Social Justice Review
The Free Pressby Hilaire Belloc
In The Free Press, Hilaire Belloc offers an incisive analysis of the problems associated with modern news media - what Belloc refers to as "the capitalist press" or "the official press." He offers a powerful defence of the importance of alternative news media - what Belloc refers to as "the free press." His critique of modern news media is just as relevant today as it… See more details below
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In The Free Press, Hilaire Belloc offers an incisive analysis of the problems associated with modern news media - what Belloc refers to as "the capitalist press" or "the official press." He offers a powerful defence of the importance of alternative news media - what Belloc refers to as "the free press." His critique of modern news media is just as relevant today as it was in his time, particularly the need for fundamental reforms in news media industry, if proper democracy is to be allowed to flourish. Belloc asserts that word of mouth is the natural and normal mode of transmitting the news and opinion necessary to sustain a modern democratic state. He then argues that the introduction of modern mass media has inevitably led to a twofold corruption in the democratic process.
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The Free Press
By Hilaire Belloc
IHS PressCopyright © 2002 IHS Press
All rights reserved.
The Free Press
I propose to discuss in what follows the evil of the great modern Capitalist Press, its function in vitiating and misinforming opinion and in putting power into ignoble hands; its correction by the formation of small independent organs, and the probably increasing effect of these last.
About two hundred years ago a number of things began to appear in Europe which were the fruit of the Renaissance and of the Reformation combined: Two warring twins.
These things appeared first of all in England, because England was the only province of Europe wherein the old Latin tradition ran side by side with the novel effects of Protestantism. But for England the great schism and heresy of the sixteenth century, already dissolving today, would long ago have died. It would have been confined for some few generations to those outer Northern parts of the Continent which had never really disgested but had only received in some mechanical fashion the strong meat of Rome. It would have ceased with, or shortly after, the Thirty Years War.
It was the defection of the English Crown, the immense booty rapidly obtained by a few adventurers, like the Cecils and Russells, and a still smaller number of old families, like the Howards, which put England, with all its profound traditions and with all its organic inheritance of the great European thing, upon the side of the Northern Germanies. It was inevitable, therefore, that in England the fruits should first appear, for here only was there deep soil.
That fruit upon which our modern observation has been most fixed was Capitalism.
Capitalism proceeded from England and from the English Reformation; but it was not fully alive until the early eighteenth century. In the nineteenth it matured.
Another cognate fruit was what today we call Finance, that is, the domination of the State by private Capitalists who, taking advantage of the necessities of the State, fix an increasing mortgage upon the State and work perpetually for fluidity, anonymity and irresponsibility in their arrangements. It was in England, again, that this began and vigorously began with what I think was the first true "National Debt"; a product contemporary in its origins with industrial Capitalism.
Another was that curious and certainly ephemeral vagary of the human mind which has appeared before now in human history, which is called "Sophistry," and which consists in making up "systems" to explain the world; in contrast with Philosophy which aims at the answering of questions, the solution of problems and the final establishment of the truth.
But most interesting of all just now, though but a minor fruit, is the thing called "The Press." It also began to arise contemporaneously with Capitalism and Finance: it has grown with them and served them. It came to the height of its power at the same modern moment as did they.
Let us consider what exactly it means: then we shall the better understand what its development has been.
The Press means (for the purpose of such an examination) the dissemination by frequently and regularly printed sheets (commonly daily sheets) of (1) news and (2) suggested ideas.
These two things are quite distinct in character and should be regarded separately, though they merge in this: that false ideas are suggested by false news and especially by news which is false through suppression.
First, of News: —
News, that is, information with regard to those things which affect us but which are not within our own immediate view, is necessary to the life of the State.
The obvious, the extremely cheap, the universal means of propagating it, is by word of mouth.
A man has seen a thing; many men have seen a thing. They testify to that thing, and others who have heard them repeat their testimony. The Press thrust into the midst of this natural system (which is still that upon which all reasonable men act, whenever they can, in matters most nearly concerning them) two novel features, both of them exceedingly corrupting. In the first place, it gave to the printed words a rapidity of extension with which repeated spoken words could not compete. In the second place, it gave them a mechanical similarity which was the very opposite to the marks of healthy human news.
I would particularly insist upon this last point. It is little understood and it is vital.
If we want to know what to think of a fire which has taken place many miles away, but which affects property of our own, we listen to the accounts of dozens of men. We rapidly and instinctively differentiate between these accounts according to the characters of the witnesses. Equally instinctively, we counter-test these accounts by the inherent probabilities of the situation.
An honest and sober man tells us that the roof of the house fell in. An imaginative fool, who is also a swindler, assures us that he later saw the roof standing. We remember that the roof was of iron girders covered with wood, and draw this conclusion: that the framework still stands, but that the healing fell through in a mass of blazing rubbish. Our common sense and our knowledge of the situation incline us rather to the bad than to the good witness, and we are right. But the Press cannot of its nature give a great number of separate testimonies. These would take too long to collect, and would be too expensive to collect. Still less is it able to deliver the weight of each. It, therefore, presents us, even at its best when the testimony is not tainted, no more than one crude affirmation. This one relation is, as I have said, further propagated unanimously and with extreme rapidity. Instead of an organic impression formed at leisure in the comparison of many human sources, the reader obtains a mechanical one. At the same moment myriads of other men receive this same impression. Their adherence to it corroborates his own. Even therefore when the disseminator of the news, that is, the owner of the newspaper, has no special motive for lying, the message is conveyed in a vitiated and inhuman form. Where he has a motive for lying (as he usually has) his lie can undo any merely spoken or written truth.
If this be true of news and of its vitiation through the Press, it is still truer of opinions and suggested ideas.
Opinions, above all, we judge by the personalities of those who deliver them: by voice, tone, expression and known character. The Press eliminates three-quarters of all by which opinion may be judged. And yet it presents the opinion with the more force. The idea is presented in a sort of impersonal manner that impresses with peculiar power because it bears a sort of detachment, as though it came from some authority too secure and superior to be questioned. It is suddenly communicated to thousands. It goes unchallenged, unless by some accident another controller of such machines will contradict it and can get his contradiction read by the same men as have read the first statement.
These general characters were present in the Press even in its infancy, when each newssheet still covered but a comparatively small circle; when distribution was difficult, and when the audience addressed was also select and in some measure able to criticize whatever was presented to it. But though present they had no great force; for the adventure of a newspaper was limited. The older method of obtaining news was still remembered and used. The regular readers of anything, paper or book, were few, and those few cared much more for the quality of what they read than for its amount. Moreover, they had some means of judging its truth and value.
In this early phase, moreover, the Press was necessarily highly diverse. One man could print and sell profitably a thousand copies of his version of a piece of news, of his opinions, or those of his clique. There were hundreds of other men who, if they took the pains, had the means to set out a rival account and a rival opinion. We shall see how, as Capitalism grew, these safeguards decayed and the bad characters described were increased to their present enormity.
Side by side with the development of Capitalism went a change in the Press from its primitive condition to a worse. The development of Capitalism meant that a smaller and yet smaller number of men commanded the means of production and of distribution whereby could be printed and set before a large circle a newssheet fuller than the old model. When distribution first changed with the advent of the railways the difference from the old condition was accentuated, and there arose perhaps one hundred, perhaps two hundred "organs," as they were called, which, in this country and the Lowlands of Scotland, told men what their proprietors chose to tell them, both as to news and as to opinion. The population was still fairly well spread; there were a number of local capitals; distribution was not yet so organized as to permit a paper printed as near as Birmingham, even, to feel the competition of a paper printed in London only 100 miles away. Papers printed as far from London as York, Liverpool or Exeter were the more independent.
Further the mass of men, though there was more intelligent reading (and writing, for that matter) than there is today, had not acquired the habit of daily reading.
It may be doubted whether even today the mass of men (in the sense of the actual majority of adult citizens) have done so. But what I mean is that in the time of which I speak (the earlier part, and a portion of the middle, of the nineteenth century), there was no reading of papers as a regular habit by those who work with their hands. The papers were still in the main written for those who had leisure; those who for the most part had some travel, and those who had a smattering, at least, of the Humanities.
The matter appearing in the newspapers was often written by men of less facilities. But the people who wrote them, wrote them under the knowledge that their audience was of the sort I describe. To this day in the healthy remnant of our old State, in the country villages, much of this tradition survives. The country folk in my own neighbourhood can read as well as I can; but they prefer to talk among themselves when they are, at leisure, or, at the most, to seize in a few moments the main items of news about the war; they prefer this, I say, as a habit of mind, to the poring over square yards of printed matter which (especially in the Sunday papers) are now food for their fellows in the town. That is because in the country a man has true neighbours, whereas the towns are a dust of isolated beings, mentally (and often physically) starved.
Meanwhile, there had appeared in connection with this new institution, "The Press," a certain factor of the utmost importance: Capitalist also in origin, and, therefore, inevitably exhibiting all the poisonous vices of Capitalism as its effect flourished from more to more. This factor was subsidy through advertisement.
At first the advertisement was not a subsidy. A man desiring to let a thing be known could let it be known much more widely and immediately through a newspaper than in any other fashion. He paid the newspaper to publish the thing that he wanted known, as that he had a house to let, or wine to sell.
But it was clear that this was bound to lead to the paradoxical state of affairs from which we began to suffer in the later nineteenth century. A paper had for its revenue not only what people paid in order to obtain it, but also what people paid to get their wares or needs known through it. It, therefore, could be profitably produced at a cost greater than its selling price. Advertisement revenue made it possible for a man to print a paper at a cost of 2d. and sell it at 1d.
In the simple and earlier form of advertisement the extent and nature of the circulation was the only thing considered by the advertiser, and the man who printed the newspaper got more and more profit as he extended that circulation by giving more reading matter for a better-looking paper and still selling it further and further below cost price.
When it was discovered how powerful the effect of suggestion upon the readers of advertisements could be, especially over such an audience as our modern great towns provide (a chaos, I repeat, of isolated minds with a lessening personal experience and with a lessening community of tradition), the value of advertising space rapidly rose. It became a more and more tempting venture "to start a newspaper," but at the same time, the development of Capitalism made that venture more and more hazardous. It was more and more of a risky venture to start a new great paper even of a local sort, for the expense got greater and greater, and the loss, if you failed, more and more rapid and serious. Advertisement became more and more the basis of profit, and the giving in one way and another of more and more for 1d or the 1/2d became the chief concern of the now wealthy and wholly capitalistic newspaper proprietor.
Long before the last third of the nineteenth century a newspaper, if it was of large circulation, was everywhere a venture or a property dependent wholly upon its advertisers. It had ceased to consider its public save as a bait for the advertiser. It lived (in this phase) entirely on its advertisement columns.
Let us halt at this phase in the development of the thing to consider certain other changes which were on the point of appearance, and why they were on the point of appearance.
In the first place, if advertisement had come to be the stand-by of a newspaper, the Capitalist owning the sheet would necessarily consider his revenue from advertisement before anything else. He was indeed compelled to do so unless he had enormous revenues from other sources, and ran his paper as a luxury costing a vast fortune a year. For in this industry the rule is either very great profits or very great and rapid losses – losses at the rate of £100,000 at least in a year where a great daily paper is concerned.
He was compelled then to respect his advertisers as his paymasters. To that extent, therefore, his power of giving true news and of printing sound opinion was limited, even though his own inclinations should lean towards such news and such opinion.
An individual newspaper owner might, for instance, have the greatest possible dislike for the trade in patent medicines. He might object to the swindling of the poor which is the soul of that trade. He might himself have suffered acute physical pain through the imprudent absorption of one of those quack drugs. But he certainly could not print an article against them, nor even an article describing how they were made, without losing a great part of his income, directly; and, perhaps, indirectly, the whole of it, from the annoyance caused to other advertisers, who would note his independence and fear friction in their own case. He would prefer to retain his income, persuade his readers to buy poison, and remain free (personally) from touching the stuff he recommended for pay.
As with patent medicines so with any other matter whatsoever that was advertised. However bad, shoddy, harmful, or even treasonable the matter might be, the proprietor was always at the choice of publishing matter which did not affect him, and saving his fortune, or refusing it and jeopardizing his fortune. He chose the former course.
In the second place, there was an even more serious development. Advertisement having become the stand-by of the newspaper the large advertiser (as Capitalism developed and the controls became fewer and more in touch one with the other) could not but regard his "giving" of an advertisement as something of a favour.
There is always this psychological, or, if you will, artistic element in exchange.
In pure Economics, exchange is exactly balanced by the respective advantages of the exchangers; just as in pure dynamics you have the parallelogram of forces. In the immense complexity of the real world material, friction, and a million other things affect the ideal parallelogram of forces; and in economics other conscious passions besides those of mere avarice affect exchange: there are a million half-conscious and sub-conscious motives at work as well.
Excerpted from The Free Press by Hilaire Belloc. Copyright © 2002 IHS Press. Excerpted by permission of IHS Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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author of Goodbye, Good Men
Director, Hilaire Belloc Society, Washington, D.C.
Meet the Author
Hilaire Belloc began his academic career with a lecture tour of the United States in 1892. He became a member of the Fabian Society in the early 1900s and met George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, who helped him obtain work with newspapers such as the Daily News and The Speaker. Eventually he became literary editor of the Morning Post. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1906. He also wrote several novels, such as Mr. Clutterbuck's Election and A Change in the Cabinet, along with historical works such as The French Revolution and the History of England. Belloc also published a series of historical biographies: Oliver Cromwell, James II, Richelieu, Wolsey, Napoleon, and Charles II.
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