E. Belfort Bax

A “Free Press”

(December 1884)

From Justice, 6 December 1884, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Among the glories of latter-day liberty, the first place is commonly accorded to our “free press.” That the newspaper press, at least in this country, is really free, few persons appear to have the faintest doubt. Here it is certainly not as in Russia, compelled by police-force to publish or abstain from publishing, at the beck and call of an autocrat or his ministers, any more than the workman is compelled by police-force to labour for a particular employer for a fixed sum, or at a given rate of wages – ergo, in the eye of the middle-class man, it is free, as such a man courts freedom. It requires but the most trifling inspection, however, to see that the one freedom like the other is “but an idiot’s tale, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

What are the conditions of the success of a newspaper? That it should have a good circulation of course, but first and foremost that it should obtain advertisements, the backbone of the newspaper publishing trade being the modern system of advertising. What again are the conditions of a circulation and of obtaining advertisements. Obviously that the paper should appeal to the interests of those who have money and leisure to regularly buy and read newspapers and by this means to make it worth the advertiser’s while to use the organ as a means of puffing himself or his goods – in other words, that it should appeal to the upper or middle classes or both, together with the “noble army” of hangers-on who “praise” them. Its tone, therefore, must clearly be in accord with the views, real and make-believe, of the dominant classes. It must be Liberal or Conservative in politics, it must, when necessary, keep up the sham that the dominant creed is believed in by the whole nation, the only distinction being as between “church” and “dissent,” it must assume that poverty is invariably the result of – say, drink, that catches the teetotallers an influential body just now – or some other evil propensity of the individual, and treat at best with good-humoured impudence those who suggest that our social conditions have anything to do with it – in a word, the paper to succeed must be respectable. And there is not likely to be any sentiment on the part of the newspaper proprietor to hinder its being so, for, is not the newspaper proprietor himself a capitalist, generally on the largest scale, and hence, naturally in perfect harmony with his surroundings, the body social and political as it is at present?

But some may say surely there must be a large section of the workers who would give an independent organ a circulation. Unfortunately there is not in this country at present. The workers having received, where any at all, a class education, having been fed by class literature, and patronised by the parliamentary candidate, the parson, and the squire, we can hardly expect it to be otherwise. This in the first place. In the second, the middle and upper classes having control of the means of distribution can generally succeed in smothering an organ which is offensive to them at birth by a perfectly well-known and organised system of boycotting and in the few cases where they cannot effect this, can at least reduce its sale by three-fourths through the same means; in any case “respectable” and paying firms will decline to use it as an advertising medium, thereby cutting off its one chance of success as a financial speculation.. It follows then that our boasted freedom of the press is a “snare and a delusion” to all honest men who put their trust in it.

And now a few words as to the journalist himself. It is clear that to get a living he must write to order, that is, he must write in accordance with the views of his paper, in so far as he writes at all on current topics. If he refuses he will be dismissed. Meanwhile the whole newspaper office is presided over by an editor, whose chief function it is to see that the appointed groove is not deviated from. This functionary adds, erases from, or alters any article he pleases, and in proportion as he succeeds in effacing all individuality and independence of view is he accounted a good editor. He must not even record anything likely to annoy his readers. For example, he must pass over without notice or with a few lines only, a meeting of four thousand people to discuss Socialism, notwithstanding that he habitually gives a column-and-a-half to a meeting of two or three hundred to open some new Liberal club, for it is of paramount importance that “dangerous” movements should not be talked about. When they assume alarming proportions, as with Socialism in Germany, and can be no longer ignored, the line is to show that after all they don’t mean much. Such are the conditions of modern journalism.

The question now arises, is the poor journalist who writes for a living to be blamed for the misrepresentations and lies to which he is a party? We would not be uncharitable to the man who works for his bread, and who finds it hard to make two ends meet, anymore than we would be uncharitable to the underpaid shopman who “robs” his master’s till. But from the point of view of real human morality; we would more respect the defalcating assistant or even the habitual pickpocket than he who sinks to that lowest of all deeps – the office of paid hack of a dominant class – who barters independence, honour, even common truthfulness, anything for gain. “Free Press” indeed! Ye men of England, when will ye forsake these idols, these empty and vapid abstractions – “freedom,” “toleration, “equality before the law,” – these lying spirits that keep the word of promise to the ear but break it to the hope – for belief in a real, a concrete social order in which truth of these things will be embodied, and their false evanescent form will have vanished.



Last updated on 13.7.2006