodes the unseen fruit, and spares the outside shell.
The liberty of the press in England is not openly infringed. It is our happiness and our glory. No man or set of men, whatever be their power or their wishes, dares to violate this sacred privilege. But in the heathen mythology we learn, that when Jupiter himself could not force certain obstacles by his thunder-bolt, he found an easy admission in the shape of a golden shower.
In times when the jacobitical, tory, selfish, and despotic principles rear their heads, and think opportunities favour their efforts for revival, the press is bought up as a powerful engine of oppression. The people must be deceived, or the despots have no chance to prevail in the dissemination of doctrines, unnatural, nonsensical, and injurious to the rights of human nature. The only channel, through which the knowledge of what it most imports them to know, next to morality and religion, devolves upon the mass of the community, is a newspaper. This channel must therefore be secured. The people's money must be employed to pollute the waters of truth, to divert their course, and, if occasion require, to stop them with dams, locks, and floodgates. The press, that grand battery, erected by the people to defend the citadel of liberty, must be turned against it. Pamphlets are transient, and confined in their operation. Nothing will satisfy the zeal of the assailant, but the diurnal papers of intelligence. They keep up a daily attack, and reach every part of the assaulted edifice.
Newspapers, thus bought with the people's money, for the purpose of deceiving the people, are, in the next place, circulated with all the industry of zealous partisans, and all the success, that must attend the full exertion of ministerial influence. Public houses in great towns, are frequently the property of overgrown traders, who supply them with the commodities they vend; and who dictate the choice of the papers, which they shall purchase for the perusal of their customers. Whoever frequents such houses, ruled as they are by petty despots, must swallow the false politics, together with the adulterated beverage, of the lordly manufacturer. A distress for rent, or an arrest for debt, might follow the rash choice of a paper favourable to truth, justice, and humanity. If any conversation should arise among the customers, friendly to liberty, in consequence of perusing an interdicted print of this kind, the licence of the house might be in danger, and an honest tradesman with his family turned out of doors to starve. Spies are sent to his house to mix with the guests, that in the moment of convivial exhilaration, when prudence sleeps, some incautious comment on the newspaper may be seized and carried to the agent of despotism, who, like the tiger, thirsting for human blood, lies watching for his prey in the covert of obscurity. The host, therefore, for the sake of safety, gladly rejects all papers of intelligence, which are free to speak the truth, and becomes a useful instrument, in the hands of selfish placemen, in the dissemination of doctrines subversive of liberty, and therefore of the constitution which is founded upon it as a corner stone.
So far as such venal papers are diffused, under influence thus arbitrary, the liberty of the press is, in effect destroyed. It is made to serve the purposes of slavery, by propagating principles unfavourable to the people's rights, by palliating public abuses, varnishing ministerial misconduct, and concealing facts in which the people are most deeply interested. Perhaps there is nothing which contributes so much to diffuse the spirit of despotism as venal newspapers, hired by the possessors of power, for the purpose of defending and prolonging their possession. The more ignorant classes have a wonderful propensity to be credulous in all that they see in print, and will obstinately continue to believe a newspaper, to which they have been accustomed, even when notorious facts give it the lie. They know little of history, nothing of philosophy, and adopt their political ideas from the daily lectures of a paper established solely to gain their favour to one party, the party possessed of present power; zealous for its extension and prolongation, and naturally desirous of preventing all scrupulous inquiry into its abuse. Such means, so used, certainly serve the cause of persons in office, and gratify avarice and pride; but it is a service which, while it promotes the sordid views of a few individuals, militates against the spirit of constitutional freedom. It is a vile cause, which cannot be maintained to the security and satisfaction of those who wish to maintain it, without recourse to daily falsehood, and the cowardly concealment of conscious malversation. Honest purposes love the light of truth, and court scrutiny; because the more they are known, the more they must be honoured. The friends of liberty and man are justly alarmed, whenever they see the press preoccupied by power, and every artifice used to poison the sources of public intelligence.
In every free country, the people, who pay all expenses, claim a right to know the true state of public affairs. The only means of acquiring that knowledge, within reach of the multitude, is the press; and it ought to supply them with all important information, which may be divulged without betraying intended measures, the accomplishment of which would be frustrated by communication to a public enemy. The very papers themselves, which communicate intelligence, pay a tax above the intrinsic value of the work and materials, to the support of the government: and the stamp, which vouches for the payment, ought at the same time, if any regard were paid to justice and honour, to be an authentic testimony that government uses no arts of deception in the intelligence afforded.
But let any one review, if it be not too nauseous an employment, the prints which of late years have been notoriously in the pay of ministerial agency. There he will see the grossest attempts to impose on the public credulity. He will see the existence of known facts, when they militate against the credit of a ministry, doubted or denied; dubious victories extolled beyond all resemblance to truth; and defeats, in the highest degree disgraceful and injurious, artfully extenuated. All who have had opportunities of receiving true intelligence, after some great and unfortunate action, have been astonished at the effrontery which has diminished the number of lives lost to a sum so small, as contradicts the evident conclusions of common sense, and betrays the features of falsehood at the first appearance. All who have been able to judge of the privileges of Englishmen, and the rights of human nature, have seen with abhorrence, doctrines boldly broached and sophistically defended, which strike at once at the English constitution, and the happiness of man in society. They have seen this done by those who pretended an almost exclusive regard to law, order, and religion; themselves grossly violating all of them, while they are reviling others for the supposed violation, in the bitterest language which rancour, stimulated by pride and avarice, can utter.
When powerful ministers, possessed of a thousand means of patronising and rewarding obsequious instruments of their ambition, are willing to corrupt, there will never be wanting needy, unprincipled, and aspiring persons to receive the infection. But can men be really great, really honourable—can they be patriots and philanthropists—can they be zealous and sincere friends to law, order, and religion, who thus hesitate not to break down all the fences of honour, truth, and integrity; and render their administration of affairs more similar to the juggling tricks of confederate sharpers, than to the grave, ingenuous conduct of statesmen, renowned for their wisdom and revered for their virtue? Do men thus exalted, whose conduct is a model, and whose opinion is oracular, mean to teach a great nation that conscience is but a name, and honour a phantom? No books of those innovators, whom they persecute, contribute to discredit the system, which these men support, so much as their own sinister measures of self-defence.
There is little hope of preventing the corruption of the diurnal papers by any remonstrance addressed to men, who, entrenched behind wealth and power, scorn to yield at the summons of reason. There may be more hope in appealing to the readers and encouragers of such papers. Do they wish to be deceived? Is it pleasant to be misled by partial, mutilated, and distorted narratives? Is it manly to become voluntary dupes? Or is it honourable, is it honest, to cooperate with any men, for any purposes, in duping others? No, let the press, however it may be perverted by private persons, to the injury of society, be preserved by the public, by men high in office, the guardians of every valuable institution, as an instrument of good to the community, as the support of truth, as the lamp of knowledge.
Though the liberty of the press should be preserved, yet let it be remembered, that the corruption of the press, by high and overbearing influence, will be almost as pernicious to a free country as its destruction. An imprimatur on the press would spread an alarm which would immediately remove the restraint; but the corruption of the press may insinuate itself unperceived, till the spirit of despotism, promoted by it, shall at last connive at, or even consent to, its total abolition.