Other dangers of the modern Press are subsidiary to that outstanding one. The Press is often the servant of special political and financial interests, of organised capital, of advertisers. Those facts will be dealt with presently.
But it can only serve those interests by influencing the public mind in a certain way and by means of a certain general method. If we are to deal with proposals for meeting the dangers of such a situation we must understand something of the mechanism of that method.
We must also take for granted something which it would be outside the possible limits of these pages to establish, namely, that any society does indeed depend upon the “prevailing public opinion,” which includes public temper and temperament, so largely the subject of suggestibility.
That proposition is generally accepted as a matter of course, almost a truism. But its meaning is rarely fully seized.
Least of all does it seems to be seized by politicians, the raw material of whose trade is after all the public mind.
During the last ten years we have seen statesmen probably quite sincere in their desire to avoid for their country and for civilisation generally the catastrophes which obviously menace them, encouraging ideas, or a point of view (because it happens to serve some momentary political purpose) which must make those catastrophes inevitable.
We saw statesmen who really did seem to believe, for instance, that if a settlement was made at the end of the War along the old lines, involving new wars, it would mark the end of Western civilisation, and who yet deliberately fed the temper of “anti-Hunnish” out of which nothing but the old types of settlement could possibly arise.
Their attitude seemed to deny the proposition that the character of the settlement would be determined by popular temper.
Their attitude seemed to deny the proposition that the character of the settlement would be determined by popular temper. They seemed to believe that “diplomatic experts” could or would defy that temper.
The “influence” of the Press in this or that matter of policy is often denied. We can point to cases of elections, for instance, where “all the papers were on one side and all the votes on the other.” But such an example does not really touch the question of the ultimate effect of a commercialised Press upon the public mind and character.
The history of the years 1916 to 1919 left us in no doubt as to the influence which a single newspaper proprietor can exercise in times of emotionalism, when the mood of the public has become or can be made by suggestion one of intense impatience and lack of self-control. Whether we like it or not, the greatest power in England, in certain times of crisis at least, is outside constitutional control.
A few newspaper proprietors North cliffes, Hultons, Beaver brooks, Bottomleys come nearer, at just those junctures which are crucial, really to governing England and “making it what it is” than Commons or Cabinet, Church or Trade Union.
In attempting to trace the shift of power in recent years we point to the decay of the Commons, the growing power of the Executive, the tyranny of the Cabinet, the autocracy of Mr. Lloyd George.
But we know what gave to Mr. Lloyd George his autocratic power at certain crises, and what, as an actual fact, was the force determining that this Cabinet should be destroyed and that one created.
The real measure of the influence of the Press is not to be determined by the extent to which a Northcliffe or a Bottomley can lynch this politician or exalt that.
It is often urged, indeed, with some truth that the influence of the Trust Press is far more apparent than real; that its function is intelligently to anticipate what in any case will take place the war with Germany, conscription or what not advocate it, and then appropriate the credit for having brought it about; that as its influence depends on faithfully reflecting public opinion, it cannot lead it or control it; that like a barometer it registers the weather and has no part in determining it. That is one position.
An opposed school is typified by those whose one suggestion for the maintenance or the making of peace, for a better settlement, for the feeding of the famine areas, or what not, is the “conversion of Northcliffe.” If Northcliffe would but will it, the aspirations of mankind throughout the ages would at last be realised.
Both those views miss important elements of the truth. As to the first that the influence of, say, Lord Northcliffe does not really count for much it is voiced most energetically perhaps by those whose beliefs in concrete political and public affairs have been most largely determined by just the forces they belittle.
One used to hear many an English householder talk most contemptuously of “these Harmsworth fellows and their halfpenny sensations,” and become indignant at the notion that he could be influenced in his opinions thereby, and yet reveal on cross-examination that practically every piece of printed matter that came into his house (which anyone ever read) came from just that despised source. “But I don’t take my opinion from the papers; I never read their leading articles.”
If one led him on to expressions of opinion concerning the Government of the day, its merits and demerits; his estimate of the persons that composed it; his ideas of the character of other nations; his notions of fiscal policy, of national education, of the country’s past and future foreign policy, and so on, one would discover that every single opinion he expressed responded accurately to just that distribution of emphasis in the news of our time which marks the Northcliffe Press.
Given the facts as this householder conceived them, he could come to no other opinion; and those facts one group of them stressed day after day, and another group, intrinsically as important, hidden away in corners were presented as Lord Northcliffe had decreed that they should be presented.
The present writer has tested more than one such householder as to his knowledge of some essential facts: did he know of such and such action by such and such foreign government; of such and such statement in Parliament; of the result of such and such official enquiry? He did not; it was not intended that he should.
His estimate of such and such public man was formed of headline summaries or of paragraph summaries of Parliamentary speeches made by hostile journalists; his vague impression that some other public man had a great future before him was due in reality to hearing his wife and daughters talk so much about him, and that was due to the frequency with which pictures of the said man’s babies, held lovingly by their mother, appeared in the “Weekly Home Comforter,” which combines the overt distribution of paper patterns with the very successfully concealed promotion of certain political causes.
Obviously what England thinks in certain crises is largely controlled by a very few men, not by virtue of the direct expression of any opinion of their own, but by controlling the distribution of emphasis in the telling of facts so stressing one group of them and keeping another group in the background as to make a given conclusion inevitable.
And this, it may be said, justifies those who maintain that Northcliffe does in fact control the mind and opinion of the nation, and that he can by that means direct its policies and destiny.4
Dangerous as that power undoubtedly in certain circumstances may be, it is not the most dangerous element in the conditions which confront us. For there are very definite limits to it; and it is precisely in the nature of those limits that we shall find a hint of the greater danger.
Let us see first how the power of a newspaper corporation is limited in, say, the matter of peace and war.
Assume, for the sake of illustration, that the growth of militarism in Germany during the last ten or fifteen years would have been checked, and Liberal and internationalist tendencies developed, if England, in a radical attempt to get at the bottom of recurrent international rivalries, had devised an acceptable plan by which Germany had been guaranteed real equality of economic opportunity in the undeveloped areas of the world in Egypt, Morocco and the rest of Africa and a real economic “right of way” to the Near East.
Suppose this plan to have been so far-reaching that it would be patent to the German people as a whole that they were in no way “encircled” or menaced in their economic interest, or excluded from opportunities equal to those of other great peoples; that England had been prepared to internationalise her own Imperially-governed territory, and to use her influence with France to secure the application of a similar policy in hers.
Now, if the head of a great newspaper combination, whose position must be distinguished from that of the editor of a “high brow” review or a weighty “organ of opinion,” had believed that, along some such lines as these, peace and the gradual liberalisation of German policy would have been secured, could he have used his power for the promotion of that policy? Let us imagine him doing it.
To ask of the English people some surrender of sovereignty in their Imperially-governed territories which would have been necessary to make such a policy successful would have run counter to firmly- established notions of national right and dignity; it would have made many people uncomfortable and uneasy, and the whole idea would have been very easily capable of misrepresentation.
The “first thought” and “natural impulse” of a proud and Imperially-minded people would have been all against it, a fact which would certainly not have been lost upon the trade rivals of this suppositious newspaper proprietor.
Those rivals, if they had been at all technically efficient, would have been able to secure a popular reaction by appeals to impulse, prejudice and passion, long before any large response could have been provoked by appeals to “second thoughts,” rationally justified policies.
These rivals would moreover have found capital support and advertising from the special groups menaced by the new policy.
Had Lord Northcliffe adopted such a line fifteen years ago, he would not be Lord Northcliffe. Had his been the sort of mind to be attracted to such a policy it would not be the sort that is predominantly popular “the common mind to an uncommon degree.”
If, when he first entered journalism, some years before the Boer War, he had left to others the task of giving expression to all those widespread impulses and feelings that lie near the surface of our nature, and had exploited rather the much more slowly aroused sentiment of rationalism, some other proprietor would have entered the neglected field, and the control of big circulations and in certain crises national destinies would now be in other hands.
Or take the case of the Election of December, 1918. Britain Europe was confronted by the most far-reaching international settlement in history, the greatest decision which Western Society in its corporate capacity had ever perhaps been called upon to make.
If it was to show less futility and mischief than past international “settlements,” the public mind had to get away from certain conceptions which had dominated those older settlements.
To enter the Peace Conference with the idea that it was just a meeting of judges to apportion due punishment to certain criminal States; that the War had no cause other than the special wickedness of those criminals; that they were of an unchanging wickedness which no new order in Europe could modify or affect, was obviously to make any such policy as that outlined by President Wilson, for instance, quite impossible.
Yet because hatred, based on the idea of a nation as a single criminal person, was convenient to exploit, it was exploited without stint, even in America.
President Wilson himself did not seem to realise that the intellectual lynching of Liberalism which his Government permitted and encouraged was bound to deprive him of the force necessary to carry his policy into effect that force being the support of American feeling when it came to the peace. It was because that feeling turned against him that his task became too difficult.
The position in which Governments may find themselves, by letting loose or encouraging forces whose nature they seem not to realise, has been illustrated during the past year by the monstrous comedy of the Indemnity demands.
Those demands perhaps also the Treaty as a whole the politicians who made them knew to be utterly fantastic.
They were made for “electoral reasons.” But the making of them merely adds to the momentum of the forces that the statesmen find themselves compelled to obey. They feed the monster before whom statesmen themselves become increasingly powerless.
Where Lord Northcliffe or another may seem for a time to maintain a policy which runs counter to the popular clamour of the moment as when the Daily Mail was burned in the Stock Exchange because of its persistent attacks on Lord Kitchener it merely means that he Lord Northcliffe knows what the public wants better than the public knows.
He knew that their desire for victory was sufficiently near the surface, sufficiently formulated and overwhelming, for them to digest anything which he could show to be necessary for that purpose.
And his rivals, in disparaging the line he took, showed themselves (since they too supported the war “to the bitter end”) his inferiors both in patriotism and in the real understanding of the popular mind.
In the matter of the shell shortage particularly, as in most of the other campaigns which he has conducted, the abuse which has in the past been levelled at Lord North cliffe by less successful “patriots” has been inept enough. It is of the essence of his success that his social and political ideals should be the common and accepted ones of hi§ time.
Until the war the Northcliffe Press had no particular politics, and was perhaps on the whole the most impartial in England. It admitted, in the form of signed articles, an expression of views hostile to its own, to a degree that the papers who were so ready to gird at it could not boast of.
If, during the War, it so selected daily facts as to tell in favour of the country’s cause and against the enemy’s; to maintain, by “corpse factory” and other fables, the hate and anger necessary to the country’s fighting temper; to discredit views which might abate that temper, and persons who did not share it, Lord Northcliffe had ample justification in the example of the country’s Government and the accepted standards of patriotism.
The real problem of the “stunt Press” consists not in the mischievous ingenuity of this or that journalistic pander, but in certain social, psychological and industrial conditions.
If, in England, it had not been Bottomley or Northcliffe, it would have been someone else, whose personality would have swayed, within the range of limits just indicated, the collective action of his time.
This does not mean that these men are without influence. They have power which may make all the difference between, say, peace and war. Where, as between two policies, the instinctive motives of conduct are pretty evenly balanced, the power of an individual in Lord Northcliffe’s position is of course decisive.
But in those situations a small power may be decisive. The fact which ought to disquiet us is the nature of the limits of individual power.
These limits reveal as in the instance just chosen the operation of a psychological Gresham Law; just as in commerce debased coin, if there be enough of it, must drive out the sterling, so in the contest of motives, action which responds to the more primitive feelings and impulses, to first thoughts and established prejudices, can be stimulated by the modern newspaper far more easily than that prompted by rationalised second thought.
Any newspaper appealing to the former group of motives must “get away with it” long before one which appeals to the second can establish its case.
It is true that the newspaper exploitation of mass psychology at times finds itself checked by the conditions of that psychology.
The tussle between Mr. Lloyd George and Lord Northcliffe, for instance, revealed certain very curious facts touching the limitations of newspaper power.
During the war the public displayed a state of mind which made it peculiarly susceptible to suggestion; a credulity which recalled the witch-hunting manias of the middle Ages.
For a man to possess a German name rendered any accusation against him, however monstrous and fantastic, credible to the public. When a momentarily popular Member of Parliament declared that the German Emperor possessed a black book containing the names of forty thousand prominent Englishmen addicted to sexual perversion, and that the Kaiser’s knowledge of their practices was used as blackmail to compel them to become his agents, the statement was quite seriously received.
The Press treated it with the utmost solemnity. In this condition of sensationalism and unstable emotionalism it is possible for popular papers to drive Ministers out of office by organizing some fantastic sensation, or by merely repeating some phrase (as when Lord Haldane was driven out of office by the repetition of the phrase “Germany, my spiritual home”). Argument and reason are powerless against these mere suggestions of the sensational Press, when the public is in that mood.
But the law that the effect of a stimulus upon an organism becomes less with repetition applies in these matters. At the close of the War the public was “fed up” with sensations; it no longer responded to certain stimuli; it wanted to amuse itself; it did not want to take politics seriously.
It was then that Mr. George realised that the Northcliffe Press had in large part lost its power over him. He told Lord Northcliffe, in effect, to go to blazes.
And nothing happened to the blasphemer. The heavens did not fall and Mr. George remained in office. Lord Northcliffe found or already knew that in the then prevailing state of emotional and sensational fatigue the public would simply not respond to any “ramp” against the Prime Minister. An event like a General Election might once more place the preponderant power in the hands of the newspaper.
But at a time when, in the process of reactions, politics had fallen into the background, Mr. George, with an acquiescent House of Commons, could defy Carmelite House. This latter institution was for the time being powerless against him.
But these periods of emotional fatigue are interludes only. Almost invariably in times of crisis- when, that is, the gravest decisions are taken the power over the minds of the public held by the Press is that which has already been sketched: we get the operation of that Gresham Law under which the more reflective and ratiocinated type of opinion must be driven out by the more emotional.
Modern conditions of industry and finance tend to increase this premium upon the more impulsive and dangerous type of policy. It is important to realise in what manner modern industrial and financial conditions operate in this respect.
When Swift wrote certain of his pamphlets, he presented a point of view contrary to the accepted one, and profoundly affected his country’s opinion and policy. Yet at most he circulated a few thousand copies.
One of the most important was printed at his own expense. Any printer in a back street could have furnished all the material capital necessary for reaching effectively the whole reading public of the nation.
To-day, for an unfamiliar opinion to gain headway against accepted opinion, the mere mechanical equipment of propaganda would be beyond the resources of any ordinary individual.
A newspaper the only effective medium for pamphleteering in our day is an important industrial undertaking demanding grave financial risks which the ordinary capitalist will not face unless he is pretty sure of popular support.
No newspaper can be financially successful against well-established rivals if it champions unpopular opinions. We are thus in a vicious circle far more difficult to break than people unfamiliar with the conditions of newspaper production in a country like England can realise.
This circle means in practice the stereotyping of all those social and political conceptions which involve easily aroused passion and feelings those that are rooted not necessarily in the deepest instincts, but in the most easily awakened ones.
The net result of the process I have sketched is a temperamental and moral conservatism a reversion to primitive instinct and the sloughing of the more lately acquired social qualities.
That may seem a strange statement when we remember that England, for the purposes of the War, made overnight changes in the direction, for instance, of State Socialism which half a century of agitation in peace time could not have produced; and that as the heritage of war we have the phenomenon of Communism.
But the temperamental and moral foundations of those policies are not new; they are as old as the tribal grouping of mankind.
The instinct to the assertion of power and coercion, the submergence of the individual in the group, the intense partisanship that will tolerate no individualism of thought or ideal, the determination to secure the victory of our group over rival groups, are not only among the instinctive foundations of the ancient tribe, of feudalism, of present policy in France, Poland and elsewhere, but are behind the more disruptive forces in Communism itself.
And it is not a mere political accident that policy in so much of Europe tends to swing between the extreme Right and the extreme Left. The two are temperamentally allied.
The result of applying the tribal conception to the modern world is shown by the present condition of Europe. It needs revision. But every attempt at revision encounters somewhere the primitive tribal instinct or passion.
All revision of conceptions in the past has been the work of small minorities, of individual minds, of a few heretics, encyclopaedists or pamphleteers, able to reach other minds for a sufficient length of time to break down the first prejudice.
But the modem Press, by virtue of the psychological Gresham Law acting in the particular economic and industrial conditions of our time, tends to destroy that influence of the individual mind maintaining a heresy.
If the feudalisms, autocracies, dynasties and inquisitions had possessed the modern mechanical Press, operating on closely packed populations whose industrial occupations demanded most of their mental energy, that control of the mind by which alone the old tyrannies were made possible might well have been maintained for all time. (A tiny governing minority did not impose its will upon the vast majority by virtue of superior physical force.)
The modern Press is likely to make our conceptions of the State, Nationalism, individual right, international obligation, and institutions that depend thereon, all but impossible of reform.
We get this: given the conditions of competition in the industry of producing newspapers, it is both safer and more profitable to encourage the public in the falsehood with which it is familiar than to tell it the necessary but unpleasant truth that it does not like to hear. The things which it is most important for the public, in their own interests, to know, are precisely those things which it does not pay a paper to print.
If, for instance, we have in Ulster a public opinion which is dangerous and destructive of social peace because it has unbalanced and lop-sided views about Catholics, the truths that it would be most in the public interest to tell are the truths that would help a Protestant to be tolerant towards Catholics.
And a paper which, in Protestant Ulster, should give emphasis to that kind of truth would, of course, go under as against a rival paper telling of the wickedness of Catholics.
So during the War and in the period that has followed the War the unity and restoration of Europe, the post-war reconstruction, demanded a public opinion which should shed the one-sidedness of the war temper. Consider for a moment the role played in the politics of Europe by the temper of France since the Armistice.
To put it at its lowest, if France ran in any danger of making mistakes that danger would not be likely to come from any excessive feeling of tenderness towards the Germans. If she ran the risk of adding to the difficulties of European reconstruction, those difficulties would be more likely to come from an excess of anti-German feeling.
They have come from that feeling. Yet the public service which so needed doing for the French mind is precisely the service which it was commercially fatal for any French newspaper to perform.
The truths that France most needed to know or to be reminded of were those of which it would be fatal, from the point of view of profit, for her newspapers to remind her. It was most profitable to increase that national danger which was already her greatest national danger. One could multiply these examples indefinitely.
The world needed, for instance, to be told the truth at the time of the Peace Conference. The Governments themselves needed that the public should be told the facts, in order that it should not oppose policies which the Governments knew to be necessary, but the wisdom of which was not always apparent on the surface.
But the public did not want to be informed, did not want the truth. There were the German atrocities, for instance; although all of them may have “happened,” they were, as selected by the Press, less than half the truth.
To get the whole truth—to achieve the state of mind necessary for making a real peace at Paris—it would have been necessary to tell with equal emphasis of the humane actions of the enemy, and of the atrocities committed even by the Allies; and to remind ourselves that if Americans were not to be “outlawed from civilisation” for the weekly burning of negroes, or the British for Irish reprisals and Indian repression, the Germans could not be outlawed for conduct no more atrocious.
We get finally a condition in which, presumably, it is impossible to tell the truth about the simplest and most trivial incident, if popular passion happens to be involved.
Mr. Sisley Huddleston recounts a typical case of which he had direct personal knowledge. During an international conference in Belgium a scene was enacted in a cafe one evening a German journalist, who happened to be attending peaceably to his own business, was insulted and assaulted without provocation by a drunken Belgian officer. The thing of itself has no political, international or social importance.
It certainly involves no reflection upon Belgium. Every army in the world contains officers who would be guilty occasionally of that kind of thing; and the fact that the German journalist remained quiet has no bearing one way or the other on the question of Germany’s responsibility for the War.
The thing is either not worth reporting at all or worth reporting truthfully. But this silly and simple incident became embroidered with lurid details of the German flinging insults, singing “Deutschland uber Alles,” waving his national flag, while the Belgian officer was described as tactfully intervening to save the German from an exasperated crowd.
“When I read such grotesque distortions of incidents which I have seen with my own eyes,” writes Mr. Huddleston, “and which do not appear to call, in anybody’s interest, for the smallest embroidery, I wonder how it is possible to believe any newspaper story.”
The point is this: if so simple, so trivial, so unmistakable a thing cannot be reported truthfully, what reliance can be placed upon the reporting of complex or difficult facts, where even scrupulous attention to evidence would not suffice to prevent serious divergences of testimony?
Papers in the case here cited must have been guilty of false testimony which would cause an ordinary police court witness to be indicted for perjury.
One understands how the “nationalised women” and the “corpse factories” become possible. Such a method creates the spirit which had made peace impossible in Europe.
That spirit is fed by the poison of limitless small daily lies. A very famous war correspondent, attached to one of the greatest London morning papers, referred casually in the hearing of the present writer to the following experience:—An Australian Company had captured a German gun after an extraordinarily stiff fight.
The German gunner was still living. Moved by his gallantry, the Australians pinned a note on his uniform to this effect “Do not take this man’s Iron Cross away; he put up a good fight”; and managed to leave him at a spot where the enemy stretcher-bearers would find him.
Even an incidental testimony to enemy courage, necessary to recounting the act of chivalry on the part of our own troops, was too much for the great paper, and the correspondent received instruction in these terms: “Do not send us any more stories about the dear good Germans; the only good German is a dead German.”
Another incident illustrates how the civilian’s standard of belligerency differs for the worse from that of the soldiers.
During the discussion as to whether the Germans killed in the Zeppelin brought to earth should receive a religious burial, some airmen officers wrote to this same paper, protesting against the idea that the German dead were not entitled to decent burial, and pointing out that in similar circumstances our men received it at the enemy’s hands.
The editor replied that the communication of these officers could not be published, as it was contrary to the policy of the paper.
Incidents by the score by the thousand, indeed could be quoted as showing how the artificial newspaper standard eliminates the human decencies which might save war-time temper from its worst, and, as the costly catastrophes of the Treaty show, its most disastrous manifestations
Of course, the proprietors knew their business. A paper that had told day by day of good things done by Germans and bad things done by ourselves, as well as the evils of the enemy and the good deeds of ourselves, would simply have been ruined by the competition of rival papers that confined themselves to half the truth. To ask aught else, it may be said, is to ask the impossible of human nature.
What the Press does here is so to alter the proportion of the ingredients of sound opinion as to make one element, which might in a healthier state be counteracted by another, dominate the whole.
It may be indispensable, perhaps healthy, that we should stretch the facts a little for “our side,” give our people the benefit of the doubt. And in most primitive communities there may have been no particular danger in this.
But certain forces with which we are dealing make that tendency in the case of the modem Press extremely dangerous.
The influence of the mind and character which is not that of the herd stands out. In the communities of antiquity, Athens might obey its Socrates, but only after it had been influenced by him in some degree.
The Athenians had heard his voice a very large proportions of them his actual physical voice. He met Anytus on more or less equal ground: an appreciable element of the population heard the debate and repeated it.
Mr. Bertrand Russell and Mr. Bottomley meet on no such equality to-day. Mr. Bottomley’s voice during the War was heard to the extent of many millions weekly, in papers circulating literally by the million, on hoardings, in Parliament.
He was one of the great national forces forming the national character, determining the national policy. Of Mr. Bertrand Rusell the millions “England” heard not at all. They only heard of him as a “pestiferous pacifist” (as Mr. Bottomley would say), who was very rightly sent to jail and placed under those regulations of Dora designed to control movements of spies and enemy aliens.
Assume if you will that John Bull England is not at bottom all Bottomley, but that there is also hidden in his nature a potential Bertrand Russell, a Lowes Dickinson, a John Hobson, really loving truth, desiring to see England not merely “top dog” but also right and generous.
Assume that both elements are necessary to the healthy sensual man, the one correcting the other. What chance, in the circumstances of an industrialised competitive Press, has the second against the first, represented by Mr. Bottomley?
Let us face the truth. The conditions of the modem Press cause the Bottomleys more and more and the Russells and Dickinsons less and less to form the national character.
The forces under review are not merely concerned with the mechanical control of ideas. They transform the national temperament.
The constant stimulus to passion and the herd instinct, entailed by the necessity of finding an appeal that shall be wider and more successful than that of a rival newspaper concern, the consequent violence of the public mind, the impossibility of an unpopular view obtaining adequate expression, all end by destroying the capacity to weigh contrary opinion, by which alone thought on public issues is possible.
The process by which the Governmental changes of the first three years of the War were brought about can only be described as moral lynchings. In 1914, the public man who criticised Mr. Asquith or Sir Edward Grey could count upon being driven from public life; two years later, those who supported them were so driven.
The patriot of January became the “pro-German” of June. Diametrically opposed opinions were advocated with the same violence, and the short-memoried public, impulsive, irreflective, followed the hue and cry in both cases.
The conditions which produced a political Englishman who was impervious to public clamour, stubborn in the maintenance of his individual opinion, tolerant of opposed views, have disappeared.