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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Free Press By Hilaire Belloc Characters: 8937

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I say that the few newspaper controllers govern; and govern abominably. I am right. But they only do so, as do all new powers, by at once alliance with, and treason against, the old: witness Harmsworth and the politicians. The new governing Press is an oligarchy which still works "in with" the just-less-new parliamentary oligarchy.

This connection has developed in the great Capitalist papers a certain character which can be best described by the term "Official."

Under certain forms of arbitrary government in Continental Europe ministers once made use of picked and rare newspapers to express their views, and these newspapers came to be called "The Official Press." It was a crude method, and has been long abandoned even by the simpler despotic forms of government. Nothing of that kind exists now, of course, in the deeper corruption of modern Europe-least of all in England.

What has grown up here is a Press organization of support and favour to the system of professional politics which colours the whole of our great Capitalist papers to-day in England. This gives them so distinct a character, of parliamentary falsehood, and that falsehood is so clearly dictated by their connection with executive power that they merit the title "Official."

The regime under which we are now living is that of a Plutocracy which has gradually replaced the old Aristocratic tradition of England. This Plutocracy-a few wealthy interests-in part controls, in part is expressed by, is in part identical with the professional politicians, and it has in the existing Capitalist Press an ally similar to that "Official Press" which continental nations knew in the past. But there is this great difference, that the "Official Press" of Continental experiments never consisted in more than a few chosen organs the character of which was well known, and the attitude of which contrasted sharply with the rest. But our "official Press" (for it is no less) covers the whole field. It has in the region of the great newspapers no competitor; indeed, it has no competitors at all, save that small Free Press, of which I shall speak in a moment, and which is its sole antagonist.

If any one doubts that this adjective "official" can properly be applied to our Capitalist Press to-day, let him ask himself first what the forces are which govern the nation, and next, whether those forces-that Government or regime-could be better served even under a system of permanent censorship than it is in the great dailies of London and the principal provincial capitals.

Is not everything which the regime desires to be suppressed, suppressed? Is not everything which it desires suggested, suggested? And is there any public question which would weaken the regime, and the discussion of which is ever allowed to appear in the great Capitalist journals?

There has not been such a case for at least twenty years. The current simulacrum of criticism apparently attacking some portion of the regime, never deals with matters vital to its prestige. On the contrary, it deliberately side-tracks any vital discussion that sincere conviction may have forced upon the public, and spoils the scent with false issues.

One paper, not a little while ago, was clamouring against the excess of lawyers in Government. Its remedy was an opposition to be headed by a lawyer.

Another was very serious upon secret trading with the enemy. It suppressed for months all reference to the astounding instance of that misdemeanour by the connections of a very prominent professional politician early in the war, and refused to comment on the single reference made to this crime in the House of Commons!

Another clamours for the elimination of enemy financial power in the affairs of this country, and yet says not a word upon the auditing of the secret Party Funds!

I say that the big daily papers have now not only those other qualities dangerous to the State which I have described, but that they have become essentially "official," that is, insincere and corrupt in their interested support of that plutocratic complex which, in the decay of aristocracy, governs England. They are as official in this sense as were ever the Court organs of ephemeral Continental experiments. All the vices, all the unreality, and all the peril that goes with the existence of an official Press is stamped upon the great dailies of our time. They are not independent where Power is concerned. They do no

t really criticize. They serve a clique whom they should expose, and denounce and betray the generality-that is the State-for whose sake the salaried public servants should be perpetually watched with suspicion and sharply kept in control.

The result is that the mass of Englishmen have ceased to obtain, or even to expect, information upon the way they are governed.

They are beginning to feel a certain uneasiness. They know that their old power of observation over public servants has slipped from them. They suspect that the known gross corruption of Public life, and particularly of the House of Commons, is entrenched behind a conspiracy of silence on the part of those very few who have the power to inform them. But, as yet, they have not passed the stage of such suspicion. They have not advanced nearly as far as the discovery of the great newspaper owners and their system. They are still, for the most part, duped.

This transitional state of affairs (for I hope to show that it is only transitional) is a very great evil. It warps and depletes public information. It prevents the just criticism of public servants. Above all, it gives immense and irresponsible power to a handful of wealthy men-and especially to the one most wealthy and unscrupulous among them-whose wealth is an accident of speculation, whose origins are repulsive, and whose characters have, as a rule, the weakness and baseness developed by this sort of adventures. There are, among such gutter-snipes, thousands whose luck ends in the native gutter, half a dozen whose luck lands them into millions, one or two at most who, on the top of such a career go crazy with the ambition of the parvenu and propose to direct the State. Even when gambling adventurers of this sort are known and responsible (as they are in professional politics) their power is a grave danger. Possessing as the newspaper owners do every power of concealment and, at the same time, no shred of responsibility to any organ of the State, they are a deadly peril. The chief of these men are more powerful to-day than any Minister. Nay, they do, as I have said (and it is now notorious), make and unmake Ministers, and they may yet in our worst hour decide the national fate.

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Now to every human evil of a political sort that has appeared in history (to every evil, that is, affecting the State, and proceeding from the will of man-not from ungovernable natural forces outside man) there comes a term and a reaction.

Here I touch the core of my matter. Side by side with what I have called "the Official Press" in our top-heavy plutocracy there has arisen a certain force for which I have a difficulty in finding a name, but which I will call for lack of a better name "the Free Press."

I might call it the "independent" Press were it not that such a word would connote as yet a little too much power, though I do believe its power to be rising, and though I am confident that it will in the near future change our affairs.

I am not acquainted with any other modern language than French and English, but I read this Free Press French and English, Colonial and American regularly and it seems to me the chief intellectual phenomenon of our time.

In France and in England, and for all I know elsewhere, there has arisen in protest against the complete corruption and falsehood of the great Capitalist papers a crop of new organs which are in the strictest sense of the word "organs of Opinion." I need not detain English readers with the effect of this upon the Continent. It is already sufficiently noteworthy in England alone, and we shall do well to note it carefully.

"The New Age" was, I think, the pioneer in the matter. It still maintains a pre-eminent position. I myself founded the "Eye-Witness" in the same chapter of ideas (by which I do not mean at all with similar objects of propaganda). Ireland has produced more than one organ of the sort, Scotland one or two. Their number will increase.

With this I pass from the just denunciation of evil to the exposition of what is good.

I propose to examine the nature of that movement which I call "The Free Press," to analyse the disabilities under which it suffers, and to conclude with my conviction that it is, in spite of its disabilities, not only a growing force, but a salutary one, and, in a certain measure, a conquering one. It is to this argument that I shall now ask my readers to direct themselves.

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