Newspapers Are The Opiate Of The Masses

A newspaper is a broadcaster and interpreter of the news, a spokesman and defender of the people and a scourge to anyone who stands in the way. And, especially the last, as newspapers are an integral part of modern life whose importance and influence is underestimated only by fools and overestimated primarily by newspapermen. This latter select band of men are, for the most part, though perhaps unknown to themselves, followers of Junius: "Let it be impressed upon your minds, let it be instilled into your children, that the liberty of the Press is the palladium of all the civil, political and religious rights."

Whether Junius was exaggerating or not is a moot point but it is undeniable that the liberty of the press is important for "when the Press is the echo of sages and reformers it works well; when it is the echo of turbulent cynics it merely feeds political excitement." The truth of Lamartine's words can be shown from two examples from history. In 1855 Britain and her Allies were fighting a war against Russia in the Crimea. It was a 19th century war fought in an almost mediaeval fashion by the Allies. The incompetence of command and officialdom and the appalling conditions of the soldier in the field were disgraceful and yet the people of Britain were unaware of this. In 1855, a reporter - Russell of the 'Times' - did much to make the truth known. He printed the facts and helped to influence public opinion so that a reappraisal of the war was made and army reform was demanded.

In Paris some sixty-five years before, two men - Marat and Mebert - were printing scurrilous and libellous 'scandal sheets' called "L'ami du peuple" and "Pere Duchesne". These two men were turbulent cynics or worse. They influenced public opinion for the worse and helped to bring about the 'Terror'.

These are but two examples of the effect the Press can have and they show it at its best and worst. Clearly newspapers are a formidable weapon in influencing public opinion.

It is very easy to see how the Press can be used purely as a propaganda machine. In this country we are endowed with a variety of newspapers which, have equally various political views. We are fortunate but it is always important to remember the bias of each paper. Many, however, forget that a newspaper is not always fair and impartial and this is particularly true of some newspapers' coverage of foreign news. Recently, during the Arab-Israeli war, several newspapers were accused of being biased and criticisms were in some cases quite justified. Cartoonists are particular guilty of this. One series of cartoons in a very popular paper invariably depicted the Egyptians as ignorant and cowardly louts and all the Israelis as heroes. This is all good propagandist stuff.

When the last Cabinet 'reshuffle' was announced, the Daily Mirror greeted the new President of the Board of Trade by stating that he was "unfit to run a whelk stall at Ramsgate". Admittedly a good number of the Mirror readers rarely get beyond the football results or the winners of the races at Lingfield Park but, if they do, how many on reading something like that will stop to analyse it? Wendell Phillips once said that the statesman is no longer in the steel of special education and that every reading man was his judge. This is not quite true, for often, especially in the popular newspapers, the judging is done for him - he is drugged by habit into unarguable acceptance of whatever is written for him in his newspaper.

"Necessarily the newspaper has the right to make criticisms of such a kind if, by doing so, it hopes to make the public aware of the faults and failings in the running of the country. It must, however, be doubly sure that the criticisms are justified and worthwhile and that it is serving its proper purpose as an interpreter of the news and a spokesman and defender of the people for Press is not only free, it is also powerful. That power is ours. It is the proudest that man can enjoy. It was not granted by monarchs or aristocracies it sprang from the people and, with an immortal instinct, it has always worked for the people."

The foregoing quotation is particularly interesting as it comes from a politician, Disraeli. But politicians and journalists have much in common as have Government and Press. They both serve the people or are meant to. Thus, politicians and journalists are supposed to have a special relationship: each group serves the public and, ideally, keeps the other in check. But what if one oversteps the mark? What happens then? If a breakdown of the special relationship results then it is the public that suffers. Political Journalists depend on the politicians for political news; if there is a serious breach then anything could happen. The politician could withhold information, the journalist could then wage a vendetta against the politician of whom he did not approve. In ether circumstance, news would be distorted and, this is the crux of the matter, the public could carry on unaware of the breach in the lute simply because of its dependence on the Press for facts. Thus we could suffer under an illusion of being well-informed, be steeped in an hallucination of knowledge when in a Press-free reality, we are ignorant of many facts and have been deceived by the undeserved contentment that a lifetime of reading newspapers brings.

Such a serious breach of the special relationship of politician and journalist is purely hypothetical and may seem to be disparaging both Government and Press. It would, however, be very easy for a member of the Government or the Press to forget his responsibilities and it is only by pondering on the incalculables of human nature that one realises the importance of the newspaper. In so many cases it is the sole interpreter of the news - television is much more a straightforward reporter than an interpreter - and in many cases we are being plied with propaganda and it is so very easy to completely ignorant of that. One must always, therefore, be on one's guard against the faults and failings of "the guardian of the people".

By Jerome Sugrue

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