That without a free Press there can be no free people is a thing that all free peoples take for granted; we need not discuss it. Nor will we at this moment discuss the restrictions placed upon the Press in time of war. At such times all liberties have to be restricted; a free people must see to it that when peace comes full freedom is restored. In the meantime, it may be wholesome to consider what that freedom is, and how far it is truly desirable. It may turn out to be no freedom at all, or even a mere freedom to tyrannise; for tyranny is, in fact, the uncontrolled freedom of one man, or one gang, to impose its will on the world.
When we speak of “‘the freedom of the Press,” we usually mean freedom in a very technical and restricted sense — namely, freedom from direction or censorship by the Government. In this respect, the British Press is, under ordinary conditions, singularly free. It can attack the policy and political character of ministers, interfere in the delicate machinery of foreign diplomacy, conduct campaigns to subvert the Constitution, incite citizens to discontent and rebellion, expose scandals and foment grievances, and generally harry and belabour the servants of the State, with almost perfect liberty. On occasion, it can become a weapon to coerce the Government to conform to what it asserts to be the will of the people.
So far; this is all to the good. Occasionally, this freedom may produce disastrous hesitations and inconsistencies in public policy, or tend to hamper the swift execution of emergency measures; but, generally speaking, it works to secure and sustain that central doctrine of Democracy as we understand it — that the State is not the master but the servant of the people.
The Press, as a whole and in this technical and restricted sense, is thus pretty free in a peaceful Britain. There is no shade of political opinion that does not somehow contrive to express itself. But if we go on to imagine that a particular organ of the Press enjoys the larger liberty of being a “forum of public opinion” we are gravely mistaken. Every newspaper is shackled to its own set of overlords and, in its turn, like the Unmerciful Servant, exercises a powerful bondage upon its readers and on the public generally. Indeed, we may say that the heaviest restriction upon the freedom of public opinion is not the official censorship of the Press, but the unofficial censorship by a Press which exists not so much to express opinion as to manufacture it.
The editorial policy of a popular daily is controlled by two chief factors. The first is the interest of the advertisers from whom it gets the money which enables it to keep up its large circulation. No widely circulated newspaper dare support a public policy, however much in the national interest, that might conflict with the vested interests of its advertisers. Thus, any proposal to control the marketing of branded goods (as, for example, of margarine in 1939) will be violently opposed, on the loftiest hygienic grounds, by the papers that carry the branded advertising. On the other hand, any product that refuses to pay the high advertising rates of a powerful national organ will be (again on the highest moral and hygienic grounds) denounced, smashed, and driven off the market; you are not allowed to use any product that dissociates itself from the advertising ring. All this is understandable, since a big circulation spells bankruptcy if the paper has to depend on its sales for its. revenue. Every newspaper lives in a perpetual precarious balance: it must increase its sales to justify its advertising rates, and to increase its sales, it must sell itself far below the cost of production; but if it sells more copies than its advertising will pay for, it faces financial disaster. Consequently, the more widespread and powerful the organ, the more closely it has to subserve vested interests.
This means that the cheap daily paper, which goes everywhere and has most influence, is far less free than the more expensive weekly or monthly, which draws a higher proportion of its revenue from sales. Therefore it is only the comparatively rich who can afford to read independent expressions of opinion.
The second chief source of a newspaper’s revenue is the wealth of the man or company that owns it; accordingly, its policy is largely determined by the personal spites and political ambitions of its. proprietor. The failure, for example, of a great newspaper magnate to secure a government appointment may be the signal for the unleashing of a virulent campaign, in every organ which he controls against the minister or the party which has disappointed his ambitions. The public, knowing nothing of the personal bias behind the attack and little of the vast network of control which ties up whole groups of the London and Provincial Press in the hands of a single man or combine, sees only that great numbers of (what appear to him to be) independent organs are united in a single, savage and persistent condemnation. Unless he is exceptionally shrewd, exceptionally cynical, or of exceptionally resolute and independent mind, he can scarcely help being influenced, and having his vote influenced; and it is odds that he will never realise the nature of the pressure brought to bear upon him.
But still more serious, because more subtle, than the control applied to individual papers by various kinds of interest is the control and censorship exercised by the Press upon the news and opinions which it disseminates. This control rests upon and exploits two basic assumptions about the public — (a) that they have not the wit to distinguish truth from falsehood; (b) that they do not care at all that a statement is false, provided it is titillating. Neither assumption is flattering; and indeed, between the language used privately by the late Lord Northcliffe about his British readers and the language used publicly by Hitler about his German readers there is very little to choose. Both assume that readers can be made to believe anything. The result is that accurate reporting, which used to be the pride of the old-fashioned independent newspaper, has largely given place to reporting which is at best slipshod and at worst tendentious.
I should like to illustrate, with quite trivial examples drawn from personal experience, the various ways by which both fact and opinion can be distorted, so that a kind of smear of unreality is spread over the whole newspaper page, from reports of public affairs down to the most casual items of daily gossip.
1. Sensational Headline: False Emphasis: and Suppression of Context, This year! at the Malvern Conference, I read a paper dealing with the theological grounds for the Church’s concern with politics and sociology, with the complementary dangers of pietism and Caesarism, and with the importance of Incarnation doctrine in this connection. Out of 8,000 words, some 250 dealt with the connection between Caesarism and an undue emphasis placed on sexual, as contrasted with financial, morality. This quite subsidiary paragraph was reported everywhere, under sensational headlines, in such a manner as to convey that this passing allusion formed the whole subject-matter of my address. Out of the 8,000 words about theology, the reporters picked the only one which they presumed their readers capable of understanding — to wit, “fornication.” You, the reader, will appreciate the compliment. I will, however, add for your comfort that this report was not made (as you might well suppose) by a Pressman from your favourite paper, specially selected for his understanding of ecclesiastical affairs. All the distorted reports emanated from a News Agency; and the individual editors, when remonstrated with, were for the most part content to disavow responsibility. This is how you learn what happens at public meetings.
2 . Garbling, This is the special accomplishment of the Press interviewer. During the production of my latest play, I was asked, “What were my plans for the future?” I replied that I never made plans; that I preferred writing plays to novels, though novels paid better; and that, financial considerations notwithstanding, if the opportunity to write a play were to present itself— for example, another commission for the Canterbury Festival — I should undoubtedly write it. This reply duly appeared in the Press, in the form: “Miss Sayers said she would write no more plays, except on commission.”
Bland perversions of this kind, together with the interviewer’s playful habit of making statements himself and attributing them to his victim, make reported interviews singularly unreliable reading. (One must allow for the Pressman’s vivid imagination. I remember reading with interest that my eyes “glittered behind my glasses” when making some remark or other; since that particular interview was given by telephone, I could only conclude that the interviewer’s own eyes must have been “double-magnifying gas microscopes of extra power.”) But the last, best word on Press interviews has been written by “Q,” in From a Cornish Window; those who believe that public characters say everything they are reported as saying should read it and take warning.
3. Inaccurate Reporting of Facts, Some time ago a daily paper reported that my flat had been broken into the previous day, and that I had returned from (I think they said) Oxford, in time to disturb the thieves. This was true enough, except that every detail was wrong. The date was three days earlier than alleged, I was not at Oxford but at the King’s Garden Party, and the intruders had been disturbed, not by me, but most likely by the newspaper boy. The interest here lies in the probable reasons for the misstatements. The date had to be changed to conceal the fact that the news was already “cold”; and I was substituted for the boy, presumably for my greater snob-value. The altered date was a had blunder — Buckingham Palace would have a<kH:ned the tale to so much better advantage,
4. Plain Reversal of the Facts. On a summons for unshaded lights, a letter of mine was read to the Bench explaining that my servant had carefully drawn the curtains, but that there had proved, unfortunately, to be a defect in the curtains themselves. The local paper duly reported: “Miss Sayers said that a servant had forgotten to draw the curtains.” (This was calculated to cause pain and distress to my servant — but why should anybody care?)
5. Random and Gratuitous Invention. Without consulting me at all, a small and gossipy paper recently informed its readers that two of my favourite hobbies were “gardening and keeping cats.” I do not see why anybody should want to know my hobbies — but if they do it would surely be better to mention the right ones. This choice was peculiarly unfortunate. If there is anything I detest, it is gardening; and although my household always includes a necessary cat, which lives in the kitchen and is supposed to catch mice, I have little to do with it, except to remove it and its hairs from the chairs and cushions, and open the door for it from time to time under protest.
6 . Deliberate Miracle-mongering. It was recently reported in various local papers that, in a public address, I had delivered some 20,000 words in the space of an hour and a quarter. This would in any case have been impossible. Actually, the reporter had had the full text of my speech in his hands and could have seen for himself that it consisted of almost exactly 8,000 words. The error was thus precisely 150 per cent., a useful figure on which to base one’s estimate of truth in reporting.
Of these six main forms of misrepresentation, the first two are the most dangerous. There is no remedy against them. They do not come within the narrow range of the law of libel; for to misrepresent a man’s attitude and opinions is no offence. Nor could one readily persuade a jury that a lie had been told about one, since a sort of formal veracity in detail is used to convey a totally false impression of the speaker’s words as a whole. Consequently, it is next door to impossible to secure either correction or apology. Which brings us to:
7. Flat Suppression. Letters of protest may be written. These may be (a) ignored; (b) printed in full or in part, accompanied by an editorial comment to the effect that the words reported were actually said, and that the speaker must not expect to monopolise the whole of the paper’s valuable space; (c) answered privately by the editor — a manoeuvre that does nothing to correct the false impression left in the public mind. Only occasionally, and usually from a provincial paper, does one receive full apology and correction. Let me quote, honoris caused a note written to me from an editor of the older school; ‘”Thank you for your letter, which we thought it our duty to print … we try to preserve our reputation for balanced news.” Here are three old-fashioned words, duty balance , reputation: do they still represent what the reader demands, or expects, from Fleet Street?
To get misleading statements corrected entails, in any case, a heavy and exhausting effort of correspondence — for the falsehood may be syndicated all over the world overnight and appear simultaneously in several hundred papers. In addition, if one makes a fuss, or ventures to accuse the newspapers of lack of veracity, there always lurks in the background the shadow of a genteel blackmail. Any public person — writer, speaker, actor, politician — is subtly made to feel that if he offends the Press he will suffer for it.
No threat, of course, is openly uttered; but books and plays may be unfavourably noticed or silently ignored — allusions sneering, though not actually libellous, may crop up in the gossip columns — a thousand hints will be quietly conveyed that the Press can make or break reputations. Books which venture to criticise the Press are therefore rare; nor is it easy to find a paper honest enough to print an article on the subject.
Speeches may be made, of course, but they will not reach the wider public, for they will not be reported in full; only a carefully isolated sentence or so will find its way into the papers, under some such headline as: “Bishop Seeks to Muzzle Press,” or “M.P. Attacks Press Liberty.” Indeed, the slightest effort to hinder the irresponsible dissemination of nonsense is greeted by a concerted howl: “This is a threat to the Freedom of the Press!”
No wonder that within three days lately the Archbishop of York and a Minister of the Crown were heard to utter the same despairing cry in face of journalistic misrepresentation and indiscretion: “We cannot control the Press!”
The particular examples I have given are, you will say, of very small importance. True: that is what makes them so symptomatic and so disquieting. They do not show any direct wresting of the truth towards a propagandist end — against such attempts the reader may, vth a little mental effort, efficiently arm himself. What they do clearly show is an all-pervading carelessness about veracity, penetrating every column, creeping into the most trifling item of news, smudging and blurring the boundary lines between fact and fancy, creating a general atmosphere of cynicism and mistrust.
He that is unfaithful in little is unfaithful also in much; if a common court case cannot be correctly reported, how are we to believe the reports of world-events? If an interviewer misinterprets the novelist whom we have all seen, what does he do with the foreign statesman whom we have never seen? If the papers can be convicted of False Emphasis, Garbling, Inaccuracy, Reversal of the Fact, Random Invention, Miracle-Mongering and Flat Suppression in cases where such distortions are of advantage to nobody, what are we to suppose about those cases in which vested interests are closely concerned? And, above all, what are we to make of the assumptions on which all this is based— that the reader is too stupid to detect falsehood and too frivolous even to resent it?
Decent journalists do not like the present state of affairs. Nor do the more responsible editors. But the number of editors and journalists who can maintain a high standard of ‘‘duty, balance, and reputation” in the face of pressure grows less day by day. It is difficult for any paper that presents its news soberly to maintain its circulation: perhaps it is true that every nation gets the Press it deserves.
But supposing the reader does care about accuracy, does resent contempt for his intelligence, does want the truth about what is said and done — what steps is he to take? How is he to get at the facts which are withheld; or smothered under these mountains of distortion and absurdity? How is he to make his will felt? Is he to write angry letters, or transfer his daily penny from one organ to another? Will anybody care if he does? They will care if he protests in sufficient numbers. But his penny is a small weapon to oppose against the vested interests and the pooled money of the great combines. His helplessness is a measure of the freedom which the Press enjoys — but is the reader free?
The common man has a vote in Parliament. He has a Parliamentary representative whom he can badger and heckle and whose tenure of office rests upon his consent. If he likes to make use of the machinery of a democracy, he can have questions asked in the House; in the last resort, he can destroy one government and make another. But there is no machinery by which he can control the organs which mould opinion. For that, his sole resource is a penny a day and his native wit and will. In time of crisis, the newspapers are first with the cry: “Let the people know the facts!” But perhaps Fact is a deity invoked by the people only in the last emergency when the easy gods of peace have failed them.