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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Free Press By Hilaire Belloc Characters: 8290

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Let us halt at this phase in the development of the thing to consider certain other changes which were on the point of appearance, and why they were on the point of appearance.

In the first place, if advertisement had come to be the stand-by of a newspaper, the Capitalist owning the sheet would necessarily consider his revenue from advertisement before anything else. He was indeed compelled to do so unless he had enormous revenues from other sources, and ran his paper as a luxury costing a vast fortune a year. For in this industry the rule is either very great profits or very great and rapid losses-losses at the rate of £100,000 at least in a year where a great daily paper is concerned.

He was compelled then to respect his advertisers as his paymasters. To that extent, therefore, his power of giving true news and of printing sound opinion was limited, even though his own inclinations should lean towards such news and such opinion.

An individual newspaper owner might, for instance, have the greatest possible dislike for the trade in patent medicines. He might object to the swindling of the poor which is the soul of that trade. He might himself have suffered acute physical pain through the imprudent absorption of one of those quack drugs. But he certainly could not print an article against them, nor even an article describing how they were made, without losing a great part of his income, directly; and, perhaps, indirectly, the whole of it, from the annoyance caused to other advertisers, who would note his independence and fear friction in their own case. He would prefer to retain his income, persuade his readers to buy poison, and remain free (personally) from touching the stuff he recommended for pay.

As with patent medicines so with any other matter whatsoever that was advertised. However bad, shoddy, harmful, or even treasonable the matter might be, the proprietor was always at the choice of publishing matter which did not affect him, and saving his fortune, or refusing it and jeopardizing his fortune. He chose the former course.

In the second place, there was an even more serious development. Advertisement having become the stand-by of the newspaper the large advertiser (as Capitalism developed and the controls became fewer and more in touch one with the other) could not but regard his "giving" of an advertisement as something of a favour.

There is always this psychological, or, if you will, artistic element in exchange.

In pure Economics exchange is exactly balanced by the respective advantages of the exchangers; just as in pure dynamics you have the parallelogram of forces. In the immense complexity of the real world material, friction, and a million other things affect the ideal parallelogram of forces; and in economics other conscious passions besides those of mere avarice affect exchange: there are a million half-conscious and sub-conscious motives at work as well.

The large advertiser still mainly paid for advertisement according to circulation, but he also began to be influenced by less direct intentions. He would not advertise in papers which he thought might by their publication of opinion ultimately hurt Capitalism as a whole; still less in those whose opinions might affect his own private fortune adversely. Stupid (like all people given up to gain), he was muddle-headed about the distinction between a large circulation and a circulation small, but appealing to the rich. He would refuse advertisements of luxuries to a paper read by half the wealthier class if he had heard in the National Liberal Club, or some such place, that the paper was "in bad taste."

Not only was there this negative power in the hands of the advertiser, that of refusing the favour or patronage of his advertisements, there was also a positive one, though that only grew up later.

The advertiser came to see that he could actually dictate policy and opinion; and that he had also another most powerful and novel weapon in his hand, which was the suppression of news.

We must not exaggerate this element. For one thing the power represented by the great Capitali

st Press was a power equal with that of the great advertisers. For another, there was no clear-cut distinction between the Capitalism that owned newspapers and the Capitalism that advertised. The same man who owned "The Daily Times" was a shareholder in Jones's Soap or Smith's Pills. The man who gambled and lost on "The Howl" was at the same time gambling and winning on a bucket-shop advertised in "The Howl." There was no antagonism of class interest one against the other, and what was more they were of the same kind and breed. The fellow that got rich quick in a newspaper speculation-or ended in jail over it-was exactly the same kind of man as he who bought a peerage out of a "combine" in music halls or cut his throat when his bluff in Indian silver was called. The type is the common modern type. Parliament is full of it, and it runs newspapers only as one of its activities-all of which need the suggestion of advertisement.

The newspaper owner and the advertiser, then, were intermixed. But on the balance the advertising interest being wider spread was the stronger, and what you got was a sort of imposition, often quite conscious and direct, of advertising power over the Press; and this was, as I have said, not only negative (that was long obvious) but, at last, positive.

Sometimes there is an open battle between the advertiser and the proprietor, especially when, as is the case with framers of artificial monopolies, both combatants are of a low, cunning, and unintelligent type. Minor friction due to the same cause is constantly taking place. Sometimes the victory falls to the newspaper proprietor, more often to the advertiser-never to the public.

So far, we see the growth of the Press marked by these characteristics. (1) It falls into the hands of a very few rich men, and nearly always of men of base origin and capacities. (2) It is, in their hands, a mere commercial enterprise. (3) It is economically supported by advertisers who can in part control it, but these are of the same Capitalist kind, in motive and manner, with the owners of the papers. Their power does not, therefore, clash in the main with that of the owners, but the fact that advertisement makes a paper, has created a standard of printing and paper such that no one-save at a disastrous loss-can issue regularly to large numbers news and opinion which the large Capitalist advertisers disapprove.

There would seem to be for any independent Press no possible economic basis, because the public has been taught to expect for 1d. what it costs 3d. to make-the difference being paid by the advertisement subsidy.

But there is now a graver corruption at work even than this always negative and sometimes positive power of the advertiser.

It is the advent of the great newspaper owner as the true governing power in the political machinery of the State, superior to the officials in the State, nominating ministers and dismissing them, imposing policies, and, in general, usurping sovereignty-all this secretly and without responsibility.

It is the chief political event of our time and is the peculiar mark of this country to-day. Its full development has come on us suddenly and taken us by surprise in the midst of a terrible war. It was undreamt of but a few years ago. It is already to-day the capital fact of our whole political system. A Prime Minister is made or deposed by the owner of a group of newspapers, not by popular vote or by any other form of open authority.

No policy is attempted until it is ascertained that the newspaper owner is in favour of it. Few are proffered without first consulting his wishes. Many are directly ordered by him. We are, if we talk in terms of real things (as men do in their private councils at Westminster) mainly governed to-day, not even by the professional politicians, nor even by those who pay them money, but by whatever owner of a newspaper trust is, for the moment, the most unscrupulous and the most ambitious.

How did such a catastrophe come about? That is what we must inquire into before going further to examine its operation and the possible remedy.

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