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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Free Press By Hilaire Belloc Characters: 5421

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


As to opinion, you have the same limitations.

If opinion can be once launched in spite of, or during the indifference of, the Press (and it is a big "if"); if there is no machinery for actually suppressing the mere statement of a doctrine clearly important to its readers-then the Press is bound sooner or later to deal with such doctrine: just as it is bound to deal with really vital news.

Here, again, we are dealing with something very different indeed from that title "An organ of opinion" to which the large newspaper has in the past pretended. But I am arguing for the truth that the Press-in the sense of the great Capitalist newspapers-cannot be wholly divorced from opinion.

We have had three great examples of this in our own time in England. Two proceeded from the small wealthy class, and one from the mass of the people.

The two proceeding from the small wealthy classes were the Fabian movement and the movement for Women's Suffrage. The one proceeding from the populace was the sudden, brief (and rapidly suppressed) insurrection of the working classes against their masters in the matter of Chinese Labour in South Africa.

The Fabian movement, which was a drawing-room movement, compelled the discussion in the Press of Socialism, for and against. Although every effort was made to boycott the Socialist contention in the Press, the Fabians were at last strong enough to compel its discussion, and they have by now canalized the whole thing into the direction of their "Servile State." I myself am no more than middle-aged, but I can remember the time when popular newspapers such as "The Star" openly printed arguments in favour of Collectivism, and though to-day those arguments are never heard in the Press-largely because the Fabian Society has itself abandoned Collectivism in favour of forced labour-yet we may be certain that a Capitalist paper would not have discussed them at all, still less have supported them, unless it had been compelled. The newspapers simply could not ignore Socialism at a time when Socialism still commanded a really strong body of opinion among the wealthy.

It was the same with the Suffrage for Women, which cry a clique of wealthy ladies got up in London. I have never myself quite understood why these wealthy ladies wanted such an absurdity as the modern franchise, or why they so blindly hated the Christian institution of the Family. I suppose it was some perversion. But, anyhow, they displayed great sincerity, enthusiasm, and devotion, suffering many things for their cause, and acting in the only way which is at all practical in our plutocracy-to wit, by making their fellow-rich exceedingly uncomfortable. You may say that no on

e newspaper took up the cause, but, at least, it was not boycotted. It was actively discussed.

The little flash in the pan of Chinese Labour was, I think, even more remarkable. The Press not only had word from the twin Party Machines (with which it was then allied for the purposes of power) to boycott the Chinese Labour agitation rigidly, but it was manifestly to the interest of all the Capitalist Newspaper Proprietors to boycott it, and boycott it they did-as long as they could. But it was too much for them. They were swept off their feet. There were great meetings in the North-country which almost approached the dignity of popular action, and the Press at last not only took up the question for discussion, but apparently permitted itself a certain timid support.

My point is, then, that 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.

Even to-day, if a large paper went right against the national will in the matter of the present war it would be ruined, and papers which supported in 1914 the Cabinet intrigue to abandon our Allies at the beginning of the war have long since been compelled to eat their words.

For the strength of a newspaper owner lies in his power to deceive the public and to withhold or to publish at will hidden things: his power in this terrifies the professional politicians who hold nominal authority: in a word, the newspaper owner controls the professional politician because he can and does blackmail the professional politician, especially upon his private life. But if he does not command a large public this power to blackmail does not exist; and he can only command a large public-that is, a large circulation-by interesting that public and even by flattering it that it has its opinions reflected-not created-for it.

The power of the Press is not a direct and open power. It depends upon a trick of deception; and no trick of deception works if the trickster passes a certain degree of cynicism.

We must, therefore, guard ourselves against the conception that the great modern Capitalist Press is merely a channel for the propagation of such news as may suit its proprietors, or of such opinions as they hold or desire to see held. Such a judgment would be fanatical, and therefore worthless.

Our interest is in the degree to which news can be suppressed or garbled, particular discussion of interest to the common-weal suppressed, spontaneous opinion boycotted, and artificial opinion produced.

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