Short Speech on the ‘Press and Ownership Debate’

The community’s main concern with the newspaper is not with its economic function in a direct sense, its importance as a form of property or as a producer of “wealth” that is altogether secondary.

The importance of this problem lies in the fact that the newspapers are practically the only means which the com­munity has of informing itself of the facts which determine its collective decisions, social or political.

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The papers are the wit­nesses upon whose evidence, mainly; the daily judgments of civilised mankind to-day are based.

To a society whose purview has come to embrace the whole world a society which has so developed that the hasty decisions of busy and pre-occupied folk, reading “catch headlines” in underground trains, offices and tea shops, are laws of war and peace in Delhi, Dublin and Berlin to such a society the Press is at times, and generally in times of crisis, its eyes and its ears, if not indeed its pulpit and its forum.

The problem of this form of property is differentiated from other forms by one aspect of its recent history.

In the case of such things as roads, bridges, water, telegraphs, obvious social need has declared that they shall pass more and more into the possession of the community; the direction has been from private towards public control.

In the case of the Press, the dissemination of the printed word, social need has imposed the contrary tendency from public control the dictation of the State towards private freedom our grandfathers fought for the liberation of the Press from State control as an obvious part of the battle for freedom.

It is one of the disillusionments of a purely political democracy that the “free Press” the unfettered and abundant production of cheap newspapers to which our grandfathers looked as the means of popular freedom and enlightenment has become one of the worst obstacles to the development of a capacity for real self-government, perhaps the worst of all the menaces to modern democracy.

The institution which the older order most feared as the instrument of revolution has, in fact, become the main instrument by which any real movement towards a new social order is resisted.

The reader is reminded of this very recent phase in the history of the Press in order at once to come to grips with the real issue in this problem.

“Nationalisation” as a principle, even when qualified by the self-government of Guild Socialism, cannot be applied to the Press as one might apply it to mines or railways. And it cannot be so applied for a reason that gets at once to the heart of the problem.

That reason is the nature of the human mind; its extreme fallibility, its indispensable need if it is to preserve any adequate capacity for sound judgment of hostile criticism and contradictory discussion; and the relation which the function of the Press bears to those things.

If a people are to be in a position to judge the conduct of their Government, to decide whether it is doing well or ill, to decide the merits of public policy at all; if, indeed, they are to preserve the capacity for sound judgment, they must have the facts put before them not only as the Government would have them put, but also as those who disagree with the Government may desire to put them.

In other words, the problem of the Press, its place in society, its control, is directly related to the very fundamental problem of freedom of discussion as the indispensable condition of truth; to the fact that all governments and all peoples need criticism; that without the correcting influence of unpopular opinions that is to say, new and unusual opinions which governments and peoples alike always wish to suppress popular opinion would steadily deteriorate in worth and the capacity for self-government decline.

Now it is true, as it is in part the object of these pages to show, that the present industrialised Press does not ensure the condition just named; it progressively undermines it.

But the alternative of returning to the Governmental control of the Press in any of the forms which we had in the past would be to exchange a bad situation for a worse.

How very real is the danger of slipping into the creation of a new form of Inquisition, of allowing governments to create by the public control of the Press a political and social Holy Office, is shown by the experience of the Press during the War and the results obtained by our Colleges of Propaganda for political purposes.

The most spectacular form of this Inquisition was, of course, the operation of the Defence of the Realm Act in England, and of the Espionage Act in America.

In Britain we came to the suppression of newspapers and the prosecution of men like Bertrand Russell, not for revealing information which could be of any possible use to the enemy, but for the expression of opinion “likely to discourage recruiting.”

The Sermon on the Mount would discourage recruiting, and a Parliamentary under Secretary of State announced, logically enough, that if used for such a purpose that document would be liable to seizure. We had the foreign circulation of quite a number of papers including that of the Nation prohibited.

Authors like Mr. G. Lowes Dickinson were put on a similar index. (The wonders of the military mind in these matters are quite incomprehensible.) We had house-to-house searches for incriminating documents.

In short, there was nothing for which we had held up Imperialist Prussia and Czarist Russia to scorn during generations that could not be done under the law of Britain. And America, of course, was worse. The story of these repressions has been told at length elsewhere.

But, gross and often stupid as they were, one may doubt whether they represented the worst feature of the return to the governmental control of opinion.

They were at least visible, and could be challenged, and the courts were obliged to execute the law publicly.

The nation saw in some measure what it was doing and permitting. But the use of governmental propaganda, which became a feature of government in every belligerent State, is much less overt and much more dangerous.

Governmental Press Bureaux and the utilisation of the Press as the chief instrument of governmental propaganda were common to every belligerent country. Those who cared to exercise a little vigilance could see in every other column of their newspaper the trail of propaganda.

What the reader not “in the know” often took for unalloyed “news” was, as a matter of fact, often a partial statement concocted for military or political purposes in the “Information Department” of some interested Foreign (or Home) Government.

In a few months quite as much in Britain and America as in Germany we managed to make of the Press a more “reptile” instrument than Bismarck could have hoped to create.

Strong as that statement may sound; it suffices to read the post-war publications of journalists and war correspondents, to study the analyses of the news like that made by Mr. Walter Lippmann in his ‘Test of the News,” to be compelled to admit its essential truth.

We shall miss the essential character of the evil if we assume that the fault is purely a governmental one.

The worst censorship imposed during the War imposed, indeed, in certain matters normally during peace-time was not that imposed by the governments, but that imposed, first, by certain interests, and also, quite as dangerously, by the public itself.

If practically the whole Press of Western Europe and America normally and systematically falsified the news from Russia (in the fashion in which Mr. Lippmann has shown to be the case with one of the greatest of American papers;) if it never told a really straight story; if the same sort of distortion goes on about strikes and the Labour Movement, that is certainly not due mainly to the exercise of governmental censorship.

It is due in part to the influence of certain interests, a point of view which daily newspapers, as now produced, are bound to respect. But it is also due perhaps to an even greater degree to the readers themselves, to “public opinion.”

It is true that opinion is created largely by the Press, but it is created by the way in which the Press plays upon and exploits certain tendencies and instincts.

The real danger of any resort to the control of publication by the community is (and the fact will be insisted upon in more than one connection in these pages) that the natural man hates freedom of discussion, the freedom, that is, of others to utter opinions with which he does not agree, which disturb his convictions.

Free discussion, the listening to opinions that seem to us wrong, mischievous, dangerous and immoral, is an extremely unpleasant and difficult social discipline, to which, however, we must submit if we are ever to maintain a general judgment capable of managing our complex society at all.

And the danger of the principle of public control is that it gives an outlet for the instinct which exists in all of us to coerce and browbeat those who have the insufferable impudence to disagree with us.

Today it may be asserted by a patriotic majority against pro-Germans or Bolsheviks. But to-morrow the principle will be invoked by Socialists against the bourgeoisie, and the next day by one kind of Socialist against another and always on the ground, of course, of State necessity.

But the real reason of the action will be the age-long hatred of heresy, of opinions which do not happen to be ours.

It is true, as we have seen, that the present capitalist Press, for reasons which will be developed at greater length presently, does not in fact guarantee freedom of discussion: very much the contrary.

But if, then, a privately-owned Press is no solution, and if a Socialist society must reject the State control of its Press, what is the remaining alternative?

It will be the object of these pages to offer some answers to that question.

But it will be necessary first to get some clear notion of what constitutes both the strength and the evil of the industrialised Press as we now know it; in what way it is an enemy of social betterment; the nature of the forces that will have to be met and dealt with if we are to do better in the future.