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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Free Press By Hilaire Belloc Characters: 20338

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Such being the motive powers of the Free Press in all countries, but particularly in France and England, where the evils of the Capitalist (or Official) Press were at their worst, let us next consider the disabilities under which this reaction-the Free Press-suffered.

I think these disabilities lie under four groups.

(1) In the first place, the free journals suffered from the difficulty which all true reformers have, that they have to begin by going against the stream.

(2) In the second place they suffered from that character of particularism or "crankiness," which was a necessary result of their Propagandist character.

(3) In the third place-and this is most important-they suffered economically. They were unable to present to their readers all that their readers expected at the price. This was because they were refused advertisement subsidy and were boycotted.

(4) In the fourth place, for reasons that will be apparent in a moment, they suffered from lack of information.

To these four main disabilities the Free Papers in this country added a fifth peculiarly our own; they stood in peril from the arbitrary power of the Political Lawyers.

Let us consider first the main four points. When we have examined them all we shall see against what forces, and in spite of what negative factors, the Free Press has established itself to-day.


I say that in the first place the Free Press, being a reformer, suffered from what all reformers suffer from, to wit, that in their origins they must, by definition, go against the stream.

The official Capitalist Press round about them had already become a habit when the Free Papers appeared. Men had for some time made it a normal thing to read their daily paper; to believe what it told them to be facts, and even in a great measure to accept its opinion. A new voice criticizing by implication, or directly blaming or ridiculing a habit so formed, was necessarily an unpopular voice with the mass of readers, or, if it was not unpopular, that was only because it was negligible.

This first disability, however, under which the Free Press suffered, and still suffers, would not naturally have been of long duration. The remaining three were far graver. For the mere inertia or counter current against which any reformer struggles is soon turned if the reformer (as was the case here) represented a real reaction, and was doing or saying things which the people, had they been as well informed as himself, would have agreed with. With the further disabilities of (2) particularism, (3) poverty, (4) insufficiency (to which I add, in this country, restraint by the political lawyers), it was otherwise.


The Particularism of the Free Papers was a grave and permanent weakness which still endures. Any instructed man to-day who really wants to find out what is going on reads the Free Press; but he is compelled, as I have said, to read the whole of it and piece together the sections if he wishes to discover his true whereabouts. Each particular organ gives him an individual impression, which is ex-centric, often highly ex-centric, to the general impression.

When I want to know, for instance, what is happening in France, I read the Jewish Socialist paper, the "Humanité"; the most violent French Revolutionary papers I can get, such as "La Guerre Sociale"; the Royalist "Action Fran?aise"; the anti-Semitic "Libre Parole," and so forth.

If I want to find out what is really happening with regard to Ireland, I not only buy the various small Irish free papers (and they are numerous), but also "The New Age" and the "New Witness": and so on, all through the questions that are of real and vital interest. But I only get my picture as a composite. The very same truth will be emphasized by different Free Papers for totally different motives.

Take the Marconi case. The big official papers first boycotted it for months, and then told a pack of silly lies in support of the politicians. The Free Press gave one the truth but its various organs gave the truth for very different reasons and with very different impressions. To some of the Irish papers Marconi was a comic episode, "just what one expects of Westminster"; others dreaded it for fear it should lower the value of the Irish-owned Marconi shares. "The New Age" looked at it from quite another point of view than that of the "New Witness," and the specifically Socialist Free Press pointed it out as no more than an example of what happens under Capitalist Government.

A Mahommedan paper would no doubt have called it a result of the Nazarene religion, and a Thug paper an awful example of what happens when your politicians are not Thugs.

My point is, then, that the Free Press thus starting from so many different particular standpoints has not yet produced a general organ; by which I mean that it has not produced an organ such as would command the agreement of a very great body of men, should that very great body of men be instructed on the real way in which we are governed.

Drumont was very useful for telling one innumerable particular fragments of truth, which the Official Press refuse to mention-such as the way in which the Rothschilds cheated the French Government over the death duties in Paris some years ago. Indeed, he alone ultimately compelled those wealthy men to disgorge, and it was a fine piece of work. But when he went on to argue that cheating the revenue was a purely Jewish vice he could never get the mass of people to agree with him, for it was nonsense.

Charles Maurras is one of the most powerful writers living, and when he points out in the "Action Fran?aise" that the French Supreme Court committed an illegal action at the close of the Dreyfus case, he is doing useful work, for he is telling the truth on a matter of vital public importance. But when he goes on to say that such a thing would not have occurred under a nominal Monarchy, he is talking nonsense. Any one with the slightest experience of what the Courts of Law can be under a nominal Monarchy shrugs his shoulders and says that Maurras's action may have excellent results, but that his proposed remedy of setting up one of these modern Kingships in. France in the place of the very corrupt Parliament is not convincing.

The "New Republic" in New York vigorously defends Brandeis because Brandeis is a Jew, and the "New Republic" (which I read regularly, and which is invaluable to-day as an independent instructor on a small rich minority of American opinion) is Jewish in tone. The defence of Brandeis interests me and instructs me. But when the "New Republic" prints pacifist propaganda by Brailsford, or applauds Lane under the alias of "Norman Angell," it is-in my view-eccentric and even contemptible. "New Ireland" helps me to understand the quarrel of the younger men in Ireland with the Irish Parliamentary party-but I must, and do, read the "Freeman" as well.

In a word, the Free Press all over the world, as far as I can read it, suffers from this note of particularity, and, therefore, of isolation and strain. It is not of general appeal.

In connection with this disability you get the fact that the Free Press has come to depend upon individuals, and thus fails to be as yet an institution. It is difficult, to see how any of the papers I have named would long survive a loss of their present editorship. There might possibly be one successor; there certainly would not be two; and the result is that the effect of these organs is sporadic and irregular.

In the same connection you have the disability of a restricted audience.

There are some men (and I count myself one) who will read anything, however much they differ from its tone and standpoint, in order to obtain more knowledge. I am not sure that it is a healthy habit. At any rate it is an unusual one. Most men will only read that which, while informing them, takes for granted a philosophy more or less sympathetic with their own. The Free Press, therefore, so long as it springs from many and varied minorities, not only suffers everywhere from an audience restricted in the case of each organ, but from preaching to the converted. It does get hold of a certain outside public which increases slowly, but it captures no great area of public attention at any one time.


The third group of disabilities, as I have said, attaches to the economic weakness of the Free Press.

The Free Press is rigorously boycotted by the great advertisers, partly, perhaps, because its small circulation renders them contemptuous (because nearly all of them are of the true wooden-headed "business" type that go in herds and never see for themselves where their goods will find the best market); but much more from frank enmity against the existence of any Free Press at all.

Stupidity, for instance, would account for the great advertisers not advertising articles of luxury in a paper with only a three thousand a week circulation, even if that paper were read from cover to cover by all the rich people in England; but it would not account for absence in the Free Press alone of advertisements appearing in every other kind of paper, and in many organs of far smaller circulation than the Free Press papers have.

The boycott is deliberate, and is persistently maintained. The effect is that the Free Press cannot give in space and quality of paper, excellence of distribution, and the rest, what the Official Press can give; for it lacks advertisement subsidy. This is a very grave economic handicap indeed.

In part the Free Press is indirectly supported by a subsidy from its own writers. Men whose writing commands high payment will contribute to the Free Press sometimes for small fees, usually for nothing; but, at any rate, always well below their market prices. But contribution of that kind is always precarious, and, if I may use the word, jerky. Meanwhile, it does not fill a paper. It is true that the level of writing in the Free Press is very much higher than in the Official Press. To compare the Notes in "The New Age," for instance, with the Notes in the "Spectator" is to discern a c

ontrast like that between one's chosen conversation with equals, and one's forced conversation with commercial travellers in a rail-way carriage. To read Shaw or Wells or Gilbert or Cecil Chesterton or Quiller Couch or any one of twenty others in the "New Witness" is to be in another world from the sludge and grind of the official weekly. But the boycott is rigid and therefore the supply is intermittent. It is not only a boycott of advertisement: it is a boycott of quotation. Most of the governing class know the Free Press. The vast lower middle class does not yet know that it exists.

The occasional articles in the Free Press have the same mark of high value, but it is not regular: and, meanwhile, hardly one of the Free Papers pays its way.

The difficulty of distribution, which I have mentioned, comes under the same heading, and is another grave handicap.

If a man finds a difficulty in getting some paper to which he is not a regular subscriber, but which he desires to purchase more or less regularly, it drops out of his habits. I myself, who am an assiduous reader of all such matter, have sometimes lost touch with one Free Paper or another for months, on account of a couple of weeks' difficulty in getting my copy, I believe this impediment of habit to apply to most of the Free Papers.


Fourthly, but also partly economic, there is the impediment the Free Press suffers of imperfect information. It will print truths which the Great Papers studiously conceal, but daily and widespread information on general matters it has great difficulty in obtaining.

Information is obtained either at great expense through private agents, or else by favour through official channels, that is, from the professional politicians. The Official Press makes and unmakes the politicians. Therefore, the politician is careful to keep it informed of truths that are valuable to him, as well as to make it the organ of falsehoods equally valuable.

Most of the official papers, for instance, were informed of the Indian Silver scandal by the culprits themselves in a fashion which forestalled attack. Those who led the attack groped in the dark.

For we must remember that the professional politicians all stand in together when a financial swindle is being carried out. There is no "opposition" in these things. Since it is the very business of the Free Press to expose the falsehood or inanity of the Official Capitalist Press, one may truly say that a great part of the energies of the Free Press is wasted in this "groping in the dark" to which it is condemned. At the same time, the Economic difficulty prevents the Free Press from paying for information difficult to be obtained, and under these twin disabilities it remains heavily handicapped.

The Political Lawyers

We must consider separately, for it is not universal but peculiar to our own society, the heavy disability under which the Free Press suffers in this country from the now unchecked power of the political lawyers.

I have no need to emphasize the power of a Guild when it is once formed, and has behind it strong corporate traditions. It is the principal thesis of "The New Age," in which this essay first appeared, that national guilds, applied to the whole field of society, would be the saving of it through their inherent strength and vitality.

Such guilds as we still have among us (possessed of a Charter giving them a monopoly, and, therefore, making them in "The New Age" phrase "black-leg proof") are confined, of course, to the privileged wealthier classes. The two great ones with which we are all familiar are those of the Doctors and of the Lawyers.

What their power is we saw in the sentencing to one of the most terrible punishments known to all civilized Europe-twelve months hard labour-of a man who had exercised his supposed right to give medical advice to a patient who had freely consulted him. The patient happened to die, as she might have died in the hands of a regular Guild doctor. It has been known for patients to die under the hands of regular Guild doctors. But the mishap taking place in the hands of some one who was not of the Guild, although the advice had been freely sought and honestly given, the person who infringed the monopoly of the Guild suffered this savage piece of revenge.

But even the Guild of the Doctors is not so powerful as that of the Lawyers, qua guild alone. Its administrative power makes it far more powerful. The well-to-do are not compelled to employ a doctor, but all are compelled to employ a lawyer at every turn, and that at a cost quite unknown anywhere else in Europe. But this power of the legal guild, qua guild, in modern England is supplemented by further administrative and arbitrary powers attached to a selected number of its members.

Now the Lawyers' Guild has latterly become (to its own hurt as it will find) hardly distinguishable from the complex of professional politics.

One need not be in Parliament many days to discover that most laws are made and all revised by members of this Guild. Parliament is, as a drafting body, virtually a Committee of Lawyers who are indifferent to the figment of representation which still clings to the House of Commons.

It should be added that this part of their work is honestly done, that the greatest labour is devoted to it, and that it is only consciously tyrannical or fraudulent when the Legal Guild feels itself to be in danger.

But far more important than the legislative power of the Legal Guild (which is now the chief framer of statutory law as it has long been the salutary source of common law) is its executive or governing power.

Whether after exposing a political scandal you shall or shall not be subject to the risk of ruin or loss of liberty, and all the exceptionally cruel scheme of modern imprisonment, depends negatively upon the Legal Guild. That is, so long as the lawyers support the politicians you have no redress, and only in case of independent action by the lawyers against the politicians, with whom they have come to be so closely identified, have you any opportunity for discussion and free trial. The old idea of the lawyer on the Bench protecting the subject against the arbitrary power of the executive, of the judge independent of the government, has nearly disappeared.

You may, of course, commit any crime with impunity if the professional politicians among the lawyers refuse to prosecute. But that is only a negative evil. More serious is the positive side of the affair: that you may conversely be put at the risk of any penalty if they desire to put you at that risk; for the modern secret police being ubiquitous and privileged, their opponent can be decoyed into peril at the will of those who govern, even where the politicians dare not prosecute him for exposing corruption.

Once the citizen has been put at this peril-that is, brought into court before the lawyers-whether it shall lead to his actual ruin or no is again in the hands of members of the legal guild; the judge may (it has happened), withstand the politicians (by whom he was made, to whom he often belongs, and upon whom his general position to-day depends). He may stand out, or-as nearly always now-he will identify himself with the political system and act as its mouthpiece.

It is the prevalence of this last attitude which so powerfully affects the position of the Free Press in this country.

When the judge lends himself to the politicians we all know what follows.

The instrument used is that of an accusation of libel, and, in cases where it is desired to establish terror, of criminal libel.

The defence of the man so accused must either be undertaken by a Member of the Legal Guild-in which case the advocate's own future depends upon his supporting the interests of the politicians and so betraying his client-or, if some eccentric undertakes his own defence, the whole power of the Guild will be turned against him under forms of liberty which are no longer even hypocritical. A special juryman, for instance, that should stand out against the political verdict desired would be a marked man. But the point is not worth making, for, as a fact, no juryman ever has stood out lately when a political verdict was ordered.

Even in the case of so glaring an abuse, with which the whole country is now familiar, we must not exaggerate. It would still be impossible for the politicians, for instance, to get a verdict during war in favour of an overt act of treason. But after all, argument of this sort applies to any tyranny, and the power the politicians have and exercise of refusing to prosecute, however clear an act of treason or other grossly unpopular act might be, is equivalent to a power of acquittal.

The lawyers decide in the last resort on the freedom of speech and writing among their fellow-citizens, and as their Guild is now unhappily intertwined with the whole machinery of Executive Government, we have in modern England an executive controlling the expression of opinion. It is absolute in a degree unknown, I think, in past society.

Now, it is evident that, of all forms of civic activity, writing upon the Free Press most directly challenges this arbitrary power. There is not an editor responsible for the management of any Free Paper who will not tell you that a thousand times he has had to consider whether it were possible to tell a particular truth, however important that truth might be to the commonwealth. And the fear which restrains him is the fear of destruction which the combination of the professional politician, and lawyer holds in its hand. There is not one such editor who could not bear witness to the numerous occasions on which he had, however courageous he might be, to forgo the telling of a truth which was of vital value, because its publication would involve the destruction of the paper he precariously controlled.

There is no need to labour all this. The loss of freedom we have gradually suffered is quite familiar to all of us, and it is among the worst of all the mortal symptoms with which our society is affected.

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