The less scrupulous organs hardly need leading articles to give their views on events, because they are implicit in the selection and presentation of the news. Even the more reputable papers sometimes fail to maintain their standards of dispassionate reporting:
Ras Mulugeta (is) in full flight retreating troops are being heavily bombed and are reported to be either too weary or too dazed to take proper precautions to save themselves.
It is clear that the taking of Amba Aradam was a magnificent feat of arms. . . . The combined effects of shells and bombs appeared to have crushed even the fanatical courage of the best of the Abyssinian warriors, to whose bravery in the face of heavy losses warm tributes are, however, paid.
The task of harassing the fleeing Abyssinians is being left to the air force. A long column of fugitives estimated at 20,000 is said to have kept the Italian armies fully occupied yesterday.
It is estimated that during the course of the day 30 tons of high explosives were dropped on the enemy, who at first replied with heavy rifle fire against the low- flying machines, but later appear to have accepted their fate passively and to have abandoned stores, livestock, and even their wounded.
The account is hardly objective. The same newspaper until recently failed to separate news from comment in its reports on Russia—for some years it had no correspondent in that country.
The four extracts from leading articles which follow are from one day’s issue of different papers; and the reader can estimate on internal evidence their reliability as guides to public opinion.
I. Keep clear of war:
By taking Irun, the Patriots have struck a resounding blow for the cause of liberty in Spain and throughout Europe. The beaten Reds, having murdered an Archbishop and a hundred priests held as hostages, are rushing, and still armed, into France. It appears that the
road lies open to the inevitable capture of San Sebastian, and the miscreants in Madrid begun to feel something of the terror they have visited on thousands of forlorn victims.
Under this hammer-stroke that fiendish arch-Bolshevik, Caballero, has ousted the dummy, Giral, and formed a so-called government of unashamed and violent Communists.
Great Britain, except for that strange minority which is eaten up with admiration for the Bolsheviks, will welcome yesterday’s notable victory for Christianity, order and decency.
Good wishes and sympathy towards the Patriots in their struggle are legitimate, and cannot, indeed, be repressed; yet this country must rigidly resolve to keep out of all entanglements either in Spain or in other regions of Europe.
The Spanish conflagration may well be followed by crisis elsewhere. Other trouble may be looming on the Continent, but it is none of our business. However loud the din of the pacifists and meddlers at home, it must remain none of our business.
But the resolve to keep out of Europe’s broils and snares lays on Great Britain this second duty—intensively to rearm. To remain aloof we must regain strength. Above all, we must achieve real air power.
II. The fall of Irun:
After ten days’ brave defence against what appear to have been heavy odds both in men and in weapons, the Spanish frontier town of Irun has fallen to the Spanish rebels.
The defence was warned at the outset that if it did not surrender it would suffer the fate of Badajoz (where 1,500 prisoners were shot in cold blood), and it seems that the men and women of Irun who have not escaped across the frontier are now paying that terrible penalty.
The most convenient road whereby supplies could be delivered from France to the isolated Government strongholds in the north-west has thus been closed, and the rebels will now be able once more to besiege San Sebastian, a town which Wellington’s forces failed to take in the Peninsular War.
It is generally understood that the rebels’ plan of campaign is to take San Sebastian before launching their converging attack on Madrid. All the evidence goes to show that not only were the loyalists’ guns and ammunition at Irun inferior to those of their enemies but that they did not make the best use of what they had.
III. Spain’s fratricidal fanaticism:
Irun has fallen to the Spanish insurgents after a desperate and prolonged resistance and amid incidents on both sides that illuminate the horrors of this fratricidal campaign. To all appearance the way is now open to the capture of San Sebastian, whose defenders have small supplies of ammunition and lack artillery, tanks and aero planes.
The stories that are told to-day of the burning of Irun, of the shooting of prisoners and hostages, and the mowing down of men, women and children who were endeavoring to escape to safety, emphasise the need for haste in every possible effort that can be made to humanise a war in which every principle that governs the fighting of civilised peoples has been ignored by both sides.
Should San Sebastian be stormed the insurgents will have established their hold on the north of the country.
Whatever the moral effect of their victory in this quarter, and of the smaller successes that the Government claims in other areas, the map of the war is not changed greatly to the advantage of either party, for whatever troops may be released in the north are far from Madrid.
One consequence of the insurgent success is the change in the Spanish Government, which transfers power from a puppet Cabinet into the hands of the men who have really controlled affairs at the centre.
With Senor Largo Caballero at the head and Senor Prieto at the Ministries of Air and Marine, the new Administration is dominated by advanced Socialists and Communists, two members of which party occupy the offices of Agriculture and Education—neither of them of much significance in present conditions in Spain.
After Badajoz, Irun. And what new horrors lie ahead?
The phrases of the correspondents grow terribly familiar. “Men, women and children were massacred.” “Every prisoner was shot out of hand.” So familiar that realisation of their terrible meaning is blurred.
The mind, indeed, shrinks from imagining what lies behind such words; the tortured agony on the one side, the bestial ferocity on the other. “Children were massacred.” Think of that, not as three words, but as a thing happening.
A few weeks ago Irun was a pleasant frontier town, its men going about their business, or chatting cheerfully in its cafes. Women are tending their homes: children playing in its streets.
To-day that pleasant town is a smoking ruin. Hundreds of quiet homes are masses of charred wreckage.
And in its streets lie the mangled bodies of men and women and children, shot down, knifed or bayoneted as they stood dazed and frightened, or as they fled.
This is the bestial reality that is called politely “civil war.”
A group of generals aim to seize power. They “raise the standard of revolt.” They “march on Madrid.” They “capture a town.” Pretty enough phrases: and there are finer still ready for use by those who see in it all a splendid crusade of patriotism.
But this that has happened in Irun as it happened in Badajoz is the vile reality of it. And if Mola and Franco has their will, the horror of Badajoz, the horror of Irun, will be repeated in town after town, in village after village.
“War is hell,” said Sherman: and it was a civil war of which he spoke. But this hell that has been unloosed in Spain is worse than any Sherman knew.
And the end seems far off. The agony of the Spanish people has only begun.
I is a masterpiece in the art of confusing. “The Patriots, the beaten Reds. . . .” This sharp and unlikely division is a method we recognise. Next the violence of the phrasing might raise suspicion—”miscreants of Madrid,” “fiendish arch-Bolshevik Caballero,” etc. At this point some external evidence may be added.
According to The Times, Caballero was a Socialist, and in the cabinet “the moderate wing of Socialism is represented in greater strength than any other Labour group, although the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister must be counted as sympathisers with Communism.
The Cabinet, in sum, is a genuine representation of the Popular Front.” The Ministry consisted of six Socialists, three Republicans, two Communists and two others. After abusing those who disagree with it (“No case—abuse plaintiff’s attorney”), the leader draws a somewhat inconsequential conclusion.
“The Fall of Irun” is a straightforward resume, only slightly coloured by feeling. (This extract suffers by curtailment; I and IV are reproduced in full.)
The manner is cool and deliberate; the length of the paragraph shows that it presumes a reader accustomed to make sustained effort. Short paragraphs suggest that the expected readers have not a great reading capacity.
Ill is intended for a comparatively intelligent reader; the writing is considered and unexcited. It is a trifle ponderous, compared with II; it runs to polysyllables, and an excess of these sometimes indicates that solemnity of manner covers poverty of matter, and attests the writer’s self-satisfaction.
The attitude here appears well balanced, though the suggestion that war can be humanised remains a pious aspiration and one unwarranted by the nature of modern warfare.
Where chemical and mechanical means preponderate, there is less chance for humanity and bravery. The strategists or politicians in whose scheme of things war is an instrument do not envisage the humanising of war.
Turn the ideas of upside down, and the result is IV. There is the same jerky paragraphing, a similar attempt to work on the feelings merely.
It is not quite as contemptible as I, but it is not much more trustworthy; the recipe for producing the Daily Herald closely resembles that of the Daily Mail.
At this point another extract is added, though not from a newspaper, to show that violent and exaggerated phrasing is not confined to the Right:
The hands of Chamberlain and his Cliveden Set are red with the blood of tens of thousands of the Spanish people.
Chamberlain and this Cliveden Set are the same criminals who have starved the unemployed, left the Distressed Area to rot, and cut down the Social Services while they and their class batten on Government subsidies and armaments profits.
Communists say the time has come to hound these people out of public life. The time has come to end the domination of Britain by a gang of millionaires and their despicable agents.
It is time the people took things into their own hands, and set up a People’s Government to carry out the policy desired by the people and in the interests of the people—a policy of alliance of the peaceful countries against Fascist aggression, a policy of social progress at home.
The next example consists of a number of comments on the Jubilee of 1935, and the object again is to arrange them in order of reliability.
I. “It was a mighty and awakening revelation of what is meant to-day by the Monarchy, the nation and the Empire in their political trinity. If the world was thrilled, as we are told, it was because we ourselves were touched to the core.
If the world was astonished, it was because we astounded ourselves. Up to a day or two before the event nothing like the magnitude of what happened could have been anticipated.
In a manner singularly characteristic of our people, who sometimes give little sign of the depth of their mood before their greatest manifestations of what is in them, the thing rose suddenly, smoothly, with the elemental power of a tidal wave.
Though the possibility would have seemed unbelievable to a former generation, there is no doubt that last week’s Great Day surpassed in several respects all that was seen and heard at Queen Victoria’s second Jubilee.”
II. “The Jubilee celebrations are deliberately designed to divert public opinion particularly that of the workers from realities to false issues.
They constitute as a whole one elaborate ‘circus/ staged expressly to divert attention from the fundamental rottenness of the social structure for which the British monarchy serves as a gilded figure-head, and from the malignant crookedness and self-seeking of the dictatorial gang who really rule and use George Windsor as a lightning conductor.
The Jubilee celebrations are, in fact, part of the class-war preparations of the ruling capitalist gang who know that their evil system is tottering to its collapse.
The right way to greet the ‘Jubilee’ is to make it an occasion for mass demonstrations of loyalty to the Red Flag of Revolutionary Socialism, of loyalty to the fraternal union in struggle of all who are exploited and oppressed. . . .”
III. “The celebration of the Jubilee is in effect a call to the nation to rejoice over the twenty-five years of our history from 1910 to 1935.
It is the opinion of those who sign this paper that the events of the period have been of a character which forbids rejoicing.
These events include a war in which out of the population of Great Britain and Ireland 812,317 men were killed and 1,849,494 were wounded.
It has been a period of growing unemployment. In 1913 when three per cent of the total numbers of trade unionists were unemployed the problem was thought to be serious. In 1935 when 2,397,000 are unemployed we are bidden to official rejoicings.
Those in Great Britain dependent on Poor Law Relief who already numbered 903,509 in 1915 were 1,498,247 twenty years later.
These are three items among many which might be taken from twenty-five disastrous years.
We consider that rejoicing is out of place, and we protest against the arranged celebrations.”
IV. “The doubt has been raised, and in by no means intellectually disreputable quarters, that the present year is not the fittest to be the occasion of national rejoicing.
With the world in its present plight, it is said, we should turn rather to fasting than to celebrations; we should apply ourselves to the remedying of our present discontents rather than the elaboration of our gratitude.
That would seem to be a one-sided and partisan view, the fruit of warped if honest thinking and ungenerous though genuine feelings.
It is in no sentimental or jingo spirit that the nation, irrespective of creed or party, unites to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the accession of His Majesty George V. That our beloved sovereign has guided his people safely throughout those troubled years is matter for heartfelt congratulation. . . .”
V. “Nobody can study side by side the modern technique of advertising and the stuff with which the Press is being filled on the jubilee without realising that the latter is an example of the former.
Just as the public is persuaded that life is not worth living without so-and-so’s beer, or somebody’s brain food, or so-and-so’s soap powder, liver pills, hire purchase, wireless sets, suits, or what-not, so it is being persuaded that but for the King and the Royal Family the world would stop spinning on its axis and the British Empire would- blow up with a bang!
That is why every day some member of the Royal Family must be ‘featured’ by the Press doing something or other which is (a) sample and homely (“Just like us!”) and, at the same time (b) noble and royal (“More than we could do!”).”
Misleading and mischievous comment is not confined to politics. Almost any event of public importance can be made the occasion for fostering what H. G. Wells called a “vast and increasing inattention.”
This can be seen in the second of the two quotations that follow, a leading article from a popular paper, commenting on the news item of which The Times report is here printed:
I. Mr. F. G. Thomas spoke on “Basic Mental Mechanisms involved in Mass Entertainment” as seen in the organised and commercialised amusement parking pleasure beach. The huge permanent structures of the Blackpool pleasure beach, he said, exploited almost without exception the fear-escape propensity.
The most obvious function of the “Big Dipper” and the “Grand National” was to place their patrons in a situation which, if it occurred in a vehicle in ordinary life, would be fraught with extreme danger, but which, in this instance, offered also an infallible means of escape.
Fear could also be commercialised on the pleasure beach in the form of fear of the unknown, combined with curiosity to elucidate it.