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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Free Press By Hilaire Belloc Characters: 6319

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Next consider this powerful factor in the business. The truth confirms itself.

Half a million people read of a professional politician, for instance, that his oratory has an "electric effect," or that he is "full of personal magnetism," or that he "can sway an audience to tears or laughter at will." A Free Paper telling the truth about him says that he is a dull speaker, full of commonplaces, elderly, smelling strongly of the Chapel, and giving the impression that he is tired out; flogging up sham enthusiasm with stale phrases which the reporters have already learnt to put into shorthand with one conventional outline years ago.[1]

Well, the false, the ludicrously false picture designed to put this politician in the limelight (as against favours to be rendered), no doubt remains the general impression with most of those 500,000 people. The simple and rather tawdry truth may be but doubtfully accepted by a few hundreds only.

But sooner or later a certain small proportion of the 500,000 actually hear the politician in question. They hear him speak. They receive a primary and true impression.

If they had not read anything suggesting the truth, it is quite upon the cards that the false suggestion would still have weight with them, in spite of the evidence of their senses. Men are so built that uncontradicted falsehood sufficiently repeated does have that curious power of illusion. A man having heard the speech delivered by the old gentleman, if there were nothing but the Official Press to inform opinion, might go away saying to himself: "I was not very much impressed, but no doubt that was due to my own weariness. I cannot but believe that the general reputation he bears is well founded. He must be a great orator, for I have always heard him called one."

But a man who has even once seen it stated that this politician was exactly what he was will vividly remember that description (which at first hearing he probably thought false); physical experience has confirmed the true statement and made it live. These statements of truth, even when they are quite unimportant, more, of course, when they illuminate matters of great civic moment, have a cumulative effect.

I am confident, for instance, that at the present time the mass of middle-class people are not only acquainted with, but convinced of, the truth, that, long before the war, the House of Commons had become a fraud; that its debates did not turn upon matters which really divided opinion, and that even its paltry debating points, the pretence of a true opposition was a falsehood.

This salutary truth had been arrived at, of course, by many other channels. The scandalous arrangement between the Front Benches which forced the Insurance Act down our throats was an eye-opener for the great masses of the people. So was the cynical action of the politicians in the matter of Chinese Labour after the Election of 1906. So was the puerile stage play indulged in over things like the Welsh Disestablishment Bill and the Education Bills.

But among the forces which opened people's eyes about the House of Commons, the Free Press played a very great par

t, though it was never mentioned in the big Official papers, and though not one man in many hundreds of the public ever heard of it. The few who read it were startled into acceptance by the exact correspondence between its statement and observed fact.

The man who tells the truth when his colleagues around him are lying, always enjoys a certain restricted power of prophecy. If there were a general conspiracy to maintain the falsehood that all peers were over six foot high, a man desiring to correct this falsehood would be perfectly safe if he were to say: "I do not know whether the next peer you meet will be over six foot or not, but I am pretty safe in prophesying that you will find, among the next dozen three or four peers less than six foot high."

If there were a general conspiracy to pretend that people with incomes above the income-tax level never cheated one in a bargain, one could not say "on such-and-such a day you will be cheated in a bargain by such-and-such a person, whose income will be above the income-tax level," but one could say; "Note the people who swindle you in the next five years, and I will prophesy that some of the number will be people paying income-tax."

This power of prophecy, which is an adjunct of truth telling, I have noticed to affect people very profoundly.

A worthy provincial might have been shocked ten years ago to hear that places in the Upper House of Parliament were regularly bought and sold. He might have indignantly denied it The Free Press said: "In some short while you will have a glaring instance of a man who is incompetent and obscure but very rich, appearing as a legislator with permanent hereditary power, transferable to his son after his death. I don't know which the next one will be, but there is bound to be a case of the sort quite soon for the thing goes on continually. You will be puzzled to explain it. The explanation is that the rich man has given a large sum of money to the needy professional politician, Selah."

Our worthy provincial may have heard but an echo of this truth, for it would have had, ten years ago, but few readers. He may not have seen a syllable of it in his daily paper. But things happen. He sees first a great soldier, then a well-advertised politician, not a rich man, but very widely talked about, made peers. The events are normal in each case, and he is not moved. But sooner or later there comes a case in which he has local knowledge. He says to himself: "Why on earth is So-and-so made a peer (or a front bench man, or what not)? Why, in the name of goodness, is this very rich but unknown, and to my knowledge incompetent, man suddenly put into such a position?" Then he remembers what he was told, begins to ask questions, and finds out, of course, that money passed; perhaps, if he is lucky, he finds out which professional politician pouched the money-and even how much he took!


[1] A friend of mine in the Press Gallery used to represent "I have yet to learn that the Government" by a little twirl, and "What did the right honourable gentleman do, Mr. Speaker? He had the audacity" by two spiral dots.

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