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   Chapter 21 THE PLACE OF THE JOURNALIST IN MODERN LIFE

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 23434

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The watch-dog's function by no means exhausts the work of the journalist. There remains that strange function which is not yet quite realised or understood in a modern community, the function of publicity. Publicity is, in one sense, the method or instrument by which the watch- dog gives its warning: it is his bark. But there is something more in publicity than this. Publicity is an end as well as a means. There are positive and distinct virtues inherent in publicity quite apart from the fact that it is the medium through which the journalist works. This fact is beginning to be realised more and more in this country. In America, it has long been recognised. There, indeed, publicity may be said to have been crowned. It is considered one of the pillars of society, and so in truth it is.

I can best illustrate what I mean by this, by telling a story of Delane, the editor of The Times when The Times was at its greatest. It is one which should never be forgotten by the critics of journalism and journalists. Someone had been taking Delane to task over an incident connected with his newspaper, and Delane replied: "You appear to forget that my business is publicity." If the public would not forget this essential fact in regard to newspapers they would attain to a much clearer and juster understanding of the problems of the Press. We must always remember that the journalist's business is publicity. At first the plain man may be inclined to say that Delane's words have nothing to do with the matter, or, rather, he may feel inclined to reply in the spirit of Talleyrand's answer to the man who said he had to live- "I do not see the necessity." A very little reflection, however, will show the necessity of publicity, will show, I mean, that publicity has a real and very important function in the State, and that it is literally true that the modern world could not live and progress without the newspaper. The newspaper is indispensable to progress, and to progress in the right direction. Unless we know, day by day, what people are doing, in our nation, in our country, in our town, in our village, we should be like men wandering about in the dark, and we should find it far more difficult than we do now to obtain the co-operation of others for good and worthy objects. We should fail also to get that encouragement, moral, intellectual, and social, which is obtained by knowing that others are thinking the same thoughts and entertaining the same aspirations that we are. It is good to know of the righteous work which is being done by others. It is even good to know, within reasonable limits, the evil that is being done under the sun, in order that we may lay our plans and bring up our forces to check that evil. Without that daily report on the world's doings, which is the modern newspaper, we should for the most part be blind and deaf, and if not dumb, at any rate hardly able to speak above a whisper.

This view may at first sight seem the presumptuous claim of a journalist for his trade. Let any of my hearers, however, try to imagine a newspaperless world and he will soon realise that I am not exaggerating. It is not merely a desire for amusement that makes the leaders of men in a besieged town, or even in so narrow a field as an Arctic expedition, encourage the foundation of a newspaper. They want it as a means of illumination quite as much as of entertainment.

People sometimes talk of men's instinctive desire for news, but, like many other instincts, this one is founded on convenience and the law of self-preservation. Readers of Stevenson's Kidnapped will remember how, after the Appin murder, the fugitives on the heather obeyed, even at very great risk to themselves, the sacred duty of the Highlands to "pass the news." In savage countries and in troubled times a man is looked upon as a wild beast rather than a human being if he does not pass the news. Asian travellers dwell upon the way in which the Bedouins observe the duty of passing the news, and described how, if a solitary Arab is encountered, the news is, as a matter of course, passed to him. The seclusion of women even yields to this imperative law of the desert, and an Arab man and an Arab woman may be seen with their horses, tail to tail, and so themselves back to back also, giving and receiving the news over their shoulders.

I am tempted to give a modern example of the advantage of news in the purest sense. Some years ago, in the course of one of those brave attempts which have been made to cleanse the Augean stable of municipal politics in San Francisco, the editor of the chief newspaper engaged in the campaign of purity was kidnapped in the streets of San Francisco. He was hurried off in a motorcar and placed under restraint in a train at a suburban station, from which he was to be carried to a place some 500 miles away. It happened, however, that a reporter caught sight of the editor's face in the reserved portion of the Pullman car where he was imprisoned, and telegraphed to a San Francisco evening paper that the well-known Mr. So-and-So was "on the -- train, going North." The reporter had not the slightest notion of the romantic circumstances of the kidnapping and thought he was merely telegraphing an item of social news. One of the editor's colleagues in the campaign against corruption happened, however, to see this item in the evening paper and at once realised what it meant. He instantly telephoned to the proper authorities at a town halfway between San Francisco and the kidnappers' destination; the train was stopped, and the kidnapped man brought before a judge on a warrant of Habeas Corpus, and promptly released. No doubt mere publicity can occasionally serve the evildoers equally well, but here, at any rate, is an instance of its utility which may be regarded as proof of the advantage of collecting and transmitting news even of the most unimportant, or apparently unimportant, kind.

Though I hold that publicity is a function of very real utility to the State, it must not be supposed that I think it can be practised without limitations, or that I do not realise that it has dangers both great and many. It has been said that honesty is not as easy as Blind Man's Buff. The same thing may well be said of publicity. The first and most obvious limitation of publicity is that publicity should only be given to truth and not to error. Here, however, we must not forget that there are certain forms of error which can only be exposed and got rid of by publicity, and, again, that it is often only possible to find out what is truth and what error by submitting the alleged facts to the test of publicity. What at first seems an incredible rumour turns out to be literally true, and therefore a failure to report it would actually have been a suppression of the truth. The more one studies this question of publicity the more it appears that what is wanted in the public interest is a just and clear understanding of the way in which publicity is to be achieved. The journalist's business is publicity, but it is also his business to see that this duty of publicity, though carried out to the full, is carried out in a way which shall do not harm but good. If the methods of publicity are sound, fearless, and without guile, all is well. If they have not these qualities, then publicity may become the most dishonourable and degrading of all trades.

It must not be supposed, however, that by saying this I am trying to give a defence of the Yellow Press. I fully realise its evils, only I desire that the Yellow Press should be condemned for its faults, and not merely for its virtues when carried to excess. What the Yellow Press should be condemned for is its tendency to that supreme evil- indifference to veracity of statement. Another of its extreme evils, an evil made possible by publicity, is that of triviality. It debauches the public mind, in my opinion, much more by its triviality than by its vulgarity or grossness. Sensationalism and want of reticence will in the end cure themselves, but triviality is a defect which grows by what it feeds on. People get a habit of reading silly details about silly people, and the habit becomes an actual craze; they can no more do without it than they can rest without chewing gum. This triviality is indeed twice cursed. It degrades both him who reads and him who writes. As to the public, indeed, I sometimes feel inclined to say with Ben Jonson in his famous Ode:

If they love lees and leave the lusty wine,

Envy them not their palates with the swine.

But it is a pitiful sight to see unfortunate men who might do better work, condemned to filling the trough with insipid and unsavoury swill collected from the refuse-pails of the town.

Twenty years ago, I had a conversation in regard to this point with the reporters of two very Yellow newspapers, on an Atlantic liner outside the port of New York. The Lucania had run upon a sand-bank, and we had to wait all day in sight of that towered city, exposed to the full fury of the interviewer. When I ventured to ask the two reporters in question whether they did not think it was perfectly absurd and ridiculous to print the chronicles of small beer, or, rather, of small slops, such as appeared in their columns, they readily, and I believe perfectly honestly, agreed, but said in defence that they had to obey their editor's orders. To me, at any rate, they acted most honourably and gave no report of our conversation, for I had reminded them that dog did not eat dog. A third reporter, however, to whom I had not thought it necessary to indicate as "private and confidential" an enthusiastic remark drawn by the beauty of New York harbour in an autumn sunset, was not so sensitive. "This is more splendid," I said, "than even the approach to Venice. There is nothing in the whole world like the sea- front of New York seen from the sea." This reporter honoured me next day with a headline of such magnificent triviality that I cannot refrain from quoting it: "Editor Strachey says New York skins Venice!"-a contribution to the illimitable inane worthy to stand by a headline in an English provincial paper: "Vestryman choked by a whelk!"

Publicity, when it is honest publicity, is as important a thing as the collection and presentation of evidence at a trial. Without the evidence, of what avail would be advocacy or judgment? I have dealt with the problem of publicity, but publicity of course is not the whole of journalism. Besides news there is comment, and comment, at any rate among serious-minded people like the British, is quite as well thought of as news. It is with that part of journalism, indeed, that the editor of a weekly newspaper has most to do. The journalism of comment may be divided into parts, both perfectly legitimate. There is what I may term judicial journalism, and the journalism of advocacy. In judicial journalism the writer attempts to approach the jury of the public rather as a judge than as a barrister, to sum up rather than make a speech for the prosecution or the defence. This does not, of course, mean that he does not in the end take a side or give a decision. He forms a view and states it, but in stating it he admits the existence of the other side and does not try to carry the jury away with him by the arts of rhetoric. Such journalism is not necessarily cold-blooded. Just as a judge may denounce baseness or misconduct in burning words, so the journalist who endeavours to maintain the judicial attitude may, when the necessity arises, be strong in his denunciation of what he holds to be weak, dangerous, or evil. He, however, who is bold enough to essay this form of

journalism must never forget that a judge who professes to be judicial in tone, but who ends in being partial, is a worse man than an honest advocate, because he is, in fact, cloaking partisanship by hypocrisy.

Little need be said in defence of the advocate journalist. He makes no pretence to be doing anything but pleading the cause of his party, and placing it in the best possible light. It is not his business, but that of the opposition writer, to put the case for the other side, and if he occasionally pretends to an enthusiasm which does not really belong to him, he is only practising the innocent artifice of the counsel who tells the jury that he will be an unhappy man should he have failed in the task of persuading them to restore his long-suffering, if burglarious, bibulous, or bigamous, client to his best wife and family.

It must not be supposed, however, that the advocate journalist is a cynic who realises that his own cause is a poor one, but calls it the best of causes because he is paid so to do. That, as all men of experience know, is a fallacy as regards the barrister, and it is still more a fallacy as regards the journalist. We should remember the story of the barrister who, at the end of a long career, declared that he had been singularly fortunate. He had never been called upon to defend a guilty person or to argue a case where the merits and the law were not strongly on his side. If this feeling grows up in the case of a man who, changing from prosecution to defence and from plaintiff to defendant, may often have to alter his point of view completely, how much more is it likely to grow up in that of the advocate journalist who is always on the same side? Believe me, the notion of the political journalist perpetually writing leaders against his own convictions is a pure figment of the popular imagination. No doubt an editor will sometimes ask a leader-writer not to put a particular view so strongly as he, the leader-writer, is known to feel it, but such reticence cannot surely be regarded as insincerity on the ethics of anonymity in journalism. The public are apt to suppose that anonymity is the cloak of all sorts of misdoings, and I have often heard people declare that in their opinion every leader-writer should be forced to sign his name. As I once heard it picturesquely expressed, "The mask should be torn from the villain's face. Why should a man be allowed to stab his neighbour in the dark!" As a matter of fact, I am convinced that anonymity makes, not for irresponsibility but for responsibility, and that there are many men who, though truculent, offensive, and personal when they write with the "I," will show a true sense of moderation and responsibility when they use the editorial "we." The man who writes for a newspaper very soon gets a strong sense of what is right and proper to be said in that particular organ, and he instinctively refuses to give way to personal feeling and personal animosity when he is writing, not in his own name, but in that of his newspaper.

I have hated and distrusted So-and-So ever since I was at Cambridge with him. I know what a false-hearted creature he was then, and how vain and supercilious, and I should like to get my knife into him some day. I feel, however, that the Daily Comet could not possibly attack him in this way. Even though my editor has told me that I may say what I like about him it would not be fair to go for him unless I signed my name.

That is an imaginary soliloquy which, I am sure, represents the feelings of plenty of leader-writers when confronted with a personal issue.

Again, men who write anonymously, and in the name of their paper and not of themselves, are much less likely to yield to the foolish vanity of self-assertion. When Zola visited England, I remember a very striking passage in which he expressed to an interviewer his astonishment at the anonymity of the British Press. He wondered how it was that our writers refused themselves the "delicious notoriety" which they might obtain through signed articles. Thank heaven, our writers prefer the dignity which can be maintained through the honourable tradition of a great journal to such "delicious notoriety" The delicious notoriety of the individual is the ruin of the better journalism.

Again, we must never forget that the signed article, however true and sound it may be, is always to some extent discounted through the personality of the writer. "A" may have written in perfect sincerity of a particular statesman, but if he signs his name the gossip-mongers are sure to say that the article in question is to be accounted for by the fact that a fortnight before the writer was stopping with the Cabinet Minister who has been well spoken of, or because the writer's wife is well known to be a friend of the statesman, or for some equally trivial reason. Just as a good chairman of a committee should sink his individuality and speak for the committee as a whole, so a good leader- writer can with perfect honesty and sincerity sink his individuality and speak for his newspaper rather than himself.

But, though I incline to anonymity as the rule of political journalism, I quite admit that in pure literature and in the arts the signed article is often to be preferred. For the object with which the reader approaches a literary article is the desire for pleasure, and that pleasure is naturally heightened by knowing the name of the actor who is on the stage. Though it might be an amusing trick it would be on the whole very disappointing to the public if the play-bill on which the names of the characters appear had instead of the actors' names arbitrary letters, like X, Y, and Z. They would probably not appreciate the task of guessing who was concealed under the wig or the shadows painted on the face which converted Miss Jones' somewhat aquiline features into a nez retroussé. No one can doubt that the Parisian public liked to know that the Causeries de Lundi were by Sainte- Beuve, just as they now like to see the signature of Mr. J. C. Squire at the end of an article. To push the point to extremes, who would care to grope through a nameless Georgian Anthology in which each poem had to be taken on its intrinsic merits? Even if the public could stand the test, I feel certain that the critics could not. I have always had a good deal of sympathy for the dramatic critic in Mr. Shaw's play when he declares that he can place a play with perfect certainty if he knows whom it was written by, but not unless. Fancy the poor critic going through a volume and saying to himself: "Now is this Shanks or is it Graves trying to score off him by a parody? Again, is this one of the Sitwells writing like Sassoon in order to drive the grocers to delirium?" But, harrowing thought, perhaps it is neither, but only some admirer of the Georgian Mind at Capetown or Melbourne, who has produced for his own use an amalgam of several styles. The mere writing about it is making me so uncomfortable that I must hastily desist!

There is another point upon which I must touch, though very shortly. That is the ethics of newspaper proprietorship. People sometimes talk as if it were a great misfortune that the newspapers of England are, as a rule, owned by rich men. I cannot agree, though I do think it is a great misfortune that a newspaper cannot be started by a poor man. My reason for desiring that as a rule a newspaper proprietor should be rich is the danger of newspapers being bought, or, at any rate, of their articles being bought, as too often happens in countries where newspapers are not great properties. It is often said, for example, that a hundred pounds or so will procure the insertion of an article in most continental newspapers. This is no doubt a gross libel on the best foreign newspapers, but it indicates a danger when newspapers are owned by men of small means and make small profits. When a newspaper is bringing in £50,000 or £60,000 a year it is obvious that even if we assume the newspaper proprietor to have no sense of public duty, it will not be worth his while to sell the influence of his paper. He is not going to risk the destruction of a great property-destruction would surely ensue from his corrupt act becoming known-for a few hundred pounds. To put it brutally, "his figure" would be too high for any to pay-a quarter of a million at least.

But though it makes for soundness that newspaper proprietors should be personally independent, it is also most important that they should be men whose wealth is derived from their newspapers and not from other sources. A great newspaper in the hands of a man who does not look to make a profit but owns it for external reasons is a source of danger. Strange as it may seem at first sight, the desire for direct and legitimate profit in a newspaper is an antiseptic and prevents corruption. One does not want to see a newspaper proprietor, with his ear to the ground, always thinking of his audience, but the desire to stand well with his readers is often a power in the direction of good. The proprietor who endeavours to be the honest servant of his readers will not go very far wrong. When I say honest servant I mean the man who plays the part of the servant who, though he will do his master's bidding when that bidding is not positively immoral, at the same time is prepared to warn that master, courteously but firmly, against rash or base actions. There is nothing corrupt in such honest service, when rendered either to a man or a nation, or even to a Party.

To put it in another way, there are worse things than studying public opinion and endeavouring partly to interpret it honestly and partly to guide it in the right direction.

I will end this chapter by asking the readers of a Journalist's Memoirs to do two things. Firstly, to think better of journalists and their morals than they are at first sight inclined to do. Secondly, not to exaggerate the influence and power of the Press. No doubt it has some great powers, but those powers are much more limited than is popularly supposed. Remember that by using exaggerated language in regard to the power of the Press, people increase the evil which they desire to diminish. Dr. Johnson said very truly that no man was ever written down except by himself. Believe me, this is as true now as when Dr. Johnson said it. I do not believe in the power of the Press either to crush a good man and a great man, or to exalt a weak man or a base man. No doubt a conspiracy of journalists might conceivably keep back a wise statesman or public man for a year or two, and, again, might for a time advertise into undue prominence an inferior man. In the end, however, matters right themselves. The public have a very sound instinct in persons as well as in things, and when they recognise real worth in a man they will know how to prevent the newspaper from doing him wrong, supposing him for some reason to have incurred the enmity of the whole Press-not an easy thing to accomplish. If the Dictator makes a dead set against Smith, the Detractor is pretty sure to find good in him, and may even run him as a whole-souled patriot! We are a contradictious trade.

Don't be afraid of the Press, but do it justice and keep it in its place, that is, the place of a useful servant, but not of a master.

This is the last word on the Press of a working journalist, one who, though he holds no high-falutin' illusions as to his profession, is at the same time intensely proud of that profession, and who believes that, taken as a whole, there is no calling more worthy of being practised by an honourable man, and one who wishes to serve his country.

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